Navy schooner doomed by skipper’s fear of skipping sailors
As sailors melted away to take advantage of the opportunities in the new Oregon country, their captain sweated bullets; they could not be replaced. But his haste to get back out to sea while he still could set the stage for disaster.
By Finn J.D. John — July 26, 2015
LOWER COLUMBIA RIVER, 1846— History is not always made by the “great.” Sometimes key points in history turn on people like 25-year-old ex-sailor John Tice.
Tice, according to the United States Navy, “pretends to be a blacksmith, but is a bungler at that or any other business he undertakes.”
The officer who wrote those words had no idea how much Tice’s “bungling” would affect him personally. There’s some reason to believe that Tice and a half dozen of his fellow sailors were ultimately responsible for one of the most storied shipwrecks of the 1800s — and, incidentally, for putting the “cannon” in Cannon Beach.
They did this by quitting — slipping away from the U.S. Navy schooner U.S.S. Shark during its two-month survey-and-exploration mission of the Oregon country, during the summer of 1846.
Sailors deserting from that particular ship at that particular time in the Oregon country posed a massive problem for their skipper. They could not be replaced. The only non-Native American men in the Oregon Territory in 1846 were people who had paid vast sums and made enormous sacrifices to get there. Nobody who had made the grueling overland journey along the Oregon Trail would ever think of signing onto a Navy ship for seaman’s wages after arriving there. Especially not in the summertime.
Moreover, the residents of Astoria — where the men were believed to be hiding out — showed no sign of responding to the generous bounties offered for their recapture. It looked like the deserters were home free, in a wild new state full of freedom and opportunity.
This fact was not lost on the other sailors on the Shark, who were already resentful of the Navy’s official policy on ships in port — designed to prevent desertion. The policy was, sailors were denied any shore leave, and had to remain on board the ship even when it was securely anchored in the same place for days on end.
As a result, on shore, sailors could see the generous sunshine and scenic beauty of a temperate northwest Oregon summer — but they couldn’t go experience it.
Now they were beginning to see that if they could but slip away in the middle of the night, their chances of getting away clean were pretty good. And if enough of them acted on that realization, the Shark’s captain, Lt. Neil M. Howison, stood a pretty good chance of getting stranded there, without enough crew members to sail back home.
And so, in the grand old tradition of haste making waste, Howison wrapped up his business in record time and ordered his ship out to sea with an almost panicky urgency — when a delay of a few days would probably have made all the difference between success and soggy, chilly, humiliating failure.
The hunter of slave ships
The U.S.S. Shark may have been the most historically significant floating object to enter the Columbia River in the entire 19th century. It had been built 25 years before, and still represented a powerful threat as a Navy ship.
It was a small ship, just 86 feet long and displacing 200 tons. It was designed as a pirate hunter, intended to help make the Caribbean Sea a less dangerous place for American merchant ships. Its hull was that of a Baltimore clipper, and it was rigged as a topsail schooner, with aggressively raked masts and a colossal square topsail on the main, all of which made it extraordinarily fast while keeping its draft shallow.
The Shark also was endowed with a particularly hefty load of firepower for such a small warship: a pair of rifled long guns throwing nine-pound cannonballs, and eight beefy, short-range carronades throwing 32-pound charges.
This combination would have been a deadly one in a fight with any pirate ship of the day. But its first assignment, in 1821, was to operate against a different kind of pirate: slave traders. The slave trade had been outlawed for American skippers and traders in 1808, but that hadn’t ended the practice, and American, Portugese and French smugglers continued hauling unfortunate Africans across the sea to plantations of sugar and cotton in the Caribbean and the American South.
Of course, the rescued slaves had to be taken somewhere. So in 1821, the year it was launched, the Shark brought Dr. Eli Ayres to Sierra Leone to acquire land in West Africa for what would become the nation of Liberia — where the former slaves were resettled after being rescued from their hellships (and, in most cases, nursed back to health).
Later the Shark’s captain, Matthew Perry — the same man who famously visited and “opened” Japan some years later — found and formally took possession of a Caribbean island that he dubbed Thompson’s Island, after the U.S. Secretary of the Navy. Thompson’s Island is, today, better known as Key West.
Then in 1839, the doughty little schooner became the first U.S. Navy ship to ever pass through the notoriously stormy and dangerous Strait of Juan de Fuca from east to west, making its way to the Pacific Ocean.
Meanwhile, things were brewing on the west side of the new nation that the Navy thought might require a little gunboat diplomacy — in particular a forthcoming war with Mexico and growing strife with the British over who was going to control what part of the Oregon country. And in 1846, the Shark got orders to exercise that gunboat diplomacy on the Columbia River.
Those pesky limeys
The British had had the upper hand in the Oregon country nearly from the start, with their professional and well-run Hudson’s Bay Company outpost at Fort Vancouver. The entire area in question, in addition to today's Oregon, included Washington as well, along with much of British Columbia; and it had been held under a joint-occupancy treaty since the conclusion of the War of 1812.
By the early 1840s, though, this treaty had started showing strain. What started as a tiny trickle of American emigrants showing up and claiming homesteads turned, after about 1843, into a great torrent of covered wagons. By the time the Shark arrived, the territory — which, just seven years earlier had been virtually all British — was peppered with American sodbusters, some of whom were starting to jump the claims of the Hudson’s Bay Company north of the Columbia.
Tensions were getting very high. The slogan “Fifty-four forty or fight!” was coined about this time among Eastern newspapers — meaning that the Americans were determined to have all the territory, clear up to the boundary of Russian America (now Alaska). The British weren’t keen to fight, but fairly confident that if they did, they’d win this time. Clearer American heads agreed, and were working hard to come to some kind of arrangement by which these two great international powers could be prevented from getting into a massive, bloody war over a tiny frontier outpost in the middle of nowhere.
By the end of the Shark’s time in Oregon waters, it had been quite successful. The British got the message as intended; meanwhile, with officers of the United States Navy on the scene to enforce the law, rogue American settlers were much more tractable, and several land disputes were settled in favor of the British, whose authority the American settlers had been unwilling to recognize. Had it not been for the pesky problem of sailors deserting to join the settlers’ ranks, Captain Howison would have been most pleased with the success of his mission.
Instead, he found himself hurrying through his duties, racing against time, desperate to get his mission done and the bar behind him before a critical mass of his sailors figured out how to get off the ship.
That haste would cost him greatly — although his loss in 1846 would be our gain today. We’ll talk about that in next week’s column.
(Sources: Shine, Greg P. “A Gallant Little Schooner,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Dec. 2008; Gibbs, James Jr. Pacific Graveyard. Portland: Binford, 1950; www.cbhistory.org)