Brother Jonathan, 1851-1865
Brother Jonathan achieved fame in its era for both celebratory and tragic reasons. As to the former, this ship carried the official announcement to Portland that Oregon Territory had become Oregon State.1 As to the latter, on July 30th, 1865, it hit an uncharted rock off the coast near Crescent City and sunk with 244 passengers on board, only 19 survived.2 Brother Jonathan then had the regrettable label as the deadliest shipwreck in West Coast history to date.3
It avoided an earlier and greater disaster further up the coast, named as the Commodore at the time, in which it nearly sunk with 350 passengers on board.4 For its final calamity, however, it had been repaired and renamed Brother Jonathan, which, prior to the invention of the better-known Uncle Sam, refers to a fictional character created to personify the state of the United States.5
In this despatch, Douglas refers to the Commodore as an American Steamer, whose purpose at the time, in 1858, was to disembark some 450 passengers on board, the chief part of whom [were] gold miners for the Couteau country.
In the same year, this ship carried a contingent of Black travelers from San Francisco to Vancouver Island, whose purpose was to determine the island's suitability for settlement and, apparently, the reports were favourable.6
The Brother Jonathan was an impressive vessel at 67 m long and 10 m wide; its paddle wheels, one each side, were nearly 11 m in diameter and driven by an engine that had cylinders of 2 m in diameter.7 Its main saloon was 21 m long, had a dozen staterooms, and after its repairs in preparation for use under the ownership of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the ship had a passenger capacity of 750.8
  • 1. Denis Powers, Brother Jonathan (ship), The Oregon Encyclopedia.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Lynn Middleton, Placenames of the Pacific Northwest Coast (Victoria: Elldee Publishing Company, 1969), 45.
  • 5. Powers, Brother Jonathan (ship).
  • 6. The SS Commodore, Parks Canada.
  • 7. John Haskell Kemble, The Panama Route, 1848-1869 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1943), 217.
  • 8. Ibid.
Mentions of this vessel in the documents
The Colonial Despatches Team. Brother Jonathan, 1851-1865. The Colonial Despatches of Vancouver Island and British Columbia 1846-1871, Edition 2.2, ed. The Colonial Despatches Team. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria. https://bcgenesis.uvic.ca/brother_jonathan.html.

Last modified: 2020-12-02 13:40:34 -0800 (Wed, 02 Dec 2020) (SVN revision: 5008)