The elusive gold of the SS General Grant

There must be more fortunes in sunken treasure, lying on or just below the seabed than anyone could imagine in their wildest fantasies, but most of it will never be recovered. New technologies, new diving, and salvage techniques combined with human courage have forced the sea to give up some of her wealth, but it is a continuing battle. The treasure of the wrecked sailing ship General Grant has caused intrigue and speculation for over a century and the elusive gold reputed to have been on board, despite numerous salvage ventures, is still as elusive as ever.

The General Grant was, as her name suggests, an American ship, built at Bath on the Kennebec River on the coast of Main in1864, she was around 55 meters long, 10 meters wide, built of oak and pine and weighed just over 1,000 tons. She was strong and durable rather than elegant or fast. On her maiden voyage she was advertised as a clipper ship, but in truth, she had neither the lines, speed nor grace to be a true clipper. She was a cargo vessel typical of her time with three masts, two decks, and two deck houses to accommodate cabin class passengers.

She sailed from Boston on her last voyage in late 1865 under the command of Captain William Henry Laughlin, who was also part owner of the vessel. All of the officers and most of the crew were American, having signed on in Boston just before sailing, as was the custom at the time. She reached Melbourne Australia in March of the following year, where the Captain, as was customary in order to save on wages, discharged the crewmen and began looking around for a cargo and some passengers. Many of the crew rather than wait around to be rehired, took berths on other ships, as things turned out, they were to be the lucky ones.

By the start of the new year, Captain Laughlin had secured a cargo and some passengers re-engaged a full crew and left Melbourne on 3May 1866, onward-bound for London via Cape Horn with 83 souls on board, including a number of women and children. The wife of Chief Officer Bartholomew Brown was signed on as a member of the crew and did at times, act as a stewardess to the women passengers. Another passenger who had paid her fare was also signed on as a member of the crew was Mary Anne Jewell, wife of Able Seaman Joseph Jewell and this arrangement was to allow the married couple to associate together. There were 15 people in cabin class, including Mrs. Oat and her four children, one of them a babe in arms. In the second class or steerage accommodation, there were 41 people including 11 children two babies and four women. The crew comprised American officers, English, Scots American and Irish seamen and with the captain, they numbered 27.

In the steerage accommodation was a seaman turned gold miner named  James Teer who was carrying, in a specially made body belt, 300 golden guineas, the result of his endeavors in the Australian goldfields. He was not the only one to be carrying his personal wealth with him, many of the passengers were gold miners who had no trust in banks and were carrying fortunes in gold dust, nuggets, coins or bars. Gold also made up a small portion of the cargo of the General Grant. There were 2576 ounces and six pennyweights (around 70 kilograms) of gold bars in Captain Laughlin’s safekeeping. Also on the manifest was 30 tons of spelter, a cheap yellow metal used to make decorative items. That metal was to cause considerable speculation in the years to come as to whether it was really gold ore or even gold bars. The remainder of the cargo was 2,000 bales of wool, hides hardwood, other timber, and assorted general cargo.

When leaving Melbourne, Captain Laughlin headed the ship on a southwesterly course following the Great South Circle route, around Cape Horn. That course would take them down into the sub-Antarctic regions, south of Newzealand, and between the Auckland Islands and another dangerous group of islets and rocks to the north, known as the Snares. As the ship approached latitude 50 degrees south, the weather closed in with dense fog and the officers were unable to obtain either a sun or star sight to fix their position. It was Captain Laughlin’s first time on this route and he must have been extremely worried at his inability to fix their position, so for safety’s sake, he doubled the lookouts.

After ten days at sea, everyone was aware of the tension that spread from the officers and the lookouts to everyone on board. About 10pm that night the fog lifted sufficiently for the lookouts to sight an Island dead ahead. Quickly the Captain calculated that the island must be the northern tip of the main Auckland group, so altered course to the north to avoid the danger. However, his hastily made calculation was wrong, because the island they had seen was Disappointment Island, some kilometers west of the main group. When the ship steadied on its newer safer course, she was, tragically, heading directly for the surf bound cliffs of the northwest coast of the Auckland Islands.

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Tha Aukland Islands showing what a trap they are for an easterly bound ship in poor visibility. Also shown are Disappointment Island and Enderby Island.

