From the northeastern United States, Latter-day Saints converged in New York City in the winter of 1845–46. Lacking means to travel overland to Nauvoo, Illinois, these Saints answered the call of Church leaders to gather to the West by pooling their money and chartering a ship. Under the leadership of Brother Samuel Brannan, who had been appointed by Elder Orson Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, they would sail around South America’s Cape Horn to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and then on to California, crossing the equator twice in the process, making perhaps the longest religious sea pilgrimage in recorded history.
On 4 February 1846 (coincidentally the same day Nauvoo Saints started to cross the Mississippi River in their departure), 238 men, women, and children—mostly families who did not have the financial means to go overland to the West—boarded ship and watched as Captain Abel Richardson maneuvered them out of New York harbor. Small and well-worn, the 450-ton Brooklyn was a typical three-masted, full-rigged Yankee trading ship. The 2,500 square feet of cramped space between decks became the living quarters for families, with a long table, backless benches, and sleeping bunks all bolted to the deck. In the low-ceiling area, only children could stand upright. Below, crammed into the hold, were water barrels, crates of chickens, 2 cows, 40 pigs, 2 sawmills, a gristmill, tools for 800 farmers, a printing press, and much more of everything they thought would be needed away from “civilization.”
Rules, regulations, and routines kept the voyage peaceful. Church members participated in Sunday religious services and formed a choir. Bored, many turned to reading in the 179 volumes of the Harper’s Family Library donated by Joshua M. Cott, a prominent Brooklyn attorney.
Four days out, a storm besieged the ship, a gale so severe that Captain Richardson called it the worst he had ever seen. For three nights, women and children were lashed to their berths as the ship tossed and plunged into mountainous waves. When the captain went below deck to tell his passengers to prepare to die, he found them praying and singing hymns to block out the noise of the storm. Faithful and fearless, one woman replied, “We were sent to California and we shall get there.”1 All survived the storm.
Blown nearly to the Cape Verde Islands off the northwest coast of Africa, the Brooklyn was now in a position to take advantage of easterly trade winds—a hidden blessing for the travelers.
Two days later, the infant son of Joseph Nichols died, and a week later 59-year-old Elias Ensign died. Then, like the silver lining of a cloud after a storm, on 24 February Sarah Burr gave birth to a son, named John Atlantic Burr.
But the interlude was brief. On 28 February, George, the son of John R. Robbins, died of scarlet fever. After the ship crossed the equator on 3 March, it was caught in the doldrums, in “muggy, oppressive heat, motionless on a sea like molten glass” for about four days.2 Even though Captain Richardson tried to protect the passengers who went up to the deck for fresh air by providing an awning, they suffered terribly. One passenger wrote, “We were so closely crowded that the heat of the Tropics was terrible, but ‘mid all our trials the object of our journey was never forgotten. The living faith was there and was often manifested.”3
Within days, four more died, and before they reached the tip of South America, another three were wrapped in a shroud, weighted, and slipped over the edge of the boat.
When the dreaded Cape Horn was skirted without incident, passengers thought their journey’s woes were over as the ship headed for Valparaiso, Chile, to replenish supplies. Their drinking water had become so thick and slimy it had to be strained between the teeth. Rats abounded in the vessel, and cockroaches and smaller vermin infested the provisions.
But before they reached Chile, a storm hit and drove them back almost to the Cape. The skilled captain headed instead for the Juan Fernández Islands, 360 miles off the coast of Chile. Pregnant Laura Goodwin died after a fall during this storm and left a husband and 7 children. She was buried in a cave—the only one of 11 passengers and one sailor who died during the voyage to be spared a watery grave. Ashore, the passengers bathed, did laundry, obtained fresh fruit and potatoes, caught and salted fish, put 18,000 gallons of fresh water into the ship’s casks, and stocked up on firewood. “If we had gone to Valparaiso, it would have cost us hundreds of dollars; thus showing to us the hand of the Lord and His overruling Providence and care for His people,”4 passenger William Glover wrote, reflecting upon the expense of supplies in Chile as opposed to opportunities to fish and gather fresh food and water on the tropical island.
Soon they reboarded the Brooklyn and headed for the Sandwich Islands. Phoebe Robbins, after burying two sons in the Atlantic, gave birth to a daughter, Georgiana Pacific Robbins, just a week before they sailed into the harbor at Oahu. Yet the deaths continued. Orren and Ann Smith and their sick infant son, Orren, stayed behind when the Brooklyn left Honolulu. The baby died on 5 July in Honolulu, the last casualty of the long pilgrimage. Among the causes of death listed for those who died on the voyage were scarlet fever, consumption (tuberculosis), and, among the children, diarrhea and dehydration.
On 31 July 1846, the Pacific pilgrims finally reached their destination—a little village of about 150 people, Yerba Buena, later renamed San Francisco. There they learned that United States forces had taken California in a war with Mexico and that only three weeks earlier a U.S. warship had sailed into Yerba Buena, planted the U.S. flag, and taken over the Mexican village. Because they had crossed the equator twice and passed south of Cape Horn, they had experienced extremes in weather, including both tropical and arctic storms. At one point they had lowered men over the sides to chip ice off the ship, the ice being dangerous because of the weight and hindrance to mobility. Weather problems, sickness and deaths, crowded conditions, and limited provisions led one woman to say, “Of all the memories of my life, not one is so bitter as that dreary six months’ voyage, in an emigrant ship, round the Horn.”5
Church members had no choice but to remain in California until they knew where the main body of the Church would settle. Soon Brother Brannan sent 20 of them to start a small farm settlement, New Hope, 70 miles east of Yerba Buena.
In December 1846, six months after the arrival of the Brooklyn Saints, members of the Mormon Battalion joined them in California. Surprisingly, at the end of 1846 most of the American settlers in California were Latter-day Saints. In fact, by 1847 there were over 500 members in California, and San Francisco was “for a time very largely a ‘Mormon town.’”6
It would be a year before President Brigham Young would arrive in the Salt Lake Valley on 24 July 1847. Meanwhile, many of the Brooklyn Saints enjoyed the California climate and opportunities so much they decided to remain there. In time, about one-third of the oceangoing pioneers joined the main body of the Church in the intermountain West.
During the spring of 1847, Brother Brannan with two others rode east to find President Young and attempted to convince him to bring the Saints to coastal California to settle. Brother Brannan met President Young’s advance, exploratory company near the Green River in Wyoming and accompanied them to the Salt Lake Valley, where he taught the pioneers how to make California adobe bricks. But failing to convince President Young to bring the Saints to the coast, Sam Brannan left disappointed on 9 August and returned to California. Sam Brannan eventually rose to wealth and prominence in California, lost the faith, and died years later in poverty.
The historic contributions of the Brooklyn Saints are considerable: as far as is known they were the “first colony of home-seekers with women and children to sail around Cape Horn, the first group of Anglo settlers to come to California by water, and the first group of colonists to arrive after United States forces took California.”7 Their contributions to the San Francisco Bay area are numerous, including the first public school, the first bank, the first newspaper, the first post office, the first wheat grown, and the first library. Theirs is yet another example of the indomitable pioneer spirit found among Latter-day Saint pioneers, whether on the overland trail or on the sea.