New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Tossed by the Sea Into a Frozen Wilderness—1780

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The Saint Lawrence sank in late 1780, stranding its crew in the Magdalen Islands/Prince Edward Island/Cape Breton area. Following is the story of the disaster, from Ships of War Lost on the Coast of Nova Scotia and Sable Island During the Eighteenth Century, by Simon D. MacDonald, Halifax, 1884.

Henry Clinton was waiting in New York for the St. Lawrence to arrive

From Wikipedia


Tossed by the Sea Into a Frozen Wilderness—1780

On the 17th of November, 1780, the brig St. Lawrence, chartered by the British government, left Quebec with Lieutenant Prentise of the 84th Regiment, charged with important dispatches from General Haldimand, Commander in Chief of Canada, to Henry Clinton of New York. Off Gaspe they encountered headwinds which delayed them several days. During this time the wind became intensely cold and ice began to form at an alarming degree. The wind kept gradually increasing until the 1st of December when it blew a perfect gale, causing the ship to leak so badly that the pumps had to be kept constantly worked. During the 2nd and 3rd the ice formed so on the ship’s sides as to impede her way, and the leak continued to gain on them. On the following day they fell in with a cutter which had sailed a few days after them with Ensign Drummond of the 44th Regiment, carrying duplicate dispatches of General Haldimand to New York. The cutter, far from being able to render them any assistance, was as leaky as the ship, having ran on a reef while coming down the river through the neglect of the pilot. A heavy snowstorm set in, and in order not to part company, a gun was fired every half hour. Through the night the cutter ceased to answer the guns from the ship, having foundered with all on board. On the 5th the gale increased, and the ship’s crew being now overcome with cold and fatigue, seeing no prospect of gaining on the leak—the water having reached four feet in the hold—nor the prospect of making any port, abandoned the pumps and declared themselves quite indifferent as to their fate, preferring the alternation of going down with the ship to that of suffering such severe and incessant labor in so desperate a situation. The sea was now running very high and the heavy falling snow prevented them seeing twenty yards ahead of the vessel. The mate had judged from the distance run that they were not far from the Magdalen Islands. This conjecture was well founded, for in less than an hour the sea was heard breaking upon the rocks, and soon after Deadman’s Island was discovered close under the lee. Having happily cleared the main island they were still far from being secure; for almost immediately they found themselves in the midst of the smaller islands, and there appeared little probability of their passing clear of all in like manner—not being able to distinguish any one of them in time to avoid it. They were thus obliged to leave the vessel to the direction of Providence, and fortunately or rather miraculously ran through them all without damage.

The excitement and anxiety among the crew while in the midst of those rocks may be easily imagined. And now that the danger was over it proved a fortunate occurrence, for the sailors being ready to sink under exposure and fatigue, acquired fresh spirits from the danger through which they had just passed, agreed to continue their efforts a little longer, and again the pumps were manned. But all endeavors to prevent the ship from filling were now vain. The leak so increased that in a short time she was entirely full. Having no longer, as they thought, the smallest foundation for hope, they resigned themselves with as much fortitude as possible to their fate. Notwithstanding when the ship was quite full she was observed to have settled but very little deeper than before, which may be accounted for by the fact of her having but little cargo, and being so thoroughly iced up she was not in a condition to founder. This recalled hope and, by keeping her directly before the wind she was prevented from overturning.

The captain reckoned from the course ran through the night that they were not far from the Island of St. John (Prince Edward Island), and laboring under great dread lest she should strike on the dangerous rocks that skirt its north-east side, proposed that they lie-to to keep her off the land, which Lieutenant Prenties and the mate strongly opposed, as it amounted to almost a certainty that she would be overset in the attempt, and she was allowed to run helplessly before the gale.