About this time two things happened that were to compound the Captain’s earlier mistake. First, the wind changed direction, from southeast to northwest, pushing the General Grant towards the unseen cliffs. Secondly, the forward lookout reported land on the starboard bow, but the Captain and Mr. Brown decided it was a fog bank. Then, at 11.30 pm, the wind died away completely, leaving the ship with no ability to manoeuver.

The sea was flat calm, but the company assembled on the upper deck watched in alarm as the ship was swept along by a strong irresistible current towards the waiting cliffs. The water was far too deep to anchor so the Captain ordered all hands aloft to shake out every inch of sail, in the vain hope that even a small breeze might spring up to allow the ship to gain steerage way. However, as fate would have it, not a breath of wind disturbed the sea’s surface as the out-of-control ship drifted closer to the cliffs. It was such an unusual situation, that no one on board had any previous experience that might suggest a way out and inertia seemed to have overcome them, in the end, they took no positive action placing their trust in luck or in God to save them.

With the wonderful benefit of hindsight, it is surprising that they did not get their boats out, they had three boats and plenty of strong men who could have towed the ship away from the dangerous cliffs. The Royal Navy had used boats to tow their ships out of danger, for hundreds of years, but it was not a practice in the merchant marine, with their considerably smaller crews and fewer boats.

As midnight turned the date to 14 May 1866 all hope of a lucky break or divine intervention had been abandoned as the ship struck the cliffs twice, breaking the rudder and then the gib boom, badly injuring a seaman. Then, quite suddenly, the cliff face seemed to open up and the bow of the General Grant was drawn into a deep dark cave, which appeared quite wide and very tall at the entrance, but on entering the fore topmast struck against the downward curving roof. The ship hung there for a moment, then urged on by the following surf, the mast collapsed and the ship surged on into the dark cave. Rock and rigging rained down on the terrified crew, forcing them to seek shelter in the deck houses.

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An artists impression of the General Grant inside the cave with the fore topmast down.  Illustration by kind permission of Ken Scadden.

The captain ordered all the boats to be manhandled aft to the stern, where they could be launched. He hoped to embark the passengers from the stern and ferry them along the coast, to somewhere, where they could land in safety. However, in the semi-darkness no one was prepared to leave the sanctuary of the ship for the uncertainty of the open sea and the surf bound coast, so time and that opportunity were lost.

Before dawn the masts in contact with the roof of the cave were forced down through the keel, allowing the sea to rush in. With the sunrise Captain Laughlin decided it was time to abandon ship, but he was already too late. With the sun came the wind, whipping up the sea in short vicious waves that forced water into the ship at ever-increasing speed. One of the quarter boats was lowered over the stern and three men climbed in and rowed out just beyond the entrance to the cave and dropped an anchor. Their idea was to be in a position to pull other boats out, away from the turmoil surrounding the ship, but this was not what the Captain had intended. His orders had been for the first boat to reconnoiter the coast and find a place where they could safely land the women and children, but with only three men rowing and the seas rising, they were reluctant, or unwilling to continue.

It took half an hour to manhandle the second quarter boat over the stern and the Captain put Chief Officer Brown in charge of it and James Teer, the ex-seaman turned gold miner, also jumped down and took an oar. Then the women and children were requested to enter the boats, but in order to achieve that, they would first have to jump into the sea, which they were of course understandably reluctant to do. With her husband’s help, Mary Ann Jewell tried to set an example, by climbing down onto the damaged rudder then plunging into the icy water. For mothers with babies in their arms that was impossible. All they could do was clamber into the larger longboat, which was still sitting on the quarter-deck, in the hope that it would float clear when the ship sank.

Meanwhile, Bartholomew Brown took his boat out and discharged some of the passengers who had found the courage to embark, into the anchored quarter boat with the intention of going back for more passengers including his wife. However, before he had a chance to return the quarterdeck of the General Grant slipped beneath the waves and the longboat floated clear, loaded to the gunwales with terrified passengers. The boat was so full of frantic people that there was no room to bail out the water, or to row and as soon as she was struck by a large wave, over she went, throwing 40 odd people into the water. Screams and cries for help filled the cave and all the survivors remember with horror, the scene of women and children struggling in the icy sea. Mrs. Oat was seen frantically trying to keep her baby’s head above water, but weighted down with heavy clothing she soon sank to join her other children at the bottom of the cave. The sight was absolutely appalling but Brown and the men in the boats were too far away to assist. Only three men, all strong swimmers managed to reach the quarter boats and safety.

