Shipwreck and Treasure of the S.S. Brother Jonathan

Birth of the SS Brother Jonathan

Brother Jonathan was the Uncle Sam of the 19th century. When Edward Mill put the name on his newly launched sidewheel steamship in November 1850, many people throughout the world had come to know the United States as Brother Jonathan.

On an April 1868 visit by the U.S. Navy's Admiral Farragut to a Royal Navy garrison at Malta, copies of a song were distributed by the British to the visiting American sailors that contained the following verse:

And we, oh, hate us if you can,
For we are proud of you
We like you Brother Jonathan
And "Yankee Doodle" too!

SS Yankee Blade Shipwreck

Four years after her launch in October 1854, the SS Brother Jonathan found herself transporting survivors from the ill fated SS Yankee Blade back to San Francisco. The SS Yankee Blade, with over 900 passengers and crew aboard, had sank after hitting a submerged reef while it recklessly raced another steamship, the SS Sonora, at full speed in a thick fog.

The Gold

During the Civil War years, gold was discovered in eastern Oregon and parts nearby. The gold was shipped overland to Portland and then by sea to San Francisco. The gold would then be minted into gold coins at San Francisco, and many would be shipped back north.

On Sunday July 30, 1865, the Brother Jonathan was on one such trip to the north carrying over 240 passengers and crew, and millions of dollars worth of newly minted gold bars and $20 gold double eagle coins. Some of the gold was to be used for Indian Treaty payments. The ship also carried a U.S. Army payroll of $200,000 in newly printed paper currency.

The Storm

After 34 hours of sailing through stormy seas from San Francisco and a short port call to Crescent City, Captain Samuel J. DeWolfe left Crescent City's harbor under nearly clear blue skies headed for Portland only about a day away. Within 30 minutes of leaving Crescent City, the SS Brother Jonathan ran into a severe storm with mountainous waves cresting at up to 30 feet high. A couple of hours later, terrified passengers begged the Captain to return to the safety of the harbor at Crescent City. The Captain ordered the ship to turn around.

About 20 minutes after turning the ship around, the SS Brother Jonathan was again under blue skies but the waves continued to crest at close to 30 feet. As the ship picked up speed with the wind at its back, the ship struck an uncharted reef.

The impact sent the nine-story mast through the bottom of the ship and the ship began to break apart as it lay impaled upon the reef. Huge waves washed screaming passengers off the decks of the ship. There were six lifeboats onboard the ship capable of carrying 250 passengers.

Technically, there were enough lifeboats to save all the passengers and crew. However, as each lifeboat was launched, huge waves would engulf the small crafts tossing everyone into the sea. In the end, only one lifeboat with 19 people made it to shore. The rest of the passengers and crew perished. For the next few weeks, bodies would wash up on shore.

The Passengers

Among the passengers that day was Daniel and Polina Rowell and their four children. They left their farm in Iowa to join Polina's parents in Oregon. Upon learning of the shipwreck and the deaths of his daughter's family, Polina's father went searching for her body along the coast. He eventually found both his daughter's and son-in-law's bodies. Although he had never met his grandchildren, he claimed the bodies of four children by saying they were his grandchildren and buried them all together.

Another passenger to perish was the recently appointed Superintendent of the U.S. Mint in The Dalles, Oregon, William Logan. Logan was to oversee the construction of the new mint. Possibly due to his death, the new mint was never completed. Had the SS Brother Jonathan completed its trip to Portland, perhaps collectors today would be as passionate about coins minted at The Dalles mint as they are today regarding the Carson City mint.

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