Sea Captains: San Francisco 1800s

Captain James T. Watkins

James T. Watkins established his home in San Francisco and became one of the West Coast's noted commanders.

An advertisement in The Marysville Daily Herald of December 27, 1850 (below), notes Captain Watkins as commanding the Pacific Mail Steamship Company's steamer Panama.

On Christmas day, 1853, the new steamship San Francisco, Captain J. T. Watkins was disabled. On January 6, 1854, she foundered with a loss of more than 200 lives.

Capt. Watkins submitted the following letter which was subsequently published in the Times:

February 10, 1854, New York Daily Times, New York City, New York

The Wreck of the San Francisco.
Interesting Particulars.

Ship "Antarctic," Liverpool, Jan., 1854.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Esq., U. S. Consul at Liverpool:

SIR: I have the painful duty to report to you the loss of the U. S. Mail Steamer San Francisco, under my command.

Captain Watkins, SS Panama, December 27, 1850.

The San Francisco was chartered by the U. S. Government as a troop ship, and sailed from New-York for San Francisco, California, Dec. 22, 1853, having on board eight Companies of the Third Regiment U. S. Artillery.

The following is a list of the officers: Col. Wm. Gates, (and family,) commanding regiment; Major and Brevet Lieut. Col. Washington; Major Charles S. Merchant, (and family,) surgeon; G. S. Satterlee, assistant surgeon; H. E. Wirtz, third lieutenant, S. L. Fremont, regimental quartermaster, and family; First Lieut. Loeser, acting assistant Commissary, and family; Capt. And Brevet Col. M. Burke; Captain and Brevet Major George Taylor, and family; Captain and Brevet Major J. O. Wyse, and family; Capt. F. B. Field; Lieut. W. A. Winder; Lieut. C. S. Winder; Lieut. B. H. Smith; Lieut. J. Van Vost; Lieut. J. S. Chandler;, and W. G. Rankin. Also, Capt. Gardner, of the First Dragoons; Lieutenant Murray, of the U. S. Navy; and about 70 camp women and children. The following is a list of the other cabin passengers: Sr. Jacinto Derwanz, (Brazilian Consul,) lady and servant; Capt. Battie, (Brazilian Army,) and lady; Mr. Geo. W. Aspinwall, Mr. J. Lorimer, Jr., Rev. Mr. Cooper and family; Messrs. Tenney, Gates, Southwick, and one gentleman, name unknown; numbering in all, ship's company inclusive, about 750 souls.

On the night of the 23d December, judging myself on the southern edge of the Gulf stream, we experienced a most terrific gale from northwest, which continued to increase with great violence until it blew a perfect hurricane, with a very high, irregular sea. At 3:30 A. M., on the 24th, the chief engineer reported to me that the engines had broken down. Up to this time the ship behaved very handsomely, but she immediately fell off in the trough of the sea, and labored very heavily. At 5 A., M., lost our foremast, and all the canvas off the ship, carrying away, at the same time, four of our life-boats, with the wreck of the spars.

I had now great fears that the ship could not safely out live the gale. At 7 A. M., just as the chief engineer was making an effort to start the engines under high pressure, a terrific sea boarded us, carrying with it the whole of the upper saloon and everything abaft the paddle-boxes, and about 150 souls; both smoke stacks, the remainder of our boats, staving about 50 feet of the spar deck over the main saloon, and leaving the ship almost a perfect wreck -- leaking very much.

The following is a list of the officers and others, cabin passengers, who were washed overboard: Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel J. M. Washington, Brevet Major George Taylor and lady; Captain H. B. Field, Lieutenant R. H. Smith, Mr. Gates, son of Col. Gates, Mr. Tenney and another gentleman, name unknown, together with 130 soldiers and four of the crew.

The remainder of the passengers were as soon as possible formed into gangs to assist in bailing and pumping, and in twelve hours succeeded in gaining on the water several inches. On the morning of the 25th, the weather became more moderate, and the engineers succeeded in starting the steam pump, which soon released the passengers from bailing. The crew, with a number of carpenters from the command, were employed in clearing away the wreck, stopping leaks as well as possible in the upper works and lightening the ship. From the 25th to the 27th inclusive, experienced moderate gales with high, confused sea. On the 28th fell in with and boarded the American bark Kilby, for New Orleans. This vessel was chartered by Col. Gate to take on board all of the troops, and convey them to the nearest port in the United States; and at 7 o'clock P. M. succeeded in getting about 100 souls on board of her, when I received word from the captain that he could receive no more on board that evening. At 10 P. M. it commenced blowing fresh from the southward and eastward, with rain, and at midnight it blew a heavy gale, with a very high sea. At 4 A. M. on the 29th the gale was most terrific. Passengers were again mustered into gangs, to pump and bail. During the night lost sight of the Kilby, and saw nothing more of her. At noon the gale moderated, with the wind from the N. W.

