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Navy birthplace in dispute; 5 towns lay claim

The old sign near its border that proclaims the upstate New York town of Whitehall to be the birthplace of the U.S. Navy is a bit worn out, town clerk Elaine Jones admits. Residents of several other Northeast towns might describe it another way: Not true.

Five communities claim to be the Navy's birthplace, from a wealthy former fishing hub north of Boston to Whitehall, a town about 200 miles from the nearest ocean.

On the Navy's official birthday Wednesday — its 235th — the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, may try to settle the question at a meeting in Boston at the museum of the USS Constitution, the country's oldest commissioned Naval warship.

Ferriero will bring documents from the National Archives that detail the claims of the parade of communities asserting Navy paternity, which also include Marblehead and Beverly, Mass.; Philadelphia and Providence, R.I.

But will he rule on the location of the Navy's true birthplace? Ferriero says only, "We'll see."

There are questions about Ferriero's impartiality. He grew up in Beverly.

Ferriero, who's married to a woman from another claimant — Marblehead — wouldn't say last week if he's already leaning one way or another. "No comment," he said with a laugh.

Whatever Ferriero rules, it likely won't prompt other Navy birthplaces to gracefully give way.

"It won't matter to Marbleheaders, we know what's right," said Karen MacInnis, curator of the Marblehead Museum.

Ferriero set his staff researching the Navy's origins shortly after he was appointed the archivist last year. Curiosity about the competing claims to his hometown's title was one reason, he said, but he added the real purpose is not to settle the argument. Rather it's to use the good-natured debate to send a message about the archives: "These are your records, you should be using them, we provide access to them and there are all kinds of stories to be told from the records of your government," Ferriero said.

The claims of Beverly and Marblehead revolve around the same schooner, the Hannah. In September 1775, it became the first vessel that George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, ordered outfitted as a warship, for the purposes of harassing British supply vessels.

The Hannah was modified and launched in Beverly, which are the basis of that city's claim. But to people in Marblehead, an old-time fishing port now known as a monied enclave, those are just details. MacInnis notes the Hannah was owned and manned by Marblehead residents.

"It was Marblehead men and Marblehead ownership, and there endeth the story," MacInnis said.

Not to the people of Whitehall, N.Y., a small town along Lake Champlain and three states due west of the ocean. Under the command of Benedict Arnold, several naval vessels were built in present-day Whitehall in the summer of 1776 and they were later used that year in an important early war battle on the lake.

"We built the ship(s) and you can't sail unless you got one," Jones said.

The U.S. Congress officially declared Whitehall the Navy's birthplace in 1965. Jones said another community can try to wrest away the title, but predicted they'll have the same success as those who've tried to knock down another one of the community's claims to fame: that Bigfoot has been sighted there several times.

"Some things are indisputable, you know?" Jones said. "How are you going to claim it's not true?"

Valdine C. Atwood, a historian in Machias, Maine, takes the opposite approach, disavowing that the town is the Navy's birthplace, though the title's been foisted on the community several times and it's one of the places the archivist is investigating.

"You know what happens," she said, explaining the misunderstanding. "Anything gets printed in the newspaper by anybody that doesn't know anything and then it becomes gospel."

In fact, Atwood said, Machias was the site of the first naval battle of the American Revolution in June 1776, after several woodsmen refused to hand over their lumber to a British commander, Lt. James Moor, in exchange for badly needed supplies. The woodsmen later commandeered a vessel and attacked his ship, seizing the supplies and killing Moor.

No cannon fire accompanies Providence, R.I.,'s claim to cradle of the Navy. The city just points out its residents were the first to call for the establishment of a Navy. But Lee Arnold, library director at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, notes that his city is the place where the Continental Navy was actually established on Oct. 13, 1775, by the Continental Congress, which resolved that day to build two armed vessels. To Arnold, it's a bulletproof basis for Philadelphia's claim.

With the Navy recognizing its own birthday as Oct. 13, 1775, it would seem it also sides with Arnold. But the Navy has taken a diplomatic tack on its website, summing up the various claims, saying each "unquestionably" deserves recognition and concluding blandly, "Perhaps it would be historically accurate to say that America's Navy had many 'birthplaces.'"

Arnold doesn't buy it. "It's Philadelphia," he said. "Case closed."

He also has a lighthearted suggestion for those who disagree, and it's tough to do at sea: "Go take a hike."

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