Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
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       The Shipwreck of the Schooner Gannet, 1824

One never knows what he or she will find in reading the old newspapers of the Norfolk Virginian, grandfather of our Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

By accident, I came across this article reprinted word for word in the old Norfolk Virginian newspaper dated, February 2, 1877. This same article was in William S. Forrest’s book, Historical & Descriptive Sketches of Norfolk, & Vicinity, Norfolk, Virginia, page 170, published in 1853. For me to read this twice within a week seemed so unusual and very uncanny, a very odd experience. Was this story trying to get my attention to dive into the facts? This story had very little information except for the year 1824. It was nameless, with no name for the ship, captain or the crew. It is really a strange story, a complete enigma! I did not know what to think about this story. I’ll let you be the judge!

This shipwreck has become a mystery to me for the contents do not add up. Tracking down the facts and putting this in writing has not been an easy task, but the trail has been made easier by the Marine News of the 1824, local newspaper accounts of the American-Beacon of Norfolk & Portsmouth. Somehow the facts of the story, if it ever happened, never made any headlines in the newspapers. It is very strange and very puzzling for Mr. Forrest never revealed the ship’s name or the names of the passengers. He only gives the year, winter of 1824, and a man called Lt. G. In my investigation, I have uncovered ship’s name, the captain and Lt. G. that sailed out of Norfolk in the winter of 1824. But I question if I am right?

The Gannet was a brand new ship made in Portsmouth, Virginia, by William Dyson, of the best materials and fastened and coppered ballast trim, sails, and was remarkably fast. Her equipment consisted of two carriage guns, 4 pounders, six muskets and six cutlasses, when leaving Norfolk, Virginia, on the cold, bitter winter day of January 17, 1824.

A Reminiscence of 1824 by Forrest

“In the winter of 1824, Lieutenant G, of the United States Navy, with his beautiful wife and child embarked in a packet at Norfolk bound to Charleston, South Carolina. For the first day and night after their departure, the wind continued fair and the weather clear, but on the evening of the second day a severe gale sprung up, and towards midnight the captain judging himself much farther from the land then he really was, and dreading the Gulf Stream, hauled in for the course, but with the intention, it is presumed, of lying to when he supposed himself clear of the Gulf. Lieut. G did not approve of the captain's determination, and the result proved that his fears were well founded for towards morning the vessel grounded.”

“Vain it would be to attempt a description of the horror which was depicted on every countenance when the awful shock, occasioned by the striking of the vessel’s bottom, was first experienced. The terror of such situation can be known only to those who have themselves been shipwrecked. No others can have a tolerable idea of what passed in the minds of the wretched crew, as they gazed with vacant horror on the thundering elements ad felt that their frail bark must soon, perhaps the next thump, be dashed to pieces and they left at the mercy of the billows, with not even a plank between them and eternity! First comes the thumping of the vessel, next the dashing of the surge over the sides, then the careening of the vessel on her beam ended as lastly the crashing of spare and timbers at each receding wave, the whole forming a scene of confusion which no language can describe.”

“But what are the feelings of the ship-wreaked sailor compared to the agony of a fond husband and father who clasps in a last embrace his little world – his beloved wife and child. The land was in sight but to approach it was scarcely less dangerous than to remain in the raging sea around them. Lieutenant G was a brave seaman, accustomed to danger and quick in seizing upon every means of rescuing the unfortunate. But now, who called upon him for help? Who were they whose screams were heard louder than the roaring elements, imploring that said which no human power could afford? His wife and child! O, heart rending agony!”

“But why attempt to describe what few can imagine! In a word, the only boat which could be got was manned by two gallant tars.  Mrs. G. her child and its nurse were lifted into it, it was the thought of desperation! The freight was already too much. Mr. G saw this and knew that the addition of himself would diminish the chances of the boat’s reaching the shore in safety and horrible was the alternative. He himself gave the order, “Push off and make for the land, my brave lads! The last words that ever passed his lips. The order was obeyed; but ere the little boat had proceeded fifty yards (half distance to the beach) it was struck by a wave and capsized and boat, passengers and all enveloped in the angry surge. The wretched husband saw the destruction of all of them he held dear. But here, alas and forever, were shut out from him all sublunary prospects. He fell upon the deck, powerless, senseless, a corpse – the victim of a sublime sensibility.”

“But what of the unhappy wife and child? The answer shall be brief: Mrs. G was borne through the breakers to the shore by the brave sailors, the nurse was thrown upon the beach with the drowned infant in her arms. Mrs. G was taken to a hut, senseless and continued delirious for many days, but finally recovered her senses and with them a consciousness of the awful calamity which in almost a moment, made her a childless widow. “

“This is no fictitious story: It is a well authenticated fact, related by persons not long ago living.”

After reading this article twice within a week, why did the newspaper published this story again 46 years later? Did the newspaper just want to fill up space on the front page? Why no one ever investigated the names of these individuals when this accident first occurred is a mystery to me. No one ever knew the name of the ship, the Ship’s captain or the fellow passengers.

A good historian is a curious and nosy one. Nothing made any sense to me in this narrative. I decided to make my own investigation of this story and here is what I found using the year 1824.

After going through old newspapers on microfilm of Norfolk, but from other cities in America, I was able to piece together this unusual story, but it’s nothing like what Forrest describes. I questioned if this ever happened?  It is sad, after 198 years, no one ever bothered to get the full details. Why did William S. Forrest put this story in his book without checking the facts, especially the name of the schooner and who was Lt. G. But, after 198 years, I now can give you the full account of this narrative just by going through the year 1824.