On the 30th, more moderate. All hands employed in lightening the ship and stopping the leaks. During the last gale the ship had labored and strained so much I deemed it impossible for her to outlive another, and as I had no motive power on board by which I could work her to the southward, out of the Gulf Stream into fine weather -- the engineer having decided that it was impossible to work the engines again, and the passengers and crew were fast dying off with fatigue and exposure -- I determined to abandon the ship the first opportunity. On the 31st, wind blowing fresh from the W. S. W., with a high sea, fell in with and spoke the British ship Three Bell, of Glasgow, bound for New-York. Requested the Captain to lay by us until it moderated and take us off, which he promptly consented to do, but the weather continued too boisterous for him to send his boat alongside up to the 2d inst. The ship was then well to windward of us, lying to. At 9 A. M. on the 2d she made signals of distress to a strange sail, which was answered, and both ships ran down to us. At 1 P. M. spoke the strange sail, which proved to be the Antarctic, Captain G. C. Stouffer, of New-York, bound for Liverpool. Begged him to take us off, which he readily consented to do, and both ships immediately lowered away their boats and sent them alongside, when we commenced transferring the troops to both ships.

San Francisco Bay. 1899.

Topographic Map. San Francisco Bay. 1899.

On the morning of the 5th, succeeded in getting all hands out of the ship without accident. Up to this time we had lost fifty-nine, who died from fatigue and exposure.

The following is a list of officers on board the Three Bells: Brevet Major F. O. Wyse, Lieutenant W. A. Winder, and about 200 troops, including camp women and children. Of the ship's company -- Edward Welles, First officer; Dr. W. B. Buel, surgeon; John W. Marshall, chief engineer; George Gretton, second engineer; Wm. Wickman, storekeeper, and all the assistant engineers, firemen, and coal-passers, and all the bulk of the ship's crew, with a few exceptions, who are on board of this ship.

On board the Antarctic are Lieut. Charles C. Winder and servant; Lieut. J. G. Chandler, and 192 troops, women and children, and with me, my purser, Theo. L. Schell, Charles F. Barton, third officer; John Mason, fourth officer; Washington Duckett, carpenter, and one servant.

The constant kind attention which we have all received from Captain Stouffer, of the Antarctic, and his officers -- his deep solicitude and his judicious care of our men, women and children, since we came on board of his ship -- is above all praise, and merits our most sincere and lasting feelings of gratitude.

Very respectfully, (signed) Jas. T. Watkins

March 25, 1854, Mountain Democrat

A dinner was given for Captain Watkins, commander of the lost steamship, San Francisco, by the ship owners of Boston on Saturday.

The story of the loss of the SS San Francisco

June 16, 1854, Sacramento Daily Union, Sacramento, California

Commodore Watkins. This gallant seaman, who acquired such world-wide and enviable renown by his intrepid and humane conduct while in command of the ill-fated steamer San Francisco, is now captain of the favorite steamer Golden Gate. His late trips have conclusively demonstrated that speed is not incompatible with safety.

April 5, 1856, Daily Alta California, San Franccisco
Captain Watkins, Commander, SS Golden Age, April 5, 1856.

July 3, 1862, Daily Alta California, San Francisco

Arrival of the Steamer Saginaw

Some months ago, as our readers, doubless remember, the Secretary of the Navy, ordered Commodore J. T. Watkins to go to China, overhaul, if necessary, the condemned steamer Saginaw, lying in those waters, and bring her back, if possible to San Francisco. He has faithfully executed his mission, having brought the vessel safely into this harbor last evening. He took with him Mr. Winship as his Engineer. The Saginaw left for this port about the 10th of May.

