Erwin G. Gudde
University of California
JOURNAL, Coast and Geodetic Survey,
December 1951, Number 4)
Views of San Francisco harbor in 1849 show numerous sailing
vessels at anchor. These
pictures tell a story. The masters had succeeded in navigating
their vessels through the Golden Gate and anchoring in or near
Yerba Buena Cove; but there the journey for many of them ended;
within a few days the sailors were off to the gold fields. If
the captain or the supercargo did not want to abandon the ship,
he had to pay the crew a monthly wage ranging between $130 and
$150, plus sustenance. One can surmise the demoralizing effect
this had on seamen of navy and government vessels, on which
an able seaman at that time received only a fraction of the
wages paid to sailors of merchantmen, who often did not know
the first thing about sailing. Utmost vigilance on the part
of the officers was necessary to prevent wholesale desertion
and keep unsullied the tradition of the U.S. Navy for devotion
On the night of September 13, 1849, occurred a mutiny on the
gig of the U.S. survey schooner EWING, a full account of which,
as far as I know, has never appeared in print. Contemporary
newspaper reports are contradictory, and the rather romantic
story which the Rev. J. L. Ver Mehr tells in the 1877 edition
of his "Checkered Life" is not reliable in detail,
although doubtless true as far as his own personal connections
with the sad affair are concerned. Lewis McArthur in his account
of the activities of his grandfather, William P. McArthur,
in the "Oregon Historical Quarterly" of September
1915, as well as other writers, just alludes to the incident.
Col. Fred B. Rogers called my attention to an account by the
victim of the mutiny, Passed Midshipman William Gibson, published
in the "Army and Navy Journal," March 9, 1878, and
reprinted in the "Pioneer" of San Jose, February
26, 1881. The entire story, however, has apparently never
Late in 1850, a year after the mutiny, the EWING was to convey
George Davidson and his party of the U.S. Coast Survey to
Monterey. But the ill-starred vessel seemed again to have
had a Jonah on board; she was disabled in a southeaster off
Point Ano Nuevo, was forced to turn back to San Francisco,
anchored on the bar, was caught in a swell, and lost her anchor.
Davidson's party had to take the Pacific Mail steamer CAROLINA
to reach Monterey, but the few days on the EWING had given
Davidson a chance to hear the story of the mutiny from the
very officers who had witnessed it. More than 60 years later,
Davidson took up his notes again with the intention of publishing
the account of this almost forgotten episode of naval history.
His health failed him and he did not progress beyond collecting
the material, which, at his death on December 2, 1911, passed
into the hands of the historian Zoeth S. Eldredge. He too
was prevented from writing the story. Thus it has fallen to
me, Davidson's biographer, to bring to light again the mutiny
on the EWING. A perusal of the material, most of which is
found in the Davidson papers, now in possession of the University
of California, soon convinced me that the drama would unfold
itself with greater vividness if the principal documents were
allowed to speak for themselves; they include extracts from
the log of the EWING, parts of Davidson's sketches based on
the accounts of eye-witnesses, and copies of documents from
the archives of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. The antecedents
of the mutiny are given in a statement by H. Tittmann, Superintendent
of the Survey, in a letter to Davidson dated June 10, 1911:
The schooner EWING, after repairing and outfitting in New
York, put to sea on January 10, 1849, bound for San Francisco.
She was in command of Lt. Comdr. Washington H. Bartlett, USN.
She reached Rio de Janeiro on March 7th and sailed again March
25th; rounded Cape Horn April 15th; and reached Valparaiso
May 14th and San Francisco on August 1st--anchored first at
Sausalito, near the camp of the Joint Commission of the Army
Lt. Comdr. William P. McArthur (who was to take charge of
the schooner in San Francisco) left Washington for San Francisco
via the Isthmus on March 17th and reached Panama without much
delay, but there was a tedious wait there for a steamer to
take him to San Francisco. About 2,500 gold seekers were then
in Panama waiting for a chance to go to San Francisco. No
steamer coming, they at length purchased the ship HUMBOLDT,
which sailed with Captain McArthur in command and 360 passengers.
