The Bay of Horta, the Privateer General Armstrong and Dr. John Brosnaham

More ancestral thoughts surfaced on the trip my daughter and I took to Madeira and the Azores. We spent eleven days on the island of Faial, in Praia do Almoxarife, staying with friends who treated us with magnificent hospitality and who made sure we saw and experienced all we could during those eleven days.

The island of Faial is one of the islands in the central group of the Azores, Portugal, and it sits on the westernmost edge of the Eurasian Plate. The island is actually sitting at the edges of three tectonic plates: The North American Plate, The African Plate and the Eurasian Plate. At the far western side of Faial is the most recent volcanic activity of the island, Capelinhos, created during the 1957 volcanic eruption which lasted for more than a year.

As you fly into the airport in Faial you can see the entire island, a beautiful gem in the Atlantic Ocean west of Portugal. Standing at various viewpoints around the island you can look off into the distance and know that you are really out there, hundreds of miles from everywhere. The air was clean, the breeze gentle (most of the time), and the temperature was in the low 70s. We felt removed from the rest of the world.


Among the many sights to see is the harbor in Horta, the main town on the island. We went down there several times and once spent over an hour looking at the many paintings along the wharf area commemorating the visits of the hundreds of yachts and sailing vessels that have dropped anchor here. It’s traditional for the sailing crew to leave a record of their ship’s visit with a painting depicting their voyage. When one of the paintings begins to disappear due to the elements, one can repaint over the spot with a new record of a voyage.


ImageThe harbor and the Bay of Horta had another meaning for me. In 1814 my ancestor, John Brosnaham (or Brosnahan), was aboard the United States privateer General Armstrong  as it’s surgeon when it arrived in Horta for water and supplies. Being Portuguese, Horta was a neutral port during the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. Samuel C. Reid was the captain of the privateer.

On the 26th of September at ten in the morning the General Armstrong sailed into Horta and at eight that night their ship was attacked by the British. Under the command of Captain Robert Lloyd several small boats were sent out from the squadron of three warships: the HMS Rota, the HMS Carnation and the HMS Plantagenet to check out the American vessel. Claiming that the Americans fired first, the British attacked and destroyed the General Armstrong. Only two Americans were killed in the battle, but thirty-six British lost their lives. The Americans burned their ship and left within a few days aboard a Portuguese brig for Amelia Island on the northeast coast of Florida.

ImageThe British, meanwhile, had to transport their wounded home and were delayed getting to Jamaica where they were to rendezvous with a larger force which was heading to New Orleans. Some accounts maintain that this delay gave Andrew Jackson more time to prepare and thus defeat the British in New Orleans. The Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, had already been signed, two weeks earlier, so the outcome of the battle changed nothing. It did make Andrew Jackson a national military hero though.

In a letter written by Captain Reid, 4 October 1814, explaining the circumstances of the destruction of the General Armstrong, he mentions that though they had several injured crew members, “It gives me much pleasure to announce to you that our wounded are all in a fair way of recovery, through the unremitted care and attention of our worthy surgeon.”

The “worthy surgeon” was my great, great great grandfather, Dr. John Brosnaham, son of Andrew Brosnahan and Margaret Rim of Catskill, New York. After the war he lived in Cuba for awhile before ending up in Pensacola where he married Maria Josefa Martinez. After her death in 1823, he married Isabella Eugenia Sierra, daughter of Dr. Eugenio Antonio Sierra and his wife Francesca Dauphin of Pensacola.

On one of the last days of our stay in Faial, we went to the new aquarium which had just opened a day or so before. Just up the path from the aquarium was the newly opened Dabney House museum. John Bass Dabney was the American consul to the Azores, appointed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807 to see to American interests in the whaling industry. Dabney was the consul to whom the Americans turned when they were left in Horta without a ship. He was most likely the one who provided the ship which took the survivors to Amelia Island in Florida.

Interesting note:

When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801 he chose as his private secretary Meriwether Lewis. After Lewis set of on his expedition, Col. William Brent worked temporarily as Jefferson’s secretary. Offered the position permanently, he declined for personal reasons. Col. William Brent’s grandson, Francis Celestino Brent, of Pensacola, married the granddaughter of Dr. John Brosnaham, Mary Ella Shuttleworth.

For more on Dr. John Brosnaham: http://www.brosnahanjohn.htm

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2 Responses to The Bay of Horta, the Privateer General Armstrong and Dr. John Brosnaham

  1. Chris Snyder says:

    Hey Anne! I’m thrilled to stumble upon your webpage here. Happy 200th anniversary!! My ancestor, John Hewitt Mackie, and his brother were two of the men on board the General Armstrong also on 26 September 1814. My cousin, Robert (Bob) Rowen, has done extensive research on whether the British were really delayed for the Battle of New Orleans due to their losses in Faial… or not. I’m more interested in the bravery of the battle itself, and knowing my great great grandfather was there. Looking forward to hearing from you. Chris

    • kakadu1995 says:

      Hello, Chris,
      So good to hear from someone else who was a descendent of this crew. I can’t say I have done extensive research but I do have some more details about the battle and its aftermath on my webpage: I have heard that it didn’t really matter that the British were delayed because by that time, a treaty was signed before the Battle of New Orleans. But maybe Andrew Jackson would not have won. Let me know if you ever find out more.

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