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Stephen and Susan Decatur papers

Identifier: GTM-GAMMS245

Collection-level Scope and Content Note

Donated to Georgetown College by Susan Decatur, the widow of the War of 1812 naval hero Stephen Decatur (1779-1820), the Stephen and Susan Decatur Papers consist of one letter book containing letters dated from 1812 to 1813 written to Commodore Decatur congratulating him on the victory of the U.S.S. "United States" against the H.M.S. "Macedonian," two letters dated 1812 to him from U.S. Navy Secretary Paul Hamilton, and 16 letters to Susan Decatur dated between 1831 and 1845. Contained in one archival box (0.25 linear feet), the Decatur Papers document some interesting facts about these famous Americans.

The Stephen Decatur letter book contains twelve letters sent to Decatur from 1812 to 1813. Written by important politicians in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Albany, Richmond, Annapolis, and New London, these letters honor Decatur and his crew aboard the U.S.S. "United States" for their heroic capture of the H.M.S. "Macedonian" on October 25, 1812. Several manuscript copies of legislative resolutions; including those drafted by New York City, the Virginia General Assembly, the Maryland House of Delegates, the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and the New York State Assembly and Senate; accompany the letters. Correspondents include James Barbour, Gordon Saltonstall Mumford, William Sullivan, Daniel D. Thompkins, Richard Varick, and Arnold Welles. Moreover, the letters and resolutions honor other U.S. naval figures, such as William Henry Allen, William Bainbridge, James Biddle, Isaac Hull, Jacob Jones, and Charles Morris, and make reference to numerous vessels, such as the U.S.S. "Constitution," U.S.S. "Philadelphia," U.S.S. "Wasp," H.M.S. "Frolic," H.M.S. "Guerriere," and H.M.S. "Java." Although the letters to Stephen Decatur are still physically contained in the letter book, each letter has been cataloged as a separate folder (Folders 1 through 12). Resolutions or envelopes attached to a specific letter have been cataloged as being in the same folder as that particular letter. Two additional laudatory letters and one envelope once were part of the letter book, but they have been placed in separate folders (Folders 13, 14, and 15) as they had fallen out of the letter book some years ago. Taken together, these documents show just how grateful Americans were to Decatur for his naval exploits.

Separate from the letter book, sixteen letters sent to Susan Decatur between 1831 and 1845 are preserved in this collection. All addressed to Mrs. Decatur in Georgetown, the letters mostly relate to her efforts to persuade Congress to provide her with compensation for her late husband's daring destruction of the captured U.S. frigate "Philadelphia" in Tripoli harbor in 1804 and her efforts to obtain a pension. Correspondents include notables such as Lewis Cass, Mahlon Dickerson, Edward Everett, Henry Horn, Joseph Reed Ingersoll, Edward Livingston, George McDuffie, John Mercer Patton, and Sir Charles R. Vaughan.

Several other manuscript collections at the Georgetown University Library Special Collections Division contain material related to Stephen and Susan Decatur: the David Rankin Barbee Papers, the Causten Family Papers, the William M. P. Dunne Papers, the Joseph Kennedy SJ Papers, the Maryland Province Archives of the Society of Jesus, the Nidiffer Collection, the Carroll Spence Papers, and the Varia Collection.

Six books from Susan Decatur's library are preserved in the Special Collections Division:

Ariosto, Lodovico. "Orlando Furioso/ Lodovico Ariosto." In Parigi: Della Raccolta di Cazin, 1786, 5 volumes [call number: LAU SPCOLL 75A55].

Bossuet, Jacques Benigne. "Exposition de la Doctrine de l'Eglise Catholique sur les Matieres de Controverse." Dublin: Richard Coyne, 1821 [call number: LAU SPCOLL 94A230].

Evans, John. "A Sketch of the Denominations . . . ." Worcester, 1807 [call number LAU SPCOLL Shandl 1807E].

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. "Gli Affani del Giovane Verter." Londra, per T. Hookham, 1788 [call number: LAU SPCOLL 75A45].