They had calms and head winds and called at Acapulco for supplies
July 9th, 46 days from Panama, and reached San Francisco August
Except for a reconnaissance trip to Benicia, no work was done
by the EWING until Lieutenant Commander McArthur assumed command
on September 6th. The next day the schooner proceeded to Monterey
Bay and remained there until the 11th, but no work is mentioned
in the log. She returned to her anchorage of San Francisco
on the 12th.
The mutiny occurred the following night.
The schooner was at Bodega from August 26th to September 6th,
hoping to prevent desertions, which accounts for the delay
of Commander McArthur in assuming command. While at Bodega,
on September 2nd, four men stole the dinghy and deserted.
Gibson's account, referred to above, was published almost
30 years after the mutiny and reads, in part, as follows:
On or about the 11th of September 1849 I was a passed midshipman
on board the U.S. schooner EWING, Lieutenant Commanding McArthur,
lying in the bay of San Francisco, about 2 miles off from
the strange collection of frame shanties, tents, and ancient
adobes that then constituted the city of San Francisco. She
was a coast survey vessel, officered and manned by and under
the discipline of the Navy. Several cruising men-of-war and
store ships of the squadron were in port, and the flag of
Commodore T. Ap Catesby Jones flew from the line of the battleship
OHIO. On shore the gold excitement was at its wildest. . .
The temptation was great; the crews would, if they could,
have deserted nearly to a man. The extremest exercise of power
conferred by naval law and the sharpest vigilance were necessary
to prevent this; the muskets of the marines were kept loaded,
the watch officers wore their pistols, and the officers in
command of boats always backed into the landing drawn revolver
in hand. With these precautions the desertions had been few;
the only flagrant case, which happened a short time previous
to my affair, having been the pulling on shore, in broad daylight
and under fire, of an extemporaneous crew in the OHIO's launch.
On the evening in question a number of Army officers and citizens
from shore had dined on board the EWING. In place of the very
young lad who usually did boat duty, I volunteered to take
charge. I remembered afterwards that, by the light of the
side lantern, I noticed a look and start of surprise in one
or two of the boat's crew. Perhaps they apprehended a more
difficult job than they had expected; perhaps it was true
what they pleaded on their trial, that they had an especial
liking for me, and (to quote the ghastly foregone conclusion
in Keats' poem) were a little sorry for their "murdered
man." It was a crew of five. The night was one of Egyptian
darkness, and the ebb tide ran so strongly that it attracted
attention. The log was hove from the EWING and showed 4 knots.
Receiving a caution from Rhind, our executive, not to be caught
under the bows of the merchantmen that lay between us and
the shore, I shoved off. Backing into a small wharf, where
Sansome Street now is, a pistol in each hand, I landed my
passengers and started to return. When about half way to the
nearest merchant vessel, some hundreds of yards from shore,
I put back my pistols and resumed the yoke ropes. In a few
moments, the after oarsman, John Black, with a hoarse exclamation,
threw his oar out of the rowlock and himself upon me. Struggling
to my feet, I found myself clutched by several of the others.
Their first effort seemed to be to get possession of my pistols,
but very soon one of them (Peter Black, I think) exclaimed:
"Damn him, throw overboard--that's the quickest way!"
With this I found my arms free and seized John Black by his
neckerchief, dragging him overboard with me. Twisting it with
one hand, I attempted to draw a pistol with the other, but
the man was too heavy for me, and the rest were striking at
me with the oars, and, though an expert swimmer, I had to
let go, wholly exhausted and half drowned. I swam off a little
way, saw them help Black into the boat and settle into their
places, and, with the question, "What will you give us
to save your life?" they pulled off. Whether this was
a real offer or a taunt, as I made no reply, I can never know.
By this time my heavy clothes were saturated and I could just
tread water, but I was so mortified and angry that I did not
call for help until I heard the sound of their oars grow faint
in the distance. Then I noticed that I was fast sweeping past
the lights of the town, and for the first time realized in
what deadly peril I was. I cried out that I was drowning;
I heard shouts and excited noises of people on shore, then
the sound of oars, felt myself swallowing a great deal of
water, wondered why and--I knew no more.
There was a sense of strangulation--no suffering. . . All
that I remember is, for one moment, a keen endeavor to realize
the fact that I was to penetrate the mystery of Death, and
I could not comprehend it.
