Building an Icon

Magazines, television and roadside billboards are awash with iconic images like the coke bottle, martini glass, Eiffel Tower, Einstein’s hair, Mickey Mouse “ears”, and the VW Beetle. But for many of us our passion for history takes us deeper into American imagery. The stopped tank in Tiananmen Square (1989), The plaintive woman in Kent State shooting photo (1970), and the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jimo (1945) are gripping memorable iconic images that resonate with us. Americans attach their own interpretation or meaning to these icons, for the “greatest generation” that photo from Iwo Jima stands for all that we fought so hard for in the Second World War. Before photojournalism, these iconic moments were captured by artists.

For me Commodore Perry aboard a rowing gig transferring his command from the Brig Lawrence to the Brig Niagara during the Battle of Lake Erie is one of these powerful iconic American scenes, the most famous painted by Ohio artist William Henry Powell in 1857. The scene has been painted repeatedly and it is “the image” that we attach to the Navy’s most steadfast motto, “Don’t give up the ship”. And while Perry is not the originator of that slogan, his love for his fallen friend James Lawrence, commander of the “Chesapeake”, propelled him to create the “DGUTS” flag that has made it one of our most well known historical American folklore images. Surprisingly, today the “DGUTS” flag image stands alone from the Battle of Lake Erie. For many Americans the slogan, the flag, even the painting are not necessarily attached to the heroic events that made Perry’s success in the Battle of Lake Erie become legendary in his own day.

There are dozens of versions of this iconic scene. From the black and white lithograph from Yale’s collection to the most famous Powell version that adorns the rotunda outside the halls of congress. When you see the painting of Commodore Perry being rowed from the Lawrence to the Niagara it is easy to identify immediately with the “never say die” outside the box thinking that made Perry an enshrined hero of the early American Republic.

About a year ago, The Perry Group had a notion that maybe this iconic image, this moment in time, could be recreated. What if we could build a replica of the rowing gig that Perry used to transfer his command and make it a part of the celebration for the Battle of Lake Erie bicentennial? We started to research these paintings to identify the type of boat he might of used. Since no one made sketches of the battle that September day in 1813, artistic license was employed in the various depictions.

Some of these paintings have as few as 6 men aboard, while others have as many as 10. Some show Perry carrying the “DGUTS” flag, others have the American Colors flying from the bow. One thing we can be fairly certain about, when Perry was being rowed to the Niagara the battle was still raging all about him. He probably did not have many able bodied men left after the Lawrence had been pummeled practically into splinters. I would also bet he did not want to draw overt attention to himself. Never the less the image we hold dear today is what we are after, but as historically correct as possible.

I can’t believe how lucky we are to have the opportunity to build one or our regions, perhaps the country’s most iconic historical Navy symbols. Our journey to find out more about this infamous boat, took us to Boston, Burlington (VT), Newport (RI) and Erie. We enlisted the expert eye of Bob Reynolds Grandson of Scott Matthews (Matthews Boat Company) to help us in this quest.

At first we were just looking for what appeared to be similar. The long boat, pilot gig, and jolly boat are all rowing vessels of the time period that came in various sizes and lengths. Some were designed for speed, others for carrying supplies, still others were for getting crew to and from shore. Since no one can be sure of what exact rowing gig had been aboard the Lawrence we started to research various styles that were common to the British fleet in those days.

On our fact-finding trip to the Erie Maritime Museum we interviewed Walter Rybka, current captain of the Niagara and naval historian. Walter set us on a quest to find an 18’6” six man rowing gig based on lines he shared with us from the Brig Grampus. That was the turning point in our search. After returning from Erie, Bob found a copy of the plans that had been drawn up for the construction of the Brig Niagara, which was “rebuilt” in the 1980’s. It turned out that the naval architect in charge of that reconstruction was Melbourne Smith from Annapolis area. He had done considerable research before drawing those plans. His research included a gig that would have been aboard the Niagara. We contacted him and he has been helping us to create a final plan for our new gig. This ongoing process will begin next month. Construction will be carried out by Riddle Boat Works of Vermilion, with the help of the Sandusky Maritime Museum and Bob Reynolds. We have only just begun to recreate an icon. We have secured a challenge matching grant to get started but we still need funds and materials to build this iconic craft. But I promise you will see it with your own eyes this year, in all its glory once again on the lake once again. Get involved, follow this amazing quest on our blog site “Chasing Perry’s Victory” ( or on twitter @theperrygroup.

3 Responses to “Building an Icon”

  1. 1 Kathie A Holbrook April 4, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    Nicely written!

    • 2 P Cabot July 14, 2012 at 9:16 pm

      Great planning! Recreating this iconic action of the young and struggling United States is an ideal method to remind and remotivate Americans today. As one of the Commodore’s descendants, his initiaitve and service have never been far from my thoughts..

      • 3 hiddenarts July 15, 2012 at 4:05 pm

        Thank you for taking time to comment. This is an important event as we make the 199th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie. I hope you will join us in 2013, or perhaps on August 30th at Navy Week in Cleveland. Best Regards,
        Peter Huston

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