Brother Jonathan was a paddle steamer that crashed on an uncharted rock near Point St. George, off the coast of Crescent City, California, on 30 July 1865. The ship was carrying 244 passengers and crew with a large shipment of Gold. Only 19 survived the wreck, making it the deadliest shipwreck up to that time on the Pacific Coast of the United States. Although accounts vary, inspection of the passenger and crew list supports the number of 244 passenger and crew lost with 19 people surviving. She was named after Brother Jonathan, a character personifying the United States before the creation of Uncle Sam.
The ship was commissioned by Edward Mills, a New Yorker who tried to operate a shipping business during the California Gold Rush. When built in 1851, she was 220 feet long and 36 ft wide. Her route was from New York to Chagres, Panama, and on her first journey set a record for the then-fastest round-trip — 31 days. Passengers would cross the Isthmus of Panama and make their way north to California via another ship.
In 1852 the ship was purchased by Cornelius Vanderbilt, who operated a competing line, to replace one of his ships that had wrecked. Vanderbilt had Brother Jonathan sail around Cape Horn and used her on the Pacific side of the route. Vanderbilt also had the steamer rebuilt to accommodate more passengers.
Vanderbilt’s company had had an exclusive contract ferrying passengers across the isthmus through Nicaragua, but in 1856 the Nicaraguan government canceled the agreement. The ship was then sold to Captain John Wright, renamed Commodore and put on West Coast routes, including from her home port of San Francisco to Vancouver, British Columbia, as Gold prospectors traveled to the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush.
The ship played a small but symbolic role in the history of the state of Oregon. After President James Buchanan signed the bill admitting Oregon to the Union on February 14, 1859, the news was wired to St. Louis, carried by stagecoach to San Francisco, and loaded on Commodore on March 10. On March 15, the ship docked in Portland, delivering the official notification of statehood to the people of Oregon.
By 1861, she had fallen into disrepair and was sold again to the California Steam Navigation Company, who retrofitted her, restored her original name of Brother Jonathan, and continued her on the northward route from San Francisco to Vancouver via Portland, allowing prospectors to work the Salmon River Gold Rush. Over the next several years, the vessel gained a reputation as being one of the finest steamers on the Pacific Coast, being the fastest ship to make the run, sixty-nine hours each way.
Brother Jonathan became seasick and were confined to their rooms by the continuing storm of “frightful winds and stormy seas”. Early Sunday morning, July 30 1865, the steamer anchored in Crescent City harbor on the first leg of its trip to Portland and Victoria, B.C. After leaving the safety of the bay that Sunday afternoon, the ship ran headfirst into more stormy conditions. The seas were so bad near the California-Oregon border that the captain ordered the ship turned around for the harbor of Crescent City. Forty-five minutes later on that return and close to port, the ship struck the rock, tearing a large hole in its hull. Within five minutes, the captain realized the ship was going to sink and ordered the passengers and crew to abandon ship. Despite having enough lifeboats to hold all of the people on board, only three were able to be deployed. Acts of courage and desperation, fear and self-sacrifice, were numerous. The rough waves capsized the first one that was lowered and smashed the second against the vessel’s sides. Only a single surfboat, holding eleven crew members, five women and three children managed to escape the wreck and make it safely to Crescent City.
Among the victims were Brigadier General George Wright, the Union Commander of the Department of the Pacific; Dr. Anson G. Henry, Surveyor General of the Washington Territory, who was also Abraham Lincoln’s physician and closest friend; James Nisbet, a well-known publisher, who wrote a love note and his will while awaiting his death; and Roseanna Keenan, a colorful San Francisco madam, who was traveling with seven “soiled doves”. As a result of this tragedy, new laws were written to increase passenger-ship safety, including the ability of lifeboats to be released from a sinking ship.
For its final voyage, crates of Gold coins had been loaded on the vessel, including the annual treaty payments in Gold for Indian tribes, Wells Fargo shipments consigned for Portland and Vancouver, and Gold carried on board by the passengers. A large ship’s safe safeguarded valuable jewelry, more Gold coins, and Gold bars. The Gold alone was valued at $50 million dollars in today’s dollars. Divers and ships began searching for the sunken treasure two weeks after the disaster, but despite the attempts of numerous salvers, for over 125 years, the ship’s treasure of Gold and artifacts remained one of the Pacific’s great secrets.
Despite the fact that Brother Jonathan sank so tantalizingly close to shore, the ferocious storms, rocky passageways, strong underwater currents, and darkness at the depths held the secret of her location. Although the ship sunk 8 miles from Crescent City, technology needed to improve and explorers had to change their assumptions before the ship could be found. On the last day of its 1993 expedition, Deep Sea Research (DSR) changed its theory. The men decided that the ship had actually floated underneath the ocean’s surface to finally hit bottom 2 miles from where it first smashed into the reef. Led by Donald Knight and under risky conditions, a mini-sub on 1 October 1993, discovered the ship there at the last minute. Over time, the team began to bring artifacts back from a depth of 275 feet (84 m).
No human remains were ever found. In 1996, a mini-sub scooted past a “glint” on the bottom, raising curiosity. August 30 1996, divers found Gold coins and on that expedition recovered 875 1860’s Gold coins in near-mint condition. Over time, the salvers recovered 1,207 Gold coins, primarily $20 Double Eagles, in addition to numerous artifacts.
Thousands of items eventually were brought up, ranging from 19th-century cut-crystal sherry glasses, white porcelain plates, beer mugs, and terracotta containers (once holding mineral water from Germany) to exquisite glassware, cups, glass containers, and multi-faceted cruet bottles. Wine and champagne bottles, crates of goods (from axe handles to doorknobs), tinctures of medicine, port holes—among many goods and objects—were discovered.