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Shipwreck of Brother Jonathan is ground zero in treasure squabble

Sidewheel steamer’s sinking was a major maritime disaster for Oregon; treasure hunters found the gold-laden wreck in 1993, touching off a big, undignified catfight with the state of California over salvage rights

Ship's wheel from the shipwrecked Brother Jonathan steamship
The ship's wheel of the Brother Jonathan, which floated ashore after the
wreck, can be seen today in the lobby of Dan and Louis' Oyster Bar in
Old Town Portland.

On the afternoon of July 30, 1865, three-year-old Charles Brooks burst into tears.

Charles was staying with his grandparents in California’s Napa Valley while his mother, Mrs. A.C. Brooks, and his aunt, Mary Place, journeyed to Portland. Charles had been perfectly happy there until a little after 2 p.m., when he suddenly melted down and could not be consoled. His puzzled grandparents did the best they could, but he wouldn’t stop crying.

All they could get the little guy to say was something about his mother and Aunt Mary going down in water.

More than 300 miles away, just off the Oregon-California border, Charles’ mother and aunt were drowning, along with 223 of their fellow passengers on the sidewheel steamer Brother Jonathan, in the cold waters of the North Pacific.

Somehow — if the following week’s Oregon Statesman newspaper, the source of this account, is to be believed — little Charles knew.

The ship: A Gold-Rush-era paddlewheel steamer

The Brother Jonathan was a 220-foot paddlewheel-driven steamer built in 1851 in New York and owned for some time by Cornelius Vanderbilt. Like many other East Coast steamers it had been brought around the horn during the latter days of the California gold rush.

The Brother Jonathan steamer after it was refitted and modernized in 1859.
An image of the Brother Jonathan from after the ship had been
retrofitted in 1859.

It became an important ship in Oregon history. In 1859, it was the Brother Jonathan that brought the message to Oregon that it had been admitted to the union as a new state. This was especially symbolic, since “Brother Jonathan” was at the time the name of an imaginary mascot for the United States — like “Uncle Sam.”

The shipwreck

The Brother Jonathan’s last day in the sunlight came six years later. The steamer was on its way from San Francisco to Portland with 244 passengers and crew. On the way, a storm tormented the ship and eventually got bad enough that the captain, having gotten as far as Rogue River, turned the ship around to bring her back to Crescent City for safety reasons.

On the way back, a particularly lusty wave picked the Brother Jonathan up high, and the following trough spitted the ship on an underwater granite spire. It began to sink immediately.

The first of the Brother Jonathan’s complement of Francis Patent Metallic Lifeboats, launched in the storm with about 40 people aboard, had just pulled away from the wreck when a breaker roared over it. When it was seen next, it was upside down.

1950s postcard view of Dan and Louis's Oyster Bar in downtown Old Town Portland. The Brother Jonathan's wheel can be seen at the end of the bar.
This postcard image of Dan and Louis' Oyster Bar, from the 1950s,
shows the Brother Jonathan's ship's wheel at the end of the bar. The
wheel has since been moved to the lobby.

The second lifeboat didn’t even make it that far. A wave crushed it against the hull of the Brother Jonathan before the crew even had the oars out.

The only survivors of the disaster were 19 people on a small surfboat that somehow made it to shore.

As for the others, a classified ad in the daily San Francisco newspaper Alta California put the crassest possible epitaph on their watery graves: “We venture to say that everyone on board the BROTHER JONATHAN would have been saved if they had Houston, Hasting & Co. Life Preserving Vests,” it clucked.

Considering that many of the bodies that washed up on Oregon and California beaches after the wreck were sporting life vests, this claim was certainly questionable, and was in terrible taste. But there may have been something to it. At the time, many life preservers were stuffed with tule, which provided minimal flotation and eventually became waterlogged. I haven't been able to learn if the Brother Jonathan was equipped with tule-stuffed life jackets or not. But in water as cold as the North Pacific, the question is close to irrelevant. In 50-degree water, cold is the real killer of shipwreck victims.

Was the ship overloaded?

A common version of this story has the captain of the Brother Jonathan noticing the ship was dangerously overloaded, but sailing anyway after being told he'd be relieved of command if he did not.

This is possible, but I have not been able to find any credible original sources for it and it would be utterly out of character for the captain of a major passenger ship to allow this sort of interference with his command. And it would not be easy to find a commanding officer to replace one who had quit under these conditions.

The treasure hunts

After the wreck, the beach was littered with debris washed up on shore -- including the ship's wheel, which can now be seen in the lobby of Dan and Louis' Oyster Bar in Old Town Portland.

But plenty of other things didn’t wash up on shore. In the hold of the Brother Jonathan was a substantial shipment of gold intended to buy off the territorial claims of a number of Native American tribes. So naturally, treasure hunters wasted very little time in getting to the scene.


The rocky reef on which the Brother Jonathan came to grief is believed
to be Jonathan Rock, just south of the Oregon-California state line .
[View larger map]

For well over a century, nobody got anywhere with these efforts. The range of ocean in which the ship might have gone down extended from Crescent City all the way up to the mouth of the Rogue River. Nobody knew for sure where it was.

Then, in the 1930s, a fisherman pulling in his net found a crumpled, rusty mass in it — an old Francis Patent Metallic Lifeboat. Wedged under one of the seats, the fisherman claimed, was a rotten leather valise containing 22 pounds of gold.

(I use the term “claimed” because something about this story isn't right. Leather doesn't last 70 years under 250 feet of seawater — especially not in a crab fishery.)

Unfortunately, private possession of gold was illegal at the time, so the fisherman hid his find away. By the time gold ownership was legalized again, he couldn’t remember where he’d found it … or so he claimed.

It wasn’t until 1993 that a high-tech treasure hunting expedition found the wreckage of the ship in about 250 feet of water off the coast — touching off a legal argument over salvage rights to historic shipwrecks between the treasure hunters and the state of California. Even after the U.S. Supreme Court found in the treasure hunters' favor, the state persisted, until it was bought off with a share of the treasure.

Coins from the Brother Jonathan shipwreck are on the market today and can be bought from Austin Rare Coins and Bullion.

(Sources: Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford & Mort, 1984; Farrell, John Alouysius. “Power struggle surfaces on claim to shipwrecks,” The Boston Globe, 01-04-1998; The Oregon Statesman, 08-07-1865; Griffith, John. “Squabbling over a shipwreck,” The Oregonian, 09-27-1996)