Esek Hopkins (1718–1802) was one of nine children born in Scituate to farmers William Hopkins Jr. and Ruth Wilkinson. His older brother and patron was governor and signer Stephen Hopkins. Upon the death of his father, Esek went to sea at the age of twenty and eventually served on several merchant vessels. As a sailor, he rose rapidly in command and acquired a reputation for his skill and leadership ability. In 1741, he married Desire Burroughs and moved with her to Newport, where they began a family.
During the French and Indian War (1754–1763), Hopkins commanded a privateer that seized several French prizes. His handsome profits allowed him to buy a substantial farm in the northern area of Providence that was soon set off as the town of North Providence in 1765, though it was reannexed in 1874. His farmhouse on Admiral Street, now owned by the City of Providence, has been preserved and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
During the 1760s, Hopkins continued his seafaring ways, making voyages to Africa and the West Indies as a captain for Nicholas Brown and Company. The most notable and ignominious trip was the brig Sally’s voyage to the west coast of Africa to trade for slaves. According to detailed records kept by Hopkins himself, the voyage was a disaster, not merely financially but also in its toll of human lives: 109 of the 196 slaves bought from African chieftains died because of their ordeal. There is no record that Hopkins visited Africa again, and by 1772, he had become a full-fledged farmer.
In April 1775, the month of the Battles at Lexington and Concord, Esek Hopkins was called into service for the rebel cause, first as a battery commander and then as a brigadier general commanding his state’s military defenses. Meanwhile, his powerful brother Stephen and other members of the Continental Congress were working in Philadelphia to establish an American navy.
In the final months of 1775, Congress assembled a manned fleet of eight vessels, the first of which were the sloop Providence (formerly John Brown’s Katy) and the Alfred. Rhode Island delegate Stephen Hopkins, a leader in this effort, persuaded Congress to appoint his brother, Esek, as the navy’s commander in chief with the title of commodore. On January 5, 1776, Hopkins received orders to use his small squadron to clear marauding British warships from Chesapeake Bay and the Carolina coast. In the reasonable belief that the larger British vessels were too formidable to attack, Hopkins relied on the discretion granted in his instructions and sailed instead for a British base in the Bahamas, where he landed at New Providence on March 3 with a force of 270 men. This successful foray, which captured Forts Nassau and Montagu and seized many cannons and munitions, is regarded as the first amphibious assault by the U.S. Marines.
After this initial success and the capture of three small British warships on the return trip to Rhode Island, it was all downhill for Commodore Hopkins. His fleet encountered the British frigate Glasgow off Block Island, and in the ensuing battle, the larger British ship outmaneuvered the American force, inflicting heavy damage before its successful escape.
John Hancock of Massachusetts, the president of the Continental Congress, complimented Hopkins at the conclusion of this Bahama mission: “I beg leave to congratulate you on the success of your expedition. Your account of the spirit and bravery shown by the men affords them [Congress] the greatest satisfaction.” Notwithstanding Hancock’s praise and that of John Adams and William Ellery, Congress’s southern delegates were already angry with Hopkins because of his decision not to engage the British ships along their coastline. When news of the embarrassing encounter with the Glasgow arrived in Philadelphia, Hopkins was summoned to that city to defend his conduct. Having been a shipmaster and commander for three decades, he was imperious, assertive, and intolerant of criticism. This demeanor contributed to his censure by Congress on August 16, 1776, but he retained his command.
Hopkins worked to prepare his vessels for action when he returned to Rhode Island waters, but he faced recruitment problems and delays when many sailors opted for more lucrative duty aboard privateers. Then, in December 1776, a large British force began the occupation of Newport, thereby preventing Hopkins and his ships from leaving Narragansett Bay.
The frustrated commodore was further criticized by southern congressmen and by many of his own officers, and he boldly returned the criticism. His insubordination to Congress resulted first in his suspension and then in a vote in January 1777 that he be “dismissed from the service of the United States.” By that date, his brother, Stephen, had left Philadelphia because of ill health.
Together with his strong supporter, John Adams, Hopkins believed that he was a victim of sectional animosity. He was so embittered by his dismissal that he never commanded another vessel. However, he did not retire from public life. He served in the state’s General Assembly from 1777 to 1786, he held the post of collector of imposts (tariffs) for Rhode Island in 1783 and he was a trustee of Rhode Island College (Brown University) from 1782 until his death in February 1802.
Esek’s son, John B. Hopkins (1742–1796), a Gaspee raider, did his part to refurbish his family’s seafaring reputation. He commanded the Rhode Island–built frigate Warren, the flagship of a small squadron that captured seven British merchant ships and one warship during 1779.