Most Latter-day Saint pioneers went to the Salt Lake Valley by traveling west across the land. But there were others, not often heard about, who went from the east coast of North America to the west coast by sailing all the way around South America and north to where San Francisco is now, then going overland east to the Valley. July 31st is the 150th anniversary of their arrival in California.
“Oceangoing Pioneers” is a four-part story about the experiences of a young boy who went with his parents on the Brooklyn. Although the story is fiction, it is based on actual happenings as recorded in Our Pioneer Heritage (a collection of journals and family histories of early pioneers), in various LDS seminary course Church history manuals, and in the History of the Church by B. H. Roberts.
When I heard that Mama, Papa, and I were going to California with a whole shipload of Latter-day Saints, I was excited and couldn’t wait for the trip to begin. The minute I saw the Brooklyn anchored in the East River, my heart started banging in my chest. Everything a company could possibly need in a new settlement was lugged on board and stowed in the hold.
On Wednesday, February 4, 1846, after several delays, the ship was finally ready to leave New York. We waved good-bye to the friends and relatives who had gathered on the dock, and were soon on our way on the cold, gray, rough Atlantic Ocean.
No one had warned me that I might be seasick, and I never imagined that someone could die at sea! A raging storm was the farthest thing from my mind—but the terrors of the trip started right away.
One morning, Papa and I watched from the deck as the sky darkened and a strong gust of wind whipped by. Seamen suddenly appeared on the run, shouting instructions to each other. They scrambled up the masts and began taking down the sails. The captain came out of his cabin and told all passengers to go below. “We might be in for a bit of a blow,” he said. “You’ll be safer in your rooms.”
We lurched along, fighting to stay upright. I’d just eaten breakfast, and my stomach felt squeamish.
When we got to the cabin, Mama had already climbed into the bunk and was hanging on so tightly that her knuckles were white. Our belongings had been tossed into a tangled heap on the floor. The furniture slid in one direction, then another, mashing things together as the ship tipped back and forth in the rough water.
Something was banging up on the deck.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“They’re battening down the hatches,” Papa said.
“Fastening canvas across the stairways by nailing on narrow strips of wood called battens.”
“You mean they’re nailing us in?” I felt all smothery just thinking about it. I never could stand to be in tight places. The thudding of the hammers overhead made me feel as if I were in a coffin with the lid being nailed down. “How can we get out?” I shouted in a panic.
“We can’t,” Papa answered, pushing me into the bottom berth just before a heavy chest skidded into me, “but the water can’t get in, either. That’s the idea.”
“What if I get sick?” I felt more and more like I was going to every minute.
“There’s the chamber pot,” Mama said.
“They’ll probably leave the hatchway to the captain’s cabin open,” Papa said. “He may need to come down for some reason, and it’s not exposed to the storm like the ones on the deck.”
Even though I knew that the captain’s hatchway was not for the use of the passengers, I felt better knowing that there was a possible way to get out.
All the lamps were extinguished except two in the hall. I hated the darkness.
The dim lights flickered as the tempest blustered and roared. I heard thundering thumps as huge waves crashed over the deck. I felt each upward thrust as the Brooklyn was lifted high on the surging crests. My breath was sucked out of me just as if I’d been punched in the stomach when the ship then dropped deep into the following yawning troughs of the wild and angry sea. The tired timbers of the old ship groaned and creaked as if they were splitting apart.
Babies screamed. Children cried out. The sick groaned for help. Mothers soothed and sang or joked or scolded. Men’s voices could be heard above the others, some impatient, some comforting.
“Don’t forget,” one brother said reverently, “that Jesus Christ stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee.” We prayed and sang hymns—louder and louder as the storm’s fury increased.
The fire in the stove had been doused, so no food could be cooked. It didn’t matter—no one on that rocking, rolling ship wanted to eat, anyway. Almost everyone was seasick.
The storm raged and roared all day. When night came, Papa tied us in our berths so that we wouldn’t be tossed about like beans in a bag. I slept little, hoping and praying for the storm to end. It didn’t. It got worse.
By morning, water was outside our door.
“How’d it get here?” I asked Papa.
“It must have come down the captain’s hatchway. It either washed through his cabin—or his cabin’s gone.”
“A storm like this could shatter it or sweep it right off the deck.”
“The captain too?”
“It’s possible,” Papa said. “But I doubt it.”
“Neither my cabin nor I have been swept away yet, lad,” Captain Richardson said, appearing behind Papa, “but I’m here to speak seriously to all the passengers.”
The singing stopped immediately.
“My friends,” he began, “there is a time in every man’s life when it is fitting that he should prepare to die. That time has come to us, for unless God interposes, we shall all go to the bottom. I have done all in my power, but this is the worst gale I have ever known since I have been master of a ship.”
One man replied, “Captain Richardson, we were sent to California. We shall get there.”
Another said, “Captain, I have no more fear than though we were on solid land.”
The captain shook his head in disbelief at their calmness. As he left, he muttered, “They are either fools and fear nothing, or they know more than I do.”
The wind-driven sea continued to lash and crash against the ship for four terrifying days. The foul air below was almost unbearable. “I can’t breathe,” I gasped, and Papa braved the dangers to take me up the only open hatchway.
We met the captain on the deck and watched the spars whip dangerously as the ship rolled on the rough sea. Then a Baptist—the captain—and two Mormons—Papa and I—prayed together for the safety of the ship.
The storm ended. The Brooklyn had survived the first terrifying trial of the voyage. But the Atlantic adventures were just beginning!
(To be continued)