Shipwreck enroute to the Port of San Francisco

SS North America

Wrecked enroute from San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua to San Francisco

February 28, 1852
SS North America
Captain James H. Blethen
From San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua


March 16, 1852, Daily Alta California, San Francisco

Steamships for California.

Extract from the Report of Capt. Totten to the Agent of P. M. S. Co., at San Francisco.

During the night of the 4th inst., bright moonlight, were obliged to run very close in shore to keep it in sight, there being so thick a mist that when only just able to s M the breakers, could hear them above the noise of the wheels. Before daylight had run our distance for entrance of Acapulco and slowed the engine. At daylight, (still misty) saw top of a hill above the fog to the eastward! that I supposed to be headland at Acapulco. Turned back, running eastward close along shore. At SA. M., passed stewnsbip North America ashore, apparently bile/ ed and back broken ; sea breaking heavily against her, (lying broadside to the beach). Stood to the east of her some 10 miles, looking for a landing; sea broke too heavily for any of my boats, so gave up the hope of assist ing her with the less regret, as I saw many mules and horses moving off loaded. At 8 o'clock 20 minutes, fog clearing off, discovered that the ship was still to the east of Acapalco; put her head to the west. At 11 A. M., passed a barque at anchor, tending to a strong easterly current. She bailed as as we passed; the officer in charge of the deck not understanding the hail, stood on. Some of the passengers soon after stating that the barque reported being out of provisions, I turned back and learned that it was the New Grenadian barque Elizabeth, 63 days out, having sailed from Panama bound to San Francisco with 150 passengers, who all, except some 20 deceased, had gone on to Acapalco in boats . . .

Arrived at Acapulco at 2 P. M. ; found that all the passengers from the North America had reached that port and were of course anxious to proceed in this ship. After consultation with the Agent, determined to refuse all applications. This in consequence of the fact of the crowded state of the ship, and the fact that we had left some two thousand persons at Panama no better off than those at Acapulco; many of whom had been refused tickets at any price; and so imperative did the necessity appear, that I refused even to bring up one gentleman who stated himself to be a messenger from the ship to the Agent of the Vanderbilt Line in San Francisco. I offered however to take his despatches. Spite of all my precautions, I found when at sea, that some three or four persons had secreted themselves on board. Many of the North America's passengers had money to pay their way up to San Francuco, but the majority were destitute; for the relief of these, and of those from the Elizabeth, a collection was taken up on board this ship, amounting to $713, and placed in the hands of theU.S. Consul and the Agents of tehP.M.S.S. Co. to be expended in such manner s they might judge most fit to carry out the object I desired.

Now, as to the cause of the loss of the North America, the public should not censure Capt. Blethen or make up their minds upon the subject until the captain has had a hearing. It is said she went ashore on a bright night and smooth sea. If the sea was smooth, as I have often seen it in that vicinity, it would be very difficult to see the breakers until close upon them, particularly if the moon was over the land and the beach in shadow; and I can conceive of his being deceived as to the entrance of the port, had he had such a fog with bright moonlight as we in this ship, which obscured everything but the tops of the hills; and particularly as the strong easterly current, running 3 to 4 knots the day we came up, would have deceived him as to the distance ran . . .

March 20, 1852, Daily Alta California, San Francisco

Total Loss of the Steamer North America,
with 900 passengers on board.

Passengers and Crew all Saved

The Steamer North America left San Juan on the 23d February, with 900 passengers, and on the evening of the 28th inst., went ashore about 60 miles south of Acapulco, when the Tennessee passed her she was lying broadside on the beach, the surf breaking heavily against her sides. At the time of her striking the sea was smooth, and a bright moon shining. The passengers had all been safely landed, and with most of their baggage had arrived at Acapulco after a tiresome march of two and half days. The Captain had not arrived at Acapulco at the time of the Tennessee's sailing.

The ship at the last accounts was going to pieces, her keel having already floated ashore.

It was impossible for the Tennessee to take away the passengers of the North America, the former steamer being filled to her utmost capacity. From motives of prudence and justice to all, no passengers were received with the consent or knowledge of the Captain.

A subscription of $700 was raised on board the Tennessee for the relief of the destitute at Acapulco, and placed in the hands of the American Consul. On the 3d of March spoke bark Elizabeth, 65 days from Panama, at anchor 20 miles south of Acapulco, in want of water and provisions, which were furnished her from the steamer. Her passengers, to the number of 120, had left that morning in boats for Acapulco. The Blonde, Kowena, and Thetis, with an aggregate of 1,500 passengers, had left Panama for San Francisco within a week previous to the sailing of the steamer.

