The Harrowing Journey of the Hornet That Gave Mark Twain His Big Newspaper Scoop
How 15 shipwrecked sailors endured a trek that eventually dropped them on the east side of the Big Island 150 years ago.
Illustrations: Joe Wilson
It was 1866.
After rounding the perilous Cape Horn off South America in a short nine days, the speedy clipper ship Hornet coasted to a stop and lay becalmed in green waters just north of the equator. This was the infamous doldrums. Not a breath of air stirred under a penetrating sun, making the sailors lethargic and careless, when, on May 2, the first mate and two hands descended below deck into the stifling dark with an open flame. They needed a single cup of varnish to complete the day’s chore of polishing wood. With a twist of the cask’s spigot, the cup filled. But before the spigot was snapped off, the invisible vapors of varnish ignited, the cup was dropped, and the spigot bled fire across the floor of the hold. For an entire day it burned, despite efforts to combat the flames, but eventually a crewman cried, “There she goes!” and the Hornet reportedly sizzled as she sank below the surface of the sea, bow first.
Stories of shipwrecks and survival have captivated people for as long as ships have sailed the seas. And Hawai‘i has seen its share of these dramas. On June 15, 1866, exclaiming “Land, ho!” 15 surviving sailors from the Hornet washed ashore at Laupāhoehoe on Hawai‘i Island, ending a 4,300-mile, 43-day nightmare. It was a story of heroism, near mutiny and near cannibalism. The news swept across the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, where a young Mark Twain wrote it down, thereby lighting a literary star that would shine for generations. On this 150th anniversary of the shipwreck of the Hornet, here’s how it all went down.
As the clipper departed New York’s South Street Harbor on Jan. 15, 1866, 18-year-old Henry Ferguson heard the ice grind against the Hornet’s sides. The East River was nearly frozen solid, thanks to a strong gale that had gripped the eastern seaboard from Nova Scotia to North Carolina and not let go.
Henry found himself aboard the Hornet because of the bad health of his brother Samuel, after a doctor prescribed the warmer climes of California as the cure for Samuel’s tuberculosis. Henry gave up mansions, the opera, classes at Trinity College and the companionship of a Miss Josie Taylor to accompany his brother to San Francisco, on a 13,328-mile trek that usually took 130 days.
The ship’s captain, the dependable Josiah Mitchell, 53, outfitted with an A1 manager’s rating from Lloyd’s of London, stayed up his first night at sea pointing the ship straight into a southeast gale. The sleek Hornet measured 207 feet in length, 40 feet in width and 22 feet in depth and weighed 1,326 tons. On this passage, the cargo hold carried 2,000 cases of kerosene oil, 6,195 boxes of candles, 400 tons of Pacific Railroad iron and three small steam engines.
Thankfully, as the captain steered for deeper waters and the Gulf Stream, the weather and seas abated, and the ship neared Cape Horn on March 17. “I’ve never saw such weather in this latitude,” Mitchell wrote in his journal, of the preternaturally calm seas at the tip of South America.
Meanwhile, after departing San Francisco 11 days before, Mark Twain sailed into Honolulu Harbor aboard the steamship Ajax to begin what would go from a planned one-month “ransacking” of the Islands to four months and a day.
The Hornet began its journey in New York and made it around Cape Horn before catching fire and sinking.
Shipwreck survivors Captain Josiah Mitchell and the two Ferguson boys, photographed in Honolulu, July 13, 1866.
Just when the Hornet’s captain began to hope for a personal speed record, the ship’s luck changed. A squall carried off the studdingsail boom of the foretopmast. Rats swarmed up into the cabins. Men fell sick one after another. Then they entered the doldrums. Where the smooth sailing down and around Cape Horn had bored the sailors with its initial ease, now they fell into a despair that Mitchell feared would be the death of them. For many, it was.
The Hornet burned and sank on May 3, 1866, leaving 31 men among three leaky open boats with 10 days’ worth of food rations and four days’ of water. Mitchell took sextant readings that put them at 1,000 miles west of the Galapagos Islands and 2,500 miles southeast of Hawai‘i. He ordered watches, four hours on and four off; rations of 1,300 calories, two-thirds their regular. “Where are we to go, in God’s name, with this small lot of stores?” he questioned in his journal, and selected Clarion, an island 1,200 to the northwest.
With no shade on the desert of the sea to be found, they tied the three boats together. “Pray God will have mercy on us and grant that we may be saved,” Henry wrote in his journal. Henry and his brother Samuel had followed Mitchell and 12 others into a cramped boat measuring 21 feet in length, 6 feet wide and 3 feet deep.
