The Voyage of the Ship Brooklyn

The Voyage of the Ship Brooklyn

This article originally appeared in Vol.62, No.2 (2015) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Lorin K. Hansen, retired physicist
Pressure was mounting to drive the Mormons (some 15,000) from Illinois. On 16 September [1845], hoping to appease the mobs, Brigham Young had publicly announced the Church’s decision to abandon Nauvoo….
 
As a destination, [he] was considering Upper California, at that time Mexican territory (which included present-day California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona). Under instructions from Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt announced that would organize and lead another group—the first company to go by sea, which would sail from New York and go around Cape Horn to California…. Thus began preparations for emigration aboard the .
 
Both the overland trek from Nauvoo and the voyage from New York had one purpose: to build a new Mormon Zion in the West, where the Saints would be free from the conflicts of the past. As if to punctuate the unity of the two journeys, they began on the same day, 4 February 1846.
 
The Brooklyn Saints understood that eventually the two groups would meet at or near the coast of Upper California.  The Brooklyn voyagers were the first group of immigrants to enter California by sea after California was claimed by the United States as the spoils of the Mexican-American War.
 
Among the first in California commerce and industry, these immigrants helped build the frontier village of Yerba Buena into a promising San Francisco. They helped discover and, for a time, develop the gold mines. But they also established homes and pioneered California agriculture.
 
Because the main body of Saints stopped their overland migration at the Salt Lake Valley, the Brooklyn Saints were isolated from the Church for a time. Even so, they made important contributions to the Church. Their settlements at the Bay of San Francisco were a way station for many years, and the Mormons there generously assisted the missionaries and Saints traveling between the Pacific and Salt Lake City.
 
Finally, to be at the center of the Church, most of them were willing a second time to leave all behind and journey to “Zion,” some called in the midst of the 1857 Utah War. They went, not across the plains, but across the formidable Sierras and the Humboldt Sink, or across the desolate southern route out of San Bernardino.
 
In mid-winter of January 1846, East Coast Saints planning to go by sea on the first emigration to California came from all directions: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. By profession they were schoolteachers, farmers, carpenters, millers, coopers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, shoemakers, masons, printers, tailors, dressmakers, weavers, and even midwives and a physician.1
 
A fully rigged ship of modest size [and] originally used as a merchantman, the Brooklyn needed remodeling to carry such a large company of passengers. Working quickly, laborers installed thirty-two small staterooms (with bunks) in two rows on the outsides of ‘tween-decks and vents and skylights to give passengers required ventilation and light. Between the staterooms they built a long table with benches for meetings, activities, and meals.
 
Space was tight; taller passengers had to stoop when walking between decks. Workers also improved a galley on deck, equipping it with enough cooking surface for 400 people.
 
Captain Abel W. Richardson was an experienced ship’s master and was part owner of the ship. John Homer described the crew as men of above-average morals and stated that “unbecoming language was seldom heard on board.”2 They were all temperance men. Captain Richardson took as his first mate his nephew Joseph W. Richardson.
 
A second mate, steward, cook, and twelve seamen made up the rest of the crew. The passengers also hired two blacks as their cook and steward. Workers packed agricultural and mechanical tools to equip at least 800 men into the hold of the ship. There were ploughs, hoes, forks, shovels, spades, plough irons, scythes, sickles, nails, glass, Blacksmith’s tools, Carpenter’s tools, Millwright’s tools, three grain mills for grinding grain, turning lathes, sawmill irons, grinding stones, one printing press and type, paper, stationary, schoolbooks, consisting of spelling books, sequels, history, arithmetic, astronomy, grammar, Morse’s Atlas and Geography, Hebrew Grammar and Lexicon, slates. Also dry goods and twine, as well as brass-, copper-, iron-, tin-, and crockery-ware.
They even stowed away a cache of muskets and fifty Allen revolvers (pepperboxes), the latest in handguns.
 
