World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Brother Jonathan (steamer)

Brother Jonathan
Brother Jonathan after her 1861 refit
  • Brother Jonathan (1851–c.1856)
  • Commodore (c.1856–1861)
  • Brother Jonathan (1861–)
  • Edward Mills (1851–1852)
  • Cornelius Vanderbilt (1852–c.1856)
  • Captain John Wright (c.1856–1861)
  • California Steam Navigation Co. (1861–)
Completed: 1851
General characteristics
Length: 220 ft (67 m)
Beam: 36 ft (11 m)
Brother Jonathan (Shipwreck Site)
Brother Jonathan as she was built in 1851
Location About 4.5 mi (7.2 km) SW of Point St. George
Nearest city Crescent City, California
NRHP Reference # 02000535
CHISL # 541[2]
Added to NRHP 21 May 2002

Brother Jonathan was a Crescent City, California, on 30 July 1865. The ship was carrying 244 passengers and crew, together with a large shipment of gold. Only 19 survived, 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 passengers and crew lost with 19 surviving.[3][4] She was named after Brother Jonathan, a character personifying the region of New England.


  • Initial construction 1
  • Uses 2
  • Shipwreck 3
  • Modern recovery efforts 4
  • Legacy 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Bibliography 9
  • External links 10

Initial construction

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 (67 m) long and 36 ft (11 m) 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 been wrecked. Vanderbilt had Brother Jonathan sail around Cape Horn and used her on the Pacific side of the route. Vanderbilt also had the steamer modified 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 cancelled 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 travelled 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 14 February 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.[5]

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 kept 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.[Note 1]


On her last voyage, the ship ran into a heavy gale within hours after leaving San Francisco Bay to steam north. Most of the passengers on board Brother Jonathan became seasick and were confined to their cabins by the continuing storm of "frightful winds and stormy seas". Early Sunday morning, 30 July 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 steamed 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.[7][8] (load was 500 tons)[9]">[2]] Forty-five minutes later on that return and close to port, the ship struck the rock, tearing a large hole in the hull. Within five minutes, the captain realized the ship was foundering and ordered the passengers and crew to abandon ship.

Although there were enough lifeboats to hold all of the people on board, only three boats were able to be deployed. Acts of courage and desperation, fear and self-sacrifice, were numerous.[10][11][12][13][3][4] The rough waves capsized the first lifeboat 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 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 travelling 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.[14][15]

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 in today's dollars.[Note 2] Divers and ships began searching for the sunken treasure two weeks after the disaster, but despite the attempts of numerous salvors, for over 125 years, the ship's treasure of gold and artifacts remained one of the Pacific's great secrets.

Modern recovery efforts

A coin that went down with the ship.

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 sank 8 miles (13 km) 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 (3.2 km) 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. On 30 August 1996, divers found gold coins and on that expedition recovered 875 1860s gold coins in near-mint condition. Over time, the salvors 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.[3][4][18][19][20][21]

While recovery efforts were being conducted, lawsuits flew around among the salvors, the State of California, and numismatic experts. California took the legal position that it owned the rights to the wreck and everything located close to its shores. As the state had enacted a broad law granting it these rights to "historical shipwrecks", it fought the salvor's claims of ownership. Although every judge along the way disagreed with California's position, a number of states with similar interests joined in the legal battle. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998 unanimously held that existing federal law controlled, declared the law(s) unconstitutional, and ruled for the salvors.[22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29] However, California officials told DSR that they would take the fight up again to the Supreme Court on the facts, and the state received 20% of the recovered gold in a final settlement.

In the first legally-recognized sale of all of the salvors' gold discovered from a sunken treasure ship, more than 500 bidders crowded into the Airport Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles for the auction of DSR's gold coins on 29 May 1999.[30][31] The sale of its 1006 coins fetched a total of $5.3 million. Later, the finders of the coins once again appealed the supreme court's decision and were granted the rest of California's gold coins.

Meanwhile, another battle had broken out over the authenticity of historic gold bars secretly recovered from Brother Jonathan in the 1930s. Reading like a "who's who" in numismatic circles, these experts viciously attacked each other over these bars in a rare public controversy (the "great debate") at the 1999 American Numismatic Association's annual convention—a battle that still resounds among collectors and gold experts. This also resulted in litigation.[32]

Deep Sea Research set up a conservation lab for the recovered artifacts that was run by the local historical society in Crescent City, the Del Norte County Historical Society. The salvors also hired national experts including numismatists Robert R. Johnson, Ronald F. Umile, and Konstantin Balter to work with the volunteers in these efforts.[20][21][33] This small historical society has been refurbishing and maintaining the artifacts, as well as having an exhibit on Brother Jonathan‍ '​s demise and a variety of the objects that were reclaimed.


The Brother Jonathan Cemetery and Memorial in Crescent City, California

The reef the ship slammed into is now known as Jonathan Rock, and the California Historical Landmark No. 541, sits at Brother Jonathan Vista Point in Crescent City. The shipwreck is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.[Note 3]

Despite the gold coins already discovered and brought up, crates of gold from Brother Jonathan still remain hidden and undisturbed. The large safe with its millions of dollars of jewels, gold bars, and gold was never found. The salvors estimate that four-fifths of the treasure is still waiting to be discovered—mere miles from land.[16][17]

In 2010, folk music singer-songwriter John Donovan released an album entitled Bells Will Ring, a line from his song about the shipwreck entitled "Brother Jonathan".[35] On the 150th Anniversary of the S.S.Brother Jonathan shipwreck, the Idaho Civil War Round Table held a special commemorative program honoring the victims and survivors of the tragedy in the Marion Bingham Room at the downtown Boise Library presided over by President K.C.Piccard where the Brother Jonathan 150th Anniversary website [36] was unveiled.

