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Jack Tar

by Thomas McCord

Jack Tar is a nickname which refers to the seamen who served in the British Merchant Marines or Royal Navy (so named for the tar with which seamen would coat their clothes as a form of waterproofing). Jack manned the trade vessels integral to the port and in time of war he could often be found (either of his own will or by force) on British Men of War. In the colonies, Jack was on average 24-25 years old, though there are records of sailors as young as 8.

Colonial seamen were comprised of two main categories of people, the young man in search of adventure and the criminal in search of escape. Many seamen were young men in their late teens or early twenties who had grown up on colonial farms and were now looking for some adventure and a chance to make some money for themselves. On average these men would work on a vessel for several years and then return to land life in order to settle down. A select few remained at sea, becoming captains of their own vessels. But the sea was not just a place for ambitious young men; it also offered refuge to those not welcomed on land. Thieves, murderers and deserters all turned to the sea in order to avoid persecution.

In New York City, Jack Tar was inextricably tied to the economic affairs of the city's port in particular and of the city as a whole. When those economic affairs crossed the line into the political realm (as occurred prior to the Revolution with the Stamp Act among others), Jack became a political force as well. Jack's dualistic identity as both an idealist and a boisterous criminal combined with his close economic ties to the port lead to his integral involvement in the American Revolution. As the Revolution neared, the ports connection to the colonies' struggles would be defined largely by the actions of this group of individuals.

For more on seamen, click here.


Lemisch, Jesse. "Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America." The William and Mary Quarterly, no. 25 (1968): 371-407.

Lemisch, Jesse. Jack Tar vs. John Bull; the role of New York's seamen in precipitating the Revolution. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1997.

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