According to the Norfolk-Portsmouth Journal, there was a schooner called the Gannet that sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, on a cold bitter day, January 17, 1824, to Charleston, South Carolina. I found the ad on the second page of the American-Beacon of Norfolk & Portsmouth. A few days later, American Beacon newspaper, Marine News, dated January 17, 1824, stated the schooner Gannet, with Master Jethro Howland was cleared (leaving) for South Carolina. Captain Jethro Howland was living in Portsmouth. The Gannet was the only schooner discovered leaving for South Carolina in winter months of 1824. 

In looking at the American Beacon dated, April 1, 1824, in the column, called, LIST OF LETTERS, (letters in Post-Office that had not been picked up) I found a man’s name listed in the G. column. The name was Lieut. F. B. Gamble. It was the only Lt. G. in this time frame. Could this be Lt. G?

Francis B. Gamble was a native of New Jersey and had come from a military family. In the Harper’s Ferry newspaper, dated October 20, 1824, he died on board the U.S. Schooner Decoy, a Store House ship which he had commanded, off of the coast of Cape Hatteras. His ship was heading for Key West on September 29, 1824. The New York Gazette carried his obituary. His illness was bilious fever. But nothing was mentioned about his wife or the tragic circumstances off the coast of South Carolina.                                  

Chronological Dates of the Gannet

Dec. 22, 1823, Monday, America Beacon, Lt. Col Gamble arrives in Portsmouth, Virginia on the ship US Decoy.

Saturday, January 17, 1824, American-Beacon Office, Gannet clears Norfolk harbor for Charleston, S.C.

Monday, February 2, 1824, from the American-Beacon Office News-Room, the schooner Gannet, Master Howland hence below Charleston, S.C.

Sunday, February 8, 1924, American-Beacon, Gannet reported below Charleston, S.C.

Tuesday, March 9, 1824, Ship, U.S. Decoy, Captain, Lt. Com. Gamble headed for
Thompson Island.

Thursday, March 18, 1824, the schooner Gannet sailed 29th from Havana for New Orleans.

Friday, April 2, 1824, LIST OF LETTERS, American Beacon, and Lt. F. B. Gable.

Friday, April 2, 1824, American-Beacon, Marine News, found a listing of a Capt. Howland who was master of the sloop Caroline, 4 days from Savannah with a ship full of rice to A. Q. Aymar & company.

Tuesday, April 6, 1824, Gannet, Capt. Howland arrives in New Orleans from Havana.

Monday, May 17, 1824, American-Beacon, uncertain, no information

Wednesday, June 2, 1824, No mention of the schooner Gannet.

Wednesday, June 23, 1824, the schooner Gannet (Howland) of Norfolk cleared at New Orleans 23 ult. for Tampico.

Friday, June 25, 1924, American-Beacon, Gannet clears New Orleans harbor. 22d ult. for Tampico

July 8, 1824, Gannet nothing.

Monday, Aug 30, 1824, Schooner Gannet Quarantine, 14 days from Baize.

Monday, August 30, 1824, died on Sunday, August 10, 1824, Captain Jethro Howland of the Gannet, illness of 12 days, Yellow Fever.

Thursday, September 9, 1824, Martinsburg Gazette, West Virginia, the schooner Gannet, under Capt. Seaward Jr, (late Howland) arrived at the Quarantine Ground yesterday in 14-day passage from New Orleans having sailed these on the 12th instant, at which time we regret to learn that the yellow fever was raging in that city. New cases were reported on the morning that the Gannet sailed. Capt. Howland commander of the Gannet had fallen victim.

Friday, September 10, 1824, Come up. Schooner Gannet, Capt. Seaward from New Orleans is now the captain, reported to D. Lyon & Co.

Wednesday, October 20, 1824, announcing the death of Lt. Gamble, going to Cape Hatteras, NC, Harpers Ferry Press.

Sunday, October 24, 1824, Harper’s Ferry Free Press, Lt. Frances D. Gamble died from bilious fever on his ship US Decoy. No mention was made concerning his wife and the horrible accident in South Carolina.

Monday, October 11, 1824, an advertisement appears the Norfolk Public Herald, at Gibson Wharf an AUCTION, One Half of the Schooner GANNET, burthen 104 tons, 12 months old with all her furniture and tackle. The vessel was built in Portsmouth, VA, by Mr. William Dyson of the best materials, fastened copper to ballast trim, and can be put to sea at a small expense. Mary Howland is the Administrator of her husband Jethro Howland's will, dec’d.

What happened to the schooner Gannet? Why did the Captain’s wife sell off half of the ship at auction on October 1824? Why did they not sell the whole ship? The schooner Gannet seems to have become quite a mystery ship. Was she in an accident during her tour of the Caribbean? But nothing was mentioned in the newspapers about running onto a sand bar or the rough surf off the coast of South Carolina. No deaths were reported. In fact this whole narrative seems so mysterious. Nothing matches up. Could I have made a miscalculation in putting my own facts and names together in this story? Could this be another completely different sea-story? You be the judge!

Interestingly, Captain Jethro Howland’s wife did not file any paperwork at the Norfolk County Court house (Chesapeake) concerning her husband’s death; no will, and no estate or inventory paperwork.  And most of all, maybe the author Mr. William S. Forrest got the wrong date, maybe 1824 was not the year. But we can truly say, this schooner Gannet was definitely a ship of great mystery.

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com