U.S.S. Constitution & Guerriere's Bell Featured in Exhibit on War of 1812
During the first major sea battle of the War of 1812, the U.S.S. Constitution got her nickname, "Old Ironsides" for the victory over the British frigate, the H.M.S. Guerriere. The ship's bell, removed as a war trophy, was reportedly later purchased by Stephen Hopkins Smith, builder of Hearthside, to hang in his "Butterfly Mill" on Great Road. The mill had become known as the "Butterfly Mill" because of the two stones on the front of the building that formed the shape of a butterfly. But, it was this bell that hung in the bellfry for over 100 years that the mill really became known for. Over the years, the bell became the possession of the Sayles family who owned the Butterfly Mill building during the early 20th century. More recently, it has been on exhibit at the U.S.S. Constitution Museum. Thanks to the Constitution Museum, this famous bell will return back home to Great Road to be displayed at Hearthside for this special exhibit on the War of 1812 for the month of September.
Throughout history, this bell has had a tale about how old it really is. The brass bell has an inscription which reads: "ME FECIT PIETER SEEST AMSTELODAM ANNO 1265." As reported in a New York Times article in 1907, the bell's history was thoroughly researched by Stephen Hopkins Smith after he bought it, and he traced it to a monastery in the South of England from which it was then determined the bell would serve in the Royal Navy. It became the ship's bell for the Guerriere. The bell was thought to be 650 years old at the time because of the date that was inscribed on it.
Pieter Seest was born in Hadersleben (now in Holstein, Germany) around 1715. He became foreman of the city of Amsterdam's bell and cannon factory. In 1770 he was appointed director of the foundry. HMS Guerriere was built in Cherbourg, France in 1799. Amsterdam was under French control at the time, so it is possible that the bell by Pieter Seest was commandeered to outfit the new frigate.
In 1884 in a speech to the RI Veteran Citizens Association about the attributes and history of this bell, Welcome Greene urged members of the society to use their influence to insure that such a valuable bell have a safe home and be protected in the future, perferably at one of the colleges, rather than hanging at a mill out in the wilderness. Over the years, Rhode Island state leaders, as cited in that New York Times article, felt that this bell should be hung in the bellry of the Sayles Memorial Chapel at Brown University, since it had belonged to the Sayles family during the 20th century. In yet another publication. The Rhode Island Schoolmaster, 1872, the bell was referred to as "one of the oldest, if not the oldest, bells now in existence." It describes a piano tuner from the area who claimed "the bell as having the clearest sounding tone he had ever heard; that the tone was one continuous note, not running into three or four different sounds, as is the case with most bells."
After many years of studying the bell, it has been determined that the "2" in the date inscribed on it is actually an upside down "7," thereby dating the bell to 1765, and not 1265. While it is not as old as originally thought, it is still an old relic with a rich history that we're delighted to be sharing with the public who visit Hearthside during September.
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