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The Shipwrecks of the Bristol and Mexico

Added: Saturday, October 25th 2008 at 6:39pm by Lynhistory

"The Wreck of the Mexico" by James Fulton Pringle, 1837. Oil.

The Perils of Immigration through the Port of New York, 1836-1837


(The Wrecks of the American Tall Ships Bristol and Mexico,
With the loss of 215 persons)


A presentation for the Conference on New York State History

June 5-7 2008

By Arthur S. Mattson – Lynbrook, Long Island






Summary: When the tall ships Bristol and Mexico were wrecked on the South Shore of Long Island in 1836-37, with the loss of a dozen sailors and 203 immigrants, New York's newspapermen, artists, and poets showed that they were horrified by the events. However, their reaction was not matched by that of the city's shipowners, merchants, harbor pilots, ship captains, civic leaders, and politicians, who seemed to value the loss of hundreds of tons of cargo aboard these ships more than they did the lives of the passengers and crew.



A tall marble obelisk stands at the center of the Old Sand Hole Cemetery in Lynbrook, Long Island, where I live, and where I am the Village Historian.[i] Thirty-five years ago at this spot, “The Mariners’ Burying Ground,” I first read some weathered inscriptions on the monument’s base. The text tells of two shipwrecks in the winter of 1836-7, and of a mass grave containing 139 of the 215 victims of those wrecks. The engravings go on to say that the Bristol and the MexicowerebothAmericanvessels,and that the victims were immigrants from Ireland and England. The captains’ names are listed—Alexander McKown of the ship Bristol and Charles Winslow of the barque Mexico. There is a sobering note: “This monument was erected partly by the money found upon their persons.” Lastly, there is a bible verse, “Lord save us, we perish,” and some doggerel, “In this grave, from the wide Ocean doth sleep, / The bodies of those that had crossed the deep . . .”[ii]

Having just weeks before buried my younger sister, the victim of a shipwreck, I stood there, transfixed. Eager to learn more, I went to the then Lynbrook Historian, but he knew nothing about the wrecks beyond what was carved on the monument. I found help at Hofstra University’s Long Island Collection, where I located several books and magazine articles that mentioned the two wrecks. However, every item seemed to be based on a single, brief account of a half dozen pages written by Benjamin Thompson in his book, The History of Long Island, published in 1839. Indeed, Thompson’s account revealed a great deal about the twin disasters: that the two ships were grounded on sandbars within shouting distance of the South Shore of Long Island; that half the victims drowned in the hold of the Bristol;thattheothers froze to death on the deck of the Mexico; and that some Long Island fisherman made a thrilling rescue of seven of the Mexico’s crewmen and its captain.[iii]



The Wreck of the Mexico and the Rescue of Captain Winslow.

Unknown artist, in Charles Ellms’ Tragedies of the Seas.

Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1841.


What Thompson didn’t write about, because it may never have occurred to him in 1840, was that 215 people perished because of the low value placed on the lives of immigrants sailing into the Port of New York. My subsequent research revealed that as far as New York’s captains, shipowners, harbor pilots and civic leaders were concerned, immigrants’ lives were of less importance than the hundreds of tons of cargo the same ships were carrying.

Unlike many of you here today, I am not a trained historian; and so my search for information about these long-forgotten shipwrecks was, to say the least, difficult. It took decades of work done in libraries in New York City, Liverpool, and Dublin. I realized early on the difficulty of my task, so I contented myself with writing a brief chapter about the two wrecks in my book, The History of Lynbrook, published in 2005.[iv] But I kept working on the project and uncovered more than I could ever have hopedfor.Asaresult,thatonechapterhasbeenexpandedtoa300-pagemanuscript, Water and Ice.

Here is some of what I found in those dusty archives:



List of Persons Composing the Crew of the Barque Mexico.

Certified at the Port of New York, April 8, 1836.

US National Archives Record Administration, New York City Office.


The National Archive in New York City had original copies of crew lists of the Bristol and Mexico. These proved to be of tremendous importance. One of the lists, shown here, provides unexpected details such as the height of each crewman aboard the Mexico, including Captain Charles Winslow’s at 5’ 3”. They also revealed the racial composition of the crew; in this case two are “colored men.” This minor fact became important, when I examined the list of surviving crewmen, and realized that Captain Winslow had allowed just his white crewmen into the only rescue boat. The black sailors were left to die.



