In 1798 the United States Congress established the Navy Department; in the following year, in an effort to build a naval force adequate for the maritime defense of the fledgling nation, the Congress authorized the construction of six vessels of a new class of frigates. Prior to this decision all American naval vessels had been built in private shipyards; Unfortunately, however, the private shipyards of the era were too small, lacking both the dockage and warehousing space for the task of building this new class of frigate. Between 1800 and 1801, the Secretary of the Navy selected six sites along the eastern seaboard for the establishment of publicly owned shipyards. The first of these publicly owned shipyards was the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which was established on June 12, 1800, on an island located in the Piscataqua estuary.
In 1814, the 74 gun ship Washington was constructed, effectively demonstrating that the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was fully capable of building state-of-the-art warships. In the years between1814 and 1861, a total of 13 vessels for the United States Navy were constructed at what was becoming known as the "Cradle of American Shipbuilding."