Free History Studies: Stephen Decatur & the Pirates

Stephen Decatur is known best as the naval hero who burned the Philadelphia, a United States frigate that had been captured by pirates.

Read the current chapter online: “Decatur and the Pirates”

  • Map the following (you’ll find mapping resources below):
    • Africa
    • Tripoli, Lybia
    • Bay of Tripoli
    • Malta
    • The Mediterranean Sea
    • Maryland (where Stephen Decatur was born)
  • Read about America’s trouble with the pirates.
  • Stephen Decatur’s battle with the pirates was part of the Second Battle of Tripoli Harbor, part of the First Barbary War which lasted from 1801-1805.  View a few quick facts about the First Barbary War.
  • Learn more about the USS Philadelphia.
  • Decatur and his men used a ketch to reach the Philadelphia.  View a model of a ketch.
  • View a painting titled Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli by Edward Moran.
  • Tell the story of Stephen Decatur and the pirates.
  • More about Stephen Decatur and the pirates from the Book of Knowledge:

    For a long time pirates from the Barbary States had been preying upon the commerce of all the Christian nations.  The countries of Europe had paid tribute to these sea robbers as a means of protection, and the Untied States did the same.  But the more the United States paid them, the more dissatisfied these pirates became.  There was nothing left to do but to fight it out.  War was declared and the Americans soon had a squadron in the Mediterranean under Edward Preble….

    When the Philadelphia, under Captain Bainbridge, ran upon a reef in the harbor of Tripoli she fell into the hands of the enemy and made a fine addition to their naval force.  Stephen Decatur offered to go into the harbor and destroy her.  Now, the Philadelphia lay close to the shore with a pirate crew and surrounded by hundreds of the enemy’s guns.  In the face of all these odds the young Decatur, with seventy men, reached the ship, boarded her and overpowered the crew.  In a few minutes the Philadelphia was ablaze and Decatur with his men were on their way back midst a storm of shot and shell.

    “Naval Heroes of Young America,” The Book of Knowledge


Further Investigation

Commodore Stephen Decatur: An Early American Naval War Hero
History from the White House Historical Association.

Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia
Background information, photos, and maps from the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Stephen Decatur
Biography and background information at the Naval History and Heritage Command.


Maryland Map/Quiz Printout

Interactive Map Maker {Free}
Make your own maps.

An interactive online movie with helpful information, if weak on sound and animation at (Requires Flash)


“Stephen Decatur”
Biographical chapter from Twelve Naval Captains by Molly Elliot Seawell.

“The Burning of the Philadelphia”
A excellent retelling from The Boys’ Book of Sea Fights by Chelsea Curtis Fraser.

Stephen Decatur and the Suppression of Piracy in the Mediterranean
Brief public domain account from the Connecticut Society.

Mice of the Herring Bone by Tim Davis
Fun tie-in for younger readers where two mice find themselves unwitting stowaways aboard a dog pirate ship!  The first in the series.

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans

Decatur House: A Home of the Rich and Powerful
Lesson plan from the National Park Service examining the life of Stephen Decatur and the role the house he built played in the political scene.

Interdisciplinary Pirate Unit Plan
Excellent unit from students at Dordt College.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

United States Map map for locating Maryland.

World Map map for locating Africa.

Africa and Asia Map map for marking Libya, Tripoli, Bay of Tripoli, the Mediterranean Sea, and Malta.

Stephen Decatur & the Pirates Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.

Enjoy the complete series:
Free History Studies: Stories of Great Americans
Free History Studies: Stories of Great Americans

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