This account gives a more dramatic picture of the affair than
the brief report which Gibson made to McArthur under date
of September 21, 1849. Both accounts, however, agree in every
essential detail except that Gibson stated in his original
report that he had pulled TWO of the mutineers into the water
Gibson's contention that the only other serious breach of
navy discipline occurred when "an extemporaneous crew"
tried to flee from the OHIO in her launch is probably due
to a slip of his memory. The escape of four of the EWING's
men in her dingy from Bodega was a serious incident, and there
is no reason to doubt Superintendent Tittmann's statement
which was based on records from the archives of the Coast
Survey. These men probably never succeeded in making their
way from Bodega through the Golden Gate but were swept out
into the ocean. At any rate, there is no further mention of
the incident in available documents.
One statement, which occurs in both of Gibson's accounts as
well as in some of the contemporary newspaper stories, is
questionable, namely that Gibson was rescued by a boat sent
from the shore. In view of the swift tide and the complete
darkness it would have been almost impossible for people to
reach the midshipman in a rowboat and to prevent his drowning.
Hence, George Davidson's account of the rescue appears more
During the day an English merchantman had come into the bay
and anchored about a mile north of the EWING, off Clark's
Point. Her commander had been ashore that evening, and about
the exact time of the attack upon Mr. Gibson, his boat was
pulling alongside the ladder which had been lowered for him
to come aboard, and a lantern was lowered over the landing
step, that he might make good his first footing. As he looked
down to make sure of his foothold he saw the upturned face
of a man sweeping fast between the boat and the landing step.
Quick as thought, he made a sudden grasp for the man and caught
him by the hair. Then, by assistance of the watch on deck,
the apparently lifeless body of the officer was taken on deck.
The usual means of resuscitating a drowned person were applied.
The uniform of Mr. Gibson disclosed his character and nationality;
and, as the Master had during the (day) noticed a small vessel
ahead of him flying the American flag, he sent word to the
EWING, (from which) the commanding officer sent a boat for
the body, which was taken to the EWING and afterwards to the
The perpetrators of the crime, who had fled in the gig, were
Jonathan Biddy, John Black, Peter Black, Henry Commerford,
and William Hall. To capture these men and bring them to swift
justice was important in the interest of navy discipline.
There was little doubt that the mutineers had fled in the
direction of the mines. At daylight of September 14th, a party
of trusted sailors under Lieutenant Bartlett and one or two
midshipmen were dispatched to "the Contra Costa"
to track them down. It was assumed that the mutineers would
soon abandon the gig, which could be easily seen on the water.
At that time, an abandoned ship, the AUDLY CLARKE, was grounded
somewhere between modern Pittsburg and Antioch. Because of
the peculiar hydrographic conditions of the delta region,
this ship had become a stopping point on the way to and from
the mines and was a well-known landmark in 1849. It was considered
worth while to watch this place, and rightly so, for it was
at this very point that the journey of the five deserters
ended abruptly. Among the conflicting accounts of the capture,
Davidson's sketch seems again to be the most plausible:
Nothing was seen of the deserters; no boat had passed through
Karquines Strait. They (Bartlett's party) reached the hull
of a ship, near the mouth of the San Joaquin River (i.e.,
the AUDLY CLARKE), which was used as a stopping place for
persons going to or returning from the mines. The proprietor
was approached: no man had gone by, and he entered into a
plan to capture the deserters should they approach the ship.
The EWING's boat was secreted in the tules, and the officers
and crew were in hiding on the ship. About noon the deserters
were seen to approach the hull from the swamp and were so
muddy and dirty, with faces swollen by mosquito bites, the
concealed officers could not recognize them. The proprietor
soon had proof of their being (the) deserters, and they were
seized by the officers and held for the coming of the EWING.
The EWING reached New York of the Pacific (present Pittsburg
Landing), and brought the deserters to San Francisco, and
Lieutenant Commanding McArthur reported the whole matter to
the senior officer of the vessels of war then anchored at
San Francisco and Sausalito.
