NOAA History Banner
gold bar divider
home - takes you to index page
about the site
noaa - takes you to the noaa home page
search this site
white divider

arrow Stories and Tales of the Coast & Geodetic Survey
arrow Western Tales

banner - mutiny on the ewing

Dr. Erwin G. Gudde
University of California

(The JOURNAL, Coast and Geodetic Survey,
December 1951, Number 4)

Views of San Francisco harbor in 1849 show numerous sailing vessels at anchor. picture depicting the mutiny on the weingThese 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 to duty.

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 been told.

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 and Navy.

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 31st.

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 with him.

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 plausible:

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 Hospital.

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,
John Black.

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,
Peter Black.

At the fore yard arm of the U.S. Sloop of War ST. MARYS, Henry Commerford.

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 Yerba Buena.

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 ships.

(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,
Pacific Squadron.
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,
Pacific Squadron.
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.

- Top of Page -

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

Privacy Policy | Disclaimer