George Mortimer Bibb--born on 30 October 1776 in Prince Edward County, Va.--graduated from both Hampden-Sidney and Willian and Mary Colleges and then, after studying law in the office of Richard Venable, was admitted to the Virginia Bar. He moved to Lexington, Ky., in 1798 and soon achieved a position of distinction and leadership there, in politics and in his profession. Appointed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals in 1808, he became its chief justice in the following year but resigned in 1810 and was sent to the United States Senate in 1811. Although a leader of the successful "War Hawk" faction in Congress, Bibb resigned from the Senate in 1814--before the end of the War of 1812--and returned to Kentucky. Residing at Frankfort, he turned his attention back to law and state politics.
After more than a decade of comparative retirement from the national scene, Bibb returned to the United States Senate in 1828 as a strong supporter of Andrew Jackson. However, since this six year stint in Congress left him disenchanted with "Old Hickory's" leadership, he did not stand for reelection, but returned to Kentucky at the end of his term to become Chancellor of the Louisville Court of Chancery.
In 1844, Bibb became Secretary of the Treasury under President John Tyler. He left office on 4 March 1845 when President James K. Polk was inaugurated, but stayed in the national capital practicing law until he died there on 14 April 1859.
(Str: t. 409; l. 160'; b. 24'; dr. 9'9"; a. 4 32 pdrs., 1 4 pdr.)
The first Bibb--a revenue cutter built at Pittsburg, Pa., by Charles Knapp as George M. Bibb and designed to be propelled by a Hunter horizontal wheel--was laid down in the spring of 1843 and launched on 10 April 1845. Ordered to move to New Orleans for fitting out, the ship experienced great difficulty with her wheel cases and stopped at Cincinnati for repairs. There she was converted to a conventional side wheel steamer.
Although records of her status for the next year have not been found, the vessel was one of several cutters ordered on 8 May 1846 to the Gulf of Mexico to cooperate with the Army and the Navy there as relations with Mexico deteriorated rapidly and an early outbreak of war seemed highly probable, if not inevitahle.
Under the command of Capt. Winslow Foster, USRCS, she operated out of New Orleans and Pensacola, carrying out the traditional duties of a revenue cutter, enforcing the customs laws of the United States. However, she also assisted the Army and the Navy on reconnaissance missions, on escort and towing assignments, on supply and mail runs, and even on blockade duty occasionally. It seems that sometime during the waning months of 1846, George M. Bibb was transferred to the Navy although documents definitely proving this fact have not been found. It also appears that, while in Navy custody, the ship was known simply as Bibb.
On 7 January 1847, the Navy and Treasury Departments agreed that the new cutter Polk would take Bibb's place in Commodore David Conner's squadron off Veracruz since Bibb needed to go north for repairs. Built at Richmond, Va., Polk was transferred to the Navy on 13 January and steamed down the James to Norfolk where she arrived on 12 March. After being fitted out there for combat duty, she got underway again on 31 March and headed for the Gulf of Mexico. However, engine trouble aborted the voyage when she was forced to stop at Okracoke Inlet, N.C., for temporary repairs before returning to Norfolk where she arrived on 5 April. As a result, Polk was transferred back to the Treasury Department; and Bibb's service in the gulf was somewhat prolonged.
The latter was finally ordered north on 10 May; and she sailed from Southwest Pass, La., on the 31st. However, she must have been delayed en route since she did not reach Boston until 11 July. On 9 July 1847, as she steamed toward the New England coast, the ship was ordered transferred to the Coast Survey Service. Bibb was repaired and refitted by the Boston Navy Yard to prepare her for this new mission.
When she was ready for sea again, the vessel began a routine of spending the spring, summer, and early autumn gathering navigational data along the New England coast, particularly in shallow waters off Nantucket. She would then return to Boston to be laid up during the cold months. While Bibb was performing this duty, from time to time, the renowned naturalist Jean Louis Agassiz came on board and remained embarked for periods of several weeks studying marine life in New England waters. These studies led to the first discovery of a viviparous scale fish.
Bibb continued this pattern of operations into the 1850's when she disappeared from the records of the Coast Survey. Although no documents have been found giving the details of her final disposition, we can assume that her service in the Coast Survey ended early in 1853--if not before--because, on 24 February 1853, the Boston Navy Yard laid down the keel of a replacement steamer bearing the same name.
James L. Mooney
3 February 2006