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The ‘cave of death’, looking quite tranquil from way out at sea. photographed in 1986 from the salvage vessel Little Mermaid by John Dearling.

Brown wanted to return to the ship to try to find his wife but the men in his boat refused, pointing out that their small boat would be easily capsized by survivors trying to get in. There were just 14 men and one woman in the two boats and they were still in grave danger from the increasing sea. Brown as the senior surviving officer should have been the natural leader to try to get them out of trouble, but the terrible shock of losing his wife left him in a state of hopelessness that would eventually deepen into a state of melancholy from which he never really recovered.

The two boats pulled away from the cave of death with their bows into the northwest wind headed for Disappointment Island. They rowed for 12 hours before reaching land on the following day. However, Disappointment Island was to live up to its name when the survivors realized there was hardly any water and no suitable cover to shelter them. Reluctantly, they decided that to survive they would have to return to the main Auckland Island, round the northern tip and find sanctuary on the sheltered west coast.  After two full days of rowing, they finally reached there and beached the boat. They were so overcome with fatigue and shock that they just collapsed on the ground and stayed there. It was James Teer who eventually roused them into action and in doing so probably saved their lives.

They managed to light a fire and gather a few shellfish which they cooked in a rusty tin and a little bit of life returned to the company and they kept that fire burning for the rest of their time on the Island.

In the past there had been a whaling station on the island and by hunting around they found a number of useful objects including a spade and axes and James Teer recalled a newspaper report he had read about the wreck of the topsail schooner Grafton, which had been swept ashore two years previously, so Teer and a few of the able men made a trip south in one of the boats and collected up all sorts of useful equipment from the wreck, to help them survive. Without anyone noticing, James Teer had become their leader while Bartholomew Brown sank deeper into depression and isolation.

One thing that came out of discussing the Grafton incident was that the crew of that vessel had saved themselves by sending two men, in their tiny ship’s boat, north to Newzealand, where they hired a small schooner to return and rescued the remainder of the crew and the General Grant’s survivors decided to follow their example. For the first time in ages, Bartholomew Brown roused himself from his melancholy and insisted, possibly seeing it as a way of expunging the guilt he felt in not rescuing his wife, that he should lead the rescue attempt.

Within a short time they had decked over the best of the quarter boats and made it water tight with seal-skin, so Brown and three men set off into the vastness of the South Pacific with no compass, chart or sextant and no real sense, in which direction Newzealand lay. They decided on a course to the northwest, but Newzealand lay due north so Brown and his gallant band sailed out into the vastness of a hostile sea and were never seen again.

Meanwhile, on the island, hope gradually turned to despair as the survivors were forced to accept that Brown and his party had perished and would not be coming back with a rescue ship. Teer realized that they were in danger of losing heart and just giving up, so drove them to move their camp to a more sheltered position on Enderby Island and built stronger accommodation with separate dwelling for the married couple, he also insisted on a constant lookout for ships, with a bonfire ready to be lit at a moment’s notice to signal their presence should a ship appear.

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Joseph and Mary Ann Jewell pose for a photograph, dressed in their hand-made seal-skin clothes, in Melbourne after their rescue.    Photo Wellington’s old City Museum archive.

Then, one day, 18 months after they had been marooned they saw not one but two ships. In the morning the lookout spotted a small sailing ship speeding south, which later proved to be the cutter Fanny from Invercargill NZ. The signal fire was lit but the wind blew the smoke down on the ground and the Fanny passed on by without responding. The survivors fell into a state of shock and inertia, some believing they had been hallucinating and there really was no ship at all.

Amazingly, that afternoon, another ship came along the coast at a more leisurely pace and Teer and some of the seamen put off in their boat and when the new ship spotted them it backed it’s topsails and hove too, inviting the small boat to approach. However, Teer and his companions had long beards and were dressed in seal-skins and were talking and shouting excitedly, causing some alarm to captain Paddy Gilroy of the whaling brig Amherst, out of Bluff NZ. He was reluctant to allow the yammering wild men onto his vessel until Teer recognized one of the crewmen and addressed him by name and explained they were survivors from the General Grant. Eventually, all ten survivors-one had died on the island- were brought on board the Amherst and treated with great kindness.

