200 Plus

Schooner Surprize Meets Its Fate

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Feb 27, 2019

One of the great LBI mysteries is how Ship Bottom got its name. According to shipbottom.org, “The captain of a schooner heading south was navigating through a thick fog when he heard cries from the direction of the shoreline. Encountering a schooner heading north, he alerted Captain Stephen Willets of Tuckerton that there might a ship in trouble near the shore. Although Willets and his crew could see nothing in the fog, nor could they hear anything but the clang of their own ship’s bell, they rowed along the outer bar for several hours searching for the endangered ship. Finally, a dark shape appeared – the hull of a ship overturned in the shoals.

“Corpses hung from the rigging and bobbed in the frigid sea. As one of Willets’ men climbed onboard the beached schooner, he heard a noise under his feet – someone tapping the inside of the barnacled hull. With an ax, Willits chopped a hole in the ship’s bottom, near the keel and, after much struggling, freed the young woman trapped inside. She spoke no English. But after being taken ashore, she expressed her gratitude by drawing a cross of thanks in the sand. No one knows her name or the name of the ship because they were never recorded.”

As more records and newspapers become available, new searches are attempted. While most of the questions remain unanswered, there is new evidence about the hero of the story. In 1832, the Burlington County Herald reported, “TUCKERTON, N.J. July 23 – Upon the instant, schr. Enterprise, of Snowhill, Md., from New York, put into New Inlet of this harbor, with the premonitory symptoms of Cholera upon two of the crew, and hoisted a signal flag of distress in her shrouds – rumor struck with panic the crews of other vessels at anchor – the residents and visitors on the neighboring beaches and islands – and a strict quarantine was enforced & observed by all. The hardy sons of Neptune in this village refused to board the infected vessel with the physicians Lane, Mason, and Page, who all volunteered to go – the flag of distress having been flying until the second day.”

Someone would have to risk the danger of the dreaded disease and step forward.

“Captain Stephen Willetts, Jun. and the Collector of the Port volunteered to ply at the oars to reach the vessel, a distance of nine miles, two other persons joined them; they reached the vessel with the two first named physicians, but too late to administer to two of the crew who had struggled with the disease from 9 A.M. until 5 and 11 P.M. of the day attacked, and were buried by their fellows in distress the next day upon Foxborrough Island. The remainder of the crew and a merchant from Snowhill are in good health, and have sailed for their port. All six of the persons who visited the vessel, and the neighboring country people are in good health.”

While no mention of the Ship Bottom wreck is made, Willets did have a reputation.

“The above-named Captain Stephen Willets, jun. who first volunteered to convey the physicians to the supposed pestilential vessel, is the same gallant young man that rescued five men and one female from the jaw of death at the peril of his life and property, at the wreck of the brig Howard, upon this coast, in 1831.”

This story leads to another mystery, the wreck of the Howard in 1831. While looking for more information on the cholera-carrying ship Surprize, another Barnegat tragedy was discovered. The New York Spectator of April 4, 1815, reported, “At 7 o’clock last evening, the armed schooner Surprize, Capt. Barstow, with 172 passengers on board, bound from New York to Baltimore, ran ashore on Barnegat Shoals. Both masts were immediately cut away and the vessel was otherwise much lightened as possible with the hope of getting her off. At 1 o’clock this morning, the Schooner Virginia, on her way to N. York, passing near the Surprize and finding her in a hazardous situation, received on board 35 of the passengers and brought them into port. It is seriously apprehended that the Surprize has been stoven in pieces, and that the remainder of her passengers and her crew have perished.”

The newspaper story was incorrect; there were survivors. One of the officers told his story.

“The Surprize, containing the crew of the U.S. sloop of war Erie, sailed from New York on the morning of the 3d inst. for Baltimore; and at half after 6 o’clock the same day, she struck on Barnegat Shoals. – We immediately commenced throwing everything overboard to lighten her, and run anchors out astern with the hopes of getting her off; but all our exertions proved ineffectual.”

This was a time before even the volunteer lifesaving system existed, and those in trouble couldn’t expect any help from shore.

“At half after 12 o’clock, we cut away her masts. It was at this time we discovered she had bilged, and was full of water fore and aft, the sea increasing, and the wind blowing fresh from S.E. making at times a fair breach over her. We then thought it most advisable to land as many of the crew as possible from our two small boats; but on attempting to approach the land, the surf ran so high that it was impossible to land them. At 3 o’clock, we lost sight of the wreck, and at day break fell in with the Virginia Ann, from Fredericksburg, who took us on board and brought us into port. We had previously endeavoured to get a pilot boat to go in search of the wreck; but the pilots affirmed that it was impossible to reach her to-night.”

There were still over 100 souls on board the stranded vessel. On April 10, Boston newspapers told, “We are yet in painful suspense as to the fate of the poor mariners that were left on the wreck of the sch. Surprize. The pilot boat Erie that left here yesterday morning with Captain Barstow, to go to their relief, did not proceed to Barnegat the sea running so high, they judged it would be out of their power to afford them any relief, should the wreck have not gone to pieces. Capt. Barstow was landed at the hook, and went over land to ascertain their situation, in the hope of not being too late to afford them assistance.”

For some on board there was a happy ending. The New York Commercial Advertiser announced, “We have the pleasure to state, that, of the 119 passengers, who, on Monday night, were left on the wreck of the schooner Surprize, seventy have been providentially preserved. Four of the number arrived at this port this morning, in the Friendship, Capt. Leonard, from Shrewsbury.”

How had they cheated death?

“They state, that the whole of the number continued on the wreck until it separated, & some floated ashore on the stern post, others on the counter and others on different fragments of the vessel. At daylight on Thursday morning, the survivors assembled from the different parts of the shore to which they had been driven; and on ascertaining the number, it appeared that seventy had reached the land in safety, and forty-nine had perished in the surf. Before they left the shore, they discovered and buried the bodies of fourteen of their unfortunate companions. … Mr. Cowan the 2d officer of the schooner was one of the 14 whose bodies washed ashore & (was) buried on the beach.”

Some stories are complete; others still leave questions. Maybe someday a person will say the name of vessel in the Ship Bottom story was …

Next Week: Unhappy endings.


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