"Raging Wind, Roaring Sea"
Chapter 6 Full Circle:
The Wreck of the Florence, 1840
by Robert C. Parsons
What is the inner force or drive which compels a writer to tell the tale? The late Cassie Brown, when commenting on her writing of the book Death on the Ice, said, "I sensed a force, a hand reach down to hold my wrist. I knew then I had to finish the story." Seventy-eight sealers who died on the Arctic ice in March, 1914 had no choice to tell of their horrific ordeal, but Brown, who talked of a need, an urge to complete her book, told their story eloquently in her 1972 epic of sealing and suffering.
Fifteen hundred kilometres away in Hartford, Connecticut, Dorothy Kavanagh reached out to contact Newfoundland, particularly the people of Renews and St. John's. She knew no one in Newfoundland, but an inner voice or gut-feeling convinced her someone would help and a connection would be made. I received a call from Dorothy, who asked if I had information on the wreck of the Florence, a brig that came to an untimely end near Cape Race in 1840 with the loss of fifty lives.* [* later I asked her how and why she found my name. It was in an Elderhostel catalogue which describes various studies one can do in North America.]
A direct descendant of a survivor of the wreck of the Florence, Dorothy felt she needed to know more of the town of Renews and St. John's, whose residents long ago aided and sheltered those who escaped drowning. She wanted to learn about the geography, the people and the way of Newfoundland. Thus began a correspondence which culminated August 9th, 1999 when Dorothy, her brother Alfred and other family members visited Newfoundland and the area where their ancestors landed long ago.
Once source of information about the wreck of Florence comes from September 3, 1840, issue of the New York newspaper New Era, a copy of which had been collected by Dorothy's sister Mary, the family historian. This evidence supports Mary's longstanding anecdotal history. New Era's heading hinted at the extent of the calamity and the text detailed an all-too-familiar story of disaster:
Brig Attention arrived here (New York) yesterday from St. John's, N.F. with the melancholy recital of the loss of the brig Florence and fifty lives. The particulars were furnished to Capt. McCurdy by some person on board the lost brig and are therefore entirely correct.
The following disaster is one of those awful occurances with which the South Eastern coast of Newfoundland is often the scene. The brig Florence and from New York, Captain Samuel Rose, sailed from Rotterdam, June 30, 1840 with a crew of eight persons and seventy-nine passengers, cargo, ballast and a few casks of wine.They were with pleasant weather until nearly up with the eastern part of the Banks of Newfoundland when they wereassaulted with a succession of gales, attended with fog and rain up to the time of their shipwreck.
On Sunday morning August 9 the man on the lookout cried "hard down the helm, breakers ahead." The helm was immediately put-a-lee, but before the sails were taken aback the brig struck the rocks on her starboard side. She instantly filled and fell over on her side, when a scene of confusion and terror presented itself, the horror of which can better be imagined than described. Here were the wife and husband bidding each other a last farewell, the frantic mother clasping her infant to her bosom as if death itself should not separate them; while some few who had relatives on board were endeavouring to secure what money they had, by fastening it to their bodies, but which alas proved the means of their destruction; for that which they vainly thought would secure to them a comfortable home in the fertile lands of the far "West" changed their destination to an eternal home in death. On attempting to swim to the land the weight of the money sank them to the bottom.
Captain Rose with commendable coolness commanded all to remain by the wreck until some means were devised for escaping with safety. For this purpose Mr. William Robbs of Springfield, Massachusetts took the end of a line and sprang from the vessel to a ledge which lay between her and the shore. An overwhelming wave however, overtook the devoted sailor and dashed him against the rocks, a mangled corpse.
Rose next attempted this, the only means of gaining the land in safety. The crew was all saved except the second mate. But only thirty of the seventy-nine passengers were saved and of these many were saved by Capt. Rose and Chief Mate Scofield at the imminent peril of their own lives.
By the time these were saved about three hours after the brig struck there were scarcely two of her planks together, all were literally in splinters.
Thus thirty-seven person were thrown ashore in a barren land on an unknown part of the coast. Many of them were but half clad and most of them were without shoes. Not a solitary biscuit was saved. In this pitiable condition they commenced their journey through thick woods and swamps and over bleak and rugged hills in hopes of finding some human habitation.
For four days they continued their course, governed chiefly by the wind; the sun, moon and stars being obscured nearly all the time by fog and rain and squalls which later were very frequent - sometimes eating berries they could find.
Early on the morning of the 13th, Capt. Rose and Scofield ascended a hill in hopes the fog might clear off and afford them a view of the surrounding country. At nine o'clock the weather cleared a little and they were enabled to see the harbour and village of Renouse (Renews). The happy information was soon communicated to the rest and they resumed their march with lighter hearts.
When they entered the village, its hospitable inhabitants welcomed them with everything which their present needs demanded. Mr. Goodridge of whose benevolence the crew and passengers speak in the warmer terms ofgratitude, gave money and clothes to them; then furnished a vessel to convey them to St. John's, the residence of the U.S. Consular agent.