The Mexico’s Final Sailing Notice.

Liverpool Mercury, October 7, 1836.

Liverpool Library’s Newspaper Microfilm Collection.


The Liverpool Albion newspaper contained sailing advertisements for the Bristol, and the Mexico. The Mexico ad, seen here, revealed that its owners lied about the ship’s tonnage to attract passengers—it was in fact not 300 tons, but 279 tons. The ad also disclosed that the ship’s passenger broker was Fitzhugh & C. Grimshaw, perhaps the most notoriously evil of the Liverpool brokers of the time, a firm with roots in the slave trade. Microfilmed newspapers in libraries in Dublin, Liverpool, and New York allowed me to reconstruct passenger lists for both vessels, including victimsand survivors. The news reports provided their names, ages, sex, and homecitiesorcounties.FromthesamenewspapersandfromLloyd’sRegisterIwasable to assemble statistical data about both ships, their passenger classes, number of masts, rigging, tonnage, number of small boats, years of construction, cargoes, and more. Best of all, the news stories provided details about the human side of the story.


The history of the world cannot furnish two more awful calamities of a similar nature, following each other in such quick succession.


-- Two Late Awful Shipwrecks from the Supplement to the

New York Sun newspaper. January 12, 1837


As the above description of the twin tragedies suggests, these two disasters off Long Island’s South Shore were big news in New York City and on Long Island. More than a dozen New York newspapers from the 1830s are available on microfilm at the New York Public Library and at Hofstra University’s Long island Collection. These became my richest resource. Before 1836, there was no investigative reporting in New York, or anywhere else for that matter. But I got lucky. Just a few months before the wrecks, James Gordon Bennett, the publisher of the Herald, a “penny paper,” had shocked and titillated readers with in-depth coverage ofthe murder of a reputed prostitute, Helen Jewett. Bennett conducted the first-ever newspaper interviews for that story, and his circulation soared.

Now, eight months later, the Herald, the Sun, the Long Island Democrat, Hempstead Inquirer, and other papers had two new, thrilling stories to investigate, the wrecks of the Bristol and the Mexico, and a new way to do it. Their wreck stories boosted circulation tremendously, especially for the Herald, and propelled New York City toward its leading role in journalistic investigative reporting. The stories also captured the imaginations of artists and poets.



N. Currier’s “Dreadful Wreck of the Mexico on Hempstead Beach”

Drawn “on the spot” by H. Sewell

Published in the New York Sun on January 25, 1837.


Interest was so great that Nathaniel Currier—who hadn’t yet joined forces with James Ives—sent an artist, H. Sewell, out to Hempstead Beach only days after the wreck of the Mexico. Sewell’s mission was to examine the remains of the destroyed ship and to recreate the wreck scene, faithfully and dramatically. Sewell included precise details such as the sea ice, the Long Islanders standing on shore, the rescue boats—one successful, one destroyed. He also showed the hundred or so passengers, with hands raised, soon to freeze to death as they stand on the Mexico’s deck.

Currier’s print was a precursor to photo-journalism. Note the mention of Hanington’s Dioramas on the Currier print. Dioramas were rolling, painted screens—with lights and sound effects—shown to New Yorkers for twenty-five cents admission. The Mexico diorama so excited audiences in downtown New York City that viewers screamed out “save them” when they saw images of the dying, ice-encrusted figures of women and children on the deck of the Mexico.

Another artist, a poet, also captured the drama of the wreck.



Walt Whitman’s Favorite Photograph (1887)

George C. Cox, photographer [wikipedia.org]


Walt Whitman was a seventeen-year-old Long Islander in 1836, living in Hempstead, only a few miles from the wreck-sites. He wrote that he was “almost an observer” to the wrecks. He also said that he was so profoundly moved by these twin tragedies that images of death and the sea became important themes in his poems. Whitman included dramatic details of the wreck of the Mexico in what is his most haunting poem, The Sleepers, in Leaves of Grass. Init, he describes—with perfect eye-witness accuracy—the wreck of the Mexico, the freezing cold, and the diminishing cries ofthepassengersastheyslowlyfreezetodeathovernight.Heisevencorrectin saying that the frozen bodies were laid out in rows in a barn.[v]


The Sleepers

By Walt Whitman

[Stanza Four]


The beach is cut by the razory ice-wind, the wreck-guns


The tempest lulls, the moon comes floundering through the


I look where the ship helplessly heads end on, I hear the

burst as she strikes, I hear the howls of dismay, they

grow fainter and fainter.

