At one a.m. Sunday morning,
13, September 1857, my great grandmother’s father, Captain
Anders Johnsen and his sailing vessel, the Norwegian Bark
“Ellen”, sailed in U.S. maritime and financial history.
Captain Johnsen and his crew picked up forty-nine persons
floating in the dark waters of the Atlantic. The
forty-nine persons were some of the 596 passengers and crew
floating in the water from the ill fated USS Central America
that sank just hours before in a vicious Atlantic hurricane.
This story is the subject
of many newspaper articles and books, including:
“The Final Voyage Central
America 1857” By Norman E. Klare
“Story of an American
Tragedy Central America” By the Columbus America Discovery
“Ship of Gold in the Deep
Blue Sea” By Gary Kinder
On October 7, 1857,
President James Buchanan recognized the humane performance of
Captain Johnsen and awarded him “A Magnificent Gold Pocket
Chronometer and Chain”, which is said to be one of the best the
world can produce, said the New York Times.
Captain Johnsen’s decedend
Andrew Johnsen Jobson,
Sr. Gone but not forgotten
Andrew Johnsen Jobson, Jr. Living in New Jersey, 91
Bruce R. Jobson Living in Wilbraham, MA
Glenn R. Jobson Living in Wilbraham, MA
Andrew M. Jobson Living in Wilbraham, MA
Submitted by B.R. Jobson, 4
Oakland Street, Wilbraham, MA 010950
The following is an account
of the event as written in the December 1, 1949 edition of the
newspaper, Nordisk Tidende.
Nordisk Tidende –
Thursday, Dec. l, 1949
The Bark “Ellen” of
Arendal Warned by a Bird -49 Persons Saved.
An Odd Incident Caused
Great Attention Around the World - Captain Anders Johnsen
and Crew Honored by U.S. President
Bird auguries are reported
several times in maritime history, thus came in 1857 the bark
“Ellen” of Arendal under command of the 35 year old Anders
Johnsen to the aid of the American steamer the “Central
America” because of a bird augury. The shipwreck and he
rescue expedition attracted enormous attention and in several
reports on the crisis in America it is said the wreck and
the loss of the gold from California increased the pessimistic
atmosphere. On September 3rd he “Central
America” left Havana with 592 passengers on board, another
report states 800 passengers, and a sum of 2,000,000 in gold.
Immediately the ship had reached the high seas I was hit by
severe wind storms and sprung a leak. The pumps were
working night and day to keep the steamer afloat but ever
rising waters finally reached he engine room and put out the
fire under the boilers and everybody on board faced certain
death. As a last resort the pumps were powered for a
while yet by a donkey engine on deck and finally on September
12th at 2:00 P.M. the “Marai” the American
brigg of Boston headed towards the steamer and the rescue
action began. Several of the lifeboats had been bashed
against the hull of the steamer when the waves were high and
only a small part of the passengers and the crew of the
steamer, 98, got safely on board the brigg. The brigg
itself was severely damaged and forced to give up further
attempt of rescue in the middle of he night and leave those
remaining on board to their fate. Later that night the
ship sank with the majority of is passengers. But part of
the shipwrecks were still hanging on to the pieces of wreckage.
16 men were thus floating on a section of the saloon. Of
these 16, 13 died. They seemed to be doomed. Who
could see them in the roaring sea? The sharks would come at
dawn. The hours passed - but the night was still
pitch black. But look – there they cach sight of
something luminous across the wave tops coming nearer and
The “Ellen” left
Arendal on December 15th, 1856 destined for Cadiz
and whence to Honduras.
“In the middle of August
1857”m relates captain Anders Johnsen of Kolbjernsvik near
Arendal, “I left Belize in Honduras. My ship the bark
“Ellen” laden with mahogany together with dye-wood and cocoa
nuts was destined for Falmouth for further orders. I kept
her crossing with and against the wind, a north easterly fresh
breeze, until I reached the west end of Cuba, Cape Antonia.
Then I caught a northerly wind, but a light one sometimes
calm with a hazy air so we could not see too far ahead.
When our reckoning showed us to be a beam Havana off the island
of Cuba three steamers came out from there. The name of
one was the “Central America” that of the second was the
“Emperor of City” and the third one was a general cargo
trader from Boston. A few days after we had met the three
steamers we ran into a stiff hurricane from n.n.e.
I was then about 90 nautical miles off the Bahamas bank and
according to our reckoning our ship should be at the eastern
perimeter of the Gulf Stream. We were not certain of
this, however , not having had a fix for several days.