Small as their expectations were now of saving their lives, the lieutenant thought it incumbent on him to take every precaution to save the important dispatches with which he had been entrusted, especially as their duplicates had gone down in the cutter. So, taking them from his trunk he lashed them around his waist, at the same time offering his servant some money to the amount of about 200 guineas, requesting him to dispose of it as he thought proper, regarding it as an encumbrance in the present emergency rather than a matter worthy of preservation. The servant, however, thought otherwise, and took care to put the money up as carefully as his master did the dispatches. The weather continued thick as usual till about one o’clock, when suddenly clearing up land was discovered right ahead. Already they had entered the breakers of a reef, and it was expected that their fate would be determined there. But she went through without striking, and before her lay a bold shore and a sandy beach. Now was the time for every man to be on the alert, as she might be expected to go to pieces immediately on striking. At the first stroke the mainmast went by the board. At the same time the rudder was unshipped with such violence as to disable several of the crew. The seas swept her in every part, each roller lifting her nearer the shore. In a short time her stern was beaten in and all hands were clinging to the shrouds. In this awkward situation they remained till the vessel was swung broadside on, thus affording them shelter to the leeward. The boat was with great difficulty cleared for launching, although it seemed scarcely possible for her to live in such a sea for a single minute. From the intensity of the cold the surf as it broke over them encased their clothing in a mass of ice. At length the boat was got into the water, but few were found willing to attempt a landing. Lieutenant Prenties, the mate and a few sailors, however, jumped into her and cast off. The ship was lying about 40 yards from the shore. When about half way a wave broke over them and nearly filled the boat, while the next dashed them high on the beach. The cries for help from those left on board could be distinctly heard. But what help could be given them? The shattered boat was beat high upon the beach, while the sea was running to such a degree it was not in the power of man to afford them any assistance.

Night was now approaching. They were obliged to wade with extreme difficulty up to their waists in snow to the shelter of a thick wood about 300 yards from the shore. This furnished some relief from the piercing north-west wind; yet a fire was wanting to warm their frozen limbs, but they had not the wherewithal to kindle it. Freezing as they stood there was nothing to be done but to keep their blood in motion by exercise. In less than half an hour one of the party lay down to sleep in spite of all endeavors both by persuasion and force to rouse him, and soon was stiff. The death of this one could not deter the rest from giving away to this drowsy sensation, and three more lay down. Finding it impossible for to keep them on their legs, the lieutenant and the mate broke branches from the trees and beat those men continually through the night to prevent them from sleeping, and thus preserved the lives of the crew and their own as well.

At last the long-wished for day appeared. The vessel had by this time beat nearer the shore and those alive on board continued to swing themselves from the jibboom at low water to within a few yards of the shore. The captain had fortunately previous to coming on shore put into his pocket material for striking a fire, and soon they were warming their frozen limbs. On the morrow a small remnant of the provision was secured from the wreck, consisting of two barrels of pork, one barrel of onions, and about twelve pounds tallow candles.

I shall not here recite the sickening details of the sufferings of this unfortunate crew after the store of provisions was exhausted. Suffice it to say that for over two long winter months one portion of them coasted the shores of Cape Breton in a leaky boat day by day as opportunity occurred and their limited strength allowed them, in search of relief, living on kelp and the seed bulbs found on wild rose bushes in winter; until, by their snail pace progress, over one hundred miles had been accomplished, and, doubling Cape North, they were discovered by Indians when about laying down to die.

As soon as intelligence was received at the Indian encampment of the other portion of the crew being left behind, and their probable whereabouts, an expedition was at once set on foot to succor them and, on the following day, a band of Indians on snow shoes with provisions and sledges set out across the country. After being absent about three weeks they arrived with three men who were the only survivors, ten of their number having died from starvation and cold and were afterwards eaten by their companions. The survivors remained at the camp until the following spring, while Lieutenant Prenties with Indian guides continued overland to Canso. Learning here that the coast was infested by American privateers, and fearing capture if he should take passage as intended, he procured fresh guides and proceeded inland and arrived at Halifax early in May, from which he took passage to New York with his dispatches in a very demoralized condition.


Written by johnwood1946

April 26, 2017 at 8:45 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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