Below we give the particulars of the disaster to the North America, from a correspondent who was on board:

Loss of the North America

Acapulco, March 4th, 1853.

MESSRS. EDITORS: I hasten to inform you of the total loss of the steamship North America, on the night of the 27th ult., at a place called Los Ramidas, near the mouth of the river Nepa, fifty or seventy-five miles below Acapulco.

The North America started from San Juan del Sud on the evening of the 23d of February. Nothing of interest occurred until the afternoon of the 26th, when we paused the steamship Pacific, bound to San Juan del Sud. We were running close inland, the Pacific seaward about one mile distant. It was a common remark among passengers that we were running too close to the shore, but still we glided on, the sea at the time being perfectly smooth. On the following day we continued to run in the same close proximity to the land, nearing it along in the afternoon; and in the evening the shore was about a quarter of a mile distant. Some expressed their anxiety at our running so close to the land in the night, and one sea-faring man made the remark that the ship would be run aground if they did not keep her off to sea. All however, reposed some confidence in the Captain's knowledge of the coast, and supposed that he must be well acquainted with every inch of ground, for we did not believe that he would be guilty of tampering with the lives of a thousand human beings.

Universal good feeling and buoyancy of spirits seemed to prevail among the passengers at the anticipation of being snugly anchored at Acapulco in the morning, and as the hour of bed-time arrived, most of them retired to rest, little dreaming that they would so soon be aroused by such unwelcome news. The evening was beautiful, the atmosphere clear, the moon bright and stars twinkling in all their brilliancy. About 11 o'clock the first mate thought he saw something on shore and called the captain who immediately came on deck, mounted the wheelhouse and took a survey of the coast. At this time we were running outside of the surf, and unless the captain was blind or crazy he must have seen that we were too close to the shore, and therefore should have kept her off; but instead of this he changed her course toward the shore, when she immediately struck, at first very lightly. The order was given to "slow her;" she thumped again much harder, and then again. The order was given to "reverse her," but she was hard and fast, and in the attempt to back her off the larboard wheel was rendered useless, the floats being stove off and the iron arms broken. It would be impossible for me to describe the consternation and confusion which reigned supreme among the mass of human beings that now came pouring out of the state rooms.

The dread reality of shipwreck was depicted in each countenance. Many seemed anxious to reach the upper deck before she filled; others, more cool, forced their way up to get a sight of land and form a correct idea of the dangers that surrounded us; while others seemed to give themselves up entirely, and devoted their few spare moments to making their peace with God and all mankind. Here might be seen man and wife clasped in each other's arms, their affection becoming stronger as death seemed to stare them in the face, and they bad come to the firm resolve thus to die. Little children were hanging to the night dresses of their mothers, looking to them as their only means of preservation; and as the surf broke against the side of the vessel, these little innocent things would send up a shriek that could not but touch the hearts of all on board. We laid broadside on, the breakers continually driving the ship nearer shore. As soon as it was universally known that we were on a sandy bottom, with a good sand-beach, the passengers became more calm, and all waited anxiously for the break of day, in order to land on shore. In the mean time, after a lapse of some three or four hours from the time of our first grounding, a boat was got ready to send on shore, the Mexicans having built a fire on the beach as a guide for landing. This boat took a line from the ship to the shore, and as soon as the break of day all the boats were made ready for conveying the passengers from the ship to beach. There was no rush for the boats; the feeling seemed to be universal that the ladies and children should be the first to land. Two valiant men, however, stationed themselves at the gangway, and said that not a single man should enter the boats until every lady and child had been landed; they were the first to pin themselves to the skirts of some of the ladies, and went in the first boat, leaving a number of ladies in the ship at the time. The landing of the passengers was attended with no danger, and by five o'clock on the 28th all the passengers and baggage were landed, and the beach presented the appearance of a California city some three years since. The vessel in the meantime was continually drifting towards the shore by the force of the surf, and had made about four feet of water, although she seemed to rest quite easy on her bed of sand, the sea being perfectly smooth, with scarcely a breath of air. Occasionally a little extra excitement would be got up by the swamping of the boats, this being occasioned by their drifting under the ship's stern on the return of one of the rollers, making the eddy round her rudder very strong. Some two or three men got into this eddy, but fortunately escaped without injury.

An express was started on the afternoon of the 28th, for Acapulco. Three gentlemen started, two of whom were well educated in the Spanish language. On their way they circulated the news, and the authorities laid an embargo on all the mules, and dispatched them to the wreck to bring the passengers and baggage to this place. The party of which I am one secured the first mules, and left on the afternoon of the 29th. I will not attempt to describe the route; those who have been prospecting on the mountains of California can appreciate it when I say that there is a great similarity between the trips. After a severe ride of two days and a half we reached this place. There were on board some 40 or 50 ladies, and about 90 children, and there will undoubtedly be great suffering before they all reach here.

