Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Wreck of the Eclipse on Sanak Island, 1807

In September 1807, a new American sailing ship, the Eclipse, wrecked on Sanak Island, twenty five miles southwest of Unimak Island. Aboard was a young Scotsman, Archibald Campbell, whose account of the wreck follows here. But while Mr. Campbell’s tale is a quite riveting sea story, it also holds interest as part of a much larger narrative- the three-cornered trade route imagined and implemented by Alexander Baranov, the Governor of Russian America, between Alaska, China, and the Russian Far East. That trade brought Alaskan furs to China; Chinese tea, spices and silks to the Russian Far East; and supplies from the Russian Far East to Russian America; all of which made Kodiak the center of the North Pacific world in the those years.
The Grand Turk, a ship of similar tonnage to the Eclipse,
from chinaware, 1786. (Peabody Essex Museum)

What’s also interesting about this story is that the ship's master, an American named Joseph O’Kean, (O'Cain, in other accounts) apparently was the man who helped convince Alexander Baranov to use American ships to do the transporting of furs from Alaska to China. While space here does not allow a more detailed account of their relationship, it is worth noting that O’Kean had made other previous voyages carrying Russian American furs to market, and like other American merchant sailors, was deeply involved in the economics of Alaska decades before Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867.

Campbell however was merely a regular seaman, who had quit another ship and signed onto the Eclipse in Canton, China, in January 1807. It is believed the Eclipse had previously arrived from Petropavlovsk to offload Siberian furs and to take on silks, cotton cloth, tea, spices and rice. Campbell sailed aboard the Eclipse from Canton back to the Russian Far East, where in August, the Chinese luxuries were offloaded for shipment across Siberia to St. Petersburg, and supplies for Kodiak were put aboard.


On September 10, after an uneventful passage from Kamchatka, the wind came up hard from the south as the Eclipse was off the south coast of Unimak Island. In the afternoon land was sighted fifteen miles to the north. With the wind bearing them landward, the ship’s course heading was changed from northeast to east to avoid the coast.

About ten that evening the alarm was given of breakers ahead. Captain O’Kean, believing the white water ahead off the bow was frothed by the wind, not breakers on a shoal, ordered the helmsman to stay his course. Within moments however, the ship struck an uncharted reef with enough force to throw sleeping seamen out of their hammocks.

The breaking seas carried the Eclipse across the reef and into deeper water, where the anchor was dropped in seventeen fathoms, and the longboat lowered alongside in case the ship should sink during the night. At first light land was spotted about ten miles to the north, and the ship appearing seaworthy, the anchor was slipped and the ship pointed landward to make repairs. As the rudder had been broken off coming across the reef, the ship was steered with mizzen and jib sails until it grounded just before noon on the south side of what the natives called Sanak Island, 25 miles southeast of Unimak Island and 160 miles east of Unalaska.

The crew rowed safely to shore in the longboat, but later that afternoon the ship rolled over on her side, and later sank in four fathoms of water. They set up camp on the beach and used an axe found in the bottom of the longboat to cut a hole in the side of the ship, from which they recovered provisions, tools, sail cloth, hardware, and eventually much of the cargo. They were stuck however on a treeless, flat and waterlogged island about twelve miles long and four miles across, with nothing edible on it but berries. The sailors at first thought the island was uninhabited, though this was not the case. After considering their options, they made a plan to build another boat from the wreckage of the Eclipse and sail it to Hawaii, known then as the Sandwich Islands, to seek help from other American sailing ships.

Over the next few weeks the crew stockpiled the lumber and hardware necessary to build the new ship. At one point they recovered Campbell’s personal sea trunk, from which he pulled out his Bible, which he dried out and carried with him through a second, more disastrous ship wreck.

Aleut sea otter hunters at Sanak Island
(Alaska State Museum)
On September 28th three natives arrived in kayaks, who had followed the trail of wreckage along the shore. One of the natives, wearing a gold medal around his neck, spoke Russian, in which O’Kean was conversant. This native immediately sent one of the other natives to their village on the north shore of the island, and the other to the Russian settlement at Unalaska, 170 miles to the west. The next day about 40 natives arrived from the north side of island with berries, seal oil and dried salmon, which they shared with the shipwrecked sailors. The natives then proceeded to build barabaras from the ship’s planks and moss, and settled in to help on the salvage operation.

A week later the Russian commandant in Unalaska, a Mr. Bander, arrived with about twenty natives. Mr. Bander promised the help of a Russian carpenters from Kodiak, so the decision was made to make the longboat ready to sail there, a distance of about 500 miles. Planks were laid across the thwarts to form a deck, and sail cloth was nailed across to seal it somewhat, and allow for people to sleep below decks, out of the weather. The boat was rigged with a single mast and rigged as a sloop. She was twenty five feet long.