I cannot aid with my wringing fingers,

I can but rush to the surf and let it drench me and freeze

upon me.

I search with the crowd, not one of the company is wash'd

to us alive,

In the morning I help pick up the dead and lay them in

rows in a barn.


Although much attention was paid by New York’s artists, poets, newspapermen and everyday citizens to the deaths of hundreds of passengers by sudden drowning in the hold of the Bristol and by agonizingly slow freezing on the deck of the Mexico, the tragedy went from the biggest event in the winter of 1836 and 37, to near-oblivion by spring. Had this been, say, a steamboat disaster with 215 New Yorkers dying, things might have been different; but most of the victims aboard the Bristol and the Mexico were immigrants—mostly poor Irish Catholics—and sailors, many of them black. The same New Yorkers who were aroused by the news stories now seemed eagertomovepastthetragedyandignoretheunderlyingconditionsthatledtothedisaster.

The Mexico’s owner and its passenger broker had violated the American Passengers Act of 1835 by not providing sufficient food for its passengers. As a result, the immigrants were literally starving by the sixtieth day of the sixty-nine-day voyage. Yet no one raised a protest. News reports also showed that both shipowners had put their passengers in danger by overloading their ships with cargo and providing lifeboats only for the crew, not for the passengers. No action was taken against the owners. Eyewitnesses had seen the captain of theMexico and some of his crewmen leap into the first and only rescue boat, leaving the women and children behind to die. No action was taken against the captain.

Other eyewitnesses reported that on New Year’s Day, when the Mexico was standing off the entrance to New York Harbor, the harbor pilots were not at their offshore posts. Instead, they were in downtown Manhattan, drunk from their New Years Eve celebrations of the night before, and idly eating sandwiches. It was also suggested that the pilots had earlier that summer destroyed a signal station at Sandy Hook. That station had been installed to monitor whether the pilots were on station. The accusations against the pilots went nowhere. There was a brief judicial inquiry of the pilot’s dereliction of duty; but their defense wasaccepted, that the deaths of 215 people were due to “acts of God.” The charges were dismissed.

The single successful prosecution had nothing at all to do with the deaths of hundreds of immigrants; it had to do solely with the theft of some of the Bristol’s cargo that had washed up on shore. A few Long Islanders had mistakenly believed that the rule of “Findins’ Keepins” applied. Those robbers were sent to prison. Meanwhile, no one bothered to find out who had chopped off the fingers and earlobes of drowned immigrants to get at gold rings and jewelry.

The wrecks of the Bristol and the Mexico demonstrated that, in 1836 and 37, cargo was more important than immigrants’ lives or property, at least as far as businessmen, marine insurers, legislators, prosecutors, and civic leaders were concerned. After all, cargo—unlike immigrant passengers—had to be carefully handled, loaded and unloaded, and properly stored, to prevent damage; and cargo also had to be insured. On the other hand, the treatment of immigrant passengers meant nothing to the merchant shippers and captains. The passengers paid their fare, walked onto the ship, were mostly on their own while aboard, and walked off the ship. Their fares belonged to the shipowner whether the passengers reached New York City or ended up as frozen corpses in a Long Island barn.

Some changes did come about. For example, the corrupt New York pilot system was overhauled and the Ambrose lightship was put back on station in the New York Bight. But these changes were not made because of the deaths of 215 immigrants. Instead, they came about because New York merchant shippers were outraged over the rise in cargo insurance-rates after the wrecks of the Bristol & Mexico, and wanted safer passage for their ships and cargoes.

The callous attitude toward immigrants began in England. Passenger brokers for the Mexico—Fitzhugh and Caleb Grimshaw of London—had a name for the passengers they crowded onto the steerage decks of their ships. They called them “white cargo.” This term was a play on words. Decades before, the Liverpool brokers had dealt in “black ivory,” meaning the slave-trade. In fact the firm of Fitzhugh and C. Grimshaw worked out of Goree Plazas in Liverpool, the very place where the slave-traders had operated, only trade was no longer in “black ivory,” but in “white cargo.”