At 9 a.m. on September 20 the five men were transferred to
the frigate SAVANNAH, the new flagship of Commodore Thomas
Ap Catesby Jones, and on the 8th of October the five were
found guilty by a court martial:
The Naval General Court Martial which assembled on board the
U.S. Sloop of War WARREN, at anchor in this port, on Monday
the 8th inst. for the trial of John Black, Jonathan Biddy,
William Hall, Peter Black, and Henry Cameford (sic), seamen
belonging to the Navy of the United States, and attached to
the U.S. Surveying Schooner EWING, having closed its proceedings
in their case by finding the accused as above named guilty
of "Mutiny, Desertion, and running away with a boat,
the property of the United States," and John Black further
guilty of desertion and Attempt to Kill, and having adjudged
each and every one of the aforenamed seamen to suffer "Death
by hanging until they are dead at the yard arms of such vessels
in the service of the United States, and at such time, and
in such waters, as the Commodore of the United States Squadron
in the Pacific Ocean may think proper to direct," which
sentence, after the most mature reflection and a full consideration
of the circumstances connected therewith, has been approved
by the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Squadron, is hereby
ordered to be carried into execution at the hour of 11 A.M.
on Tuesday, the 23d inst.
The following is the order in which the foregoing sentence
shall be carried into execution by the commander of each ship
and vessel of the squadron.--viz--
At the fore yard arm of the U.S. Schooner EWING,
At the fore yard arms of the U.S. Frigate SAVANNAH,
Jonathan Biddy, William Hall.
At the fore yard arm of the U.S. Sloop of War WARREN,
At the fore yard arm of the U.S. Sloop of War ST. MARYS, Henry
All needful arrangements for carrying into execution the Sentence
of the Court Martial in the foregoing cases, at the appointed
hour 11 A.M. on Tuesday the 23d inst., must be perfected by
10 o'clock that morning--when work of every description will
be suspended throughout the squadron and the officers and
crews of every ship and vessel of the United States, which
may at that day be at anchor before the town if San Francisco,
on the Bay of San Francisco, will be in mustering dress, officers
of every grade in complete undress with cocked hats. At half
past 10 o'clock the general signal No. 316, "Court Martial,
the Sentence to be carried into execution," will be made
by the flagship, accompanied by a gun as a signal for preparation,
not only for the ships of the squadron, but as a notice to
all others in the port.
Fifteen minutes before eleven, No. 316 will be again hoisted
without the preparatory pennant, which will be the signal
for taking out the prisoners, calling all hands to witness
punishment, reading the sentence, and perfecting all that
may then remain to be done prior to the final act, the signal
for which will be a yellow flag at the fore truck of each
ship and vessel on which executions are to take place. As
soon as the yellow flag is displayed on board each ship which
it is intended shall wear it, the general signal No. 316 will
be hauled down, and one minute thereafter, simultaneously
if possible, the gun of execution will be fired on board the
SAVANNAH, WARREN, ST. MARYS, and EWING.
After the bodies have been suspended by the neck thirty minutes,
they will be taken down and deposited in their coffins, and,
immediately thereafter, the crews will be assembled to hear
the accompanying address which must be audibly read.
At 1 P.M., or immediately after dinner, all coffins containing
the dead will be sent alongside the EWING, from whence they
will be taken ashore and decently interred on the island of
The chaplain of the SAVANNAH will attend to the prisoner on
board his ship, assisted by any other clergyman that he or
the prisoners may desire, and clergymen from shore must be
invited to attend the executions on board each of the other
(Signed) Thos. Ap C. Jones,
Commander in Chief,
U.S. Naval Forces,
Flag Ship, SAVANNAH Pacific.
Bay of San Francisco,
October 19th, 1849.
Four days later (October 23), the death sentence of three
of the mutineers was commuted. Gibson's plea for mercy doubtless
influenced the commodore's decision. The court martial had
established the fact that there had been no conspiracy among
the members of the crew of the gig. Furthermore, the two Blacks
had confessed that they alone had planned the mutiny.
The sentence of death under which Jonathan Biddy, William
Hall, and Henry Commerford stand condemned is hereby commuted,
and instead thereof each of the aforesaid, Biddy, Hall, and
Commerford, will receive one hundred lashes on the bare back,
serve out the remainder of their terms of enlistment without
pay and with a ball and chain on the leg, in solitary confinement
or at hard labor, or alternately both, at such navy yard or
other place or places as the Secretary of the Navy may direct.
(Signed) Thos. Ap C. Jones,
Commander in Chief,
U.S. Naval Forces,
Flag Ship SAVANNAH Pacific.
