America was young. While struggling to establish economic and political stability under the new constitution, the United States faced continued threats from French naval forces against a new and thriving maritime industry. To protect these interests, Congress passed several acts to establish a token naval force; and on June 30, 1798, the act was passed which enabled ESSEX to be built. This act allowed the President to accept vessels of war from private citizens on the credit of the United States. In response to this action, 23 citizens of Salem, in the county of Essex, Massachusetts, opened a “Patriotic Subscription” on July 17, 1798, to build a vessel of war for the United States of America.
On October 25, 1798, a meeting of the first ESSEX sponsors was held to determine the type of vessel to be built. From the Salem Gazette of October 26, 1798, came the following announcement which read in part: “At a meeting in this town on Tuesday last, of those gentlemen who have subscribed to build a ship for the service of the United States, it was voted unanimously to build a frigate of 32 guns, and to loan the same to the government…”
A month later, the frigate’s builder, Enoch Briggs, advertised for shipbuilding materials in a ringing appeal: “Take Notice! Ye sons of freedom! Step forth and give your assistance in building the frigate to oppose French insolence and piracy! Let every man in possession of a white oak tree feel ambitious to be foremost in hurrying down the timber to Salem…where noble structure is to be fabricated and maintain your rights upon the seas and make the name of America respected among the nations of the world! Your longest and largest trees are wanted…four trees are wanted for the keel, which altogether measure 146 feet in length, and hew 16 inches square. Please call on the subscriber, who…will pay the ready cash.”
The frigate was launched on September 30, 1799, before a crowd of 12,000 people. On 17 December 1799 she was presented to the United States and accepted by Captain Edward Preble.
With the United States involved in naval action against France on 6 January 1800 Essex, Captain Edward Preble, departed New York in company with Congress to rendezvous with and convoy merchant ships returning from Batavia, Dutch East Indies. Congress was dismasted only a few days out, and Essex was obliged to continue her voyage alone, making her mark as the first U.S. man-of-war to double the Cape of Good Hope, both in March and in August 1800 prior to successfully completing her convoy mission in November.
Captain William Bainbridge commanded Essex on her second cruise whereon she sailed to the Mediterranean with the squadron of Commodore Richard Dale. Dispatched to protect American trade and seamen against depredations by the Barbary Powers, the squadron arrived at Gibraltar on 1 July 1801 and spent the ensuing year convoying American merchantmen and blockading Tripolitan ships. In 1802, Essex resumed duties in the Mediterranean. She participated in the successful attack on the town of Derne on 27 April 1805 and remained in these waters until the conclusion of peace terms in 1806.
Returning to the Washington Navy Yard in July, she was placed in ordinary until February 1809 when she was recommissioned for sporadic use in patrolling American waters and a single cruise to Europe. When war was declared against Britain on 18 June 1812, Essex, commanded by Captain David Porter, made a successful cruise to the southward. On 11 July near Bermuda she fell in with seven British transports and by moonlight cut out and seized one of them. On 13 August she encountered and captured the sloop Alert after an engagement. By September when she returned to New York, Essex had taken 10 prizes.
Essex sailed in South Atlantic waters and along the coast of Brazil until January 1813 when Captain Porter undertook the decimation of English whale fisheries in the Pacific. Although her crew suffered greatly from a shortage of provisions and heavy gales while rounding Cape Horn, she anchored safely at Valparaiso, Chile, on 14 March, having seized schooners, Elizabeth and Nereyda in course. The next 5 months brought Essex 13 prizes, including Essex Junior.
In January 1814 Essex sailed into neutral waters at Valparaiso, Chile, only to be trapped there for 6 weeks by the British frigates, Phoebe and Cherub. Porter determined to gain the open sea, but a heavy squall crippled Essex forcing her return to the harbor. The enemy, disregarding the neutrality of the harbor, proceeded to attack the disabled ship. The engagement which followed was one of the most remarkable in naval history. For 2½ hours, Essex resisted with intrepidity the enemy's superior fighting power; however, the loss of 155 men forced the gallant frigate to surrender. In the War of 1812, the first ESSEX compiled a battle record unequaled by any other man-of-war.