Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sloop Henry ~ 5 December 1819

Soon after the end of the War of 1812, newspapers began featuring news of ship losses, and from that time on the record of North Carolina shipwrecks is detailed. The following letter, written at Ocracoke Island, December 10, 1819, is an example of the type of information reported by shipwreck survivors of that time. It's a gripping first-person account written by Captain Israel Hand of the American sloop Henry, bound from New York to Charleston, SC. Caught in a gale, the Henry was driven on the Ocracoke Bar, about four miles from shore. Passengers and crew were washed off one by one, or died from exposure, until only Hand remained. Twenty-four hours after capsizing, the sloop's stern broke off from the wreck and drifted toward shore with Captain Hand:

Norfolk Beacon and Portsmouth Adviser
January 15, 1820:

“I have a melancholy affair to relate. I am the only one living of the crew and passengers of the sloop Henry. We left New York on Monday, 30 November. On Wednesday following experienced a heavy gale, but received no damage, only split our jib, which after the gale, was unbent and repaired. On Friday afternoon following, took the wind from the southward, blowing fresh. Saturday morning made Cape Lookout lighthouse, hove about and stood off, wind canting in from the southeast, and the gale and sea increasing so fast that we were obliged to heave to.
     Lay to until 5 o’clock p.m., then began to shoal water fast, and blowing, instead of a gale, a perfect hurricane. We set the head of the foresail to try to get offshore, but to no use, it blowing away in an instant; likewise the jib. We then lay to under the balance of the mainsail until we got in 10 and 9 fathoms water, when the sea began to break and board us, which knocked us on our beam ends, carried away our quarter, and swept the deck. She righted, and in about five minutes capsized again, which took off our mainsail. We were then left to the mercy of the wind and waves, which were continually raking us fore and aft. With much exertion we got her before the wind and sea, and in a few minutes after run her ashore on the south beach of Ocracoke Bar, four miles from land.
     She struck about 10 o’clock at night, bilged in a few minutes, and got on her beam ends, every sea making a fair breach over her. At 12 o’clock her deck blew up and washed away altogether, and broke in two near the hatchway. The bow part turned bottom up, the stern part righted. Mr. Kinley (passenger) and Wm. Bartlett (seaman) washed off. The remainder of us got on the taffil rail, and that all under water. About 2 o’clock a.m., Mr. Campbell (the other passenger) and Wm. Shoemaker (cook) expired and dropped from the wreck. About 4 o’clock, Jesse Hand (seaman) became so chilled that he washed off. At daylight, Mr. Hawley (mate) died, and fell from along side of me into his watery grave, which I expected every moment would be my own lot. But thro’ the tender mercy of God, I survived on the wreck 24 hours alone.
     On Monday morning, about 2 o’clock, the stern broke away and I went with it. At sunrise I was taken off, so much mangled and bruised that few persons thought I could survive. I, however, am gaining, having received the kindest treatment, and every possible care from the inhabitants. My chest has been picked up, but it had been opened, and all my clothes of value taken out. I am here almost naked and shall try to get home as soon as I am able.
     The vessel and cargo are a total loss. The fragments have drifted into Albemarle Sound. I have heard of some barrels being picked up some distance from the sound, but the heads all out. I have noted a protest, and shall have it extended according to law. I wish this published. It is the first of my being able to write. There is no way of conveying letters from this place except by water. The bodies of Wm. Bartlett and Jesse Hand have been picked up and decently buried.” Signed: Captain Hand

At the time of the incident there was no organized life-saving service along North Carolina's coast, so operations of rescue were mostly carried out by good samaritans. What washed ashore was sometimes considered fair game to anyone that came across the wreck, which may have been justified by the 'wreckers' since the victims of a shipwreck owed their lives to them. The following chart is from 1822.


  1. A great story! It is believed that Capt. Israel Hand and his crewman Jesse Hand are relatives of my wife whose Hand ancestry relates specifically to the seagoing Hands of Cape May, New Jersey. Do you have any information as to the "home" that Capt. Israel Hand refers to, or the homeport of the sloop Henry? Thank you.

  2. I haven't any information as regards the home port of Capt. Israel Hand except to suggest a clue published in the Geneva Gazette published 20 Jan 1819.