By day five, the castaways were averaging just 22 miles a day. At such a rate, Mitchell knew their food stores—what little they had was already turning black with mold—would disappear before they reached Clarion Island, so he made a course correction for a closer pinprick on the map—Clipperton Rock.
On their 10th day adrift, they missed Clipperton by what they would later learn was a mere 17 miles. Rations were reduced to 635 calories per day. Shortly thereafter, bedlam broke loose in the third boat in the chain. Every crumb of hardtack, every tin of meat and every drop of water was consumed. “Give us more food,” the men shouted.
“I see and feel no prospect” for rescue, Mitchell wrote in his journal.
A day later, they caught two good-size fish, dorado, followed by a turtle. The goodwill of fresh food didn’t last long, however, as seas rose and swells of 25 feet corrugated the horizon at dusk. All night, the boats threatened to capsize as towlines snapped taut. When dawn broke, a waterspout galloped fast for their boats and stomped its long tentacle of destruction on all points of the compass around them before finally petering out.
The captain had only one hope to save any of the castaways.
“This is murder,” one sailor screamed on the 18th day adrift as the two quarter-boats were cut loose from the captain’s. In response, Mitchell hung his head. “What’s to become of us?” he wrote in his journal.
Eventually, some air started moving, forming a reliable wind, and Mitchell’s boat left the intense heat and squally weather of the doldrums behind—along with the two quarter-boats and their passengers who were never seen again.
“7 a.m.: Fire broke out down booby hatch ...” Samuel Feguson’s journal entry for May 3, the day the Hornet sank.
Photo: From longboat to hawai‘i
At 30 days, the captain wrote a farewell letter to his family. “Can’t write, all very weak, particularly myself.” Physical deterioration wasn’t the only damage the men experienced. Small as the boat was, it reflected the same social strata as that of the Hornet with the ship’s officers and two passengers—Henry and Samuel—in the stern and its crew in the bow, where “A conspiracy formed to murder me,” Mitchell wrote as he sat with a hatchet under his thigh. “Minds unquiet.”
By day 39, the castaways resorted to eating shoe leather. Only a thin layer of water covered the bottom of their water barrel. Some supplemented this with saltwater, known to cause delusions and insanity, perhaps triggering the men in the bow to accuse Mitchell of hiding the Hornet’s treasury—a million dollars in gold coin, they claimed—under the captain’s seat. Mitchell quelled the flimsy mutiny simply by standing and lifting his seat’s lid to reveal its contents: Empty. Like their stomachs.
And yet, in the midst of deprivation and rebellion, an ember of human goodness flickered. Henry’s brother, the consumptive Samuel, lay comatose on the floor of the boat, his tongue black and stuck to the roof of his mouth. That’s when a 20-year-old farm-boy-turned-sailor, headed to San Francisco to pan gold with his brother, gave up his morning sip of water for Samuel. The act defied his cannibalistic comrades, who were banking on Samuel’s death for sustenance, but led to the decision to draw lots the next day to determine who would be sacrificed to save the rest.
At 10:30 a.m. on June 15, the words “Land, ho!” superseded those plans.
“God be forever praised for his infinite mercy to us!” Henry wrote in his journal.
But safety wasn’t guaranteed yet. It took six hours to navigate a tricky landing at the small village north of Hilo. Time and again, waves threatened to toss the 15 weary men on sharp volcanic rocks. “Landed on Hawai‘i at 4 p.m.,” Mitchell wrote, “a famished, starved set of men after being in the boat over 43 days 8 hours. Not a man could walk. All taken out and carried up by the kind Kanakas (Hawaiians) who try to outvie each other in doing all they can to lessen our misery.”
Now the process of healing could begin.
Nearly seven months after their departure out of New York, Mitchell and the Ferguson brothers reached their original destination, San Francisco, aboard the Smyrniote—along with another passenger, the fledgling writer Mark Twain.
A newspaper journalist, covering Hawai‘i for The Sacramento Union, Twain smelled a good story. He copied passages of the sailors’ journals into his own, selling the story to Harper’s Monthly. But when the story published that December, it was credited to Mark Swain. For a young scribe aching to make a name in the East Coast literary world, that must have hurt. Still, many years later, long after Twain shook up that same world with his bold story of a young boy harboring a slave on the Mississippi River, Twain called his story of the Hornet’s survivors, “My debut as a literary person.”