Shipwrecks on the Columbia River

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle
A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s. This may be similar to the type of sailing ship that was wrecked at the mouth of the Columbia River.

The mouth of the Columbia River was crisscrossed with dangerous sandbars, and shipwrecks were relatively common. On many occasions, James Birnie was there to help in the rescue of the survivors of wrecked ships. Sometimes he was rewarded for his work, but that, of course, is not what he was looking for.

One of the most interesting and obscure items to be found in the Wakhiakum Museum, Cathlamet, is a silver spoon. It is a Fiddle Thread & Shell design, manufactured by T. Fletcher in Philadelphia, and it is almost certainly one of the silver pieces given to James Birnie when one of the United States Exploring Expedition vessels was destroyed at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1841.

Here we have the information on that accident, which is taken from Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of discovery [by] the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 [New York: Viking, 2003]. The story begins after the two ships, the Flying Fish and the Peacock, arrived off the mouth of the Columbia.

At 11.30 a.m., approximately seven miles from Cape Disappointment, [Captain] Hudson called “All Hands to Work Ship into Port.” With his copy of the sailing directions in his hand, he walked to the forward part of the ship, where he would divide his time between the forecastle and the foreyard… The directions indicated that they should head east for Cape Disappointment until Chinook Point bore east-northeast. But just as they reached the proper bearing, they encountered a steep, violent sea. Hudson became convinced that they were too far to the south. He wore the ship around and headed for a section of smooth water that he took to be the channel.

The Peacock forged ahead against the ebbing tide. After five minutes, they were almost abreast of Cape Disappointment, approximately two miles to the south. Some of the men had even begun to believe that they just might make it, when the Peacock‘s keel struck bottom as the bow burrowed into the sand. The helm was immediately put a-lee in an effort to turn the ship back out to sea. The yards and sails were also brought into play, but there was no longer any way to control the Peacock; she was stuck fast on the bar as waves burst against the ship’s sides. All the sails were quickly furled, and Lieutenant Emmons was dispatched in the cutter to see if there was any hope of pushing the ship through to deeper water. The building seas nearly capsized Emmon’s boat, but he did manage to cast the lead. The Peacock, he regretted to inform Hudson, was aground for good.

So the Peacock was battered by the seas overnight, and began to break apart. By morning the waves were dying, and a party of Chinook Indians under the command of an African American man ventured out to save a few of the sailors. The ship’s boats also went ashore, carrying sixty officers and men to safety. Finally, that evening, the remainder of the men and the captain were rescued. The second ship, Flying Fish, crossed the bar under the guidance of the strangest pilot the Americans had ever seen — a one-eyed Chinook Indian named “Old George.” From Baker’s Bay, inside the mouth of the Columbia, Captain Hudson took his men upriver to Fort Astoria, where James Birnie was in charge. The leader of the expedition, Charles Wilkes, had already visited Astoria and the Columbia River, from his ships which had sailed into Puget Sound to anchor off Fort Nisqually. At this point in his story, Birnie and his family are described in Philbrick’s book:

Previous to the arrival of the squadron, Astoria had been the somewhat lonely residence of the Birnie family. In recent days the Birnies’ many children had become closely attached to the surgeon Charles Guillou and the Expedition’s newest outcast Robert Johnson, who renamed the collection of temporary shacks “Bobville.” In early October Bobville came to a sudden end. Now that the survey of the upper part of the river was complete, it was time to sail for San Francisco.

Now, what do my notes say about James Birnie taking part in the rescue of the sailors from the ship Peacock? It is highly unlikely that he knew nothing of the shipwreck, and did nothing to help — in fact we know the opposite is true. From his grand-son James Robert Anderson’s Memoirs, we have this: “Whilst there he rendered such signal service to the shipwrecked crews of the United States ships Peacock and Shark, that in appreciation of this service he was presented with a heavy set of silver plate by the officers of those vessels.”

The Shark is not one of the U.S.S. expedition ships, but another, which I will tell you about at the bottom of this post. In the meantime, we have the story from the “Journal of John H. Frost, 1840-1843,” by Nellie B. Pipes, published in Oregon Historical Quarterly, 1934:

April 28th 1841… Commodore [Charles] Wilkes [of the United States Exploring Expedition] came over, in company with Mr. Birnie, to make me a call, and to go down to Clatsop point to look out for the Peacock, another vessel of the squadron, which was ordered to this river, and is expected every day…

[7th December]. You discover by my note on the 29th May, that the Peacock, one of the ships of the exploring squadron, was anxiously looked for. On the first of July, or rather in the former part of the month, she made her appearance off the mouth of the river, in company with the Flying Fish, her tender. Mr [Reverend W.H.] Kone and myself went down to Point Adams with our canoe, and there waited until we supposed she crossed the Bar, when we proceeded to Bakers Bay, expecting to meet her there; but before we reached the Bay we discovered the Peacock hauling up to the east, and shortly after they clued up her sails and remained stationary, which I considered strange management; but I concluded she had lost her wind, and had come to an anchor. We landed in Baker’s Bay and what must have been our astonishment when we discovered that she had come in outside of the north breakers for a certain distance, and when, as I before observed, they hauled to the east and ran her directly on the North Breakers!! Without any further comment, I will just say, she became a total wreck. We returned home in the evening, and about noon the next day we were informed that her masts were all carried away. So we repaired to the Bay again, and on our arrival a part of the officers and crew had effected a landing in their boats, and the boats were off in order to save the remainder; in a short time the boats returned with the remaining officers and crew. So that none were lost.

And from the article, “Last Survivor of the Oregon Mission of 1840,” by Edmond S. Meany, published in the Washington Historical Quarterly, vol. II, October 1907, we have:

She [Sarah Ruhamah De Bell] remembered very well the wreck of the Peacock, one of the vessels of the famous Wilkes Exploring Expedition, on July 18, 1841. She says Captain Hudson was a religious man and that very Sunday of the wreck he had held services, using as a text: “This day I will be with thee in Paradise.” Mrs. Beggs [?] also says that the missionaries and their wives did all they could to relieve the sufferings of the shipwrecked men. On this point Commander Wilkes bears this testimony in his final report:

“Mr. Birnie, the agent of the Hudson Bay Company at Astoria, Messrs. [Reverend J. H.] Frost and Kone, the missionaries, with several residents, came promptly to the aid of the shipwrecked crew with provisions, tents, cooking utensils, and clothing, all vying with each other in affording assistance.”

So that is pretty much all I have about this particular incident at the mouth of the Columbia River. The Shark also wrecked on the bar, but her story was quite different from that of the Peacock. The USS Shark was a schooner in the United States Navy, built and launched in 1821. In 1846 she was ordered to the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] for repairs before she explored up the Columbia River — her instructions were to “obtain correct information of that country and to cheer our citizens in that region by the presence of the American flag.” In July 1846 she crossed the bar in safety, grounding once but making her way into the river without any material damage. After several weeks anchored off Fort Vancouver, she returned to the river mouth and spent the day making new observations of the bar in preparation for crossing. In spite of these preparations, she struck an uncharted shoal and was swept into the breakers by a swift tide. The ship was a total loss, but her entire crew was saved. Once again, the Hudson’s Bay Company coordinated a relief effort, dispatching food, tobacco and clothing.

When the next James Birnie post is published, it will be posted here.

To return to the beginning of this series, go here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.

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