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The First Barbary War: The Tripolitan War

In December 1800, the ruler of Tripoli Yusuf Karamanli gave the United States an ultimatum: either increase Tripoli’s tribute to $225,000 or face war.  After 15 years of ever rising tribute and ransom prices and endless negotiations for captured ships and crews, the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson decided to use force to ensure American safety in the Mediterranean.  As secretary of state, Jefferson had long taken a hard line against Barbary piracy.  In March 1801, Jefferson ordered a squadron led by Commodore Richard Dale to blockade Tripoli and to attack any interfering Barbary ship. 


Andrew Sterret, captain of the Enterprise, won the first American victory of the war.  On August 1, 1801, Sterret captured Rais Mahomet Rous’ 14-gun corsair Tripoli.  The Enterprise inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy without suffering a single loss. 

However, because the United States Congress had not formally declared war with Tripoli, Sterret could not take the Tripoli as a prize and instead threw its guns overboard and released the ship.  Sterret returned to Baltimore where he and his crew were celebrated as heroes. 

Sterret’s victory is commemorated in the 1801 poem “Sterret’s Sea Fight“: 

After wrangling with Secretary of War Albert Gallatin and other Republicans over the formation of a formal navy, Jefferson appointed Commodore Edward Preble as the head of a large Mediterranean squadron in 1803.  Meanwhile, Captain William Bainbridge and his ship the Philadelphia gave chase to a foreign corsair into Tripoli harbor.  Lieutenant David Porter assured Bainbridge that their ship could safely navigate the shallow waters, but the Philadelphia ran aground and the Tripolitans easily captured the ship (for a firsthand account of a crewmember of the Philadelphia, see William Ray’s captivity narrative).  The Tripolitan Pasha Yussef Karamanli demanded that the United States pay a $2 million ransom for the crew’s release and Bainbridge and his men spent the next two years in captivity.


Two of the most famous episodes in the Barbary Wars involved the young Lieutenant Stephen Decatur.

On the night of February 16, 1804, Decatur led a covert team of American sailors into Tripoli Harbor and destroyed the captured Philadelphia, ruining the Pasha’s plans of converting it into a Barbary warship.  The dangerous but successful mission made Decatur an instant hero.  

In August of that year, Decatur led an attack on Tripoli Harbor, during which he boarded enemy gunboats, and rescued several American captives from imprisonment.  During the battle, his brother James Decatur was killed and a wounded sailor named Reuben James saved Decatur’s life by inserting himself between his captain and a Barbary sword.  James survived the attack.





Decatur’s Conflict with the Algerine at Tripoli. Reuben James Interposing His Head to Save the Life of His Commander [Stephen Decatur].”  Copied from the original engraving by Alonzo Chappel, 1858.

Though Decatur is the best-remembered hero of the 1st Barbary War, Captain William Eaton led the conflict’s most daring raid. Eaton, the former consul of Tunis, established an alliance between the United States and the former Bashaw of Tripoli Hamet Karamanli, who had been deposed by his brother Yusuf Karamanli (Jusef Caramanli).  In the Spring of 1805, Eaton and Hamet marched an army of 400 Arab and Greek mercenaries across the Libyan Desert and attacked Tripoli’s second city of Derna.  They easily captured the city with the help of three American ships led by Captain Isaac Hull. 

Before the force could continue on to Tripoli, General Consul Tobias Lear and the Danish Consul Nicholas C. Nissen, reached a peace settlement with the Bashaw. The agreement stipulated that after paying a $60,000 ransom, the United States no longer needed to offer tributes to Tripoli.  Americans celebrated the treaty as a victory for free trade, Hamet returned to exile in Egypt, Eaton returned to America, and the war with Tripoli came to an end.

Clements Highlights

William Eaton to Nicolai Nissen, August 3, 1801:

This letter from the American Barbary consul to the Danish consul, contains a brief discussion of American money-borrowing and warns that American consul Joseph Ingraham might wish to expatriate to Tripoli.

Daniel Brent to Rufus King, August 23, 1802:

At the end of this letter, Brent reports on the readiness of the frigate New York, and relays the news that the Emperor of Morocco has declared war on the United States.

Richard Smith to John Rodgers, August 25, 1802:

Navy Department orders for John Rodgers to take command of the John Adams. Shortly thereafter, Rodgers would sail that ship to the Mediterranean.

James Simpson to John Rodgers, September 17, 1803:

The following two letters relate to a minor conflict between the United States Navy and Morocco. Alcayde Abd al-Rahman, governor of Tangier, was ill disposed toward to the United States and ordered his privateers to capture American merchant ships.

The Moroccan Sultan Mohammed Selawy, however, held more favorable views of Americans. James Simpson, reporting to the recently appointed commander of the Mediterranean Squadron John Rodgers, planned to negotiate directly with the Sultan when he came to Tangier on state business.

James Simpson to Edward Preble, September 17, 1803:

This letter, written by Simpson on the same day as the previous letter, also relays information on relations with Morocco.

Tobias Lear to Fanny Lear, October 13, 1803:

In this letter to his wife, Lear describes his impressions of Tangier and mentions dealings with the leader of Morocco.

Many of the letters from Tobias to Fanny Lear from this period are lengthy and contain personal details as well as behind-the-scenes details on the peace negotiations and reflections on living abroad.

Jacob Crowninshield to Joseph Story, March 23, 1804:

Crowninshield discusses the sinking of the ship Philadelphia off the coast of Tripoli and other news of the the Barbary conflict.

Tobias Lear to American Captains of Merchant Ships, May 1, 1804:

Lear’s “Directions for the Captains of Merchant Vessels; or Vessels bringing the Annuities from the United States to Algiers.”