Off San Francisco,
23d October 1849.
The determination of the Commander in Chief to commute the
sentence of death against Jonathan Biddy, William Hall, and
Henry Commerford is not the result of any diminution of his
abhorrence of the offence of which they were convicted by
the Naval General Court Martial, nor from the slightest doubt
of the justice of the sentence of the court. It was the province
and duty of the court sitting in judgment on the accused to
pronounce them guilty or not guilty, and the law fixes the
penalty of the offence perpetrated, but to the reviewing power
is left the exercise of clemency, when mercy can be shown
without defeating the primitive ends of justice. It is a humane
and merciful maxim, as just as it is charitable, that the
life of man should never be taken when anything short of the
taking of life would fully meet the ends of justice and be
sufficient punishment for the crime committed. Regarding these
humane maxims as principles never to be lost sight of by the
reviewing power when finally deciding the question of life
or death of a fellow being, the great question arises whether
the discipline of the Navy is so low, or the fidelity of its
seamen so little to be relied on, as to forbid the exercise
of mercy in the present instance. I cannot, will not, believe
it. What better proof have we than the fact that, since the
law of April 23d, 1800, was enacted for the government of
the Navy, now near half a century, this is the first instance
with one exception when the sentence of death has ever been
passed by a court martial for any other crime than murder,
nor, so far as my information goes, has there ever been more
than one person condemned by the same court, or even in the
same squadron. With this bright and honorable retrospect,
may we not now, can we not now, exercise mercy, and by that
mercy disarm the wicked?
I believe we may, and therefore I try the experiment; but
let it be remembered that the clemency now shown is not based
on any claim or pretence to it, on the ground that the offences
upon which the accused were condemned to die are not worth
of death--No--no such plea can be entered--no such claim can
be admitted. The sentence of the court was just, and in strict
conformity to the law; and, in exercising the high prerogative
of mercy, it is only with the sincere hope and confident expectation
that the clemency shown will have a salutary effect in reclaiming
the wicked and in confirming the penitent.
(Signed) Thos. Ap C. Jones,
Commander in Chief,
Flag Ship SAVANNAH
Off San Francisco,
23d October 1849.
On October 23, at 11 a.m., John Black was hanged on board
the EWING and Peter Black on board the SAVANNAH off Sausalito.
The crews of all vessels under the jurisdiction of the U.S.
Navy were at this hour assembled on board their ships where
Commodore Jones's address was read to them:
Conformable to the usage of the sea service, it is my painful
duty to make some remarks upon the awful spectacle we have
just witnessed. To see a fellow being, although he be no closer
allied to us than by the common ties of humanity, calmly resign
his life in the course of nature to the God who gave it is,
at all times, a grave and a melancholy scene.But when such
extreme penalties have to be inflicted on several persons
at once and the same time, and especially by and before those
who like ourselves are wholly unaccustomed to such scenes,
the like of which has never before occurred in the Navy of
the United States--and I pray God in his mercy may never again
occur--the effect is appalling and must strike too deep on
the heart and mind of every spectator not to leave a salutary
impression, which no length of time or diversity of circumstances
can ever obliterate.
The object of punishment is not vengeance, nor to return evil
for evil. For the better security of persons and property
the great human family have formed themselves into societies
or organized bodies denominated governments, and these governments,
representing the masses, have enacted laws to restrain the
wicked and punish the guilty. Among those laws is an Act passed
by the Congress of the United States entitled "an Act
for the better government of the Navy of the United States,"
approved 23d April 1800, and by that act all persons belonging
to the Navy are held and strictly bound to obey. . . .
The general features of the transaction upon which the charges
of "Mutiny with intent to Kill" and "Desertion,
with an attempt to Kill, and running away with a boat, the
property of the United States" were founded and made
the subject of trial before the Naval General Court Martial
which convened on board the U.S. Sloop of War WARREN for that
purpose on Monday the 8th inst. are too well known to the
squadron to make it necessary for me here to recite them;
sufficient to say that the accused, whose lifeless bodies
are now before us, were each and severally convicted after
the most patient hearing of all testimony for as well as against
them, and aided too, as they were, in their defence by the
best and ablest counsel, whose efforts to save do justice
alike to his head and his heart, were found guilty of "Mutiny,
Desertion, and running away with a boat, the property of the
United States," and John Black was further found guilty
of doing so with intent to kill: the intent to kill consisted
in Black's laying violent hands on Passed Midshipman William
Gibson of the U.S. Navy, when in charge of a boat belonging
to the U.S. Surveying Schooner EWING, on the evening of the
13th of September last. . . .
