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Circassian Shipwreck

Table of Contents
Introduction
History
Colonial Description

Introduction

In 1876, freight ship Circassian wrecked off the coast of Mecox Bay in Bridgehampton. Ten members of the Shinnecock tribe were among those who drowned.

History

The Heroes of 1876

David W. Bunn

J. Franklin Bunn

Russel Bunn

William Cuffee

George Cuffee

Warren Cuffee

Oliver Kellis

Robert Lee

John Walker

Lewis Walker

In 1876, freight ship Circassian wrecked off the coast of Mecox Bay in Bridgehampton. Ten members of the Shinnecock tribe were among those who drowned.

Shinnecock tribal members maintain the story; the ten Shinnecock men involved were threatened to have their pay withheld as well as they were supposedly threatened with a gun, to force the men to complete the work of off-loading the materials from the ship even though a lethal storm was coming up.1

Alfonso Eleazer was the only Shinnecock man to get off the ship in time.

  1. David Martine, Shinnecock History Timeline pp. 10

Colonial Description

December 1876

The tragic sinking of the Circassian happened December, 1876. The ship ran a ground offshore during a storm. When the call went out for a salvage crew to rescue the cargo, eleven men from Shinnecock agreed to take the job.

One of the men, Alfonso Eleazer, left the ship before the storm engulfed the rescue operation. The ship broke apart while the crew was on board, casting all of them into the freezing water. None of the Shinnecock men were saved. There was no hope of seeing any of the thirty-two men alive.

The velocity of the sea, now running to the east, and the extreme undertow made it nearly impossible for anyone to reach shore. Superintendent Huntting, feeling duty bound to make every effort, organized a lantern patrol of about twenty Life Saving men to search along the beach at forty-foot intervals in the unlikely event any survivors appeared in the surf. As soon as the mast sank, Captain Huntting’s men, along with volunteers from the crowd on shore, hurried up the beach eastward to their positions.

The moon, once again, broke through the clouds, and one of the leading patrols spotted a small cluster of figures on the ocean moving rapidly with the current eastward. As the life saving crew hastened to their rescue, the figures were carried almost half a mile before they neared shore.

Luther Burnett and life saver Gordon Ludlow ran into the frigid surf to drag the men out of the undertow to safety. Those in the rear patrols, seeing a concentration of lantern light ahead of them and hearing glad shouts as the rescuers and survivors emerged onto the beach, knew someone, at least, had been saved.

The news spread rapidly down the beach that four men had miraculously made it to shore on a boat’s buoy, and the four men were alive. As several life saving men helped the exhausted survivors back to the shelter of Mecox Station, the rest of the lantern patrol, now hopeful, kept searching the surf for signs of more life.

Once inside the station house, the survivors, so overcome with fatigue and numb from wet and cold that they could not stand, were stripped of their frozen garments and given warm, dry clothing. Immediately they were put to bed near the fire, given coffee and brandy, and given other first aid treatment. Three revived, but the fourth remained unconscious for several hours and it was feared he might die. It was the middle of the day before he was considered out of danger.

Those saved were Henry Morle, First Mate of the Circassian, from Taunton, England; John Rowland, Second Mate, from Cardiff, Wales; and Charles Campbell, wrecking company engineer, from Newark, New Jersey. The fourth man was Alexander Wilson, the ship’s carpenter, from Birkenhead, England, near Liverpool. There were no other survivors.

As soon as the men recovered, they told their story and gave more details of what had happened on the ship. Henry Morle had been shipwrecked before; and whether because of the nature of the man or the nature of his experience, he remained cool and in command of himself and the situation. Morle has been in the galley with Campbell, Rowland, Wilson, and others, regaining strength and working on a plan of survival. Despite all efforts, no help was coming from shore and the situation was critical. There were only a few life preservers and a couple of cork fenders from the ship’s remaining boats.

Morle gave a life preserver to John Walker, a Shinnecock, and cut loose one of the canvas covered fenders for himself. Taking it below, Morle rigged the cylindrical buoy with wooden cleats and ropes, thus making a life buoy about five feet long and one foot thick. John Rowland, who could not swim, asked to share the buoy and Morle consented. When the ship started to break up beneath them, he and Rowland took to the mizzen rigging with the buoy. Studying the flow of the set and the drift of the wreckage, Morle chose the best position possible to gain clearance of the ship if the mast fell.