July 23, 1862, Daily Alta California, San Francisco

STEAMER SAGINAW -- There has, as yet, been no survey held on the Federal war steamer Saginaw, which was brought over so safely by Commodore Watkins from China a short time ago. She still lies at the Mare Island Navy Yard, where, after the survey has been had, she will probably be repaired. Such repairs, in the opinion of the Commodore, can be effected for some $15,000, which expenditure, judiciously made, will put the ship in as good condition as ever she was.

Rounding the Horn.New York to Cape Horn to San Francisco.
Rounding the Horn: Being the Story of Williwaws and Windjammers, Drake, Darwin, Murdered Missionaries and Naked Natives--a Deck's-eye View of Cape HornNew York to Cape Horn to San Francisco.
Dallas Murphy
Fifty-five degrees 59 minutes South by 67 degrees 16 minutes West: Cape Horn—a buttressed pyramid of crumbly rock situated at the very bottom of South America—is a place of forlorn and foreboding beauty that has captured the dark imaginations of explorers and writers from Francis Drake to Joseph Conrad. For centuries, the small stretch of water between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula was the only gateway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It’s a place where the storms are bigger, the winds stronger, and the seas rougher than anywhere else on earth. In Rounding the Horn the author brings the reader along for a thrilling, exuberant tour. Weaving together stories of his own nautical adventures with long-lost tales of those who braved the Cape before him—from Spanish missionaries to Captain Cook—and interspersing them with breathtaking descriptions of the surrounding wilderness,

Around Cape Horn Sailing DVD. New York to Cape Horn to San Francisco.
Around Cape Horn: Capt. Irving Johnson Sailing DVDNew York to Cape Horn to San Francisco.
Few will ever experience such adverse conditions especially considering 1920's square rigger design, the technology and lack of meteorology available to assist the crews manage four masted ships with huge sail plans. Along with the challenging seas, this highly-regarded film was shot when cameras were bulky. Captain Irving is engaging. Actors were not used. This is real footage with real people.

The Authority to Sail.The Authority to Sail: The History of U.S. Maritime Licenses and Seamen's PapersThe Authority to Sail.
Robert Stanley Bates, George Marsh (Editor), John F. Whiteley (Forward) (Batek Marine Publishing, 2011; Nominated in 2012 for a Pulitzer Prize)
This book depicts important aspects of our maritime history as a result of original research done by the author, Commodore Bates, the holder of an unlimited master's license who has enjoyed a distinguished fifty-year career in both the Coast Guard and the American Merchant Marine.

The U.S. Coast Guard issues all Captain Licenses for U.S. Ports.
Note: Other countries have different regulations, i.e. the RYA (Royal Yachting Association), conducts certification for Britain and Ireland. As of 2011, they did not recognize the USCG certification; certification through their courses was required.

Master Unlimited is a licensed mariner in ultimate command of a vessel any gross tons. The captain is responsible for its safe and efficient operation, including cargo operations, navigation, crew management and ensuring that the vessel complies with local and international laws. All persons on board, including officers and crew, other shipboard staff members, passengers, guests and pilots, are under the captain's authority and are his or her ultimate responsibility. The STCW defines the Master as Person having command of the ship.

The Sea Chart
The Illustrated History of Nautical Maps and Navigational ChartsThe Sea Chart.
The Sea Chart.The Sea Chart.
John Blake
The sea chart was one of the key tools by which ships of trade, transport and conquest navigated their course across the oceans. Herein is a history and development of the chart and the related nautical map, in both scientific and aesthetic terms, as a means of safe and accurate seaborne navigation. 150 color illustrations including the earliest charts of the Mediterranean made by 13th-century Italian merchant adventurers, as well as 18th-century charts that became strategic naval and commercial requirements and led to Cook's voyages in the Pacific, the search for the Northwest Passage, and races to the Arctic and Antarctic.

Get Your Captain's License. Fifth Edition Get Your Captain's License. Fifth Edition. Charlie  Wing.
Charlie Wing
Considered the quickest, easiest, and least expensive way to prepare for the U.S. Coast Guard captain's ratings exams required for anyone who takes paying passengers on a boat, and useful for serious boaters who want to save money on insurance. 350 pages of seamanship and navigation tutorials. More than 1,500 questions and answers from the Coast Guard exams. Includes an interactive CD-ROM with all 14,000 questions and answers in the USCG database, so you can take an unlimited number of practice exams

The Project

Maritime Nations, Ships, Sea Captains, Merchants, Merchandise, Ship Passengers and VIPs sailing into San Francisco during the 1800s.



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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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