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U.S. consul to Tunis and U.S. Naval Agent to the Barbary States
William Eaton was born in Woodstock, Connecticut, on February 23, 1764. He taught school for several years, and graduated from Dartmouth in 1790. He entered the army as a Captain in 1792 and served in the campaigns against the Indians in Ohio and Georgia. In 1797 he was appointed consul to Tunis, where he arrived in February 1799. In March 1799, with the consuls to Tripoli and Algiers, he negotiated alterations in the treaty of 1797 with Tunis. He also rendered great service to Danish merchantmen by buying on credit several Danish prizes in Tunis and turning them over to their original owners for the redemption of his notes. In 1803 he quarreled with the bey and was ordered from the country.
In 1804, Eaton proposed to Congress that Tripoli's hostile pasha, Yusuf Caramanli, be replaced by his exiled older brother, Ahmet, who claimed the throne and promised to make peace with the United States. Congress agreed, and that same year Eaton returned to the Mediterranean as U.S. Naval Agent to the Barbary States with James Barron's fleet. On February 23, 1805, Eaton found Ahmet living in exile in Egypt. Eaton and Ahmet worked out an agreement whereby the United States would undertake to re-establish Ahmet in Tripoli, that the expenses of the expedition would be repaid to the United States by Ahmet, and that Eaton would be general and commander in chief of the land forces in the campaign. On March 8 he started for Derna across the Libyan desert from the Arab's Tower, 40 miles west of Alexandria, Egypt, with a force of about 500 men, including about 40 Greeks, some Arab cavalry, and 7 United States marines under the command of Lieutenant Presley Neville O'Bannon. During the nearly 600-mile march the Arab chiefs repeatedly mutinied, and Ahmet once put himself at the head of the Arabs and ordered them to attack Eaton. Despite the mutinies, the force managed to reach Derna on April 26 and, with the assistance of three bombarding cruisers, succeeded in taking the town the following day. The Mameluke Sword, still carried by marine officers today, is patterned on a sword presented to Lieutenant O'Bannon by Ahmet after the battle. In May, and again in June, Eaton successfully withstood attacks by Tripolitan forces sent to dislodge him. On June 12 he abandoned the town upon learning that peace had been made with Yusuf.
Eaton subsequently received a grant of 10,000 acres in Maine from the Massachusetts Legislature. He was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1807 and served one term.
According to a deposition Eaton made in 1807, he was approached by Aaron Burr and asked to join his "conspiracy." The validity of his deposition was questioned, however, as he received about $10,000 from the federal government to liquidate claims for his expenses in Tripoli soon after making the statement. Eaton was one of the government's witnesses at Burr's trial, but his testimony proved unimportant.
William Eaton died in Brimfield, Massachusetts, on June 1, 1811.
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This page was last updated on June 11, 2017.