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Shipwreck! The Tragic Loss of the Circassian

THE WRECK OF THE BRITISH SHIP CIRCASSIAN OFF BRIDGEHAMPTON (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, January 20, 1877)

In December 1876, the cargo ship Circassian was wrecked off the coast of Mecox Bay near Bridgehampton. Although she was initially stranded just off shore, a fierce winter storm finally destroyed her, killing ten members of the Shinnecock tribe who were working to salvage her cargo. The story of the tragedy began on November 6, 1876, when the iron-hulled Circassian set sail from Liverpool, England bound for the Port of New York. A large vessel (242 feet long and 39 feet wide at the beam), the Circassian was built in 1856 in Belfast, Ireland as a twin-screw steamer.

The Steam Ship Circassian, 1856 by unknown artist (watercolour) (© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich).

During the American Civil War, she was engaged as a Confederate blockade-runner and was captured by the Federal Navy on May 4, 1862, one of the richest prizes taken during the war. After the war, the Circassian returned to private hands and was refitted for commercial use. To increase her cargo capacity, her engines were removed and she was converted to full sail. The refitted Circassian had three iron masts and a crew of thirty-five.

Captain Henry Huntting of the U.S. Life Saving Service (Shouthampton History Museum)

The November 6th voyage was the Circassian’s first trans-Atlantic trip after her refit and she carried 1,400 tons of cargo, including bricks and 471 bales of old rags, all insured in the amount of $90,000 (about $2.5 million in 2023). A little more than a month after departing Liverpool, the Circassian ran into a powerful winter storm just off of Montauk. In the early morning darkness of Monday, December 11, the Circassian struck the outer part of the bar off Mecox Bay and was stranded just 400 yards from shore, near the Bridgehampton Life Saving Station, superintended by Captain Henry Huntting.

During the night, the Life Saving Service crew and local volunteers gathered at the Life Saving Station, but the weather was still too rough to rescue the crew. The weather calmed a bit the next day and by 11:30 that morning the first group of seamen was brought ashore. Rescue operations continued and eventually the entire crew of the Circassian was successfully rescued. It had been a heroic effort by the Life Savers.

The Life Line. (Winslow Homer. Philadelphia Museum of Art)

With the crew saved, efforts began the get the stranded Circassian off the bar. A crew from the Coast Wrecking Company, under the command of Captain John Lewis, arrived and commenced work to salvage the ship. The salvage crew needed some additional manpower and hired men from the Shinnecock Nation to help, including David W. Bunn, James Bunn, Russel Bunn, William Cuffee, George Cuffee, Warren Cuffee, Oliver Kellis, Robert Lee, John Walker and Lewis Walker. Bad weather delayed the salvage operation, but by December 28 almost 400 tons of cargo, about one third of her load, had been removed from the ship's hold. The Circassian, now floating inside the bar, had been pumped dry. The job was nearly finished; just one more high tide and the ship would be free of the bar.

Unfortunately, the weather forecast for Friday, December 29 was not good. Concerned that the salvage crew would go ashore and further delay recovery of the cargo, Captain Lewis ordered the crew, including the Shinnecock men, to stay on board. Either enticed by higher wages or coerced, ten Shinnecock men stayed. It was a fatal mistake. The storm hit that night with a fury that some said was the worst in memory. Around 3 A.M. on December 30, the Circassian’s hull had been broken by the surf and shortly thereafter her last iron mast fell into the sea. All the Life Saving Service crew could do was watch as 28 of the 32 men on board died, including all of the Shinnecock men. Captain Lewis paid for his recklessness and went down with his ship.

Two of the Shinnecock casualties, James Bunn, left, and Warren Cuffee, right. (James Bunn image: Shinnecock Portrait Project via Gaynell Stone: The Shinnecock Indians. Warren Cuffee image: The East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection)

At about 9 o’clock that morning word of the disaster reached the Shinnecock Reservation. The loss of the ten men was a horrific blow to the closely knit Shinnecock Nation, leaving nine widows and twenty-five fatherless children in the small community.

Recently, a nearly 7,000-pound anchor from the Circassian was recovered from the sea and has been placed in front of the restored Tiana Life Saving Station in Hampton Bays. The Tiana Life Saving Station (owned by the Town of Southampton) is also significant as one of the first Stations to be manned by an all African-American crew between 1942 and 1944.

Tiana Life Saving Station (SHG Photo)

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