Two major hurricanes struck the North Carolina coast in 1806. On August 22 the “Great Coastal Hurricane” made landfall at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and did considerable damage in Bald Head Island and other locations in Brunswick County.
In late September of 1806 another hurricane struck “with excessive force,” this time at Ocracoke Inlet. At least three sailors died, and nine vessels were sunk, dismasted, or driven ashore. Among the ships sunk was the Governor Williams, which along with the Diligence, was participating in the nation’s first congressionally mandated survey of the U.S. coastline. The project was the brain child of President Thomas Jefferson, and the commission’s base of operations for the three-month survey of the North Carolina Coast was Shell Castle Island in Pamlico Sound between Ocracoke and Portsmouth.
The Governor Williams, under command of Capt. Alexander Henderson, and with eight crew members, left Shell Castle Island June 24 to begin the survey. Also on board were two of the survey’s three commissioners, Maj. Thomas Coles and Jonathan Price, a gifted cartographer. The third member of the commission, the brilliant Col. William Tatham, an acquaintance of President Jefferson, was left on shore because he was considered abrasive, and arrogant.
The Governor Williams was back at Shell Castle Island on September 28, presumably at anchor in anticipation of hurricane force winds.
The following article recounts the damage at Shell Castle Island caused by the September 28 hurricane, with mention of Col. Tatham’s valuable “philosophical and mathematical” instruments and apparatus.
From “The Wilmington Gazette” (Wilmington, North Carolina), Tuesday, October 14, 1806 (slightly edited for ease of reading):
We have been favored with the following account of the last Storm.
SHELL CASTLE, Sept. 29.
About 12 o’clock last evening a gale at E.N.E. commenced and increased in its violence until about 4 A.M when it shifted to E.S.E. and blew the most tremendous storm, ever I believe, witnessed by a human being, until six o’clock, when it got further to the southward, and finally to W.S.W. where it still continues to blow with excessive force. The Cutter belonging to this station under the command of Capt. Henderson, upset and sunk at her anchors. – He, thank God, with five of the crew are saved, three poor fellows, belonging to her, are lost, their names are Frederick Cherry, Jacob (a Russian), and J. G. Romain.
Nearly all the lighters of the navigation sunk, ashore, or dismasted. In Wallace’s channel, the ship ______ Capt. McKeel of Washington, main and mizen mast gone, ashore. – the ship Connelia, Common, of Washington, ashore; the schooner ________Bracket, master, belonging to Messsrs. Marshes of Washington, ashore & sunk, a sch’r belonging to Mr. Eborn of Washington, dismasted, ashore and sunk, schooner Mount Vernon, Fisher, of Newbern, lost entirely, but it is believed no lives lost. – A small sloop which arrived last evening from Jamaica, with rum, name unknown yet, upset on the east point of Beacon Island, the people are now seen on her bottom, there is some prospect of them and cargo being saved. —–Schooner Horizon, Jerkins, still at anchor above the Swath, main mast cut away. Sloop Union, Keals, ashore dismasted. In short but one vessel in the whole navigation afloat and all standing, and that a singular instance of preservation; it is a lighter belonging to Mr. James Jones of Newbern, who struck adrift with two anchors a head, at the Castle, and drifted two and a half miles to the Royal shoal, where she brought up, and rode out the storm —- only one small black boy on board.
I have now to add, to the tale of destruction, the total loss of the immensely valuable, philosophical and mathematical instruments of Col. Tatham, he yesterday put them on board the Governor Williams, for the purpose of having them conveyed to Newbern, and they are now buried with her, in two fathoms water: Altho’ there is no doubt, but Capt. Henderson will be able to get her up, we fear all the apparatus will be totally ruined, a loss which while it may be ruinous to the colonel, is to be sincerely, deplored by the lovers of science.
Description cannot paint, nor imagination conceive, the force of the sea. It was impetuous, and irresistible, it struck, and on striking, deluged, or dismasted, the unopposing victims of its mighty power.
During the gale, the oil in the lamp of the Beacon took fire, and blew out 36 panes of glass—the light of course will not be in operation for some days to come.
——We are happy to learn from Col. Tatham who arrived in town yesterday, that his loss stated in the above communication does not include his Philosophical apparatus, which was chiefly left in Virginia and sent up to Newbern before the storms commenced: His work for public account, a valuable assortment of Instruments, Books, Papers and clothing are, however, sunk in the Cutter, and cannot be replaced.
For more about the 1806 hurricane and Col. William Tatham, see this United States Coast Guard article.