Clipper Ships

views updated Jun 27 2018


To accommodate increasing overseas trade, North American shipbuilders developed fast sailing vessels called clipper ships in the mid-1800s. With their slender hulls and numerous sails (as many as 35), these swift ships were said to "clip off the miles." The first true clipper ship, The Rainbow, debuted in 1845. The vessel was designed by American naval architect John W. Griffiths (180982) who, the next year, launched another famous clipper, the Sea Witch. Another clipper, the Flying Cloud, was launched in 1851 by Canadian-American shipbuilder Donald McKay (181080). This ship sailed from New York's East River, around the tip of South America to San Francisco in just under 90 daysa record. Clipper ships transported settlers to the west (including those who made the trip as part of the California Gold Rush). They were fast, but carried relatively little freight. As a result, they were used only for high value cargo, such as silk, spices, and tea. Clipper ships carried goods and people from as far away as China and Australia, and were used by slave traders to outrun British ships that were on patrol for them in the Atlantic.

The construction of canals around the globe shortened most sea trade routes and virtually eliminated the need for the swift clippers. They were replaced by square riggers, which were slower but could carry larger loads. Eventually steam-powered ships proved to be more dependable and quicker than any wind-powered craft.

See also: Steamboats

Clipper Ships

views updated Jun 11 2018


CLIPPER SHIPS, long, narrow wooden vessels with lofty canvas sails, reigned as the world's fastest oceangoing ships from about 1843 to 1868. The word "clipper" might have originated from "clip," meaning to run swiftly. Tea from China quickly lost its flavor in the hold of a ship, and about 1843 the clippers began quicker delivery of that commodity. The discovery of gold in California provided another incentive for speed. After carrying their cargoes of gold prospectors and merchandise around Cape Horn to California, the ships would either return to Atlantic ports for another such cargo or would cross the Pacific Ocean to China and be loaded with tea, silk, and spices.

Clippers were more dependable than earlier ships. They strained less in a heavy sea and crossed belts of calm better than low-rigged vessels. The swift schooners built at Baltimore during the War of 1812 were known as Baltimore clippers, but the first real clipper was the Ann McKim, built there in 1832. Beginning about 1850 the California clippers increased rapidly in size, ranging from 1,500 to 2,000 tons register. The Stag-Hound, built in 1850, was the pioneer clipper of this type. The Flying Cloud, built in Boston in 1851, sailed to San Francisco in eighty-nine days; the Andrew Jackson and the Flying Fish achieved similar feats. It was more than a quarter of a century before the steamship was able to break the speed records of the fastest clippers. After the Civil War, American shipbuilding for overseas carrying trade declined. Although a few more clipper ships were built, the steam-ships gradually replaced them.


Cutler, Carl C. Greyhounds of the Sea: The Story of the American Clipper Ship. 3d ed. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1984. The original edition was published New York: Halcyon House, 1930.

Howe, Octavius T., and Frederick C. Matthews. American Clip-per Ships, 1833–1858. New York: Dover, 1986.

Charles GarrettVannest/a. r.

See alsoChina Trade ; Coasting Trade ; Shipping, Ocean ; Trade, Foreign .