Paley, William. "Natural Theology, Or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature." Philadelphia: Printed for John Morgan by H. Maxwell, 1802 [call number: LAU SPCOLL 75A49].

Stark, Bolling. "Disputatio Physiologica Inauguralis de Animalium et Terra Natorum Similitudine." Edinburgi, Adamus Neill, 1799 [call number: LAU SPCOLL GTC O199].

In addition to these books, several books about Stephen or Susan Decatur but never owned by them can be found in our Special Collections department.

The Georgetown University Art Collection, part of Special Collections, possesses six objects related to the Decaturs:

Chessmen (or Chess Set). Description: Red and white, male and female. Donor: Susan Decatur. Medium: Ivory.

Engraving of Stephen Decatur. Description: Bust portrait of Decatur, scrollwork. Inscription: "Decatur."

Lock of Stephen Decatur's hair. Donor: John Gilmary Shea.

Medal. Description: Stephen Decatur's Ship, the "Royal Louis," and Masonic emblems, coat of arms of the Decatur family. Donor: Ms. Fenwick at the death of Susan Decatur. Inscription: "Success to the Royal Louis - Decatur." Medium: Silverplate.

Pistol. Description: An elaborate carved, wood and brass pistol with Arabic inscriptions, perhaps taken from the body of a Turk killed in the fighting in Tripoli. Donor: unknown.

Portrait of Stephen Decatur. By James Simpson. Donor: Mrs. Hobbs. Medium: Oil on canvas.

A number of other manuscript repositories hold papers of Stephen Decatur, including the following:

Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Captain Stephen Decatur Papers, 1801-1805, 1820, 1 vol., 75 items; additional material in Daniel Parker Papers.

Library of Congress. Manuscript Division.

The Decatur House Papers (in the Beale Family Papers), 1801-1957, 8 items, 8 ft.

Naval Historical Foundation. Captain Stephen Decatur Papers, 1800-1801, 3 items, includes log kept on board U.S.S. "Philadelphia."

New-York Historical Society. Captain Stephen Decatur, Jr. Papers, 1806-1807, 2 items; Mrs. Stephen Decatur Papers, 1824-1825, 2 items.

Philadelphia Maritime Museum. Captain Stephen Decatur Papers, 1804, 1 item.

Western Reserve Historical Society. Captain Stephen Decatur Papers, 1817, 2 items, includes report on defense and fortification of Chesapeake Bay and related British material.

Several other manuscript collections at the Georgetown University Library Special Collections Division contain documents pertaining to the War of 1812. Among these are the Wilfred Mason Barton Papers, the Causten Family Papers, the Charles Lacey Papers, the Maryland Province Archives of the Society of Jesus, the Joseph Mobberly SJ Papers, and letters of Commodore John Rodgers.

SYNOPSIS - The Stephen and Susan Decatur Papers are arranged into two (2) series as described below:

SERIES 1 - Correspondence to Stephen Decatur. Consists of the Stephen Decatur letter book containing laudatory letters sent to him after the victory of the U.S.S. "United States" over the H.M.S. "Macedonian." Original order of letters maintained. Each letter has been cataloged as a separate folder.

SERIES 2 - Correspondence to Susan Decatur. Consists of letters sent to Susan Decatur while she was living in Georgetown, mostly regarding her claims before Congress. Arranged chronologically.

ABBREVIATIONS: ALS - Autograph Letter Signed. AMS - Autograph Manuscript Signed.


  • 1812 - 1845

Collection-level Access Restrictions

Most manuscripts collections at the Georgetown University Booth Family Center for Special Collections are open to researchers; however, restrictions may apply to some collections. Collections stored off site require a minimum of three days for retrieval. For use of all manuscripts collections, researchers are advised to contact the Booth Family Center for Special Collections in advance of any visit.

