Joshua Humphreys, “Father of the American Navy"

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Joshua Humphreys, Jr.

Birthdate: (86)
Birthplace: Haverford, PA, USA
Death: Died in Haverford, PA, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of Joshua Humphreys, Sr. and Sarah Humphreys
Husband of Mary Humphreys
Father of Clement Humphreys and Samuel Humphreys, naval architect
Brother of Charles Humphreys, Continental Congressman

Occupation: Naval Architect
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Joshua Humphreys, “Father of the American Navy"

Joshua Humphreys (June 17, 1751 – January 12, 1838) was an influential and successful ship builder in the United States.

Humphreys was born in Haverford, Pennsylvania and died in the same place. His residence, Pont Reading, is still a private residence.


   * 1 Life
   * 2 Family
   * 3 Navy ships
   * 4 References
   * 5 External links


As a youth, Humphreys was apprenticed to a shipbuilder in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During the American Revolutionary War he was active as a designer, and played a major part in planning Randolph, a frigate, and a 74-gun ship which was never built.

After the war Humphreys became a shipbuilder in Philadelphia. When Congress in 1794 passed the Naval Act of 1794 providing for the construction of six frigates, it called on him to design them. He was appointed Naval Constructor 28 June 1794 and began work on these ships, the beginnings of the U.S. Navy. Reputedly, one of the inspirations for his frigate designs was the South Carolina.

United States was built by Humphreys in Philadelphia, and was the first of the new ships to be launched on 10 May 1797. These vessels were larger and faster than other ships of their class and formed the core of the Navy during the War of 1812, and scored several victories against British ships. Humphreys' skill is evident by the fact that one of these ships, Constitution (Old Ironsides), is still afloat.

His six frigates were:

  • Constitution
  • President
  • United States
  • Chesapeake
  • Constellation
  • Congress


His brother was Charles Humphreys, a member of the Continental Congress. His son was another noted naval architect, Samuel Humphreys. His grandson, General Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, served throughout the American Civil War. [edit] Navy ships

Two ships, USS Humphreys (DD-236) and USNS Joshua Humphreys (T-AO-188), were named for him.


   * This article includes text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. The entry can be found here.

External links

   * USS Constitution Rehabilitation And Restoration
   * The Joshua Humphreys Papers, including financial records, hand-drawn diagrams, correspondence and other family documents, are available for research use at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Source: Downloaded April 2011 from

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[Following is a post to Fondly, Pennsylvania: Notes from Archives and Conservation, A project of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania" downloaded April 2011 from]

Joshua Humphreys, “Father of the American Navy”

October 11, 2009 by Ashley Harper

This week I spent some time working on the Joshua Humphreys papers (Collection 306). Born in Haverford, Pa. in 1751, Humphreys would go on to be the nation’s foremost naval architect in the post-Revolutionary era. In 1776 Humphreys was chosen by the Continental Congress to design the retrofitting of eight merchant vessels into battle-worthy frigates. These eight ships were the first military vessels of the United States. After the war, Humphreys pressed for an expanded fleet of ships that would be capable of not just defending the coastline, but also capable of going on the offensive in the open seas. In 1797, the frigate United States was launched and five more ships soon followed. These ships were the first all new ships designed for the American Navy and formed the backbone of the fleet during the War of 1812. The other ships were the President, Chesapeake, Constellation, Congress, and the Constitution – famously known as “Old Ironsides” and the oldest commissioned U.S. naval vessel still afloat. Several of the innovations Humphreys introduced on these ships, such as a knife-like keel to cut through the water and a bulging hull for added steadiness, were design elements used on ships well into the steam era. Humphreys managed to irritate several Secretaries of War and when Thomas Jefferson, who was opposed to the idea of an offensive Navy, was elected, Humphreys was “asked” to retire in 1803. His son Samuel however was also a naval architect, and Humphreys managed to stay in the business through his son, albeit in a less official capacity.

The collection consists of Humphreys’ daybooks, ledger books, and letter books. Taking a look at these, I suddenly became very grateful for all the computer accounting and financial management software out there (I myself swear by Quicken). In the late 1700’s, managing a business meant one had to be very methodical to keep all these records by hand.

Though most of the collection consists of financial record keeping, there were also some instructions on how to build ships and some hand drawn diagrams too.

Also in this collection was the daybook of Charles Humphreys, Joshua’s brother and a member of the First Continental Congress. When I opened this book, many small scraps of paper literally came bursting out. It seems Charles did a lot of his record keeping on small scraps of paper, sometimes tearing personal letters up and using the backs to do some quick math. Perhaps he was the less organized of the two brothers.

Finally, while doing some background research on the web, I came across this most interesting site, It’s an interesting project with lots of fascinating documents. Anyone interested in early American military history must check it out.

[Below are responses to this post from descendants of Joshua Humphreys:]

from Alexander Humphreys on February 3, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Joshua Humphreys is my one of my great grandfathers, I’m not sure how many generations have passed, but this is what my great grandfather told me. It is really inspiring to see his work because I am studying engineering myself. No one ever believes me when I tell people the U.S.S. Constitution was designed by someone in my family tree, but it is ok. Thank you very much for the pictures and information.

From Tim Humphreys on August 10, 2010 at 5:44 pm


Joshua is my great, great, great, great, great uncle. It is so cool to tell people our story.

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Joshua Humphreys, “Father of the American Navy"'s Timeline

June 17, 1751
Haverford, PA, USA
Age 25
November 23, 1778
Age 27
January 12, 1838
Age 86
Haverford, PA, USA