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Sketch of the Alligator's spar and sails c. 1840
Photo from National Register collection
The USS Alligator, a U.S. Navy schooner constructed in 1820 at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, Massachusetts, is an excellent example of an American warship from this period. The Alligator was primarily used to combat the slave trade off the coast of Africa and protect merchant ships in the West Indies from pirates, two of the most significant issues on President James Monroe's agenda. By the time Monroe took office, it was illegal to transport new slaves to the United States from Africa and the U.S. Navy was called upon to enforce that law. The Alligator was one of many ships that patrolled the shores of West Africa in an attempt to curtail illegal slave trading. The Alligator also transported Dr. Eli Ayres, a representative of the American Colonization Society, and Lt. Robert Field Stockton, the captain of the ship, to West Africa in 1821 to negotiate the purchase of land that became a colony for freed African American slaves. From these roots, the State of Liberia was formed in 1847.

USS Alligator

Photo courtesy of FLKeysDiving.com

The Alligator was also used to combat piracy in the Caribbean, which became an issue when Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1819. Suddenly it was the responsibility of the United States to protect merchant ships off the coast of Florida from pirates, who were rampant in the Gulf of Mexico at the time. The Alligator met a number of pirate ships in combat during the spring and summer of 1822, but in November of that year it ran aground while escorting a convoy of merchant ships. After unsuccessfully attempting to refloat the vessel, the crew of the Alligator set it afire to prevent pirates from salvaging the schooner. The Alligator is 86 feet in length and 25 feet at the beam and the wreck site consists of two ballast piles and associated coral heads and rubble. The primary ballast pile consists of the remains of the lower hull, which are preserved in situ. The second pile contains artifacts from the vessel, as well as components of the Alligator that were jettisoned overboard when the crew attempted to refloat the ship. Today, the Alligator has stabilized and is in a fair state of preservation.

The USS Alligator wreck lies 200 ft. southwest of Alligator Reef lighthouse off of Islamorada. Located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the wreck is submerged in 3-12 ft. of water.

[graphic] Florida Shipwrecks' Essays

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