They returned to NZ and then went on to Melbourne where Teer, worked tirelessly to get them clothes, medical attention and money and after a brief exposure to fame most of them returned to their former lives and obscurity. The Jewells settled in Australia and it is known that Mary Ann died in Sydney a very old lady.

Their return to Australia generated much publicity and speculation about the gold in the wreck and it wasn’t long before an expedition was organized to return to the Auckland Islands, with the intention of recovering the treasure and James Teer was to be the guide. The party set out for the Auckland’s aboard the steam tug Southland, however, rough seas and high winds prevented them from putting their diver into the water and, with fuel running low, they returned to NZ empty-handed. At that stage, Teer gave up the treasure hunt to live a reclusive life on the west coast of NZ’s South Island, but his place as the guide was taken up by one of the surviving passengers. David Ashworth, joined Captain Wallace and the seven-man crew, including a diver, of the topsail schooner Daphne and once at the island it was decided to anchor the Daphne and load their whaleboat with provisions and set off, with six men to try to locate the cave, but somewhere along their path, tragedy overtook them and they were never seen again. Five weeks later the three men left behind realized their fellow crewmen were not coming back, the General Grant had claimed six more victims and the gold was as elusive as ever. The Daphne’s cook took command and managed to get the vessel back to New Zealand safely.

The loss of Ashworth and his company deterred further expeditions for many years although eventually, a number of attempts were made but proved ineffective, so it wasn’t until 50 years had passed before an expedition managed to get a diver into the cave. Percy Catling, an Englishman, dived in the cave but all he found were rocks with pieces of wood sticking out from under them, leading to the belief that over the years the cave roof had fallen and buried the wreck.

50 more years were to pass before, in 1975, a well-organized expedition, led by an ex-RN diver, Commander John Gratton and including experienced NZ commercial wreck divers, Kelly Tarlton and Malcolm Blair set out to finally locate the wreck and the elusive gold aboard the research vessel Acheron. During that first year they were disappointed to find how many caves, there were large enough to swallow a 1,000-ton ship, but eventually, they discovered a wreck in a cave which was covered in rocks but looked very promising. Unfortunately, they had no lifting gear to move the rocks, so were obliged to leave the wreck, and the elusive gold, undisturbed.

Undeterred, they returned the following year with lifting gear and began the tortuous task of removing huge rocks from the cave with airlifting bags and circular nets. During the excavations, they found part of a ships bell but disappointingly there were insufficient letters on the scrap of bronze to make out a name. Once the rocks had been removed they found the hull and deck were covered in sand and they had no equipment to suck out sand, so with a gale warning in operation, they abandoned the search once again, without even positively proving the identity of the wreck. At that stage, Commander Gratton withdrew from the syndicate, but Malcolm Blair and Kelly Tarlton intended to return the following year, however, sadly Kelly died of a heart attack before the expedition was due to sail.

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The Catamaran Little Mermaid alongside in Wellington on her return from the 1986 salvage attempt. Authors own collection.

In 1986 Malcolm Blair and his business partner Bill Day, now in possession of their own diving company and a suitable dive vessel, the catamaran Little Mermaid, decided to continue the search for that elusive gold and looked around for like-minded treasure seekers. At the time I had been working with Bill Day and he, knowing my interest in shipwrecks and that I had been on a number of similar expeditions, asked if I was interested in joining the new syndicate? Of course, I was more than interested but for me, there was one insurmountable snag, every diver who joined the syndicate had to put an amount of money into the kitty for running expenses. By today’s standard, it wasn’t much, but back then for a married man with two young children and a mortgage, it was more than I could justify. I would have loved to have been part of the new team, but reluctantly turned Bill’s offer down, a decision even though it was the right one for my family, has, over the years, thrown up a few regrets.

The new dive team worked hard for two weeks, sucking out sand to expose the wreck, only to find the hull was made of iron, not wood and turned out to be the French barque Anjou, lost in thick fog in 1905. They were then obliged to swim the length of the west coast searching for another cave and another wreck. The weather was good and the visibility underwater was an incredible 30 meters. Eventually, they located a cave, which they christened ‘the cave of death’, that fitted the description, left by James Teer and which on inspection contained pieces of wreck. Encouragingly they found some coins of the right date, and other ships artifacts, at last, they were really on to the wreck of the General Grant and her elusive fabled treasure.

