Tuesday, May 28, 2019

'A Sail to make a Tent of'

Early last year, follower Tom Apple was reading through a post by Norman Fuss on The Journal of the American Revolution about a painting depicting the British view of Yorktown in 1781.[1] Apple noticed an interesting detail:
Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 
Noting the tent with the reef points, Matthew Brenckle chimed in excitedly 'A topsail!'

It makes sense. Both tents and sails are canvas after all. There was a detachment of sailors serving the guns and building entrenchments during the Siege of Yorktown and it is possible this was the shelter for some of them.

Prior to Apple's discovery, I had assumed that sail tents were a last resort of shipwrecked seamen. When Brinton Hammon's vessel was stranded on a reef for two days in 1747, his captain ordered the crew to row ashore with 'our Arms, Ammunition, Provisions and Necessaries for Cooking, as also a Sail to make a Tent of, to shelter us from the Weather.'[2] Daniel Defoe wrote a similarly desperate decision for his fictional Robinson Crusoe in 1719:
Having got my second cargo on shore...I went to work to make a little tent with the sail, and some poles which I cut for that purpose.[3]

After the Duke William sank in December 1758 with hundreds of Acadian refugees aboard, an anonymous author penned a letter to the The Gentleman's Magazine suggesting that all captains should be prepared to create rafts for 'preserving the lives of the persons on board in such a case.' In this, the author suggests that the crew load the raft with provisions and 'a spare sail, to serve them for a tent' should the survivors reach shore.[4]
While the sailors at Yorktown weren't quite so desperate as the Acadians of the Duke William, the crew of Hammon's sloop, or the fictional plight of Robinson Crusoe, they were certainly not in an advantageous position. The use of a sail tent may therefore be a strong indicator that its occupants were in some distress.

[1] Fuss, Norman, 'An Iconic Artifact Revisited,' Journal of the American Revolution, January 13, 2015, accessed May 27, 2019, <https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/01/an-iconic-artifact-re-examined/?fbclid=IwAR1v7GtcZ-0Rt4A9YsmpO_5PLwOIulVlSEvCee0X5ljHQI6MrxchpNfgVi0>.
[2] Hammon, Brinton, A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man, Boston: Green & Russel, 1760, page 5, via Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, accessed May 27, 2019, <https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/hammon/menu.html>.
[3] Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Vol 1, London, 1784, via Google Books, accessed May 27, 2019, <https://books.google.com/books?id=v31dAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA54&dq=sail+tent&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwim5cm3pJPhAhXPtlkKHS9tDFIQ6AEILzAB#v=onepage&q=sail%20tent&f=false>.
[4] Anonymous, 'Hint to the Captains of Ships to Provide Against Accidents,' The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 29, London: D. Henry, 1759, page 58, New York Public Library via HathiTrust Digital Library, accessed May 27, 2019, <https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433081674107;view=1up;seq=70>.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through links in this post.


  1. Understanding the need to protect dis-embarked provisions and munitions etc...for the 40 soldiers (marines) at Naxouat/Ft. St. Joseph in Acadia, Versailles itself authorized the following in March before the supply fleet even left France:
    "...Deux Grandes voilles hors de service pour couvrir les dites vivres au debarquement, le 24 mars 1696".
    (ie. 2 large sails apart from service for covering of the above mentioned supplies when unloaded"

    Later that year, (possibly the same sails?) were similarly used by D'Iberville to cover the King's provisions on land when his two frigates (the Profond and Envieux) from the aforementioned fleet landed at Castine ME (called "Pentagoet") while waiting for incoming Native war parties in order to rendezvous for the land/sea attack on the English fort of Pemaquid 30 miles to the south by sea. The interesting thing is that the use of the sails had to be authorized pretty high up the chain of command.

  2. Renting a tent provides flexibility, affordability, and the opportunity to experience nature without the commitment of owning camping gear.