Biographical notes

Stephen Decatur (1779-1820), an American naval officer and War of 1812 hero, was born in Sinepuxent, near Berlin, Maryland on January 5, 1779. The son of American naval officer and privateer Stephen Decatur (1752-1808), he was commissioned a midshipman in the U.S. Navy in 1798. After rising to his first command in 1803, Stephen Decatur participated in the Tripolitan War (1801-1805). During that war, he became famous for his daring capture and burning of the U.S. frigate "Philadelphia" in Tripoli harbor in 1804. For that action he was promoted to captain. He took part in the bombardment of Tripoli and negotiated with the bey of Tunis. Decatur returned to America in 1805 and assumed command of naval forces on the southeastern coast in 1808. It was in 1808 that Decatur served as one of the judges on the court-martial that suspended Captain James Barron following the "Chesapeake-Leopard" incident. Decatur distinguished himself during the War of 1812, especially when the U.S.S. "United States," under his command, captured the H.M.S. "Macedonian" off Madeira on October 25, 1812. The British blockaded him with his prize in New London, Connecticut not long thereafter. In early 1815, he boldly attempted to run the blockade of New York with the U.S.S. "President." This action led to an engagement with several British vessels and his surrender. As a commodore in the Algerine War in 1815, he dictated a treaty with Algiers. He also exacted settlements from Tunis and Tripoli. From 1815 to 1820, Decatur held a powerful role as a navy commissioner, and he and his wife lived in the nation's capital and played an integral role in Washington's social and political life during that period. Initially, they lived next door to the Madisons in a house in one of the "Seven Buildings." In 1818-1819, Benjamin Henry Latrobe built the couple a house, which came to be known as Decatur House, next to Lafayette Square (then known as President's Square). Stephen Decatur lived in that house but 14 months as he was killed in a duel at Bladensburg, Maryland by his longtime enemy Captain James Barron on March 22, 1820.

Susan Decatur was born the daughter of Luke Wheeler, who served for a time as mayor of Norfolk, Virginia. In 1826, several years after her husband's death, she began her efforts to obtain the prize money owed her husband for his capture of the "Philadelphia." In time, Susan Decatur became one of Georgetown College's most important benefactors at a time when the college experienced financial trouble. In 1834, she decided to donate $7,000 to the college, and she provided that sum of money in 1837 after being awarded a federal pension. Under the agreement with Georgetown College, Mrs. Decatur received an annuity payment of $644 per year until her death. At the time of her death on July 21, 1860, her claim for the prize money from the "Philadelphia" was still unresolved by Congress. Susan Decatur lived for a time in a house known as Decatur Cottage, which was located on land adjacent to Georgetown College on a site close to what is now the site of the White-Gravenor building. While the land is now part of Georgetown University, in Mrs. Decatur's time it was not on college grounds. The Decatur Cottage was built by William Brook, the father of carpenter Joseph Brook. For a history of Decatur Cottage and a description of its many inhabitants, see the "Georgetown College Journal" (Vol. 5, No. 7, p. 73-4, April 1877; Vol. 6, No. 3, p. 34, December 1877; and Vol. 6, No. 5, p. 52, February 1878). A photograph of Decatur Cottage is preserved in the University Archives photo file. Falling into disrepair by 1877, the house was torn down on November 21 and 22 of that year. Susan Decatur converted to the Catholic faith in 1828. Rev. John Curley, S.J. was her confessor. She was buried in the Old Georgetown College Cemetery located immediately to the northwest of the current White-Gravenor building. Her remains were subsequently moved to Holy Rood Cemetery and subsequent to that to St. Peter's churchyard in Philadelphia, where she rests beside her husband. The records of Holy Rood Cemetery are stored in the Georgetown University Library Special Collections Division.

Sources: Curran, Robert Emmett, S.J. "The Bicentennial History of Georgetown University: From Academy to University, 1789-1889." Volume 1. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1993. "Concise Dictionary of American Biography." New York: Scribner's, 1964. "Decatur House." Eds. Helen Duprey Bullock et al. Washington, DC: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1968. "Who Was Who in America: Historical Volume, 1607-1896." Chicago: Marquis, 1963.


0.25 Linear Feet (1 box)

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Other Finding Aids


Stephen and Susan Decatur Papers
Scott S. Taylor. Georgetown University Library Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Washington, D.C.
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Repository Details

Part of the Georgetown University Manuscripts Repository

Lauinger Library, 5th Floor
37th and O Streets, N.W.
Washington DC 20057