A brief sketch of the Author’s Life and Education, up to the month of May, 1815.
I was born in the town of Middletown, in the State of Connecticut, on the 27 th of October, in the year 1777, during the war between England and America, which terminated in 1783, with the acknowledgment by the mother country of the freedom, sovereignty, and independence of the thirteen United States. My father, Asher Riley, who still lives in the same place, was bred to the farming business, and at an early age married my mother, Rebecca Sage, who is also yet living. I was their fourth child. Owing to an attack of that dangerous disorder, the liver complaint, my father was rendered incapable of attending to his usual employment for several years, during which time, his property, very small at first, was entirely expended; but after his recovery, in 1786, he was enabled, by industry and strict economy, to support his increasing family in a decent manner.
It may not be improper here, before I speak of my education, to give a general idea of what was- then termed a common education in Connecticut. This state is divided into counties and towns,'and the towns into societies; in each of which societies, the inhabitants, by common consent, and at their common expense, erect a school-house in which to educate their children. If the society is too large for only one school, it is again subdivided into districts, and each district erects a school-house for its own accommodation. This is generally done by a tax levied by themselves, and apportioned according to the property or capacity of each individual. It being for the general good, all cheerfully pay their apportionment. Thus prepared, they hire a teacher to instruct their children in reading and writing, and some of them are taught the fundamental rules of arithmetic. They, for the most part, hire a male teacher for four months in the year, say from October to March, and his compensation (at the time I am speaking of) was from six to ten dollars a month, with his board. In order to obtain his board, he was under the necessity of going to each of his employers’ houses in rotation, making his time in each family as equal as possible and in proportion to the number of children therein. In this way all the parents became acquainted with the master or mistress. In the summer one of the best informed girls in the neighbourhood was selected to teach the youngest children. To defray the expense arising from this system, a tax was laid, and every man, whether married or unmarried, with children or without them, was obliged to pay the sum at which he was rated, and in this manner every one contributed for the good of the whole. In each society one or more meetinghouses were established, whose congregations were either Presbyterians or Congregationalists, and a minister (as he is called) regularly ordained and located for a yearly stipend or salary, and generally during life. This was an old and steady habit. The minister was considered as the head of the school. as well as of the meeting, and his like or dislike was equivalent to a law. All the children in each district, whether rich or poor, went to this school : all had an equal right to this kind of country education. To one of these district schools I was sent at the age of four years, where I continued, learning to spell and read, until I was eight years old, when my father’s family had increased to seven or eight children, with a fair prospect of more, (it afterwards amounted to thirteen in number.)
Finding it difficult to support us all as he wished, and I having become a stout boy of my age, he placed me with a neighbouring farmer to earn my living, by assisting him in his work. From the age of eight to fourteen years I worked on the land with different farmers in our neighbourhood, who having received but a very scanty education themselves, conceited, nevertheless, that they were overstocked with learning, as is generally the case with the most ignorant, and in this, their fancied wisdom, concluded that much less than they themselves possessed would answer my purpose, as I was but a poor boy!! Finding therefore that they would lose my labour during school hours* (for they had always taken great care to keep me fully employed in hard drudgery every moment I was out of school, scarcely allowing me the usual hours of refreshment and sleep,) they kept me from school, merely because, as they stated, they could not get along with their work without my help. When my parents remonstrated against such conduct in those who had come under a most solemn agreement to give me a plenty of schooling, they were assured “ that I was a very forward boy; that I could spell and read as well as any of the boys of my age; that I could repeat whole chapters in the Bible by heart* and knew all the Catechism and Creed, viz. the Presbyterian, which then was, and still is considered, all important in that section of the union called New-England: that I could sing psalms in the separate meetings full as well as those who had learned to sing by note, ‘ though indeed he cannot write, (said they) because he has no turn for writing.’ ” These representations tended in some measure to allay the anxiety of my parents, who wished me above all things to have a good common country education, as they at that time had no prospect of being able to give me any thing better. They had taught me, both by precept and practice, that to be honest, industrious, and prudent; to govern my passions, (which were violent,) to feel for and relieve the distresses of others when in my power; to be mild and affable in my manners, and virtuous in all my actions, was to be happy; and they, generally, had instilled into my youthful mind every good principle.