When the hurricane began we battened everything down and
everything movable was stowed under deck and we committed
our ship in the hands of the Almighty who guides and protects
us, his children who trust in him. On September 10th
the hurricane was at the peak of its fury; on he 11th
I shifted towards n.n.w. but howled unabatedly; in the
afternoon of the 12th the hurricane began to drop
off and we got up two reefed topsails and a reefed
forsail; in the afternoon we had lowered our spanker and double
reefed it in case he hurricane might pick up again so that we
could keep the ship windward. The ship made considerable
speed over the waves. At 10 minutes before six I roused the
watch who had turned in to have him help us hoist the lowered
gaff. Our ship’s boy, a small English fellow, was aloft
greasing the main mast and I am standing on the half deck
straight in front of the top mast backstays giving him his
As I was looking aloft I
was tapped on my right shoulder. I turned and what do I
see but a large bird moving away from the ship, this was on the
port side- flew around starboard in front of the jib boom to
return to the same place, where it was the firs time. I
remained standing in the same place, turned, and kept watching
it with great amazement. When it came
straight in front of the backstays where it had been the first
time, it turned sharply , its wings up and down, and flew
between the backstays straight against my chest. Then it
tumbled down from my chest onto the halfdeck and I was
astounded that a bird would attack a human being. I
took courage and gripped it with my left hand but it bit my
left thumb so that I had to let go then I grasped it with
my right hand. It then raised its head and bit my beard
right under the chin so that I was stuck and could not
get loose. An old boatswain whom I had with me came right
away to help me and gripped the bird which then let go of my
beard and caught the boatswain’s wrist right above his hand
with its beak cutting him so that he was bleeding quite a bit.
The small English boy who was aloft greasing the mizzon mast
came to our assistance. He grasped the bird by its neck
so it could not bite us. We got a piece of string and
tied I to one leg of the bird so it could not fly away from me.
I ordered it fed with water, bread and pork as I believed it
was thirsty and hungry but it would not have any part of it.
Its eyes were fixed at me alone and it wanted to fly a me
again. We were much amazed at its sad looking eyes
which were fixed at me all the time never shifting to another
person as well as its anxiety to get at me. The bird's
length from neck to tail-feathers was about 18", its wing span
about 3'8", its beak 6 " long with sharp teeth like a hack saw.
Its legs were not unusual considering the bird's size, with web
between the outermost joints, and in all respects a beautiful
looking bird with its ice-gray color and a long neck with it
extended it. We had never seen a bird like it. We
remained standing around it for a while and it occurred to me
that when it struck against my right shoulder it might be a
sign from the Almighty, but what was in store for me I had no
idea about and neither did I tell the crew about my thoughts
until someone said, "It is a sign from God. Note the way
it is watching the captain and how anzious it is to get
to him". I then say to my first mate, "Maybe our ship is
on a more westward course than our dead-reckoning and we are
nearer to land than we think, (we were heading N.E. to N.) we
must steer N. than we can be sure that our ship does not steer
towards land". The first mate persevered that we might as
well sail into disaster as away from it by changing the course
so I tired of listening to ham and changed the course
back to N.E. to N. which it was before the bird came to the
ship. I continued walking up and down the deck and
thought intensely about the situation but found no relief until
I had changed the course back to NO as I first had
It was 6 0'clock when the
bird arrived. When it was 8 p.m. the mate cried out
"Heave the log" to find out what speed we were making but
nobody could get abaft on account of the bird. It was so
dark you could hardly see yo8ur own hands. I then told
our second officer that we should try to get the bird down into
the cabin and tie it up in a side door (way) on the port side.
It was quite a while before we succeded getting it below deck;
we finally did it when the second officer got two sticks and
kept its wings close to its body and I went ahead with
the string attached to its foot. I had a lot of trouble
keeping it away from me until I got it secured and its eyes
were ficed at mw as before. It was not 9 o'clock and my
turn to turn in but I was afraid of sleeping as I thought:
if it bites the string through then it might kill you in bed or
at least harm you. At 10 o'clock it hid its head under
its wing and slept and I did likewise until midnight when the
mate called me and I remained lying until a quarter past 12.
Everything was quiet and
silent on board the "Ellen". The wind from astern.
The captain was lying watching the bird - still sleeping, its
head under its wing - and thought about the odd event and the
change it caused in the ship's course. A change of one
pint in a ship's course makes quite a difference in brisk
Then the captain hears a
man walking quickly on the deck, He gets up only halfway
dredded and in the doorway he meets the second officer who
says: “Captain, come on deck quickly. I hear human
shouting, whether from land or the water I do not know”.
The captain rushes forward. Hears a shoouting of several
hundred voices, Help, Help. For God’s sake Help!!!.
In no time the watch below is roused and on deck.
The two double-reefed
topsails were lowered onto the companion. The foresail
hauled in, the helm was put to port and the ship’s head turned
windward. It is pitch dark, impossible to see anything,
but while the ship is maneuvering, cries of agony are heard
from every direction so as to nearly drown out the words of
command on board. At that time ships were carrying
lanterns under their bowspirits which were visible over the
tops of the waves as a warning to sailing ships.