To all this they added large hogsheads of fresh water, provisions for a six- to seven-month voyage, crates of chickens, and forty to fifty pigs. Even two milch cows were stanchioned on board.3
 
At a social on Febmary 4, 1846, the night before the Brooklyn Saints’ departure, Joshua M. Van Cott, a Brooklyn attorney, presented the voyagers with 179 volumes of the Harper’s Family Library (HFL). The HFL series was a rich trove of interesting reading. The collection covered a broad literary spectrum and was targeted to meet the interests of the general public.
 
The series included inspiring stories of explorers, adventurers, and political and military leaders. There were intellectually challenging volumes written by or about scientists, physicians, philosophers, poets, creative artists, and political and social thinkers.4 There was a high level of adult literacy (by 1830, about 80-90 percent of white males in the United States).5
 
On Wednesday, 4 February 1846, after the passing of a snowstorm, the emigrating Saints [seventy men and about sixty women and 100 children] and about a dozen non-Mormon passengers boarded the ship with friends, relatives, and curious onlookers packing] the wharves.
 
The Saints on the pier joined in some hymns and a song about going to California [Then] the ship moved out [from the New York piers and] into a frigid, choppy Atlantic, finally disappearing from view. Through this same harbor immigrants arrived almost daily from the Old World seeking religious and political freedom and economic opportunity. Surprisingly, here were some 230 Latter-day Saints—men, women, and children—leaving this very port for the same reasons, embarking on a journey five times the length of the Mayflower voyage, abandoning home, family, friends, and country to begin anew in an unknown part of the world.
 
Four days out into the Gulf Stream the Brooklyn encountered a frightening gale. Soon “mountain high” waves were breaking over the deck and pounding like thunder against the creaky hull.
The ship pitched to the billows and plunged into cavernous troughs. Passengers were shut in the hold, “tossed about like feathers in a sack.”6
 
At one point the situation grew so precarious that Captain Richardson feared for his ship, which was loaded.  Within three weeks the ship entered the northeast trade winds and passed near the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa.
 
It seemed strange to go nearly to Africa on the way around the Horn, but given the winds and the currents of the Atlantic, this was the quickest route to California, a route already well used by China traders, hide and tallow merchants, and Pacific whalers… .They could get past Cape San Roque (the eastern extension of Brazil) without beating against the trades to keep from being driven against the northern shore of South America. This route would cause them to go an extra thousand miles but would shave a couple of weeks off their voyage.
 
Still, this voyage from the eastern to the western shores of North America was regarded as the longest point-to-point voyage in the world, in time as well as in distance.11
 
Eventually the Brooklyn reached the equator. Near there the Brooklyn was caught in the doldrums. If sailors feared anything on the oceans like the storms it was the doldrums, those dead calms produced at the thermal equator.
 
The Brooklyn sat for two to three days with limp sails in the muggy, oppressive heat, motionless on a sea. James H. Skinner reported that the air seemed “as if it came out of a furnace…. It was so hot that the pitch was drawn out of the ship’s seams.”12
 
Finally, the winds stirred into life, picked up the sails, and gently wafted the ship out to the full southeast trades.
 
Of all the hardships the travelers endured on the voyage, the most difficult to bear were the deaths among the passengers. James H. Skinner recalled as a four-year-old listening to a service aboard ship and watching a shrouded corpse resting on a plank.
 
The plank was raised, he later remembered, just enough to let “the corpse gently slide off, and disappear into the mighty and lonesome ocean, my mother holding me tight in her arms, as if in fear that I, too, might find a watery grave.”13  In all, ten passengers and one of the crew died while at sea, and,  another infant died at the Sandwich Islands.14  The passengers died of such diseases as diarrhea, scarlet fever, consumption, cankered sore throat, and dropsy of the stomach.
 
