Argus, 1791

Jan. 10, 2020


A figure of Greek mythology: A giant with 100 eyes who was made guardian of Io and was later slain by Hermes.




DISPLACEMENT: 48 8/95 Tons


LENGTH: 47’9" deck

BEAM: 16’3"

DRAFT: 6’2"

COMPLEMENT: 4 officers, 4 enlisted, 2 boys

ARMAMENT: Probably ten muskets with bayonets; twenty pistols; two chisels; one broad axe.


Although little documentation exists regarding any of the first ten cutters' activities 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 supplies to lighthouse stations

  • carrying official (and unofficial) passengers

  • 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.

Cutter History:

The Argus was one of the first ten revenue cutters.  She was a sloop, built in New London, for service in Connecticut and Rhode Island waters.  She began her first patrol on 16 October 1791, soon after being fitted-out, under the command of Jonathan Maltbie, a veteran of the Continental Navy.  He died on 11 February 1798 and was replaced by Elisha Hinman on 13 March of that year.  Hinman was also a veteran of the Continental Navy and the former commanding officer of the famous frigate Alfred.  Fortunately two of journals describing her actions have turned up; one from the second mate Nathaniel Nichols, who kept a journal from 1791-1795; and Hinman's journal, dated from 1799 through 1803.  These journals do provide a glimpse into what life was like on board a Revenue cutter during these early years of the new republic. (1)

Argus stayed in service for a total of thirteen years, by far the longest of any of the original ten cutters.  She was sold to two New London based merchants and was sold five months later in a foreign port. (2)

Commanding Officers:

Captain Jonathan Maltbie, Master;  1791-1798

Captain Elisha Hinman, Master; 1798-1803

Captain George House, Master; 1803-1804

Crew (as of October, 1791):

George House, First Mate; Took over as Master in 1803; Ebenezer Perkins was promoted to First Mate.
Jere Greenman, Second Mate; he left the Argus in 1799 and was replaced by Ebenezer Perkins
Vacant, Third Mate  [No third mate at this time]; Ebenezer Perkins was appointed as Third Mate in December, 1792; Perkins was promoted to Second Mate in 1799 and Nathaniel Saltonstall was appointed as Third Mate.
David Poole, Mariner
Gabriel Calvon, Mariner
Wm. McNeal, Mariner
Henry Owen, Mariner
Sam Robertson, Boy
Chas Williams, Boy


1.  Florence Kern.  Jonathan Maltbie's U.S. Revenue Cutter ARGUS, 1791-1804.  Washington, DC: Alised Enterprises, 1976.  Florence Kern notes that these manuscripts are at the Federal Records Center in Waltham, Massachusetts (ARGUS, p. 34).

2.  Ibid, p. 20.


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.

Florence Kern. "One for Connecticut": Jonathan Maltbie's U.S. Revenue Cutter Argus, 1791-1804." 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).