Three vessels (one barque and two schooners) have started from here to go to the wreck and render whatever assist mcc they can. The American Consul, and the agent of Vanderbilt's line, have likewise started for the wreck.

As regards the loss of this vessel, and the consequent guttering and delay of so many passengers, there is but one opinion, and that is of universal condemnation of Capt. Blethen. It is the most unwarrantable piece of reckless carelessness that ever a sea captain was guilty of, and I cannot account for it in any other way than that he was either drunk, crazy, or bribed. It does not seem reasonable that be should run a steamship on shore on a bright moonlight night, with a perfectly smooth sea, himself standing on the wheel-house, unless be was beside himself, or was paid for so doing. The surf itself was enough to warn him to keep off, instead of which he gave the order to stand in. Even after the vessel had struck he appeared perfectly lost, and all system on board the vessel seemed to be abandoned.

Eight hours elapsed after grounding before the first passenger was landed. If a gale of wind had sprung up suddenly, there must have been many lives lost by his extreme tardiness. Not one effort was made to get out an anchor, in order to keep the vessel from drifting on shore. Many believe that a good energetic captain would have saved the ship, even after she struck. She was allowed to drift on shore, and the captain sat quietly in his state-room, smoking his cigar. As an illustration of the manner in which things were conducted, I will mention that of landing provisions. Instead of the provisions being landed and deposited in a body in some safe place on shore, there to be served out as they were wanted, in order that none should be wasted, they were hoisted up and broken open, each one taking what he pleased, and some appropriating to themselves nearly all of various choice things on board the ship. Steerage passengers in many instances secured enough provisions to last them ten days, while many cabin passengers had not enough to make a meal of. It required but an order from the captain to have regulated this thing. There were many who would have been willing in assist in landing the ship stores, and seeing that they were properly distributed, but who did not feel willing to stand and grab everything as it made its appearance on deck.

P. S. The Tennessee has arrived and I understand that she will sail again this evening. The captain has refused to take a single passenger. I must therefore close this hasty letter. Nearly all the passengers from the wreck are now in. The last accounts from the North America represent the water to be up to her main deck, and the tide ebbs and flows in her. The American Consul has just arrived from the wreck. How all the passengers are to leave this place is more than I can foresee. Many have but a few dollars in money; board is from ten to twelve dollars per week. Drafts are of no account, nobody will cash them; men who can command thousands of dollars in California, are compelled to remain destitute of means here.

The annexed letter has been received from Mr. Francis W. Rice, U.S. Consul at Acapulco

Acapulco, March 4, 1852

Editors of the Alta California

Gentlemen: By this steamer (the Tennessee) you will have the disastrous news of the loss of the steamer North America, near this port, and as many unauthentic reports will undoubtedly reach you on the subject, I have thought it not improper to drop yon a few lines.

The North America started from San Juan del Sud on Monday evening, February 23d, at 9 o'clock, with not less than 800 passengers on board, and a crew consisting probably of 100 more. At 9 o'clock on the evening of the 27th, the ship being then say sixty-five miles to the southward of this port, the captain was on deck, and gave orders to the officer on watch to run her along in a particular direction, keeping the sand beach, which extends from where he was to a few miles below Acapulco, in view, and to have him called at 11 o'clock. At this time he judged himself fifty-five miles from port. At 11 o'clock the mate called him, and he, after taking a look to the shore, ordered her one point nearer in. In from fifteen to twenty minutes after the captain came on deck the ship struck on the beach, side to. Capt. Blethen told me he could see no low land on looking to the shore, only the mountains, say some thirty miles distant, the night being a bright moonlight one.

At soon as the ship struck, the passengers mustered on deck and prepared to save themselves; but I believe only one or two boat loads quitted her before daylight, the moon having gone down at midnight. The next morning, a messenger was despatched to this place for assistance, a distance of eighty miles by land. A barque was chartered to go down, to take away passengers, baggage, and freight, and a small schooner also went to the scene of the disaster. It was found, however, that they could render no assistance, not being able to come alongside of the steamer, nor to communicate with the shore, in consequence of the heavy rollers incessantly breaking over the beach. Under protection of the breakwater formed by the North America, a portion of the provisions were landed, together with sails and carpets to make tents of, and all hands encamped on shore. In a couple of hours after the messenger arrived here, the agent of the steamer, Mr Guys, and myself, started tor the wreck, and arrived in eighteen hours, travelling nearly the whole distance by night. We rendered every assistance requisite to the women, children, and sick, and got the balance of the and furniture on shore. The ship had but about $900 which could be got at, the Purser representing to me that he had been robbed of $4000. The passengers were in a remarkably healthy condition, I not being able to find any unable to take the ride to Acapulco over the plains and mountains. At this present time, I should say there are four hundred of the passengers in town. When I left the wreck, night before last, there were about three hundred waiting for mules, and tonight all will have started. Many walk, taking about three days to get over the road. Among the passengers I found the families of Hon. Judge Shattuck, and his partner, Mr. Bain, and Gen. Winchester and family all in good health.

