Captain Gustavus Conyngham, USN, King George III’s Worst Nightmare

This daring Errol-Flynn-type character terrorized English ships, capturing more vessels than Commodore John Barry and Captain John Paul Jones combined

Capt. Gustavus Conyngham.  Painting by V. Zveg.
Capt. Gustavus Conyngham. Painting by V. Zveg.

In my youth, when my family drove to upstate Pennsylvania on summer vacations, I remember noticing the name “Conyngham” on road signs along Route 80 near Luzerne County.

I always wondered about the origin of this strange name. Little did I know it belonged to one of the most important – and now least-known heroes of the Revolutionary War.

Gustavus Conyngham (or Cunningham as some spell it), started the war as a privateer, bringing needed supplies back to the colonies. On March 1, 1777, he received a commission from Benjamin Franklin in Paris signed by John Hancock.

In short order – as commander of the Surprise – Conyngham captured two British ships …was reluctantly arrested by French officials at Dunkirk after England demanded that he be held as a pirate … and had his commission papers taken by the French.

Freed with the help of Franklin, Conyngham took command of a new ship – the aptly named Revenge – after it left port, then took the fight right to England’s front door, the English Channel.

That’s when the terrorized British named him “The Dunkirk Pirate.”

Some amazing feats:

  • In all, Conyngham and his crew captured or sank 60 vessels, says Tim McGrath, author of Give Me a Fast Ship. In one very lucrative day in the West Indies, he seized four ships.
  • In part because of Conyngham – Britain’s shipping insurance rates jumped an average of 28% during its war with the Colonies … and spiked as much as 40%. This was higher than rate hikes experienced during the global Seven Years’ War.
  • Twice imprisoned, Conyngham frequently attempted escape. What’s more, he and his crew twice fought off British Marines who were taking his captured ship back to port. He also tunneled out of prison one time, escapting a second time by bribing a guard.
  • King George III considered Conyngham the most terrifying Continental Navy captain of them all. He reportedly told his minister that it would give him pleasure to be at the hanging of Conyngham, if he could only catch him.
  • To stop Conyngham, British admiralty ordered at least five warships to cruise the English Channel. Yet, many English ship owners, afraid to put to sea, placed their wares in French and Dutch vessels instead.
  • When the English caught and threatened to hang Conyngham, General Washington’s reply was succinct: if they did, he would hang six British officers then in his custody. Before any hangings took place, the resourceful Conyngham escaped and went back to harassing British shipping
Conyngham's grave. Photo by Jim Murphy.
Conyngham’s grave. Photo by Jim Murphy.

Did a grateful nation thank Captain Conyngham when he returned to Philadelphia and asked the Continental Congress to pay him for his time served and property seized? Not at all.

Because Conyngham could not produce proof of his commission from Franklin – which the French took in 1777 – he was shabbily treated by Congress and never paid for his services. The U.S. Navy knew better, though, eventually naming three different destroyers after him.

The rest of the story

On November 8, 1902, the New York Times reported on “the accidental discovery of a time-worn document in a small printseller’s shop in Paris.” The winning $2 bidder on a John Hancock signature discovered he had actually bought the missing commission papers issued by Ben Franklin to Gustavus Conyngham. The discovery proved Conyngham’s claim, just 119 years too late.

What can you do? Visit Gustavus Conyngham’s grave at St. Peter’s Churchyard, 313 Pine Street, Philadelphia, and thank him for helping us win the Revolutionary War.

He’s an extraordinary real-life action hero who deserves our recognition for his courage, boldness and fighting skill. Pay tribute to Philadelphia’s own “Dunkirk Pirate.” It’s the least we can do.


Name: Gustavus Conyngham
Born: About 1744 in County Donegal, Ireland
Died: Nov. 27, 1819 in Philadelphia
Rank: Captain, U.S. Navy
Date Commissioned: 3/1/1777
Date Missing Commission Was Found: About 1902
Ships Captured: 60
Nickname: “The Dunkirk Pirate”
Town Named in Honor: The borough of Conyngham, PA,
Buried: St. Peter’s Churchyard

This article was published in the Mar./Apr 2015 issue of the Society Hill Reporter. It has been reprinted with permission.