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Jacob Nagle (1761–1841)

by Arthur Easton

This article was published:

Jacob Nagle (1761-1841), sailor, was born on 15 September 1761 at Reading, in the American colony of Pennsylvania, one of four children of George Nagle (1735-1789), a blacksmith of German descent, and his wife Rebecca, née Rogers. George was sheriff of Berks County in 1770-75. In the American War of Independence he was an officer in George Washington's Continental Army and in 1776 took Jacob with him to barracks in Philadelphia. The youngster joined the army in August 1777 and fought in the battle of Brandywine in September. After the winter of 1777-78, spent at Valley Forge, he and his father left the army and the family moved to Philadelphia where George ran a tavern that was popular with seamen.

Enlisting in the Continental Navy early in 1780, Jacob was briefly attached to the Saratoga before joining the sixteen-gun privateering brig Fair American. In November 1781 he was serving in the Trojan when that vessel was captured while making repairs at sea after a storm, and the crew taken on board H.M.S. Royal Oak. Imprisoned on St Christopher, Leeward and Windward Islands, in the Caribbean, Nagle was freed by the French after authorities surrendered in January 1782. He joined a French ship but was soon gaoled for helping a British sailor, and then escaped. Nagle eventually became a seaman in the Royal Navy after an exchange of prisoners in May and served in H.M.S. Lucia and two other ships until he was selected to serve aboard H.M.S. Sirius in March 1787.

With the First Fleet, Nagle reached Sydney in January 1788 and as part of Captain Phillip's boat party explored the harbour and the Hawkesbury River. In October he sailed in Sirius via Cape Horn to Cape Town to replenish dwindling supplies, thus circumnavigating the world. Back in Sydney, he was an eyewitness to the spearing of Phillip by Aborigines in 1790. In March that year Phillip, facing food shortages again, sent Sirius and Supply to Norfolk Island with a third of the convicts and two companies of marines. Nagle was still with Sirius, which, off Norfolk Island, was swept onto a reef and lost. In February 1791 Supply arrived from Batavia with a rented Dutch ship, Waaksamheyd, in which Nagle sailed back to Sydney and then on to England in March, being paid off at Portsmouth on 4 May 1792.

Nagle married a 'lively, hansome girl' in London in 1795; she and their children died of fever in Lisbon in 1802, the year he left the Royal Navy. Thereafter he crewed in merchant ships voyaging to South America, India and South East Asia and traversing the Mediterranean, before returning to the United States of America in 1822 and retiring in 1825. He moved around frequently, from Maryland to Ohio then to Pennsylvania, working as a ledgerkeeper. Penniless and seeking a military pension, he lived in a boarding house for his last years. Nagle died on 17 February 1841 at Canton, Ohio.

His manuscript journal 1775-1802 (compiled probably after 1829), a version of which was acquired by the State Library of New South Wales in 1995, is valuable as a rare source of information on the first European settlement in Sydney and of events on Norfolk Island during his enforced stay. Opinionated, self confident, by turns severe and ribald, Nagle told a rollicking tale.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Dann (ed), The Nagle Journal (NY, 1988)
  • M. Gillen, The Founders of Australia (Syd, 1989).

Citation details

Arthur Easton, 'Nagle, Jacob (1761–1841)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 September, 1761
Reading, Pennsylvania, United States of America


17 February, 1841 (aged 79)
Canton, Ohio, United States of America

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