consisting of 85 acres, is located 1.5 miles northwest of
Put-in-Bay, past Gibraltar Island. Some claim the name was
once covered with rattlesnakes, while others say the name is
derived from the shape, with the two tiny islands off its western
tip representing the rattles.
At dawn on the morning of September 10, 1813, a lookout spotted six vessels to the northwest past Rattlesnake Island. Immediately Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry - Commodore of the United States fleet on Lake Erie - issued a flurry of orders and made preparations to sail forth to engage the British. Perry had been waiting for this moment for a long time. He had arrived at Erie, Pennsylvania in late March and under his supervision a flotilla of ships had been constructed in the wilderness. Though encountering many frustrations in the attempt to arm, man, and equip his fleet, Perry's perseverance paid off when on August 12, 1813 his tiny fleet sailed for western Lake Erie. Perry rendezvoused with General William Henry Harrison at Sandusky Bay, and following discussions concerning the upcoming campaign the commanders selected Put-in-Bay harbor for the American naval base. From this strategic location Perry could observe British fleet movements, while at the same time train his crews and wait for Robert Heriott Barclay's squadron.
The British, after maintaining naval control over Lake Erie for more than a year, were now experiencing difficulties. With Perry's fleet on the lake their naval force was outnumbered, but more importantly the water supply route from Fort Malden to Port Dover had been severed; the British faced the unhappy choice to either fight, or to abandon Fort Malden and the Old Northwest. In early September construction of the new British flagship - the Detroit - was completed, and with this additional strength they opted to fight. On the afternoon of September 9, with their ships manned mostly by poorly trained British soldiers, Canadian militia, and provincial mariners, the British ships floated down the Detroit River and into western Lake Erie.
The British squadron consisted of six ships with sixty-three cannons, while the American flotilla comprised nine vessels and fifty-four guns. The British were armed mostly with long guns, the traditional naval weapon which could throw a cannonball approximately one mile, accurately to about one-half mile. The American ships were armed primarily with carronades. A carronade possessed numerous advantages over the more traditional weapon, but the stubby-barreled cannon had less than half the range of a long gun. Thus for Perry to make effective tactical use of his flotilla it would be necessary to fight at short range, where his heavy carronades would confer firepower superiority. But to close within carronade range Perry would first need the wind at his back.
When the squadron sailed from Put-in-Bay harbor at 7:00 a.m. the American vessels were steering west-northwest; the wind was blowing from the west-southwest, according the weather gauge to the British. For more than two hours Perry clawed to windward, repeatedly tacking in an effort to weather Rattlesnake Island, but with no success. If Barclay should maintain the weather gauge he could heave-to outside carronade range and pound the American flotilla into submission piecemeal, whereas Perry would be unable to close within range for his carronades. The frustrated commodore conceded to mother nature at 10:00 a.m., issuing orders to turn his fleet in the opposite direction. But before the order could be executed the wind suddenly shifted and blew from the southeast, placing the wind directly behind the Americans and bestowing upon Perry the critical weather gauge advantage.
Perry's opponent, Commander Robert Heriott Barclay, was an experienced Royal Navy officer who had fought with Lord Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805, and two years later he lost an arm fighting the French. Barclay's options did not alter when the wind shifted, so the Scotsman pointed his bowsprits to the westward, clewed-up his sails and hove to in line of battle.
With the wind at his back and the British battle line finally revealed, Perry made his own tactical adjustments. The Schooners Ariel and Scorpion were placed off the flagship's weather bow to engage the first British vessel and to prevent the enemy from raking his fleet. The Lawrence, a 20-gun brig serving as Perry's flagship, was third in line and would engage the Detroit, Barclay's 19-gun flagship. Next in line floated the Caledonia, a small brig with only three guns. Fifth in the American line of battle was the Niagara, Perry's other 20-gun brig and the Lawrence's sistership.
The Niagara, captained by Master Commandant Jesse Elliott, would engage the 17-gun Queen Charlotte, the second largest British ship. Lastly came the smaller schooners and sloop; these would engage the smaller British vessels.
Just before the engagement opened Perry hoisted his battle flag to the flagship's main truck. The large navy blue banner was emblazoned with the crudely inscribed words, "DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP". For his battle slogan Perry used the dying words of Captain James Lawrence, a friend of the commodore who was killed on June 1, 1813. Perry's flagship was named for the fallen Lawrence, and the dead hero's inspiring words clearly indicated Perry's determination to prevail.
Today Rattlesnake Island is a privately owned resort.
Historical article from the National Park Service website: http://www.nps.gov