A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
Gold Rush Navigation: 1849 from New York to "New York"
From: Frank Reed CT
Date: 2005 Jul 2, 22:57 EDT
From: Frank Reed CT
Date: 2005 Jul 2, 22:57 EDT
In late summer of 1848, word reached the east coast of the United States that gold had been discovered in the hills of Northern California. Vessels of all sizes and types were soon sailing for the Pacific. The logbook of one such vessel, the ship Sabina, is in the collection of the G.W. Blunt-White Library at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut, and it is available on the web for reading. It's a fascinating story. The journal was apparently written by Henry Green who was responsible for the vessel's navigation from New York to San Francisco. [Both the original scans and a text transcript are online at _www.mysticseaport.org/library/initiative/MsList.cfm_ (http://www.mysticseaport.org/library/initiative/MsList.cfm) . Although the text loads reliably, the scans and other images frequently do not]. The ship Sabina carried hopeful forty-niners from eastern Long Island, New York. They formed themselves into a corporation which they called the "Southampton and California Mining and Trading Company" and set sail from Sag Harbor in early February 1849. On board were some 83 men, mostly in the company, but also some additional passengers, every one of them hoping to become fabulously wealthy in the gold mines of California. Many of the men onboard had experience at sea. Sag Harbor was an important whaling port, and no doubt, some had even seen the coast of California on earlier whaling voyages. I have no details on the Sabina, but it's clear that this expedition was organized hastily, and the vessel leaked excessively and nearly sank. The navigation on the Sabina is an interesting example from the transitional period when chronometers might still be suspect and "lunars" were still a valuable check on their performance. And like the leaky vessel itself, it seems that the chronometer aboard the Sabina was barely acceptable. As I've done with a few other logbooks, I've prepared a map showing the Sabina's latitude and longitude throughout the voyage. Longitudes by Lunars are marked in yellow. The map is available here: www.HistoricalAtlas.com/lunars/sabina.gif The ocean navigation on the Sabina begins off Montauk, New York, the eastern tip of Long Island where the navigator "takes his departure" on February 8, 1849. They travel with the winds and currents east across the Atlantic for two weeks, most of the time spent manning the pumps just trying to stay afloat. The navigator notes on February 17, 1849 near latitude 36N, longitude 42W that "I have not had a chance for a Lunar observation since we left home and am not able to say whether the Chronometer is correct or not." He doesn't get his first lunar until March 1, 1849 and on that date finds the longitude by the Moon is 33 29'W while the chronometer gives 34 00'W. At this point he trusts the chronometer longitude more. Note that on this date in the mid-Atlantic, the Moon's elongation from the Sun would have been about 85 degrees and waxing. This again fits with the pattern that I've seen in many nineteenth century logbooks. Lunar distance sights were taken preferentially, using the Sun as the other body, for a couple of days around First Quarter and Last Quarter. The longitude, either by dead reckoning or balky chronometer, could be trusted well enough for the ten or twelve days between those prefered lunar distance periods. Sailing steadily southward, on March 8th, the navigator of the Sabina notes "An eclipse of the moon nearly total at 1/2 past 10 in the evening." In an earlier era, the timing of an eclipse might have been useful for navigation, but not any longer. It's mentioned merely as an interesting phenomenon in the heavens. Amongst the company members, gold fever is in full swing. They form a debating society for amusement and the logbook notes: "The first debate came off this evening. The Question was this: will the Discovery of the gold mines in California prove a blessing or a curse to the United States and the world. Decision - a blessing." On March 16, 1849, the navigator notices that there is trouble with the chronometer. He takes lunars for four out of five days around Last Quarter, and the longitude by the Moon is consistently about three degrees to the west of the longitude by chronometer . This is a serious discrepancy. They also "speak" several other ships in this period, and although there's no mention of it, it's likely that they double-checked longitude in these communications. Through the next New Moon, the navigator carries forward the longitude by lunar account, and apparently ignores the chronometer. [notice in the map on my web site that the lunar longitudes are offset well west of the chronometer longitudes here --near the equator in the Atlantic] Around First Quarter, the next opportunity for lunars, the navigator of the Sabina again gets lunar longitudes for four out of five days. The difference in longitude is now nearly five degrees. For example, on March 29th, the longitude by chronometer is 32 19'W while the longitude by lunar distance is 37 14'W. Since the Sabina is short on fresh water, and probably also because of this uncertainty in longitude, the company and crew decide to stop at the Island of St. Catherines (Ilha Santa Catarina) off the coast of southern Brazil. They stay there for two weeks and encounter a half-dozen large vessels with a total of some 600 American men all bound for California... During the remainder of the voyage, lunars are taken occasionally. Again as was common practice, for a couple of days around First Quarter and Last Quarter. There is one instance, on June 11, 1849, where a lunar distance observation was taken when the Moon's elongation was around 107 degrees. This is a bit unusual, but there was a good navigational reason for it. The Sabina was approaching the Island of Juan Fernandez (of Alexander Selkirk and Robinson Crusoe fame). This was a popular stop for fresh water and other provisions, but if the longitude were incorrect, a vessel could easily sail west for it when it had already passed the correct longitude (or vice versa as Anson and the crew of the Centurion discovered a little over a hundred years before the voyage of the Sabina). In this case, the lunar longitude proved that the chronometer was behaving on this leg of the voyage. After Juan Fernandez, the navigation of the Sabina is relatively uneventful though it is interesting to note that the navigator tends to record the longitude in "round numbers". That is, he lists his longitude (either dead reckoning or by chronometer in this stretch) to the nearest ten minutes or the nearest fifteen. For example, in the fourteen day period beginning on June 27, 1849, the minutes of the recorded longitude end in 0 or 5 on twelve out of the fourteen days. These are probably dead reckoning longitudes, and of course, it's very reasonable practice. The Sabina at this point is northbound near the equator around longitude 110 West. An exact longitude is not much use in that part of the Pacific Ocean. [I should note that the longitude was also recorded this way during other legs of the voyage. In fact during the first eighteen days of the voyage, every single recorded longitude ends in 0 or 5.] Through July and early August, the Sabina sails up to the latitude of San Francisco but fully 12 degrees of longitude to the west (0ver 550 nautical miles). Better safe than sorry at this point, I suppose. Then they head due east and begin looking for land. They reach the coast of California about fifty miles north of San Francisco on August 6, 1849. As they spend the next few days coasting down to the city, all references to longitude are dropped from the logbook though the noon latitude is still taken and recorded. On August 12, the Sabina comes to anchor far up inside San Francisco Bay, almost fifty miles from San Francisco itself, near the head of navigation. Their final anchorage is off the modern day city of Pittsburg, California (named for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during a "coal rush" fifty years later). In the 1840s, this dusty little frontier town was known optimistically as "The City of New York on the Pacific". And there in "New York" the ocean voyage of the Sabina ends. After anchoring off the "City of New York", the tale of the "Southampton and California Mining and Trading Company" continues in Green's journal, and I won't spoil the excitement for you. Just five days after arriving in California, Green writes, "This is my Birth Day 55 years old this day and here I am in California and a going into the mines to dig for gold. Who would have thought it but so it is and may our Labors be crowned with the best of success." If you're interested in reading what happens to the crew and company of the Sabina, I recommend reading the rest of the journal on the Seaport's web site. I will add this footnote for the vessel itself: less than nine months after arriving in California, she sets sail one more time... a skeleton crew sails her down from the "City of New York" back to San Franciso so that she can be sold to the highest bidder. -FER 42.0N 87.7W, or 41.4N 72.1W. www.HistoricalAtlas.com/lunars