Never heard of USS Montezuma? You and nearly everyone else. But a painting by an unknown artist triggered a search.
An acquaintance of mine is an art salvager, discovering treasures in the oddest of places and putting them in the hands of dealers and collectors who might appreciate them. A 30 x 35 inch oil painting, dirty with age, came into his hands entitled “USS Montezuma,” and he asked me for help identifying it. The American flagged vessel shown is two-masted and clipper-rigged in some sea fight somewhere, at some time, but these sorts of representations are almost always some flight of the artist’s fancy.
What is mysterious is that no commissioned sailing vessel of that name was ever on US Navy roles. There is little mention of her in standard references, and only on a handful of Web sites. Apparently she was a Chesapeake-built merchantman purchased into US naval service in 1798 exclusively for the Quasi-war with France (1898-1900) and sold out of service before the conflict was over. She was probably never enrolled in the Navy ship list because she may never have been serviced by the Navy (entered into a shipyard with a contract to overhaul or repair), so nothing was spent on her other than the original price. She just may not have lasted in service long enough to get into the record.
USS Montezuma was called an 18-gun sloop or a 20-gun brig, and is said to have been armed with 12 pounder guns. Given the nature of small warships, she may have been both sloop and brig at different times, She may not have been a very good warship and given her short service life this seems probable. “Long nines” (12-pounders) would have been a too heavy for a two-masted vessel. These weighed more than 6,000 pounds each and required a crew of 12. This over-arming was typical of American ships of the time, and may have adversely affected her handling and effectiveness. Clipper rigs were said to be bad station-keepers, straining to run with the wind all the time. Two-masted clippers were somewhat rare, the traditional “clipper ships” having three or more masts and being built from the 1820s to the end of the 19th century.
Since she was not rated a “ship” (three masts or more) at the time, and the Navy did not contract to build her (as they had the other non-ships in the books), and she was probably never repaired under contract, she was only remembered by a handful of people who served in her. She may have been “present” when other ships in her squadron took prizes, but that only means she was in sight, within ten miles or so, which was all that was needed at the time to collect on prizes. The painting itself may have been commissioned or made by an owner or crew member who thought more of her service than the US Navy apparently did. A yard tender/light tug built in the 1930s was dubbed Montezuma; her fate is unknown.
Of all the different kinds of research done on topics like this, the unexpected is often the most entertaining.