On the alert: watchful.
LAUNCHED: March, 1791
DECOMMISSIONED: Sold 14 November 1798
DISPLACEMENT: 35 Tons
LENGTH: 48’ (keel)
ARMAMENT: Probably ten muskets with bayonets; twenty pistols; two chisels; one broad axe.
COMPLEMENT: 4 Officers, 4 Enlisted, 2 Boys
Although little documentation exists regarding any of the first ten cutters' activities--most of the correspondence and logbooks from the era were destroyed by fire when the British Army burned Washington, DC (including the Treasury Department building in which these records were held) during the War of 1812 and another fire in the Treasury Department in 1833--these government vessels undoubtedly carried out a myriad of tasks. Many of these duties were spelled out in letters from the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to the various collectors of customs, who were in direct charge of the cutters and their crews. The duties specifically assigned to the cutters and their crews as legislated by Congress and expounded by Hamilton included:
- boarding incoming and outgoing vessels and checking their papers (ownership, registration, admeasurement, manifests, etc.)
- ensuring that all cargoes were properly documented
- sealing the cargo holds of incoming vessels
- seizing those vessels in violation of the law
They were also tasked with a number of other duties that were not related to protecting the revenue. These included:
- enforcing quarantine restrictions established by the federal, state or local governments
- charting the local coastline
- enforcing the neutrality and embargo acts
- carrying official (and unofficial) passengers
- carrying supplies to lighthouse stations
- other duties as assigned by the collector
Their primary purpose, however, was to protect the revenue of the new nation by deterring smuggling. That meant sailing out of the port to which they were assigned and intercepting vessels before they came too close to the shore. It was here, well out of the harbor but within sight of the coast, that smugglers unloaded part of their cargoes into smaller "coaster" vessels or directly onshore to avoid customs duties. The collectors usually had smaller boats that could check vessels as they sailed into port. Therefore these ten cutters were not harbor vessels; they were designed to sail out to sea, survive in heavy weather, and sail swiftly so that they might overtake most merchant vessels. They were the nation's first line of defense against attempts to circumvent the new nation's duties, the country's major source of income during this period.
Vigilant was one of the first ten revenue cutters authorized by Congress and was probably the first cutter launched. She was not, however, the first to enter into active service. The first mention of her on an actual patrol as a revenue cutter was not until 23 December 1791 when her crew boarded a Royal Navy schooner as it entered the port of New York, the Vigilant's homeport. Patrick Dennis was appointed the master of the new revenue cutter on 6 October 1790 and oversaw her construction. He served as her commanding officer until his death, of unknown causes, on 9 February 1798.
Little documentation survives regarding her service life but she apparently carried out her assigned duties as described above along the Hudson River as far as Albany, in New York Harbor itself, along the coastline of New York and New Jersey, and "through Hell Gate to Long Island Sound except Sagg harbor." There is some remaining information regarding her role in a celebrated naval engagement between the French frigate Ambuscade and the Royal Navy frigate Boston during the long war between England and France. On a summer day in 1793 Vigilant was patrolling off of Sandy Hook when a frigate, flying French colors, ordered the cutter to hove to. Two American prisoners on board the frigate described what happened:
"The New York revenue cutter, Captain Dennis, was brought to by the BOSTON. The frigate under French colours, and the crew having the national cockade in their hats. Capt. Cortnay, in French, asked Capt. Dennis, who was not to be deceived, answered that he conceived the BOSTON looked more like an English armed vessel than any on the coast. Upon this Capt. Courtnay enquired what French vessels were in New York. Captain Dennis answered that the principal was the AMBUSCADE frigate: well, says Courtnay tell Capt. Bompard that I had come all the way from Halifax on purpose to take the AMBUSCADE and I shall be very happy to see her out of the way. Shall I tell him that? yet asked Dennis; Yes, to be sure answered the first lieutenant. Capt. Dennis delivered the message to Bompard at the Coffee House."
Bompard accepted the British offer and sailed off to battle the Boston. After breaking off the engagement in which the Boston was damaged more severely and her captain killed, the Ambuscade sailed back to New York Harbor.
Vigilant was sold at auction on 14 November 1798 for £ 348 after it was determined that she was too small and too lightly armed to carry out her assigned duties in the busiest port of the new nation. There is no further documentation regarding her ultimate fate.
Patrick Dennis, Master, appointed 6 October 1790, commission dated 21 March 1791.
Elias Boudinot, Second Mate, 21 March 1791.
Richard Valentine Morris, Third Mate, commission dated 21 March 1791. He was promoted to first mate eight months later.
Donald Canney. U.S. Coast Guard and Revenue Cutters, 1790-1935. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
Stephen H. Evans. The United States Coast Guard, 1790-1915: A Definitive History (With a Postscript: 1915-1950). Annapolis: The United States Naval Institute, 1949.
Kern, Florence. Patrick Dennis' U.S. Revenue Cutter Vigilant: 1791-1798. "A vigilant eye on whatever may be passing." Washington, DC: Alised Enterprises, 1976.
U.S. Coast Guard. Record of Movements: Vessels of the United States Coast Guard: 1790 - December 31, 1933. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1934; 1989 (reprint).