The Brooklyn voyagers approached the Horn—truly the graveyard of the oceans—with considerable apprehension. It was common knowledge that the supreme test of a bold seaman was going west around the Horn. Violent, changeable winds blew there from every quarter, often accompanied by hail and sleet.
 
Waves—sometimes in towering crests, sometimes in long, giant swells—could reach a height seldom seen in other parts of the world. Finally they encountered a south wind that carried them sufficiently west of the Cape. Soon the Brooklyn was moving north along the Chilean coast, out of view of land.
 
After three months on the sea the passengers were growing weary of their fare. Provisions were becoming scarce and stale. The drinking water grew thick and ropy with slime, so that it had to be strained between the teeth, and the taste was dreadful. One pint a day was the allowance to each person to carry to his stateroom.
 
Still worse grew the condition of the ship. Rats abounded in the vessel; cockroaches and smaller vermin infested the provisions, until eternal vigilance was the price imposed upon every mouthful.15
 
The passengers were growing desperate to reach Valparaiso—the intended port for fresh provisions.
Unfortunately, the Brooklyn never reached Valparaiso.
 
While the ship was trying for that port, another severe gale drove it back against the Cape. One sailor was washed overboard but was able to hang on to a floating board until the crew could rescue him. Laura Goodwin, pregnant and traveling with her husband Isaac and seven children, lost her footing with the pitching of the ship and was thrown down a companionway.
 
She went into premature labor and developed complications. She pled with her grief-stricken family that she not be buried in the sea and, after lingering, finally died.16
 
So the captain abandoned Valparaiso as a destination and set the Brooklyn to ride the wind for Juan Fernandez (or Mas-a-tierra), some 360 miles off the coast of Chile. Juan Fernandez, of course, was well known as the island where Robinson Crusoe was marooned [in] Daniel Defoe’s fictional classic.
 
Along with the pleasures of going ashore, however, was the sad task of burying their dear sister, Laura Goodwin. Augusta Joyce Crocheron later wrote:
“Although the occasion was so sorrowful, … such was our weariness of the voyage that the sight of and tread upon terra firma once more was such a relief from the ship life that we gratefully realized and enjoyed it. The passengers bathed and washed their clothing in the fresh water, gathered fruit and potatoes, caught fish, some eels, great spotted creatures that looked so much like snakes that some members of the company could not eat them when cooked. We rambled about the island, visited the caves, one of which was pointed out to us as the veritable ‘Robinson Crusoe’s cave.'”17
The weary voyagers quickly replenished the ship’s supplies. They found fresh water only two rods from the beach, poured about 18,000 gallons into casks, and loaded it aboard the ship. They also stowed away bundled firewood from the steep hillsides and salted barrels of fish.
 
After five days the ship was ready to set sail for the Sandwich Islands.  Phoebe Robbins, after burying two sons in the Atlantic, gave birth to a daughter—Georgiana Pacific Robbins—just a week before they arrived at Oahu.18
 
The Brooklyn arrived at Honolulu Harbor on 20 June and anchored outside the reef. They soon found a warm and welcoming atmosphere of Honolulu. Hundreds came to see them land. So friendly were the residents that Kemble called their short stay “the most delightful episode of their long voyage.”19
 
Sam Brannan … accepted an invitation from Rev. Samuel C. Damon to deliver a Sunday sermon at non-denominational Seaman’s Bethel near the wharves. This was no doubt the first Mormon sermon preached on the island. On behalf of the Brooklyn passengers, Sam Brannan donated $48.00 for Rev. Damon’s ministry.20
 
The crew unloaded 500 barrels of freight and replenished the ship’s supplies, including fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats. At least part of the unloaded cargo was an assorted supply of Bibles for Rev. Damon Frank Ward appeared before King Kamehameha III to thank him for his generous hospitality.21
 
Some natives came on board the Brooklyn and were captivated by the nine-month-old identical twins, Sarah and Hannah Kittleman. They were allowed to take the twins to show Queen Kalama, who then sent back many gifts.22
 