See also


  1. ^ Other than Powers and Bowers above, an excellent description of the history of Brother Jonathan is found generally at Lomax.[6] See also, "Brother Jonathan Began Life on East Coast, Sank in 1865".  
  2. ^ By count of the coins discovered and those brought on board just in crates, only twenty percent of the gold, at best, was discovered. Not including the large Dobler safe, this translates into a $40 million valuation of gold on board by itself.[16] When including the safe, estimates are even higher, including one of $108 million.[17]
  3. ^ The listing of the shipwreck in the National Register of Historic Places was part of the litigation efforts by California.[34]


  1. ^ "Brother Jonathan Cemetery". Office of Historic Preservation, California State Parks. Retrieved 2012-09-05. 
  2. ^ "Brother Jonathan Cemetery". Office of Historic Preservation, California State Parks. Retrieved 2012-09-05. 
  3. ^ a b c Powers 2006.
  4. ^ a b c Bowers 1999.
  5. ^  
  6. ^ Lomax, Alfred L. (September 1959). Brother Jonathan: Pioneer Steamship of the Pacific Coast 60. Oregon Historical Society. 
  7. ^ Powers 2006, p. 10.
  8. ^ Bowers 1999, pp. 255–257.
  9. ^ DeWolf 1900.
  10. ^ "Told by A Survivor, the Wreck of the Brother Jonathan. Mrs. Mary Altrie's Vivid Recollection".  
  11. ^ "A Sea Tragedy: The Brother Jonathan Wreck Revived". Del Norte Record. 2 February 1892. 
  12. ^ Chase, Doris (13 December 1959). "The Brother Jonathan Shipwreck Spelled an End to 'Coffin Ships'". The Humboldt Times. p. 12. 
  13. ^ "Full Particulars of the Wreck of the Brother Jonathan". Alta California. 10 August 1865. 
  14. ^ Powers 2006, pp. 133–135.
  15. ^ United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. Annual Report of the Superintendent (Benjamin Peirce) of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1869-1870, Ex. Doc. No. 206, 41 Congress, 2nd Session; also, United States Printing Office. Acts of Congress Relating to Steamboats. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1867.
  16. ^ a b Powers 2006, pp. 10–11.
  17. ^ a b Emert 1999.
  18. ^ McKenzie-Bahr, Mike (6 September 1997). "Shipwreck Artifacts Come to Surface".  
  19. ^ Sowden, Carrie E.; Dewolf, Helen; Hamilton, Donny L. (2001). shipwreck"Brother Jonathan"A chest from the . Conservation Research Laboratory Reports. Conservation Research Laboratory, Texas A & M. Retrieved 10 February 2008. 
  20. ^ a b Report of Field Activities on the Brother Jonathan, Submerged Cultural Resource Site, Crescent City, California, August 18–31, 1997. Deep Sea Research and R2 Consultants. 
  21. ^ a b Report submitted to the United States District Court.
  22. ^ California v. Deep Sea Research, 523 U.S 491 (U.S. 1998).
  23. ^ Clifford, James O. (12 February 1996). "Is there Gold in the Deep?: Court Fight Continues over 1865 Shipwreck of Brother Jonathan".  
  24. ^ Chiang, Harriet (19 March 1999). "Finders Keepers; Treasure Hunters will be Able to Keep the Gold Found on a Shipwreck off Crescent City".  
  25. ^ Jones, John Paul (April 1999). "The United States Supreme Court and Treasure Salvage: Issues Remaining after Brother Jonathan". Journal of Maritime Law & Commerce 30: 205. 
  26. ^ Lorello, D. David, Jr. (2000) [1999]. "The Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987: Navigating Through the Fog". Gonzaga Law Review 35: 75. 
  27. ^ Paddock, Richard C. (17 March 1996). "Treasure or Time Capsule?: Ex-Partners Are at Odds".  
  28. ^ Griffith, John (27 September 1996). "Squabbling Over a Shipwreck".  
  29. ^ Powers 2006, pp. 233–250.
  30. ^ "California Gold Pieces Go on Sale".  
  31. ^ Powers 2006, pp. 313–323.
  32. ^ Powers 2006, pp. 324–347, Chapter 17.
  33. ^ Powers 2006, pp. 380–385.
  34. ^ Powers 2006, pp. 255–256.
  35. ^ "John Donovan". Retrieved 7 October 2012. 
  36. ^ 


  • "Del Norte". California Historical Landmarks. Office of Historic Preservation. Retrieved 2005-08-29. 
  • Walker, Goodyear (1999). "We'll Find a New Captain...". The Brother Jonathan Shipwreck Exhibit. California State Lands Commission. Archived from the original on 2006-09-22. Retrieved 2006-10-31. 
  • Bowers, Q. David (1999). The Treasure ship S.S. Brother Jonathan: Her Life and Loss, 1850-1865. Wolfeboro, New Hampshire: Bowers and Merena Galleries, Inc.  
  • DeWolf, Maria (Knight) (19 March 1900), Handwritten biography and stories on file at the Del Norte Historical Society, Crescent City, California 
  • Emert, Phyllis Raybin (April 1999). "California's Golden Tragedy". East Bay Monthly (Oakland, California). 
  • United States Printing Office. Acts of Congress Relating to Steamboats. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1867.

External links

  • Brother JonathanCalifornia State Lands Commission pages on the shipwreck of the
  • Brother Jonathan Passenger List
  • Brother Jonathan Find a Grave Memorial
    • "Accompanying Photos" (PDF).  
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.