They, among others were not lashed to the rigging. William Keefe, the boatswain, and Charles Campbell, of the wrecking company, also had a buoy but tried to remain on deck with it. Unfortunately, they were caught by a large wave and thrown across the deck, they and their buoy parting ways. It was at this point that several more men were washed overboard. Campbell survived and climbed into the rigging beneath Morle asking him for a share of his buoy. Morle agreed and they made plans to reach shore.

A few men jumped from the deck taking their chances in the surf. Morle, stayed, his clothes ice covered, the freezing spray numbing his hands and face.

The Shinnecock, all in a group in the rigging, were still singing. Many others were praying. Some, having ceased their calls for help, were silent.

Suddenly, a huge wave lifted the vessel. As the mast fell, Morle, Rowland, and Campbell jumped with the buoy. Rowland and Campbell emerged together from the icy water, in the lee of the ship, clinging to the buoy. Morle, who had let go of the buoy just before hitting the water, swam to the others.

All around was a chaos of debris – sail, planks from the ship’s boats, spars, and rigging. All around were men struggling and drowning. Alexander Wilson, who had been in the rigging above Campbell, also came up from the water. In a panic, he seized Campbell’s neck, almost strangling him. Campbell, fighting for his life, was about to draw his knife when Morle shouted,

“Carpenter, let go that man, you are drowning him now.”

With Campbell’s help, Wilson managed to grasp the buoy. The four men were now positioned two on each side of the cork float. With their arms through the ropes and around the cylinder, they clutched the lines and locked legs with each other below. This helped keep them together and steady the small buoy as it was buffeted by the swells. Morle took charge, commanding the others to breathe before each icy wave struck, ordering them to rest whenever momentarily possible. Nevertheless, after only minutes in the water, they were completely weakened by their struggle and were almost drowned.

With one final effort, they plunged through the breakers toward shore. Exhausted, numb with cold, and at the mercy of the undertow, all were hauled from the surf and immediately wrapped in warm clothes stripped off the backs of their rescuers. Wilson, suffering from severe cramps, was nearly lifeless; the others were so overcome they could barely stand. Had not Huntting’s men been on the spot to offer immediate assistance, they would all have perished. They were battered and weary, but they were alive.

John Walker hadn’t been as fortunate; he had attempted to jump also but had been caught by a huge wave, crushed against the ship’s stern, then carried down by a swirling eddy. His life preserver surfaced; he did not.

Meanwhile. Patrols along shore kept continuous watch, looking first for more survivors, later for bodies. The storm, affecting the whole Northeast, was the worst such storm in eighty years. New England was badly hit with much damage to its fleets; many vessels had been driven ashore or were badly damaged. Provincetown, Massachusetts had taken a furious beating. Long Island’s bays froze over. A heavy snow had immobilized upstate New York and all of New Hampshire and Vermont. Transportation was struggling, if it was moving at all. Even in Bridgehampton, the sleet and slush of the night before had frozen into one slippery mass. On this Saturday morning, as the patrols continued, the weather was still frigid with gusting westerly winds. A glare of bright sunshine reflected on the ocean; cold stinging sand still numbed the patrollers’ faces.

Word of the disaster spread rapidly through the village of Bridgehampton. Some townspeople, accustomed to seeing the masts of the ship on the horizon, thought the Circassion had finally gotten free when they did not spot her that Saturday morning. Many, shocked at the loss, ignored the inclement weather and hastened to the beach to assist in the search. All were stunned. When hope was gone of finding any survivors, their shock turned to grief. Neighbors were dead, and the sad search for the missing bodies continued.

From Bridgehampton the news spread to the surrounding areas. At about 9 o’clock that morning, Henry F. Herrick, postmaster of Southampton and elder in the Presbyterian church, brought word to those on the Reservation. He spoke first to James Bunn, Father of David Bunn of Shinnecock, and then from house to house he carried the same message.

Quietly and sadly he said, “The ship went down – all of the Shinnecock men have been lost perished in the wreck.”

Mrs. Edna Walker Eleazer, who died in 1969 at nearly a hundred years of age, remembered Henry Herrick bringing the news to the Walker household. She was only a girl when her mother answered the knock on her door announcing that both her father and her uncle were dead. Although only a few miles distant, the men had not been off the ship and had not visited their homes in two weeks. Now they would return no more.