The discrimination which the court makes between the guilt
of John Black and his associates may be attributed to an exuberance
of humanity, unaccustomed as that court was, like all officers
of the American Navy, to sit in judgement upon such grave
and momentous charges.
In the eye of the law, whatever John Black was guilty of in
the transaction of the night of the 13th of September last,
all in the boat with him who did not fly to the rescue of
their Commanding Officer are held to be equally guilty. .
and for which all were adjudged to suffer the utmost penalty
it is in the power of human laws to afflict for their transgression.
. . .
I cannot dismiss you on this most solemn of all solemn occasions
I have ever witnessed without once more (as I have already
often done) admonishing you against the high crime of Desertion,
a crime which, even when unconnected with any other violation
of the laws for the Government of the Navy, places the deserter's
life in the power of any court martial by which he may be
tried. . . .
If there yet remain any among you who meditate desertion,
let them ponder well and count the cost before making the
attempt; they may escape as some have, but they may be apprehended,
tried, condemned, and executed, as you now have the most appalling
proof before your eyes. Remember that the line of moderate
and mild sentences of Courts Martial for desertion has been
severed by the sentence of the court by the examples before
us. . . which will not be unheeded by future Courts Martial,
or by those who have to execute their sentences, when mercy
to the guilty would be cruelty to the innocent.
(Signed) Thos. Ap C. Jones,
Commander in Chief,
Flag Ship SAVANNAH
Bay of San Francisco,
October 20th, 1849.
The San Francisco clergymen who assisted the Navy chaplain
at the execution were three well-known pioneer ministers,
Albert Williams, Timothy Dwight Hunt, and J. L. Ver Mehr.
The epilogue to the affair was written in the log of the EWING
in the afternoon:
At 12:30 the body of John Black was lowered and prepared for
interment. At 1:30 a boat came alongside from the SAVANNAH
with the body of Peter Black, and both were sent to the Island
of Yerba Buena for interment.
The published official reports of the U.S. Coast Survey pass
in silence over these happenings. The party under Lieutenant
McArthur had been "under instructions to unite in examination
in regard to lighthouses; to reexamine entrance to Columbia
River; and to commence hydrography in connection with foregoing
land operations." Since the land party under Assistant
J. S. Williams had met similar, albeit less dramatic, difficulties,
the first season of the survey of the Pacific coast was a
failure. Not until the early summer of 1850, after McArthur
had assembled a reliable crew and after George Davidson and
his party had arrived, could the tremendous task of geodetic
and hydrographic survey of the coast be recommenced.
The Reverend Mr. Ver Mehr, in his autobiography mentioned
above, tells the story that, 2 years later, an English lawyer
called at his parsonage at Grace Chapel to enquire about two
brothers who had assumed the name Black. They were of good
family in Scotland, and a relative, obviously unaware of their
execution for mutiny, had left them £20,000. Midshipman
Gibson in his account, however, maintains that the appearance
of the two sailors called Black was so different that they
could not possibly have been brothers.
In January 1851 Commodore Jones himself stood before a court
martial in Washington, D.C., accused of having used public
funds for private purposes in California and, most amazingly,
of having executed two men unlawfully. It is, of course, not
necessary to try to establish the commodore's innocence on
the second count; indeed, if Ver Mehr's story is true, one
cannot help thinking that the £20,000, which the so-called
Black Brothers would have inherited if their lives had been
spared, might have something to do with the bringing of this
charge against Jones. For what better purpose could the money,
or part of it, be used than for an attempt to establish the
innocence of the two British subjects? Although Jones was
naturally acquitted of the charge of unlawfully hanging the
two mutineers, he was found guilty of having used public funds
to speculate in gold dust. Thus the career of the Navy officer,
who was so intimately connected with the acquisition of California,
came to an abrupt end because he succumbed, in a different
degree, to the same general human impulses which had brought
disaster upon the poor wretches of the schooner EWING.