On board preparations were
made to lower the launch. The lashing were cut abaft;
but through negligence the derricks holding the fresh water
barrels would become free. It was a very rough sea and
the ship was working very hard. These efforts were in
vain. Astern was a smaller boat hanging in davits which
was put out successfully. An oar was handed down and the ships
sailmaker was already standing in the boat. The carpenter
was hanging in a line on the ship’s side waiting for the boat
to heave in the rough sea.
The captain standing astern
sees a floating plank on which something alive is moving – a
strong phosphorescence makes the water sparkle. The plank
approaches the boat. “Wait” cries the captain in
English. “Don’t touch the boat until the crew is in it”.
No sooner these words had been said when 8 men grasp the
gunwale with their hands. In a split second the boat is
keel up. A rope is thrown out and the sailmaker is hauled
in again. But the boat continues turning turtle, six men
hanging on to it. The captain gets the boat so close to
the ship’s side that he gets ropes around the strangers and
gets them hauled in. The two remaining men had climbed up
on the ships rudder, but in the very moment a rope is thrown to
them the ship heaves mightily and the waves and they are washed
away, presumably crushed under the taffrail.
A big barge is attempted
launched, but the same thing happened, the effort with the
boats were of no avail.
The captain, then, ordered
the sails backed and filled in the direction from where the
cries were heard to have the poor creatures so close leeward
that ropes could be thrown at them and they could be hauled in.
Anything astern or windward was beyond help. The ship was
drifting faster than the shipwrecks.
The 16 men on the saloon
roof padded closely astern the ship in the dark. Their
persistent shouts were heard and the captain spoke to them but
it was impossible to save them, but man after man was picked up
at the leeward side.
44 persons were saved in
the darkness of the night. Dawn was now beginning to
break. “Ellen’s” captain went aloft to the main top with
his binoculars to scan the surface for more persons.
Look, three persons are floating on a hatch. The captain
bears down upon them right away. As soon as the ship has
gotten near them they get up on their feet waving their hands
while cheering and so they are hoisted on board. After an
hour or so two men are discovered leeward lying on two doors
bound together with a handkerchief. These were the same
two persons who had been under the bowspirit at 3 A.M..
They were now so exhausted that they were totally unable to
help themselves. It was now 10 A.M. when the ship came
for them a second time. A life buoy was thrown out but
they were unable to catch it, they only raised their heads and
begged the captain to save them; then they lay down on
their faces on the doors the seas washing over them.
“Even if I have to swim out to you with a rope, you will be
saved”, said the captain comfortingly. Bit it was a
difficult task. Jib and spanker were set in order to go
about but in vain. The jib blew away. The ship had
to turn down the wind and got far away from them. But the
captain kept them in sight all the while and the ship steered
toward them again then braced all sails aback; they were
now lying close to the starboard anchor stock. The
carpenter was sent down to put ropes around them and they were
safely picked up together with both of the doors. The
ship was making no speed at all.
“They were hauled aboard
and by Sunday noon a total of 49 persons had been rescued.
The bird which by its marvelous appearance had guided the ship
to the very spot in the sea where a group of 700
shipwrecked persons were awaiting certain death – the bird with
its head under its wing had been sitting sleeping in the
cabin. Nobody thought about it ore paid it any attention.
The cabin was filled with naked persons all the way out to the
corridor, most of them in a deep unconscious sleep. But
at the beginning of daybreak the bird woke up. Just as
three men on the hatch were being rescued, the last ones but
two, the mate came on the deck and told the captain that a lot
of blood was flowing in the cabin. The captain was
fearful that some of those rescued in their delirium had
committed a misdeed and he rushes below deck. It is the
bird that had bitten the persons on their legs as far as it
could reach for the string around its foot. With some
difficulty it was brought on deck again and tied to the main
mast. The captain busily engaged in rescuing the three
persons. Then the bird again bites on of those rescued
who had come to near it making a deep would in his calf.
“Cut its head off and throw it over board” the captain
yells in anger and haste to one of the crew. An axe
finishes it off and it is thrown over board to great sorrow of
the passengers when they learned its story and to some regret
also to the captain himself”.
On September 18 the “Ellen
arrived in Norfolk. Captain Johnsen and his crew received
much distinction particularly in New York. The ship was
repaired free of charge and everybody received presents.
From the President of the U.S.A the crew received bronze medals
and the captain a gold chronometer with inscription.
Johnsen was never let alone by photographers, her was mentioned
in papers all the time and twice his portrait was painted in
life-size. The religious tract societies printed and
distributed thousands of pamphlets. On the front page was
a sinking ship, straight up and down in the waves. Two
golddiggers with full sacks were sitting on the utmost end of
the bow sprit. On board the “Ellen” the captain was seen
near the main backstays the bird tapping his shoulder in a
friendly way with its extended wing.