Sailing to Kodiak for Help

After provisioning the boat with dried salmon, berries and water, they set sail for Kodiak on the morning of October 18th, with a crew consisting of Mr. Campbell, Mr. Bander, the Eclipse’s 2nd mate, another seven of the ship’s crew, and an Aleut pilot. Captain O’Kean and the rest of the crew were left behind. A leak was discovered soon after embarking, but after going back to make the repairs, they set out again on the morning of the 19th.

Under a good breeze, they arrived the next day at a native village on Unga Island, in the Shumagin Islands, a run of 160 miles. Upon landing they found that all the male inhabitants had gone on a sealing expedition three weeks before and had been lost in a storm. Besides women and children, only the Russian agent and his son and an interpreter remained in the village. The village welcomed the sailors however, and even treated them to a banya, which Mr. Campbell describes in his journal. The sailors hunted deer on the island and replenished their supplies, and set sail again on December 6th.

Within a few days they were in the “harbor of Alexandria,” which we know today as Kodiak’s St. Paul Harbor. Upon landing, Mr. Bander and Campbell met with the Russian governor, presumably Alexander Baranov himself, who made arrangements to outfit a Russian brig then sitting in the harbor for a voyage back to Sanak Island to retrieve the Eclipse’s crew and cargo. Since this evidently might take some time, the governor advised the Campbell and the others to head back to Sanak immediately with Russian carpenters to help with the building of a ship from the timbers of the Eclipse. The idea was to sail this new ship to Hawaii- what Campbell referred to as the "Sandwich Islands.:

Shipwrecked Again

Campbell and his shipmates, along with the Russian carpenters, set sail in the longboat from Kodiak for Sanak on January 9th, 1808, sailing though Whale Pass into Shelikof Strait, provisioned with salt pork and bear meat, water, rum, berries and blubber.

The next day however, the wind went hard northwest, and they sought shelter on a beach within a small bay somewhere on Kodiak’s west coast, surrounded by a forbidding snow covered landscape. The weather remained foul, but on the 21st, running low on food, they decided to make a run for Karluk, “at no great distance,” to the southwest. Out in the Shelikof however, the boat sprang a serious leak and they decided to head back to the bay they had just come from. Snow squalls and fog obscured their view however, and running blind toward the coast of Kodiak Island they suddenly they found themselves being driven upon a rocky shore, the force of the wind and the closeness of the headlands on either side making it impossible to escape grounding. They aimed for the least rocky part of the beach and leapt out as the boat hit. The mate mistakenly threw the anchor over, which caused the nose of the boat to turn back into the wind and hold it within the surf zone, whereupon the vessel was immediately pounded into kindling.

They were now stranded on a narrow beach surrounded by snow covered mountains falling abruptly into the sea. They found shelter in a small hunter’s barabara nearby, but with only three or four days’ worth of food salvaged from the landing, Campbell and several of the others decided to work their way on foot along the shoreline to Karluk, still an unknown distance to the southwest. They left a Russian and a native behind to look after the items recovered from the boat.

Trying to get to Karluk along the shore was a disaster. While rounding a rocky headland, Campbell’s feet became wet and froze, and after a three day travail in arctic conditions, the party stumbled back to the shelter of the barabara. Leaving Campbell in the care of several Russians, the party made a second attempt to reach Karluk, and was successful. A rescue party of natives in kayaks arrived some days later, which delivered the survivors first to Karluk, and eventually to Kodiak.


Campbell’s feet developed gangrene and after thinking on it for three days, and realizing that the alternative was death, he agreed to have them and a finger amputated by the Russian surgeon in Kodiak. Upon hearing of Campbell’s misfortunes, Governor Baranov raised a hundred and eighty rubles for his sustenance, and after some months of recuperation Campbell sailed for Hawaii, and eventually returned to Scotland. The Bible he salvaged from the Eclipse apparently made it home with him. He published his account of the sinking of the Eclipse in 1816.

According to the Russian historian Kiril Khlebnikov, Captain O’Kean and the rest of the Eclipse crew did manage to build a ship on Sanak Island, and with the help of local Aleuts, set sail in it for Unalaska in February, 1808. That ship too was wrecked, this time on the south shore of Unimak Island, and although the crew managed to get safely ashore, Captain O’Kean did not. He died in the surf along with a dog and an unnamed “Sandwich Island,” woman.

The wreck of the Eclipse is presumably still to be found in the shallows between the reefs along the southern edge of Sanak Island. An artifact of Yankee seafaring technology lost while furthering the strategic aims of the Russian Empire in one of the great trading schemes of the last few centuries, the vessel or its parts would be an amazing discovery for a marine archeology team. Perhaps someday, someone will find it again.

This retelling of Campbell's story, by Kodiak Maritime Museum Executive Director, Toby Sullivan, appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror January 6th and 7th, 2015.

For Archibald Campbell’s full account of the wreck of the Eclipse, see “Tales of Terror and Tragedy,” by Edward R. Snow, 1979.

1 comment:

  1. A great story of endurance, extreme challenges and convergent cultures.