At seven p.m. on Saturday the 15th, they were landed at St. John's. The news of their arrival soon brought to the shore rich and poor, old and young some thrusting bread into the hands of the shipwrecked strangers and others taking the poor wretches home with them. Nothing was spared to alleviate their wants and sufferings. The next day being Sunday nothing was publicly done for them. A notice was posted on the billboards requesting a meeting to take place at the Chamber of Commerce of the U.S. to devise a means to relieve the necessities of those whom fate had thrown upon their shores. Some 70 or 80 pounds were collected in a short time, and resolutions were passed to raise a sufficient sum whereby the emigrants might be enabled to reach the place of their destination. A committee was appointed to receive clothing and money from all who felt disposed to give.
We believe the Florence was nearly a new vessel. She sailed from this port (New York) las spring for Rotterdam and was on her return voyage here.
With only half of the passengers surviving, no doubt there were terrible stories of tragedy on that August day and just as likely, great feats of heroism. Details of exactly what transpired are now lost in the mists of time.
Dorothy Kavanagh's great grandfather was Michael J. Adrian who was thirteen years old when the Florence was wrecked. He was carried safely ashore on his father's shoulders on the breeches buoy rigged up by Captain Rose and Mate Scofield. Michael's brother Stephen, about eighteen years of age, also made it safely ashore.
Their parents, Gertrude and Johannes Pieter (Peter) Adrian, who both survived the wreck, came to North America with their children from Klingenberg, Bavaria. A relative aunt "pulled her skirts over her head" and jumped in panic to certain death. "This was the way my grandmother, Mary Adrian the daughter of Michael, told the story," Dorothy recalled. "And I remember her speculating that her forebears, Gertrude and Peter, were coming to the United States to avoid military service for their sons. They were not young. Gertrude was in her late forties. What courage they had."
To help Dorothy with her quest, I searched the St. John's newspaper Public Ledger. In the Tuesday, August 18, 1840, edition under the heading Melancholy Shipwreck it was reported that:
The two hundred ton Florence struck about one mile west of Cape Race on August 9. From the time the survivors landed near Cape Race to the evening of the 13th, when they reached Renews (without any guide), they had subsisted wholly on berries, no one in the neighbourhood having been aware of the catastrophe which had taken place.
The correspondent at Renews, in speaking to the Public Ledger, claimed that no case of shipwreck in this country that had come within his knowledge, had "been more entitled to sympathy, or in which assistance has been more required."
Judge Robert Carter, stationed on the southern shore in the1800s, kept a diary (from 1832 to 1852) and recorded newsworthy events. Much of his diary was published in a local newspaper in 1927. His August 18, 1840 entry reads:
Accounts reached here from Renews that the part of the crew and passengers of a vessel from Amsterdam for New York reached this place having come from Cripple Cove, near Cape Race, on foot. It is said that 50 are drowned and 30 passengers saved. The latter taken to St. John's today in a boat
At that time, the southern shore town had a population of around six hundred and its residents shared what they had. Alan Goodridge and Sons, the principal mercantile business in Renews, provided the survivors with transportation by sea to St. John's. When the thirty-seven refugees who had been suddenly thrust upon the city arrived on Saturday evening of August 15th, 1840 the general public, like the good citizens of Renews, reached out to help. The greatest concern was to properly clothe, fee and house the survivors. Then, once those needs had been assured, funds for transportation to New York would be raised.
On Monday August 17th, the president of St. John's Chamber of Commerce posted a notice requesting a meeting at the Commercial Room at two p.m. Within hours, a subscriptionlist for donations opened and contributions came in. A committee was appointed for the purpose of collecting further monies and within a day L62 had been raised. Another charitable group in St. John's in the mid-1800s was the Ladies of Dorcas Society, a woman's organization whose chief aim was to provide clothes for the needy. They immediately distributed clothing to the survivors of the Florence.
The "Florence Subscription List" Committee members were Chairman William Thomas (The Honourable Attorney General), Messrs. Scott, Grieve, Bulley, S. Mudge, Robert Prowse, Thomas Job and John Trimingham. William Thomas and Thomas Job agreed to take care of any clothing collected while others
had the responsibility of finding transportation to New York. Within a few days a vessel left St. John's for New York with Florence's thirty passengers and seven crew aboard.
The Adrians, like the other survivors, arrived in New York penniless, having lost their possessions in the wreck. Michael, however, reversed his fortunes. Eventually he became a landowner in New York, founded the German Exchange Bank which later merged with and became a branch of the First National City Bank of New York. Michael Adrian had six children whose progeny are now scattered across the United States and abroad. In August 1999, several descendants of Gertrude, Peter and Michael Adrian made a pilgrimage to the shores of Newfoundland to view the shipwreck area and to thank the towns which aided their forebearers many years ago. Today part of the East Coast Hiking Trail which extends from Cape Race to St. John's commemorates the arduous trek of Florence survivors.
As for Renews, located eighty-three kilometres south of St. John's, it was not the first time immigrants from across the Atlantic had stopped at the picturesque town. It was settled in the sixteenth century by migratory seasonal fishermen, then by English/Irish colonists and planters. The Newfoundland Encyclopedia claims (although there are many who refute the claim) the ship Mayflower, while bringing the Pilgrims from Plymouth, England to America in 1620 stopped at Renews for supplies.
Perhaps the story of visitation, shipwreck, and goodwill is intertwined in the cyclical nature of the ocean forever pounding on Newfoundland's doorstep. Maybe that's what compels all of us to search for some sense of satisfactory closure to another epic of the sea.
included in this story: Brig ad and map