I was aware of New Yorkers’ callous attitude toward immigrants once the Irish potato famines pushed the flood gates of immigration open in the mid 1840s. I had also heard about the “INNA” posters (“Irish Need Not Apply”) that went up in the 1850s and 60s in New York. But I was surprised to find that in the mid 1830s, almost 10 years before the Great Famine, such discrimination was already institutional, was directed to all poor immigrants, and particularly to poor Irish immigrants. But in the mid-1830s, wasn’t the U.S. short of workers to build railroads and canals, and thus eager to get immigrants? Weren’t they welcome?

Frank Welsh in his book, The Four Nations, writes that pre-famine Irish emigrants had much better opportunities to flourish in the British Empire than they had in the U.S. His study of employment patterns in North America and Australia before the famine demonstrates that the Irish in Canada and Australia achieved a greater degree of success, and did so sooner, than they did in the U.S. [vi] My own research supports Welsh’s view and revealsthat there was in fact no “American welcome” in1836for these emigrants beyond the family and friends who were already here. On May 22, 1836, for example, just months before the Bristol and the Mexico set sail on their last voyages, New York City’s largest newspaper, The New York Sunday Morning News, printed an anti-immigration editorial entitled “European Emigrants.” That editorial is a distant echo of views held by many in the U.S. today. Indeed, the 1836 editorial could be read aloud on many of today’s radio talk shows, with just a few substitutions such as “illegal aliens” for “emigrants,” “Latin America” for “old world,” and “Mexico and Central America” for“England and Ireland.”


European Emigrants

An editorial in the New York Sunday Morning News -- May 22, 1836.


The tide of emigration from the demoralized communities of the old world, which has been constantly setting towards this country, is from year to year, and from day to day, becoming stronger. Can no means be taken to check it? How much longer are we to sit quietly and suffer this moral pestilence to roll unrestrained over this land?


. . . the unrestricted admission of the ignorant, lazy and vicious emigrants from England and Ireland, will in time entirely blight the fair fruits of our free institutions, and debase to the low standard of European pauperism the present high moral and intellectual character of our people.


Within a month past, several thousand of degraded beings, who would be a disgrace to the social and political state of the most barbarous nation on the globe, have arrived at [the Port of New York]. Every vessel that arrives comes crowded with them, and many thousands more are collected at Liverpool and other English ports, waiting for passage. We might, were it not for them, dispense entirely with our prisons, our penitentiaries, and our alms-house establishments. At least three-fourths of the inmates of the alms-house at Bellevue are foreign paupers, who have been sent over for us to support, by the poor-masters of England and Ireland.


When and where is this state of things to end? Are we to go on forever importing European vagrants in increasing ratio – a ratio out of all proportion to the increase in our native population? Will no one of our legislators take the subject in hand, and endeavor to restrain an evil, compared with which the plagues that affected the hard-hearted monarch of Egypt, were but trifles! If not, the people must do it for themselves – and they must do it soon, too.


And so the loss of 203 immigrants (most of them Irish) and 12 sailors (many of them black) by drowning aboard the Bristol and by freezing to death aboard the Mexico, only a few hundred yards from the land of their dreams, was easily forgotten by the citizens of New York despite the riveting attention paid by the New York Herald, the New York Sun, the prints of N. Currier, Hanington’s Dioramas, and Walt Whitman’s poems. The wrecks and the victims were forgotten, not only in the 1830s, but for a century and a half . . . until a local historian came upon a monument in a Lynbrook, Long Island cemetery.


[i] Recent operators of the Old Sand Hole Cemetery have renamed it “The Rockville Cemetery,” apparently for marketing reasons.


[ii] The complete text of the monument is at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nynassa2/shipwrecks.htm

[iii] Thompson, Benjamin F. History of Long Island. New York: E. French, 1839. (Also online at Books.Google.com.)

[iv] Mattson, Arthur S. The History of Lynbrook. Lynbrook, NY: Lynbrook Historical Books, 2005.


[v] Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days & Collect. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.

[vi] Welsh, Frank. The Four Nations, a History of the United Kingdom. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Also online at Books.Google.com.



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