More than Brave - The Wreck of the Circassian
On Jan 6, 1877, the British newspaper, The Liverpool Journal, reported the wreck of the “Circassian” off the south shore of eastern Long Island. The loss of this ship would seriously jeopardize the survival of a unique group East Enders. Circassians keel was laid in Belfast, Ireland, in 1857 and was 242 ft. long (some records list her as 280 ft.) with a wide 39 ft. beam to accommodate freight. Circassian weighed 1,741 tons. She was a ‘’state of art’’ vessel for her time in that her hull was made of iron plates. She started her life with three iron masts for sails and a steam engine that could push her at 14 knots per hour, which was quite fast for her time.
After hauling trade goods across the Atlantic for a few years, her English owners sought profit from America’s Civil War by using Circassian to run the Union blockade of the Confederacy supplying the rebel government with contraband in return for cotton. Contraband could have been anything from rifles and cannon, medical supplies and finished materials for uniforms which were in short supply. Britain ‘’non-officially” sided with the Confederacy because her mills desperately needed cotton to keep manufacturing alive. It is strange how Geo-Politics play out. Here was England, beacon of anti-slavery in Victorian times, turning a blind eye to the moral issues of the Civil War so her Captains of Industry could continue to profit. So what’s new???
In 1863 Circassian was captured by a Union gunboat and was then fitted with heavy cannons to join the U.S. Navy as a supply ship. She served well but at the war’s end was sold. She then served as a hauler carrying goods up and down the Atlantic coast from Maine to South Carolina. She ran aground off the New Jersey coast and was retired until an English shipping company purchased and refitted her by removing her engine and changing Circassion to a three masted schooner for the Trans-Atlantic trade. She sailed without event for approximately ten years.
Sailing from Liverpool to New York on what was to be her last voyage; Circassian came to the aid of a distressed ship in the mid-Atlantic. The vessel sank but the captain of the Circassian saved the entire crew and sailed safely into New York harbor to unload and reload for her final return trip to Liverpool with a hull full of furniture, clothing and other goods plus crew of 49. The crew seems rather large for the vessel but there is no accounting for its size.
The captain was Robert Wilson (in some documents listed as Richard). Most of his crew came from Liverpool and Mersey, two shipping centers in England. On the morning of December 11, 1876, as he navigated out the Verrazano Straights from New York for his return trip, he noted how sunny yet cold it was. Nothing could prepare him for how the weather would change in a matter of hours. By mid-afternoon a blinding blizzard erupted so Captain Wilson steered by compass and following charts to keep his ship away from the sandy shoals of Long Island’s coast and bring her out to the safety of open sea which he felt her steel hull could handle. Little was he aware the compass he so trusted was not operating correctly and he was plowing closer and closer to the dangerous coastline. What affected his compass we will never know.
A sudden shudder of the hull against the sandbars of Mecox Beach on the sleepy south fork of Long Island shocked Captain Lewis and his entire crew. They were hard aground and surrounded by raging surf yet too far from shore to chance trying to break for it. The captain ordered the crew to stand down while he assessed the situation and options. At this point though the situation was hardly good, lives did not seem in peril. Better to stay with the ship and hope for the storm to weaken and a high tide to possibly lift her off, Captain Lewis thought.
Recently, Long Island and other ocean shorelines had been fitted out with a system of manned Life Saving Stations with dedicated “Surf men” patrolling approximately 10 miles apart on the beach. In off season (November to March) when wild Nor’easters attack the seas, hardy farmers and fishermen manned these stations for some winter cash. They trained hard and many of them, farmers, fisherman, carpenters, Native Americans, and others volunteered time and effort to save lives during the cold winters. Fortunately for Captain Lewis, his foundering ship was noticed by the surf men of the Mecox-Bridgehampton station. Soon they were receiving additional help from the Georgica and Southampton life saving stations.
By the morning of the twelfth the storm and wild surf mostly abated. All three Life Saving crews worked together to plan the rescue. Fires were built on the beach. Townsfolk from neighboring villages brought blankets, clothing and food, heating soups, stews and tea to keep rescuers replenished and the rescued warmed. It was such an attraction that school was cancelled. Everyone on shore thought it would be an easy rescue. But while the storm lifted, the surf was still churning and the water was numbing cold. The surf men launched their boat, christened ‘’Francis’’, into the rough surf. It took several attempts to reach Circassian at 11:00 a.m. The first trip took all the officers off the ship leaving the crew. They quickly got to a telegraph office in Bridgehampton to get a message to the British owners agent in New York City to arrange help in trying to save the cargo and move the Circassian off the shoals.
Late that day a tug arrived at the scene and after much maneuvering the remaining crew on the disabled ship managed to receive lines from the tug and secure them on the capstan and the anchor. This enabled the tug to reposition the bow towards the incoming seas in order to try dragging her off. After grueling work in frightfully cold weather, all attempts failed. In the meantime the remaining crew was removed. It was a slow, tiresome process.