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The divers,  John Dearling, Trevor Davies, Malcolm Blair, Bill Day, Peter Johnson, Terry Brailsford and Willy Bullock kneeling, Photo John Dearling.

The divers felt that at last, they were close to being rewarded for all their hard work and capital outlay but they were wrong, fate was about to step in once again and kick them in the teeth.  On the 16 February 1986, hundreds of miles north in the Marlborough Sounds the Russian cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov struck a rock, started taking on water and was in danger of foundering.  Later that night the order was given to abandon ship and a call went out for assistance. The Little Mermaid, one of the very few salvage vessels in New Zealand, was obliged to immediately leave the Auckland’s in response to the SOS to assist in the rescue, however, by the time they arrived the Mikhail Lermontov had sunk with the loss of one Russian crewman. However the Little Mermaid divers spent months doing salvage work and pumping out oil from the liner and by the time their tasks were completed, the weather window for that year had closed and the gold remained as elusive as ever.

After their hectic salvage work on the Mikhail Lermontov that group of divers lives, moved on, and some of them never returned to the Auckland Island, although a few stalwarts did, aboard the refitted and renamed Little Mermaid, now appropriately called Seawatch. In 1995 Bill Day and a group of 15 keen treasure divers returned to search for the gold. It was an ambitious, privately funded and properly equipped expedition and the plan intended them to stay on-site for ten weeks. With the experience they had gained from previous trips they were able to lift rocks as heavy as 25 tons and move them out of the cave. Although they found many interesting articles, including gold and silver coins,  they did not locate the elusive gold.

However, Bill Day, the youngest member, was not prepared to give up and in 1999 he returned to the site aboard the Sea Surveyor with a team of 11 divers, but of the 26 days at the Auckland Islands, the weather only permitted them to dive for three days and the gold remained elusive.

In 2000 Bill returned once again to the Islands aboard the Russian icebreaker Spirit of Enderby accompanied by his family and a number of friends in what was more of a ‘jolly’ than a serious diving expedition. There were divers onboard and they set out in the ship’s boats to dive two sites, Bill had designated, but that elusive gold eluded them yet again. Throughout the history of the General Grant wreck, there have been so many other expeditions, claims, counter-claims, false stories and even court proceedings concerning the lost gold that to mention them all would bog the story down in waffle, so I have attempted to steer a path through the dross, to report just the most interesting facts.

However, one claim is worth just mentioning. It has been suggested by people who know more about geology than shipwrecks that because of the constant attack on the west coast of the Auckland Islands, by the relentless westerly gales, erosion of the General Grant’s cave, over the last 130 odd years, could have been extensive It could have eroded the cave entrance back in an easterly direction a considerable distance, which would mean that the wreck is quite possibly, no longer inside a cave anymore, but outside in the open sea?

Bill Day claims he’s already spent over a million NZ dollars trying to locate the gold and has announced his intention to complete the job. Bill is relying on modern technology to break the impasse and has purchased a very expensive, most up-to-date underwater magnetometer that can differentiate between volcanic rock, iron, and gold, which earlier models could not do. As a competent and very experienced salvage diver with his own large maritime salvage company behind him and a great deal of determination, I’m sure if anyone can find the General Grant’s elusive gold, then Bill Day can.

Hopefully, one day soon we will get the answer to the questions, are the bones of the General Grant really in that cave, are the elusive 70Kg. gold bullion on the manifest and the miner’s personal treasures still there and is that 30 tons of spelter really gold? Hopefully, with modern technology, human determination and persistence it won’t be too long before we find out.

FOOTNOTE. A bit of little-known NZ maritime history occurred when the Mikhail Lermontov sank in the Marlborough Sounds on the 16 February 1986. All of the passengers and most of the Crew were rescued, but one Russian refrigeration engineer, Parvee Zagliadimov, was officially reported as having gone down with the ship, however, his body was never recovered. If you were inclined to disbelieve the Russian government account (as most  New Zealanders do) and listen to the local conspiracy theorist, (which I much prefer), that engineer didn’t die, he came ashore with everyone else, slipped away from the Russian surveillance, hiked over that big hill to Motueka and got a job as a farm hand, married a local girl blended into the background, and lived happily ever after as a New Zealand cow-cocky. Not a lot of people know that, except perhaps, half the population of NZ who, if officially questioned, prefer to stay shtum and feign ignorance of the subject.

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