Rev. Damon published an extensive article in his biweekly newspaper, The Friend, about the history and beliefs … of the Church. He included comments from an interview with Captain Richardson:
 
“Of their [the Saints’] general behavior and character, he speaks in the most favorable manner. They have lived in peace together, and uniformly appeared to be quiet and orderly. They are going with full determination of making a settlement.”23
 
The Brooklyn sailed from Honolulu on 30 June.  The travelers later discovered they had picked up unwelcome passengers. Two mutineers being held in the fort near the wharves escaped and stowed away on the Brooklyn just before it sailed. The two stowaways, William Taylor and John Stanley, were returned to Honolulu in irons.24
 
At this time, Sam Brannan excommunicated four Mormon passengers for doctrinal errors and moral misconduct.25 Many of the Saints felt he had moved with undue harshness. Even Edward Kemble, a non-Mormon bystander, thought Brannan had overplayed the issue.
 
[Kemble] noted that even though the passengers shared close quarters, there was “rarely an infraction of discipline or decorum among the members of the company, even in the most trying times.”
 
As for moral misconduct, Kemble also noted, “probably no emigrant ship ever crossed the ocean—certainly none ever sailed to California—whose female passengers at the end of a long voyage preserved their reputations as unspotted as those of the Brooklyn.”26
 
Brannan’s action more deeply estranged him from the other passengers. On the morning of Friday, 31 July 1846, the Brooklyn sailed boldly into the mist-shrouded headlands of San Francisco Bay. All passengers were on deck, eagerly straining to see through the clearing fog the details of their new home.
 
Suddenly they sighted an old fort, Castillo de San Joaquin, high on the bluff to the right, and all but the crew were relegated below deck as the Brooklyn drew within range of the shorebound guns. What they didn’t know was that the fort was deserted and these guns were antiquated and encrusted beyond use.
 
Anxiously and quietly the ship slipped past the fort. The passengers returned cautiously to the deck as a great inland sea opened to their view—”the bleak treeless shores the faded verdure of early Autumn, the lines of the soldier pelicans winging their measured flight just above the foamy crest of the waves, the startled myriads of black fowl, the islands, the rocky shores of the mainland.”27
 
The Saints, from the deck of the Brooklyn, studied this quaint little cove where, supposedly, they would soon be unloading. This was Yerba Buena, named for the good herbs (mint) that grew there. At this time the town had about 200 inhabitants and about fifty adobe and frame buildings (houses, saloons, shops, and sheds), scattered with little apparent order since lots were not fenced and the streets were not developed.28
 
Augusta Joyce Crocheron recounted the scene:
 
“A long, sandy beach strewn with hides and skeletons of slaughtered cattle, a few scrubby oaks, farther back low sand hills rising behind each other as a background to a few old shanties that leaned away from the wind, an old adobe barracks, a few donkeys plodding dejectedly along beneath towering bundles of wood, a few loungers stretched lazily upon the beach as though nothing could astonish them.”29
 
Officials gave the immigrants permission to disembark and to unload all their possessions free of duty. They began setting up accommodations on shore for their first night in their new land. A few families found vacant homes. Sixteen families stayed in the barracks or customs house, which they separated into apartments using quilt partitions. Others pitched white tents around the village square in military fashion, lit campfires, and set up outdoor cooking facilities.
 
Yerba Buena (soon to be renamed San Francisco) was now essentially a Mormon town.
 
The voyage of the Brooklyn was an event of historical significance and provides an engaging tale of human experience. It occurred because of the conflicts between early Mormons and their neighbors in the East. Yet, interestingly the voyage itself was marked by an unusual flow of kindness and good will from others. It involved only a few people but was an important part of the history of the West.
 

