1770s TRUNK BELONGED TO CONTINENTAL NAVY OFFICER

Naval trunk owned by Captain Tobias Lear in the 1770s.

The trunk owned by Captain Tobias Lear in the 1770s is on exhibit in “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution” at Jamestown Settlement through January 20, 2014.

One of the artifacts recently acquired for the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is a small wooden, leather-covered dome trunk ornamented with brass tacks, owned by Captain Tobias Lear, sometimes referred to as the fourth Tobias.  His son, the fifth Tobias, served as personal secretary to George Washington from 1784 to Washington’s death in 1799.

Captain Lear was born on August 1, 1737, and died on November 6, 1781.  He served as superintendent of the Continental Yard at Langdon’s (now Badger’s) Island in the Piscataqua River across from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, during the American Revolution.  He also is known as the builder of the ship Ranger, made famous by John Paul Jones.  Some time earlier Lear served on the Panther, and it was during this time that he used this trunk, inscribed on the inside in period ink, “Captain Lear for Ship Panther.”  The maker’s label indicates that the trunk was made by London trunk maker James Bryant.  The date July 6, 1773, appears below the label.  The trunk has its original paper lining decorated with a playing card motif.  This box held important papers and perhaps a small keepsake or cherished object that reminded Captain Lear of home and family left behind.

Since people first took to the sea, tight quarters have dictated that mariners make choices about the few personal items they can keep with them.  Even in the 21st-century American Navy, with ships larger than ever imagined in the 18th century, a sailor typically has very limited space for personal belongings.  Pictures of family and friends, a laptop or books are common items taken on board ship today.

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