Digest>Archives> June 2010

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Fifth Auditor Stephen Pleasonton

By Jim Claflin


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We recently acquired a wonderful early lighthouse document signed in hand by U.S. Treasury Department Fifth Auditor Stephen Pleasonton. The document is dated November 2, 1839 and relates to the Keeper appointment at the Great Captain Island Lighthouse, Greenwich, Connecticut.

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The letter instructs William H. Ellis, Superintendent of Lighthouses in Connecticut, regarding "...the appointment of James Bird as Keeper of the Light House at Great Captains Island”. James Bird [Bride] was the third keeper, serving from 1839 – 1848. Pleasonton goes on to instruct Ellis to inform Bird "...of the necessity of his residing and being constantly in the house provided for the Keeper (During the early years, keepers sometimes lived elsewhere to work a second job and paid a laborer to tend the lighthouse.) . Salary three hundred and fifty dollars per annum...I also enclose a copy of Instructions to Keepers of Light Houses..."

Stephen Pleasonton (1776 – January 31, 1855) began his government career as a clerk with the State Department. Later in his career he would serve for thirty eight years as the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury of the United States and is chiefly remembered for his work in that capacity, overseeing the United States Light House Establishment during its early years.

In 1820 Pleasonton was appointed to oversee operations of the United States Light House Establishment. As a bureaucrat, he knew little of maritime matters. The Light House Establishment was not his sole concern, and as a result he delegated much of the responsibility of his office to local collectors of customs. Pleasonton was, by and large, a sober administrator, dispensing funds only when absolutely necessary, and remaining as thrifty as possible. While this drew praise from government officials, it came at great expense to existing aids to navigation.

For example, in 1826, the Diamond Shoals Lightship, off the coast of North Carolina, slipped her moorings in a storm. Her anchor and chain were ripped from her hull and fell to the sea floor. Despite being advised otherwise by the local superintendent, Pleasonton waited two months before purchasing new moorings and replacing the vessel on station. Instead, he offered a $500 reward for the recovery of both anchor and chain, believing a salvage operation to be more cost-effective than replacing the lost parts.

Pleasonton would be involved in scandals in the 1830s involving alleged corruption in awarding of contracts for government lighthouses, which turned out to have substandard construction and began deteriorating prematurely. He was later investigated by the Congress, which cited his "lethargy and maladministration".

In his defense, Pleasonton's early reign over the lighthouses did mark a turning point for the Light House Establishment. Responsibility for lighthouses had previously shifted from department to department, with no semblance of continuity. His administration over the nations lighthouses did provide some continuity, though with few improvements to the system. His involvement with the system of lighthouses continued until 1852-53, at which point, Congress responded to the growing dissatisfaction over the nation’s lights and created the United States Light House Board, thus removing the nation’s lighthouses from Pleasonton’s control.

Although Pleasonton had created the longest period of stability that the Light House Establishment had yet seen, when he turned the system over to the Light House Board in 1853, the system of lights was fraught with political patronage and considered largely inferior to most other maritime nations.

However, what may have been Pleasonton’s most valuable efforts during his governmental career may still remain unknown to many. Possibly his least known contribution to the still infant United States was his efforts during one week while a clerk in the Treasury Department during the War of 1812.

Worried that the British would attack Washington, President James Madison tasked Pleasonton with preserving the books and papers of the State Department. As the British approached the city, Pleasonton filled a number of linen bags with all the Department's records. This included the still-unpublished secret journals of Congress, the commission and correspondence of George Washington, the Articles of Confederation, the United States Constitution, and all the treaties, laws, and correspondence of the Department made since 1789. He had all of this carted to Leesburg, Virginia, where they were stored in an abandoned home there. Before he left, he noticed the Declaration of Independence had been forgotten and was still hanging in its frame on the wall, and took that as well. That night, the British arrived and burned much of the city. Thus, through his lone efforts, our most treasured documents were saved.

Partly in recognition for his efforts during the recent war, in 1817, President James Monroe named Pleasonton to the newly created position of Fifth Auditor in the Treasury Department, which he would hold until his death in 1855.

Pleasonton was 78 years old when he died on January 31, 1855. He is buried along side of his son Alfred, in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC.

Like our column? Have suggestions for future subjects? Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at www.LighthouseAntiques.net

This story appeared in the June 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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