Brother Jonathan

Long before there was an Uncle Sam there was Brother Jonathan. I do not make this stuff up. I happen to stumble upon it in the course of my everyday life. I know it is a bunch of useless middle age white guy trivia. I am supposed to admit that it fascinates me. Well truth of the matter is that it does. I know more than plenty about the patriotic character of Uncle Sam but yet I did not know that he was preceded by Brother Jonathan.

Brother Jonathan to me was a ship and more specifically a ship wreck off the coast of Crescent City. I was born and raised in Crescent City and I drank many beers parked at the Brother Jonathan vista point across the street from the Brother Jonathan cemetery on Pebble Beach Drive right there at the corner of Ninth Street. The historic ship wreck got me to thinking that I wanted to write a story about the whole ship wreck and all the missing gold laying right there on the bottom of the ocean just a few miles off shore. Believe it or not I do a minimal amount of research for these stories and then I embellish a bit and hit the publish button.

Brother Jonathan was a fictional character used to personify the entire United States, in the early days of our existence. Brother Jonathan was usually depicted as a typical American revolutionary, with tri-cornered hat and long military jacket. The character was used to symbolize Americans from 1783 to 1815. During the War of 1812, the term Uncle Sam appeared and eventually replaced Brother Jonathan.

The Brother Jonathan was a paddle steamer that crashed on an uncharted rock near Point St. George, off the coast of Crescent City, on July 30, 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 on the Pacific Coast at the time. When built in 1851, she was 220 feet long and 36 feet wide.

On her last voyage, the ship ran into a serious storm after leaving San Francisco. Most of the passengers became seasick and were confined to their rooms. Early Sunday morning, the steamer anchored in Crescent City harbor on the first leg of its trip to Victoria, British Columbia. After leaving Crescent City Sunday afternoon, the ship ran into more stormy conditions. The seas were so bad that the captain ordered the ship turned around for the safety of Crescent City. Forty-five minutes later and close to port, the ship struck a rock. 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. The rough waves capsized the first one that was lowered and smashed the second against the ship. Only a single boat, 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.

Divers and ships began searching for the sunken treasure two weeks after the disaster. 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. For over 125 years, the ship’s treasure of gold and artifacts remained one of the Pacific’s great secrets.

Although the ship sunk eight miles from Crescent City, technology needed to improve and explorers had to change their assumptions. On the last day of its 1993 expedition, Deep Sea Research changed its theory. The men decided that the ship had actually floated underneath the ocean’s surface to finally hit bottom two miles from where it first smashed into the reef. A mini-sub on October 1, 1993, discovered the ship there at the last minute. The team over time began to bring artifacts back from a depth of 275 feet.

On August 30, 1996, divers found the first gold coins and on that expedition recovered 875 1860s gold coins in near-mint condition. Over time, the team recovered 1,207 extraordinarily valuable gold coins, primarily $20 Double Eagles, in addition to numerous artifacts. Thousands of items eventually were brought up, ranging from nineteenth-century cut-crystal sherry glasses, white porcelain plates, beer mugs, exquisite glassware, cups, glass containers, and multi-faceted cruet bottles. On May 29, 1999, the sale of 1006 coins fetched a total of $5.3 million.

The ship and the gold were out there the entire time I was growing up and a modern day treasure was there waiting to be discovered. This is one of the more fascinating Crescent City stories and one that is not told very often.

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2 Responses to “Brother Jonathan”

  1. Janet O Says:

    Found your post while googling. Is this Brother Johnathan the same steamer that was previously called the Commodore? She was active up in BC and Puget Sound in 1858.

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