A longer version of the article appeared in Dialogue (Autumn 1988): 46-72. See also “Every Book . . .
Has Been Read Through”: The Brooklyn Saints and the Harper Family Library/” BYU Studies 43, no. 4 (2004): 39-56.
  1. Brooklyn Passenger Manifest.
  2. John M. Horner, “Voyage of the Ship Brooklyn,” Improvement Era 9 (1906): 796.
  3. Times and Seasons, Feb. 15, 1846.
  4. When John Quincy Adams was asked for an appropriate list of books for a library, the HFL was second on his list, following the Holy Bible (cited in Eugene Exman, The Brothers Harper [New York: Harper & Row, 1965], 120). The Harper books were compact (about 6V4 in. by 4 in.) and inexpensive (about 45 cents per volume, half a day’s pay for manual labor). (Robert S. Freeman, “Harper & Brothers’ Family and School District Libraries, 1830-1846,” in Libraries to the People: Histories of Outreach, ed. Robert S. Freeman and David M. Hovde [Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003], 26-49.)
  5. Beyond the formal school system, whether for self- education, entertainment, or just making good use of long winter evenings, people, including the passengers of the Brooklyn, were becoming readers. Knowledge was to be achieved by self-education…. (Lee Soltow and Edward Stevens, The Rise of Literacy and the Common School in the United States: A Socioeconomic Analysis to 1870 [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981], 155. See also William J. Gilmore, Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life: Material and Cultural Life in Rural New England, 1780-1835 [Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1989.])
  6. James H. Skinner, “History of James H. Skinner,” typescript, p. 2, 1915, Lee Library, BYU, Provo, UT.
  7. Augusta Joyce Crocheron, “Augusta Joyce Crocheron,” in Representative Women of Deseret (Salt Lake City: J. C. Graham & Co., 1884), 81.
  8. Crocheron, “Crocheron,” 81.
  9. Kate B. Carter, comp., “The Ship Brooklyn Saints,” in Heart Throbs of the West (Salt Lake City: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, 1960), 3:521.
  10. Edward C. Kemble, “Twenty Years Ago: The ‘Brooklyn Mormons’ in California,” in A Kemble Reader, ed. Fred B. Rogers (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1963), 20, 26. First appeared in Sacramento Daily Union, Sept. 11, 1866.
  11. Matthew F. Maury, Explanations and Sailing Directions to Accompany the Wind and Current Charts, 7th ed. (Philadelphia: E. C. & J. Biddle, 1855); Boyle T. Somerville, comp., Ocean Passages for the World (London: Hydro- graphic Dept., Admiralty, 1923).
  12. Skinner, “History of James H. Skinner,” 3-4.
  13. Skinner, “History of James H. Skinner,” 1.
  14. Friend, July 1 and 15, 1846; Polynesian, June 27, 1846.
  15. Crocheron, “Crocheron,” 82.
  16. Crocheron, “Crocheron,” 81.
  17. Crocheron, “Crocheron,” 82.
  18. Carter, comp., “The Ship Brooklyn Saints,” 3:572.
  19. Kemble, “The ‘Brooklyn Mormons,'” 22, 23.
  20. Polynesian, June 27, 1846; Friend, July 1, 1846.
  21. Polynesian, June 27, 1846.
  22. Carter, comp., “The Ship Brooklyn Saints,” 3:561.
  23. Friend, July 1, 1846.
  24. Friend, June 15, 1846; Polynesian, July 4 and 11, 1846; Log of Portsmouth, Aug. 1, 1846.
  25. Millennial Star, Oct. 15, 1847.
  26. Kemble, “The ‘Brooklyn Mormons,'” 17.
  27. Kemble, “The ‘Brooklyn Mormons,'” 7-8.
  28. John Henry Brown, Yerba Buena, 1846 (San Francisco: Prepared for the American Library Association by Gelber, Lilienthal, and the Grabhorn Press, 1939); Frank Soule, John H. Gihon, and James Nisbet, The Annals of San Francisco (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1855), 173.
  29. Crocheron, “Crocheron,” 83.
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