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Historic fife orchestrates the Battle of Lake Erie

September 6, 2016

Filed under Collections, Pennsylvania Treasures

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This fife dates to the War of 1812

The fife, a small flute, is believed to be one of the instruments played onboard Oliver Hazard Perry’s flagship, the U.S. Brig Lawrence. The descendants of John Gould Perry gifted the fife to the Erie Maritime Museum.

The grog ration being served out, drums and fifes struck up the thrilling air “all hands, all hands, to quarters”, calling all to their respective stations.

So wrote Usher Parsons, Surgeon’s Mate onboard the U.S. Brig Lawrence, describing the onset of the Battle of Lake Erie, a turning point in the War of 1812 and in the history of the fledgling U.S. Navy. By the end of Sept. 10, 1813, the British squadron had been decisively defeated and American control of Lake Erie assured.

Tradition holds that this fife, a gift to the Erie Maritime Museum from the descendants of John Gould Perry, was one of the instruments played on Oliver Hazard Perry’s flagship, the U.S. Brig Lawrence. Rev. John Pratt gave the flute to John Gould Perry to be passed on to Perry’s son, Oliver, named for the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie. Pratt’s father received the fife upon the death of Cyrus Tiffany, an African American veteran of both the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Tiffany had lived with the elder Pratt in Newport, Rhode Island.

Examination of this extraordinary artifact reveals staining and a palpable indentation at its embouchure hole indicating that the fife was played by a left-handed person, i.e., when played, it would have been held extending from the mouth toward the left, instead of the traditional right.

Cyrus Tiffany, the original owner of the fife, is known to have resided in Taunton, Mass. after the Revolutionary War. He was listed as a free man and head of a household of four in the Federal Census of 1790 and 1800. He is likely to have served with fellow Taunton resident Simeon Crossman, drummer, on the U.S.S. Alliance. Tiffany had served previously as a soldier, having played fife before the tent of Gen. George Washington.

Tiffany, already an elderly man in 1813, volunteered to serve with Perry on Lake Erie. An anonymous, undated manuscript in the Perry Papers preserved at the William L. Clements Library notes that Tiffany served onboard the Lawrence in the battle, and:

“old Tiffany” . . . is as an (sic) admirable player on the fife, and no one understood better the use of that fine martial instrument, and could give it more thrilling and eloquent expression.

Tiffany, while still serving with Oliver Hazard Perry, died onboard the U.S.S. Java in 1818. Perry biographer Lt. Alexander Slidell MacKenzie, who also served under Perry onboard the Java after the War of 1812, noted a familiar relationship between the old sailor and the Commodore:

He (Perry) was accompanied in this journey by . . . a revolutionary fifer, Cyrus Tiffany by name, a sort of amphibious warrior, who, having, fought by land and water, and being already stricken in years, allowed himself considerable license of speech, and, having wit at will, had been a source of great amusement to the crew of the Lawrence.

This quote, from the Perry Papers, sheds light on the friendly relationship shared between the fife-playing Tiffany and Perry:

When the Commodore entered Erie after the Battle, Tiffany attended him as a body servant, and as they approached the town . . . pushed his horse in advance & commenced playing an animating tune on his fife. In the Java he sometimes took great liberties, which the Commodore bore in the greatest good humor, & was much incensed on one occasion when a Lieutenant had punished him with a ropes end. He was a “hanger on” to the Commodore to the day of his death, who always took the most humane care of him.

This Pennsylvania Treasure was written by Linda Bolla of the Erie Maritime Museum.


About Pennsylvania Treasures:
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission houses artifacts hailing from all eras of the commonwealth’s past. These objects represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. PHMC curators continue to research the stories behind many of these rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.