I had now attained my fifteenth year; was tall, stout, and athletic for my age; and having become tired of hard work on the land, I concluded that the best way to get rid of it, was to go to sea and visit foreign countries. My parents endeavoured to dissuade me from this project, and wished me to learn some mechanical trade; but finding that I could not fix my mind upon any other business, they, with great, reluctance, consented to.my choice; and I, accordingly, shipped on board a sloop bound to the West Indies. Having no friend to push me forward, no dependence but on my own good conduct and exertions, and being ambitious to gain some distinction in the profession I had chosen, I contrived to acquire some knowledge in the art of navigation, theoretically as well as practically, and at the age of twenty years had passed through the grades of cabin boy, cook, ordinary seaman, seaman, second mate, and chief mate, on board different vessels. I was now six feet and one inch in height, and proportionably strong and athletic, when finding the sphere I then moved in to be too limited for my views and wishes, (it extending only from Connecticut River or New- London to the West Indies, and back again,) I went to New-York, where I was soon appointed to the command of a good vessel, and since that time have continued in similar employment; making voyages in all climates usually visited by American ships; traversing almost every sea, and travelling by land through many of the principal states and empires of the world. For several years I had charge of the cargoes as well as of the vessels I sailed in, and had a fair share of prosperity, until the month of January 1808, when my ship, the Two Marys of New-York, was seized by the French, as I took shelter in Belle Isle, in the Bay of Biscay, from some English men of war, being bound for Nantz; and the ship, with her valuable cargo, was confiscated, under the memorable Milan Decree of the 17th December, 1807, founded on the well known Orders in Council, of the 11th November, of the same year. I remained in France until the ship and cargo were condemned, and did not return to ray native country and family, till the latter part of the year 1809, with the loss, it is true, of nearly all the property I had before acquired, but wiser than 1 went out; for I had learned to read, write, and speak both the French and Spanish languages? had travelled pretty much all over France, where I had opportunities of witnessing many important operations in the science of war, calculated to attract my attention to the principles upon which they were founded, and 1, at the same time, took lessons in the school of adversity, which tended to prepare and discipline my mind for the future hardships I was destined to undergo. I now strove with all my power to stem the tide of misfortune, which began to set in against me with impetuous force. I had become a husband and the father of four children, who looked up to me for support, and I strained every nerve to retrieve my lost fortune, by trading to sea; but it was of no avail ; every thing proved adverse, and after an absence of two years to Spain, Portugal, the Brazils, Rio de la Plata, or River of Silver, in South America, the West Indies, New-Orleans, &c. I returned home at the commencement of the late war (1812) pennyless. Unarmed commerce on the ocean, my element, was at an end in an honourable way, and I could not obtain a station I wished for in the navy, nor could I obtain the command of a private armed vessel that suited my views, owing to the want of funds; nor would I accept of the command of a vessel and the consignment of a cargo navigated contrary to the laws of war under foreign licences: this I considered would derogate from the character I always wished to support, that of a true friend to my country, (whether in prosperity or adversity,) and a firm supporter of its laws and institutions, which I had proved by long experience in the ways of the world to be as good (at least) as those of any country under heaven. Though the offers that were made me were great and tempting, so that my acceptance of them could scarcely have failed of producing me a handsome fortune, and that in a very short period, yet I remained at home during the whole war, making use of all my faculties to gain a decent subsistence for my family. Soon after the burning of the Capitol and other public and private buildings at the seat of government, by the enemy, in August 1814, when their commanders loudly threatened to destroy every assailable place on the seaboard, I believed the time was near when every arm would be required for the general defence, particularly 1 , at the exposed seaport towns ; and having enrolled myself in a volunteer company of military exempt artillerists, ..composed chiefly of masters and mates of vessels and seamen, I had the honour of being chosen their captain. But our services were not needed in the field.