In our War of 1812 era garb, we have hat tallies on our straw hats saying “ARIEL”, or in the case of John Locke, “HMS HUNTER”. What’s that all about?

Hat tallies were used on sailors’ hats to identify their ships. In the 1812 era, the hats were straw and were usually lacquered black. Following that war, when the U.S. Navy began to have a “warm water navy”, the black hats were uncomfortably hot in tropical climates, so white canvas covers were made to fit the existing hats for use in lower latitudes.

The schooner Ariel was one of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s ships at the Battle of Lake Erie. She mounted four twelve-pound guns, one of which exploded during the battle, killing the only Ariel crew member killed in the battle. We chose the name for several reasons: One, Joe Cook, in a former incarnation as a Shakespearean actor, played the role of Prospero in a production of The Tempest, the play in which the character Ariel appears. Ariel is Prospero’s bound servant. He is a sprite—a being with supernatural powers—who carries out Prospero’s instructions against his antagonists in the play. At the end, Ariel earns his freedom for his faithful service to Prospero. The schooner Ariel , like the Lawrence and the Niagara, was built in Presqu’Isle, PA (now Erie) in 1813. She was named for Shakespeare’s character—the second of five U.S. Navy ships to bear that name. (Ten Royal Navy vessels have borne that name.)

John Locke, being a Brit, wanted a tally from somewhere where footballs are round, so his bears the device “HMS HUNTER”. The ten-gun brig HMS General Hunter was one of British Captain Robert Barclay’s fleet on the Great Lakes and was captured in the Battle of Lake Erie. She was launched in 1812 and lost in 1816 in Lake Huron near Southampton, ON, where her remains were discovered in 2001.

We have been known to answer the tally question with the almost true but apocryphal answer that we chose the Ariel since it had the shortest name of the fleet and the lettering on the tallies was therefore cheaper. We are cheap, and it is true that the Ariel had the shortest name of any ship in the battle, but the schooner Ohio had the shortest name in the fleet. The Ohio missed the battle since she was gone for supplies (probably a B-double-E-double-R-U-N) to Black Rock (Buffalo), New York at the time of the battle.

The use of tallies with the ship (or service) name continues in many navies to this day. Identification by ship was abandoned by the U.S. Navy around the time of World War II to make it more difficult for enemies to ascertain the presence or location of specific ships by capture, discovery, or espionage in ports.