Lewis, in his bluster and overconfidence, had made a catastrophic error; despite his extensive experience, he had been wrong. Certainly, by today’s standards, there is no doubt Lewis had been negligent. However, if the storm had held off only a few hours more, the ship would: have been safely off the bar, and on her way to New York with all hands on board alive and well. Lewis would have succeeded at his task: he would have been praised for a job well done. Lewis had overestimated both his own judgment and the strength of the ship; he had badly underestimated the severity of the storm.

On the Reservation, the Circassian widows survived the winter. The contributions had helped, but still the women faced both the loneliness and struggle of raising and supporting their fatherless families alone. The tribe had been sadly depleted, but the loss of the Circassian men was not, as some have said, the end of the Shinnecock tribe.

There were twenty-five Indian children from these families alone left to carry on. Even the loss of the whaler Amethyst [ship] in 1887 did not mean the end of the tribe. Two of Lames R. Lee’S Brothers were on the Amethyst, as was Moses Walker, a Montauk and close relative of the two Walkers drowned in 1876.

Last seen in the Arctic Sea in June in 1887 the Amethyst met an uncertain fate. When discovered later in the year, she had split in two, with no sign of her thirty-eight man crew.

The Shinnecock men lost on the Circassian had, without doubt, met their death with bravery. The actions of the rescuers, fighting on to save the helpless men despite all odds, were praiseworthy and heroic. If there were heroes, the real heroes were the widows, sisters, children, parents, and other relatives who overcame their personal tragedy, went on with the business of living, and survived. Because the first three bodies found were those of one young seaman and two Indians.

When news of the identification reached the Reservation, almost all the Shinnecock not already there hurried to Montauk on horseback, by wagon, or on foot to continue the search and bring home their dead. After the first bodies had been discovered the previous day, the search intensified.

Captain Huntting was impatient to explore the wreck itself. On Monday morning the ocean, for the first time since the disaster, proved relatively calm, and Huntting and a crew of men rowed out to the ship. They could see down to the shrouds and rigging but no bodies were evident either on or near the wreck. The results of their expedition, plus the finding of the bodies four miles west of Montauk Point, led to conjecture that few men, if any, had lashed themselves to the rigging.

Before nightfall, eleven more bodies were recovered: three more Shinnecock, two of the apprentices, the cook, the sail maker, two more seamen, and Captains Williams and Lewis, Both the British Consul and the Coast Wrecking Company were immediately notified. On the midnight patrol a Georgica crewman found a corpse about a half mile east of the station house. The next day a farmer’s wagon brought still one more body to the Reservation. The body was that of David Bunn.

Tuesday, January 9, was the day scheduled for the burial of the Shinnecock. Only six bodies had been found, leaving four more bodies, those of John Walker, William Cuffee, Russell Bunn, and Oliver Kellis yet to be recovered.

The search for bodies continued. Eight more had yet to be found – those of the four Shinnecock, one apprentice and one seaman, and two wreckers; within the next few days all would be recovered. Later, the Shinnecock would be buried on the Reservation near the others.

Loss of the ten Shinnecock men was a demoralizing blow to their people. There were several young men away on whaling voyages, and it would be a minimum of two years before their return. The struggle against poverty had always been hard; in this severe winter, even survival would be difficult. The tribe, now numbering about 175 people on the Reservation would find the loss of so many breadwinners extremely hard to bear. In any independent community, small and already poor, such a loss was a disaster.

In the 1800’s the owner of a ship was not liable for loss of life upon his vessel, and wreckers engaged in their profession totally at their own risk. There would be no lawsuits, no settlements, nothing in the way of monetary compensation. Contributions received by Mr. Harsell in New York included several from the Roosevelt family, and one in particular from the household of Theodore Roosevelt. For several years, Mrs, Mary Rebecca Kellis had worked as a servant for the well-known family. “Aunt Becky” died in 1936 at nearly one hundred years of age. Frank Bunn, one of the men lost on the Circassian, was her brother. Though appreciated and helpful, none of the contributions were very large. For the Shinnecock, times ahead would still be difficult. 1

 

  1. http://www.thehamptons.com/indians/shipwreck/survivors.html , David Martine History Timeline pp. 55

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