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commander of the naval expedition that opened Japanese ports to American trade
Matthew Calbraith Perry was born in Newport, Rhode Island, on April 10, 1794, the fourth of eight children born to Christopher Raymond Perry and Sarah Wallace (Alexander) Perry. His father served in the Continental and U.S. Navies, all four of his brothers were naval officers, and two of his three sisters married naval officers. He began his own naval career in 1809 as a Midshipman on the USS Revenge, then commanded by his older brother, Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry.
From October 1810 to November 1813, Perry served on the USS President under Commodore John Rodgers. During this period he participated in the action with HBMS Little Belt, in the chase of the British Frigate Belevidere, in which action he was wounded, and served during the cruise of the President in the Atlantic Ocean against British commerce. He was promoted to Lieutenant on July 24, 1813.
From November 1813 to April 1814, Perry was assigned to the Frigate United States, commanded by Commodore Stephen Decatur. The ship spent most of that period blockaded at New London, however. He subsequently returned to the President, which spent the rest of the War of 1812 defending New York City.
In 1814 (exact date unknown), Perry married Jan Sliddell, with whom he had ten children, seven of whom lived into adulthood.
Perry spent most of 1815 attached to the Brig Chippewa, commanded by Liuetenant George C. Reed, one of the ships in the Mediterranean Squadron under Commodore William Bainbridge. The ship sailed from Boston on July 5, but the war with Algiers had ended by the time it arrived off the Barbary Coast. With the United States at peace, Perry spent all of 1816 and most of 1817 on furlough, during which time he made a voyage to the Netherlands as Master of a merchant ship. In September 1817 he was assigned to the naval yard at New York City, where he remained until August 1819.
Perry returned to sea as Executive Officer of the Sloop Cyane, which helped found an American Negro colony in Africa in 1820. In June 1821 he became Commanding Officer of the USS Shark, which transported the first U.S. agent to that colony (now the nation of Liberia). In February 1822 the Cyane took an active part in fighting piracy and the slave trade in the West Indies. Perry made another trip to Africa in 1822, and one to Mexico in 1823. In late-July 1823 he was ordered to the Receiving Ship Fulton at New York, where he remained until September 1824. He subsequently served as Executive Officer of the USS North Carolina, flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron under Commodore Rodgers, which was engaged in protecting American commerce from Greek pirates. He was promoted to Commander on March 21, 1826, and spent most of the next four years stateside.
Perry's first independent command was the Sloop Concord, in which he took John Randolph to Russia as United States envoy in 1830. In July 1832 he joined the Mediterranean Squadron, and he remained there until becoming second in command at the New York Naval Yard in January 1833. In the latter capacity he took the lead in organizing the U.S. Naval Lyceum, to promote the diffusion of knowledge among naval officers. He subsequently served as its first curator, then its vice-president, and later its president.
Although he was "land-bound" for most of the next ten years, Perry remained very active in naval affairs. In 1834 he drew up plans for a naval apprentice system that, after much agitation on his part, was implemented by Congress in 1837. He also assisted in the founding of Naval Magazine, the first American periodical under the supervision of naval officers, and served on the committee that advised the Secretary of the Navy with regard to the scientific work of the U.S. Exploring Expedition. He was promoted to Captain on February 9, 1837.
An early advocate of a steam-powered navy, Perry commanded the USS Fulton II, the first steam war vessel of the U.S. Navy, from August 1837 to June 1838, during which time he also organized the first Naval Engineer Corps. In 1839 and 1840 he used the Fulton II to conduct the first American school of gun practice. On June 12, 1841 he was appointed Commandant of the New York Naval Yard, from which he also served the Navy Department as technical expert on steamships and naval inventions.
From February 1842 to May 1845, Perry served as Commodore of the African Squadron, with the USS Saratoga as his flagship, which aided in wiping out the slave trade and helped protect settlements of American Negroes in Africa. From December 1845 to May 1846 he was in charge of examining merchant steamers and decks in New York.
During the Mexican War, Perry commanded the USS Mississippi and served as Commander of the Home Squadron off the east coast of Mexico. In those capacities he conducted expeditions against the towns of Frontera, Tobasco, and Laguna. In March 1847 his squadron worked with army forces under General Winfield Scott in the siege and capture of Veracruz. After the war he returned to the New York Navy Yard, where directed the building of mail steamships until March 1852. In May 1852 he was again placed in command of the USS Mississippi, which spent the next several months protecting American fishing vessels operating in waters off British provinces.
The mission for which Perry is now best remembered began on November 24, 1852, when he sailed the Mississippi out of Norfolk, bound for Japan. Instructions from the State Department stipulated that the objects of the expedition were the protection of American seamen and property in Japan and Japanese waters and the opening of one or more ports to American vessels for the procuring of supplies and for conducting trade. Perry was directed to first try persuasion and argument, but in case of failure he was to resort to stronger tactics, but keeping in mind that the mission was one of peace. On July 8, 1853, he arrived in Tokyo Bay with two steam frigates and two sloops-of-war. After refusing to obey directions from Japanese officials to go to Nagasaki (where the Dutch had a trading post), he dispersed the swarms of guard-boats surrounding the squadron by threatening the use of force, and deliberately disregarded a prohibition against taking soundings. He then insisted upon presenting to a high official on shore a letter from President Millard Fillmore addressed to the Japanese Emperor. This was reluctantly agreed to by uneasy Japanese. On July 14 the steam frigates Susquehanna and Mississippi moved close to the shore and landed 400 seamen and marines. The Commodore followed with special attendants, proceeded with much pomp to the council house, and presented his documents very formally to the Princes Iduzu and Iwami. Three days later Perry sailed for China, leaving word that he would return for an answer. He returned to Tokyo Bay in February 1854, this time with a squadron of seven ships. After several more displays of force and pomp, from both sides, the Emperor finally agreed to Fillmore's proposal, and on March 31, 1854 he and Perry signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, granting the United States trading rights in the ports of Hakodate and Shimoda. Leaving his fleet at China, Perry sailed for home on the British Steamer Hindostan in September 1854, and arrived back in New York City on January 12, 1855.
In June 1856 Perry was ordered to Washington as a member of the Naval Efficiency Board, but his chief duty was the preparation of a report on his expedition, which was published by the government in 1856 in three volumes under the title of Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, Performed in the Years 1852, 1853, and 1854, Under the Command of Commodore M.C. Perry, United States Navy. He died in New York City on March 4, 1858. Originally interred in the vaults of the Church of St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie, New York City, his remains were moved to Newport in 1866.