Friday, September 25, 2009

Richard Somers & Somerville, Mass.

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Caption: In the summer of 1804, Somers commanded a division of gunboats during five attacks on Tripoli.

Another take on where Somerville’s name originated.

April 25, 2009
Somerville News, Massachusetts)

Melissa Woods

A report commissioned by the Somerville Historical Society has declared Somerville to have a “purely fanciful name,” not of any particular origin. Somerville fire inspector Bob Doherty has ideas of his own, however and even better, they have to do with pirates.

The Blessing of the Bay, the first seaworthy ship built in Massachusetts, was armed in response to piracy and became essentially, the first Coast Guard. Aggressive action needed to be taken against the Barbary pirates, however, if American ships were to sail in safety. This is where a young Naval officer named Richar Somers enteres the picture.

“Pirating in Somerville goes way back,” muses Doherty. After the Revolutionary War, American trading ships could no longer fly under the British flag, nor claim backing by the impressive British navy. The Barbary pirates, just off the coast of Tripoli (in present-day Libya), then became a threat.

Born in Somer’s Point at Great Egg Harbor, New Jersey, Richard Somers was one of the first Naval Lieutenants in the then-new American Navy. Together with his two childhood friends Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart, they fought together “like the three musketeers,” says Doherty, against the Barbary pirates in the summer of 1804. Their exploits at Tripoli are famously sung in the first line of the Marine’s Hymn: “from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”

These three friends protected the U.S.S. Constitution in equal parts, commanding six small gunships apiece around the heavy frigate as if it were “a modern aircraft carrier.” Somers’ performance as Captain of the schooner Nautilus after he arrived in the Mediterranean earned him promotion to master commandant on May 18, 1804. He afterward sailed alongside Commodore Edward Preble – then of the Constitution – to Tangier, and then in five attacks on Tripoli, once fighting five Tripolian vessels at once at close quarters.

“Millions for defense, but not once cent for tribute,” said Thomas Jefferson when he entered office, in reference to the pirate threat. As that summer of successful campaigns drew to a close, Somers realized that the Americans had a chance to squelch the pirates once and for all. Calling for volunteers, Somers spearheaded a plan to load the first ship the Intrepid up with about 15,000 lbs of gunpowder and 200 loaded shells, and sail it into the pirates’ midst under the cover of night. The ship was to be set off by remote detonation, but because this was so risky a venture, Somers insisted that none of his volunteers be family men. This proved a wise decision. The Intrepid sailed, as planned, into Tripoli harbor, but was discovered before Somers and his men had time to escape. The ship was detonated as was, killing all aboard, including Somers himself.

“A fanciful name,” exclaims Doherty,” Not on your life!” Richard Somers was a nationally-known Naval hero whom has spent time on the United States, the Boston, and had spent the last day of his life on the Constitution, out of Charlestown harbor. Six ships in the U.S. navy have been named the U.S.S. Somers, since. Somerville, New Jersey, is known to be named after Somers, as well as Somers, New York and his birthplace, Somers Point, but there is no hard proof that Somerville, Massachusetts is the same case.

It is unlikely, however, that an area so dense with history as Greater Boston should have names of no historical importance in its midst. Bob Doherty, with his argument for Richard Somers, provides a defiant yet plausible alternate explanation in the face of what the history books say.

Bill Kelly Notes: Somers Point, New Jersey is named after the founding father John Somers, grandfather of Richard Somers, Jr., who died at Tripoli.

And the graphic is apparently one of the many paintings portraying Reuban James, or is Daniel Fraser, stepping in to take the blow of the pirate sword aimed at the head of Stephen Decatur in August, 1804. The painting, and others like it, attempt to depict the swashbuckling, hand-to-hand combat that these men fought.

Both James and Fraser were wounded in the battle, and both are given credit for saving Decatur while he was avenging the life of his own brother, slain earlier in the same battle. US Navy ships have been named after both Fraser and James, with the Reuban James being the first US Navy ship sunk by a German U boat during World War II, and the subject of a popular Woody Gunthrie song.

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