The packet ship1 Powhattan
was built in 1839. The wooden schooner
was under the control of one Captain Meyers
, with about 25 crew members.
In early March, 1854, the ship left le Havre, France2, most likely headed for Atlantic City, New Jersey, carrying 311 German immigrants. In mid-April, the ship got caught in a serious snowstorm near Long Beach Island, NJ, just 45 miles from Atlantic City. The ship hit Barnegat Shoal, a mere 100 yards offshore from where Surf City, New Jersey now sits, and sank fairly quickly in the rough waters.
Because of the weather, the lifeboat station just six miles away was unable to send help.
The state had appointed "wreckmasters" along the shoreline to deal with disasters like these. The local wreckmaster, Edward Jennings, was stationed at the nearby Mansion of Health. As bodies slowly washed ashore, he was responsible for salvaging valuable items and accounting for bodies until funeral arrangements could be made. Only about 140 bodies washed ashore here (more were found along the coast, all the way down to Atlantic City, which buried about 54 bodies in one cemetery and 45 in another), but the bodies and any salvageable items were piled along the beach near the Mansion. When the coroner arrived, he noticed that there was no money to be found on any of the bodies.3 Meanwhile, the bodies were buried in a cemetery in nearby Manahawkin.
A pile of cut-open leather money-belts were found under a cedar tree after another storm several months later, all of them empty. Jennings insisted upon his innocence, but fled the town in disgrace and died in a brawl in San Francisco a few years later.
For a year, the Mansion of Health floundered and finally failed. The building stood until a fire burned it down in 1874. Sometime in 1861, a group of young men attempted to stay overnight in the building, but were frightened out by an apparition of a woman carrying a child. The woman occasionally appeared in the windows of the Mansion for some years afterward. Other people claimed to have heard the wails of the doomed passengers during the night. Once the building burned down, and another building that had been placed there was moved across the streets, accounts of hauntings dwindled. A monument was erected in memory of the lost passengers in 1904. It is thought that the destruction of the memory of Edward Jennings and the commemoration of the tragedy has calmed the spirits.
For all the tragedy of the shipwreck, though, all was not a loss: due to the fiasco regarding the ill repair of the lifeboats and the lack of training of any rescue workers, United States Senator Hannibal Hamlin instigated an investigation by the Secretary of the Treasury as to the quality and capabilities of the rescue stations along the East Coast. This eventually led to the establishment of government-funded organization to maintain manpower and equipment and train personnel. Thus, the United States Life-Saving Service was born.
It's worth mentioning that there were several other ships with names quite similar to this one. One, the USS Pohwatan
, served on Commodore Perry
's expedition to Japan
in 1852-54, was active in the Civil War
, and was sold privately in 1887. Other vessels include the Powhatan, which explode
d in 1823; the Powhatan which burn
ed in 1916 (this may have been the USS Powhatan); the Powhaton, which was stranded in 1796; the Powhattan, which was damaged in a gale in 1920; and the Powhatten, lost in 1851. It's interesting that half of the ships with this name were destroy
ed in some manner.
It's likely that these ships were named after misspellings of the Powhatan nation, of which Pocahontas was a member.
- packet ship
- a ship which carries mail
s, and people
from The New Lexicon Webster's Dictionary
2 - The fact is very heavily disputed due to the lack of information on the ship. Some resources have the point of origin as Bremen, Germany.
3 - It was typical for immigrants to carry as many of their belongings as they could with them, including and especially cash.