It will be impossible to save any portion of the ship. The machinery could be taken out, but could not be got on board ship, and could only be transported here by mules.

There are say 300 of the passengers without five dollars each, and many without a dollar. It is possible that 400 out of the 800 have money enough to pay a passage from here to San Francisco. But provisions would be very hard to get here to fit out sailing vessels, and besides there are no water casks or lumber in port. An effort will be made to fit out the Com. Stockton by her owner and pat her up for passengers, but as she is in the hands of the Mexican authorities still, I do not know if it will be successful. The agent of the Vanderbilt company has no funds here for the owners, and cannot advance a cent to the sufferers. You see the unfortunate situation in which a great portion of the passengers are placed, and I hope, if it be possible, Mr. Vandewater will despatch assistance here immediately. I give only the main facts of the case, leaving incidental matters, as also praise or blame to the master, owners or officers, to others. To add to the distress here, I would also mention that the barque Isabel, fifty five days from Panama, is off the Fort, unable to pet in, "on account of head winds and currents," and that her 130 passengers have been sent on shore nearly in a destitute condition. The barque Isabel is owned in Panama, and is under New Grenadian colors.


Saturday Morning, March 27, 1851, Daily Alta California, San Francisco

In connection with the above we have received the following list of shipwrecked passengers who have sailed from Acapulco for this city on the schooner Guadeloupe. About the same number have sailed on the schooner Thomas, but the list sent us has not come to hand. The annexed list is incomplete, but it may serve to allay the solicitude of many who have friends on the list of passengers per Guadeloupe, from Acapulco to San Francisco via Mazatlan:

H.G. Kendrick and 2 others, G. Bently, B.P. Moore, Winreich Saml Head, John Perry, O Daniels, John K. Hoxie, D. Moore, J.J. Morton, A. Morse, E. Morse, J.C. Wingaby, W.S. Morse, P. Hanton, T. Friguarter, J.A. Jamison, C. Matthews and lady, C. Marriott, W.J. Armstrong, John Stafford, P. Ayres, P. Woodhouse, H. Kendricks, W.H. Kendricks, S.B. Whipple, S. Hart or Fert, S.A. Jamison, E.A. Burben, James Wood, Thos G. Andrews, E.R. Wolcott, John Chan, Jonathan Jones, W.P. Fowler, Abram Cole, 3 tickets; Austin Smith, D.S. Ely, D. Nattel, Joseph Porter, William Porter, Lloyd Porter, F. Farkey, Thos. Lake, Thos. W. Palmer, William Curtis, A. Houghton, C. Shandreu, P. Morgan, H.G. W. Cole, C. Bravo, F. Garlin, W. Blackwell, S. M. Mathews, Ira Berry, Levi Sears, Joe Loopen, S. A. South , S.H. Olman, J. Baker, James Ely, James Harvey, C.G. Bergman, G.D. Drury.

The Steamer Panama, Captain James Watkins, "Arrive Acapulco, Mexico on March 19th at 3:30 p.m. At this port found about 500 of the passengers who had been on board the wrecked steamer North America. Received on board, of the foregoing number, 37 persons, including 16 ladies and 10 children, the ship being so crowded no more could be taken on board. Previous to arrival of the Panama some 200-300 of the wrecked passengers had left in sailing vessels for San Francisco." Passengers from wreck of North America received on board at Acapulco, Mexico:

Thomas Hunt and Servant; Mrs. C.A. Shattuck & six children; Mrs. E. Thompson; Mrs. E. Thompson; Miss A. Martin; Miss G. Coker; Mrs. R. Wheeler; C.J. Dempster; J.B. Crockett; J. Winchester, wife and two children; J. McDougal and lady; Mrs. H. Myers; A. Dickinson and lady; Mrs. M. Kerr; Thomas George; D. Norcross, wife and daughter; H. McCormick and lady; Miss S. Abbott; Mrs. S. Smith ; P. Moody and lady; Mrs. Lyons and daughter.


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