Esek Hopkins was born in what is now Scituate, Rhode Island. Before the Revolutionary War he had sailed to nearly every quarter of the earth, commanded a privateer in the French and Indian War, and served as a deputy to the Rhode Island General Assembly. Appointed a brigadier general to command all the colony's military forces 4 October 1775, he immediately began to strengthen Rhode Island's defenses with the help of his deputy, William West. A few months later, 22 December 1775, Hopkins was appointed Commander in Chief of the Fleet authorized by the Continental Congress to protect American commerce. He also was a founding member of the Society of the Cincinnati.
In September 1764, during his time as a privateer and merchant, Hopkins took command of the slave ship the Sally owned by Nicholas Brown and Company. Hopkins had no prior experience in operating a slave trading vessel at the time, and the 15th month voyage would result in disaster with 109 of 196 total slaves dying after being acquired. In late 1765 the Sally arrived at its first trading destination in the West Indies, but the surviving African captives were in such poor health that most sold for very little. Hopkins' failed command of the Sally contributed to the Brown brothers reconsidering their participation in the active slave trade of Rhode Island in the 18th century.
Hopkins took command of eight small merchant ships that had been hastily altered as men of war at Philadelphia, then sailed south 17 February 1776 for the first U.S. Fleet operation that took the fleet to Nassau in the Bahamas. The Battle of Nassau, an assault on the British colony there 3 March 1776 was also the first U.S. amphibious landing. Marines and sailors landed in "a bold stroke, worthy of an older and better trained service," capturing munitions desperately needed in the War of Independence. The little fleet went back to New London 8 April 1776, having also made prizes of two British merchantmen and a six-gun schooner. John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, wrote Hopkins: "I beg leave to congratulate you on the success of your Expedition. Your account of the spirit and bravery shown by the men affords them [Congress] the greatest satisfaction . . ."
Hopkins' little fleet was mostly blockaded in Narragansett Bay by the superior British seapower for the rest of Hopkins' tenure as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy. As time progressed, pressure on the nature of Hopkins' character and ability became increasingly significant. Hopkins had disregarded his first set of Congressional orders directing him to rid the Chesapeake of British cruisers, instead raiding New Providence. This was compounded by allegations of inaction such as in the engagement versus HMS Glasgow on the return voyage from New Providence. Because of the continuing debacle, on 2 January, 1778, Hopkins was relieved of his command permanently.
He continued to serve the Rhode Island General Assembly through 1786, then retired to his farm where he died 26 February 1802. His home, the Esek Hopkins House, is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
See USS Hopkins for ships named in his honor.