William Eaton - Encyclopedia

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WILLIAM EATON (1764-1811), American soldier, was born in Woodstock, Connecticut, on the 23rd of February 1764. As a boy he served for a short time in the Continental army. He was a school teacher for several years, graduated at Dartmouth College in 1790, was clerk of the lower house of the Vermont legislature in 1791-1792, and in 1792 re-entered the army as a captain, later serving against the Indians in Ohio and Georgia. In 1797 he was appointed consul to Tunis, where he arrived in February 1799. In March 1799, with the consuls to Tripoli and Algiers, he negotiated alterations in the treaty of 1797 with Tunis. He rendered great service to Danish merchantmen by buying on credit several Danish prizes in Tunis and turning them over to their original owners for the redemption of his notes. In 1803 he quarrelled with the Bey, was ordered from the country, and returned to the United States to urge American intervention for the restoration of Ahmet Karamanli to the throne of Tripoli, arguing that this would impress the Barbary States with the power of the United States. In 1804 he returned to the Mediterranean as United States naval agent to the Barbary States with Barron's fleet. On the 23rd of February 1805 he agreed with Ahmet that the United States should undertake to re-establish him in Tripoli, that the expenses of the expedition should be repaid to the United States by Ahmet, and that Eaton should be general and commander-in-chief of the land forces in Ahmet's campaign; as the secretary of the navy had given the entire matter into the hands of Commodore Barron, and as Barron and Tobias Lear (1762-1816), the United States consulgeneral at Algiers and a diplomatic agent to conduct negotiations, had been instructed to consider the advisability of making arrangements with the existing government in Tripoli, Eaton far exceeded his authority. On the 8th of March he started for Derna across the Libyan desert from the Arab's Tower, 40 m. W. of Alexandria, with a force of about Soo men, including a few Americans, about 40 Greeks and some Arab cavalry. In the march of nearly 600 m. the camel-drivers and the Arab chiefs repeatedly mutinied, and Ahmet Pasha once put himself at the head of the Arabs and ordered them to attack Eaton. Ahmet more than once wished to give up the expedition. There were practically no provisions for the latter part of the march. On the 27th of April with the assistance of three bombarding cruisers Eaton captured Derna - an exploit commemorated by Whittier's poem Derne. On the 13th of May and on the 10th of June he successfully withstood the attacks of Tripolitan forces sent to dislodge him. On the 12th of June he abandoned the town upon orders from Commodore Rodgers, for Lear had made peace (4th June) with Yussuf, the de facto Pasha of Tripoli. Eaton returned to the United States, and received a grant of 10,000 acres in Maine from the Massachusetts legislature. According to a deposition which he made in January 1807 he was approached by Aaron Burr, who attempted to enlist him in his "conspiracy," and wished him to win over the marine corps and to sound Preble and Decatur. As he received from the government, soon after making this deposition, about $io,000 to liquidate claims for his expense in Tripoli, which he had long pressed in vain, his good faith has been doubted. At Burr's trial at Richmond in 1807 Eaton was one of the witnesses, but his testimony was unimportant. In May 1807 he was elected a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and served for one term. He died on the 1st of June 1811 in Brimfield, Massachusetts.

See the anon y mously published Life of the Late Gen. William Eaton (Brookfield, Massachusetts, 1813) by Charles Prentiss; C. C. Felton, "Life of William Eaton" in Sparks's Library of American Biography, vol. ix. (Boston, 1838); and Gardner W. Allen's Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (Boston, 1905).

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