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Matthew Calbraith Perry was born in Newport, Rhode Island, on 10 April 1794, son of Captain Christopher R. Perry, a distinguished officer of the Revolutionary War, and Sarah Wallace (Alexander) Perry. In 1814 he was married to Jan Sliddell, and they had ten children. He died in New York City, on 4 March 1858, and was interred in the vaults of the Church of St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie in New York. On 21 March 1866, the bodies of Commodore Perry and his child, Anna who died in 1839, were reinterred in Newport, Rhode Island.
Appointed Midshipman in 1809, he first saw service under his brother, Oliver Hazard Perry, in the Revenge. During the War of 1812, he served in squadrons commanded by Commodores Rodgers and Decatur and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1813. He made several cruises to the coast of Africa and to the Mediterranean, and commanded the schooner Shark in the West Indies. He was promoted to master commandant in 1826 and named a captain eleven years later. From 1838 to 1840 he commanded the steam frigate Fulton in connection with experiments in steam navigation.
In 1844 he went to the coast of Africa as Commodore of the squadron assigned to those waters. During the Mexican War, he joined the Home Squadron in the Gulf of Mexico in 1846, and conducted several expeditions against the towns of Tobasco and Laguna. In March 1847 he succeeded Commodore Connor in command of the squadron, which was then engaged in besieging Vera Cruz. After the war he was ordered home on special duty, 1849-1852, after which he sailed for the East Indies on a cruise which became memorable in the annals of the U.S. Navy, and during which he carried the American flag into Japanese waters, and concluded a treaty which opened their ports to American enterprise.
His success in establishing good relations with Japan can be attributed to his combining diplomacy with dignity and a bold display of impressive force. On 8 July 1853, he unexpectedly appeared in Tokyo Bay with two steam frigates and two sloops-of-war. He declined to deal with minor officials, flatly refused to obey directions to go to Nagasaki (where the Dutch had a trading post), dispersed the swarms of guard-boats surrounding the squadron by threatening the use of force, and deliberately disregarded a prohibition against taking soundings. He insisted upon presenting to a high official on shore, a letter from President Fillmore addressed to the Japanese Emperor. This was reluctantly agreed to by uneasy Japanese. On 14 July 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. They gave a receipt.
Three days later Perry sailed away leaving word that he would return for an answer. After seven months he entered the bay again, and with a much more powerful squadron. His reception was most cordial, gifts and entertainments were exchanged, and the treaty was negotiated, opening two ports to American commerce.
Commodore Perry returned to Washington and was on special duty in the Navy Department for several years, connected with his expedition to Japan.