By evening, the ships New York agents sent Captain Perrin from the Coast Wrecking Company to try to succeed where others failed. He decided to save as much cargo as possible and then attend to saving the vessel itself. Two local captains, Charles Pierson and Luther Burnett were hired to help with this freight rescue venture. They were aided by three local friends and ten young Shinnecock men. The Shinnecocks were very knowledgeable of the surrounding waters and the tribe had provided Long Island whaling ships with excellent crewmen and harpooners since the European settlement of the area.
The off load crew made seven trips back and forth in surf boats. Eventually Captain Lewis, three engineers and 16 of the original Circassian crew returned to aid the off loading. They worked for two weeks as the vessel began to shift on the shoal 250 yards from the shore. What was not realized by the captain and engineers was that by removing the cargo in the center part of the hull and not the forward and aft chambers, immense pressure was brought to bear on the center of the hull and the ship slowly began to break apart. By the time this was noticed on December 29 a new enormous blizzard headed towards the ship from the northeast. The surf men begged Captain Lewis and Captain Perrin to abandon ship with the remaining crew and the 10 Shinnecocks. Captain Lewis refused screaming “We’ll float tonight or go to hell” and cut all the safety lines!! The man had a way with words.
This blizzard outdid the first in both intensity and temperature. Mountainous waves quickly kicked up and crashed over the hulk of Circassian and onto shore. No boats could be launched by the surf men, who often risked their lives who knew that to even try in that tumult of water; they would sacrifice their lives for naught. No one at the scene blamed them. In the blinding snow, the creaking and bending of the hull and masts could be heard above the roar of wind and waves. Through the swirling snow and foam those safe on shore could see and hear those on board struggling up the iron masts to keep out of the icy waters now swirling on deck.
The captain and salvagers now cried for rescue as night fell but the launching of boats was impossible.
The surf men were trained to load and fire a Marby Mortar that would shoot rescue lines out to faltering ships. They tried over and over but with the wind the soaked line could not reach Circassian. A giant storm driven tide then rose and the life savers abandoned the beach entirely. From the heights of the dunes they could catch glimpses of men clinging to the tipping and broken masts as the ship broke in half that December 30. Eventually most of them froze in ghastly positions in the tangled rigging. Onlookers felt sure no one could possibly survive the onslaught of ice, sea, snow, and foam that long night. They could hear the mellow voice of one of the Shinnecocks singing the hymn “Nearer my God to thee”. Slowly even that song of faith faded.
Morning dawned as it does in winter, low on the southeast horizon. Four of the original British crew were found tied to a large piece of cork and were rescued from the surf. Three of them survived and the forth died. The three living crewmen were the only miracles to be had. Out of the sixteen crewmen and three local volunteers who agreed to go back with Captain Lewis to save the ship and cargo, a total of 17 British men perished. Their names were printed in the British Liverpool Journal and the Mersey papers on Jan. 20th, 1877 when the final results of the tragedy were reported. Each man was listed with his full name and rank from Captain Williams down to one stowaway named John McDermott. They were all buried in the Old South Cemetery in East Hampton with the rights proper to the memory of a sailor. The insurance underwriters who had examined the ship and found her sea worthy before sailing, compensated the owner for the losses incurred.
But the story does not end here. What of those brave young Shinnecock men that risked their lives to save a ship, its cargo and its crew aboard? In American newspapers the losses to the Shinnecock were documented but in the English Newspapers of the day they are only listed as “The remaining victims were.........Indians’’. No tribe is mentioned, no names listed, no heralding of their sacrifice to help a ship in distress and to gain some goods and money to feed their families as any man would. Each one had name, a spirit, a soul. They had families and a way of life that had been under duress for more than 200 years. They left behind widows, children, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers.
The flower and strength of the remaining Shinnecocks died that day. John Walker, Lewis Walker, William Cuffee, Warren Cuffee, George Cuffee, David Bunn, Russell Bunn, J. Franklin Bunn, Oliver Kellis, and James R. Lee were their names.
Their families rescued all their bodies. Some, incased in ice, were found as far as Montauk Point. They were buried in the grave yard next to the church on their reservation and the graves were later marked with a small monument placed there by the tribe to remember. Many of the local inhabitants of the area did what they could to help the Shinnecocks some of whom did not have the funds to afford a coffin for their loved one. Teddy Roosevelt Sr. (The father of the President) saw how the tribe was suffering and donated $500 to help the tribe. Today it seems so little, but in those days it was a considerable sum. Today, the Shinnecock Nation is the best testament to the bravery of those men. The tribe honors those brave men with a memorial service every year. I am told that in their chapel is a cross fashioned from some of the wood from the wreck. Someday I hope I am privileged to see it.
Today the Shinnecock Nation is a federally recognized tribe with its own government. They survived the Circassian tragedy even though it took such an immense toll on them. All of us must give thought to those brave Shinnecock men, for though at that time they were “un-named”, they were no less than any of the others who perished that day.
You can find many different accounts of the wreck of the Circassian. Many conflict with each other or leave off some details and feature others. Even the length of the ship changes in different past and recent articles. Investigating and recounting this tragedy has its pitfalls because we were not there ourselves that tragic night. But it is in retelling the story, however varied the small facts may be, that keeps history alive.
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