(1761–1841), sailor and diarist, was born in Reading,
Pennsylvania, on 15 September 1761, the son of George
Nagel (1735–1789), a German immigrant, and Rebecca
Rogers (d. 1793).
On the outbreak of the American War of Independence
George Nagel assumed command of a series of Pennsylvania
regiments. Jacob joined him in August 1777.
He served in George Washington's artillery, saw action
at the battle of Brandywine, and then wintered at Valley
Forge. Upon his father's abrupt resignation of his
commission in June 1778, Nagle also left the
Early in 1780 he joined the Saratoga, a 16-gun
sloop then being built at Philadelphia for the navy.
With the launch of this ship delayed, Nagle changed to
the Fair American, a 16-gun privateer. In company
with the Holker, this captured more than twenty
ships in six months' cruising. In 1781 Nagle went on two
cruises on the 20-gun Rising Sun. In October he
was shipwrecked on the Virginia coast, after which he
joined the Trojan, only for it to be disabled in
a storm, then captured by HMS Royal Oak. This led
to Nagle's serving in another navy.
Still a prisoner of war, Nagle went down to St Kitts in
the Royal Oak, and regained his liberty when
French forces took the island in January 1782. This
respite was brief, for in early March he was imprisoned
at Fort Royal, Martinique, for aiding a British sailor.
In May 1782, after the battle of the Saints, he was
among prisoners of war exchanged for French ones. On and
off Nagle was to serve in the Royal Navy for twenty
years. On 25 May he joined the St Lucia as able
seaman. The following April, upon the ending of the war,
he transferred to the Ardent, in which he sailed
from Antigua to Plymouth, where he was paid off in
August 1783. Rather than return home, he first joined
the Ganges, which went down to Gibraltar, and
then one of the guardships at Portsmouth.
In March 1787 Nagle was one of the young seamen selected
for service on the HMS Sirius, the frigate
escorting the first fleet to New South Wales. He
experienced the long voyage down the Atlantic and across
the Indian Oceans, with stops at Tenerife, Rio de
Janeiro, and Cape Town, before arriving at Botany Bay in
January 1788. In October Nagle went in the Sirius
to Cape Town, returning to Sydney in May 1789. In March
1790 he was in this ship when it was wrecked at Norfolk
Island, and distinguished himself by twice swimming
between ship and shore as the crew struggled to save its
After twelve months on Norfolk Island Nagle returned to
England in April 1792 in the Waaksamheyd.
For some months he lived in London's East End,
experiencing its life to the full. In August he was
pressed into the Hector, where he stayed for
seven months, which included the time when the Bounty
mutineers were held onboard. He next went into the
Brunswick, from which he deserted in April 1794 to
enter the East Indiaman Rose, in which he voyaged
to Madras and Calcutta, where he met two convict women
from Sydney who had established a brothel.
The Rose returned to England in July 1795,
whereupon Nagle entered HMS Gorgon.
At this time he married a Miss Pitmans (d.
1802)—‘a lively hansome girl in my eye’ (Nagle
Journal, 186)—and the pair had several children in
the next years.
In November 1795 the Gorgon sailed to Gibraltar
and into the Mediterranean. At Corsica in April 1796
Nagle transferred to the Blanche, so that he then
saw action under the general command of Horatio Nelson
and John Jervis.
He returned to Portsmouth at the end of June 1798. In
July he entered the Netley, which cruised most
along the coasts of Portugal. Appointed prize-master, he
prospered from the ship's success. In June 1801 he
transferred to the Gorgon, which sailed to
Alexandria, and from which he was discharged at Woolwich
in April 1802, as the peace of Amiens briefly held.
Nagle now decided to return to America. After visiting
family members he went to sea again in the merchant
navy, sometimes American, sometimes British, where he
continued for twenty-two years. During this long period
he voyaged to the West Indies, to Central America, to
China in the Neptune (1806–8), and to Canada,
Florida, and South America. In 1811 he sailed to Brazil,
where he stayed until 1821. After several more trading
voyages, in mid-1824 he retired from the sea. Thereafter
Nagle had a somewhat restless life, sometimes working,
sometimes living with relatives or friends until their
patience ran out.
He died in Canton, Ohio, on 17 February 1841 and was
buried there on 18 February.
Jacob Nagle prided himself on being the most skilful of
sailors. He also took pride in his personal appearance,
being given to wearing waistcoats and silk jackets. He
frequented prostitutes, towards whom he acted charitably
when he thought their case merited it. He did not gather
worldly possessions about him. However, late in life he
wrote a long and surprisingly accurate reminiscence,
which is full of details of and insights into the life
of an ordinary seaman in the eighteenth-century royal
and merchant navies.
As the form will for seamen put it so eloquently, Nagle
knew all ‘the Perils and Dangers of the Seas, and other
Uncertainties of this transitory Life’. He suffered
severely from scurvy, felt the lash on his back, saw men
killed in battle and executed. He was robbed and cheated
of his money. He lost his wife and children to yellow
fever at Lisbon in 1802. In twenty years he did not see
his family; and by the time he returned to the United
States his parents were dead.
When in the throes of illness in Brazil, he wrote
though I had traveled a good many years through the four
quarters of the globe, been a prisoner twice, cast a way
three times, and the ship foundering under me, two days
and a night in an open boat on the wide ocion without
anything to eat or water to norish us, and numbers of
times in want of water or victuals, at other time in
action, men slain along side of me, and with all, at
this minute it apeared to me that I was in greater
distress and missery than I ever had been in any country
during my life. I fell on my nees, and never did I pray
with a sincerer hart than I did at that presentime.
(Nagle Journal, 312–13)
Jacob Nagle was an ordinary man who lived an
extraordinary life. It is for this life, so richly
recorded in his journal, that he deserves the
remembrance of posterity.
Submitted by William Hempel FF Associate # 6740.1
Nagle journal: a diary of the life of Jacob Nagle,
sailor, from the year 1775 to 1841,
ed. J. C. Dann (1988)
Mich., Clements L., library, personal memoirs of time in
© Oxford University Press 2004–14
All rights reserved: see
Alan Frost, ‘Nagle, Jacob (1761–1841)’,
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,
Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/64833,
accessed 11 Feb 2014]
Jacob Nagle (1761–1841): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/64833