While I was working on a post about a printed subscription proposal for Benjamin F. Thompson’s planned 2 volume octavo edition of the History of Long Island (link to second volume here), which I found in the John Alsop King Papers at the New-York Historical Society, I discovered an earlier printed circular Thompson sent to King requesting interesting information that would help him write the book. The item was dated August 7, 1838 and began by noting that, “[t]he last edition of ‘A Sketch of the first settlement of the several towns of Long Island,’ by the Hon Silas Wood, being exhausted, the undersigned has been solicited to prepare a more enlarged History of Long Island.” The print continued for a long paragraph, after which Thompson attached a note to his friend:
Benjamin F. Thompson to John Alsop King, 7 August 1838, John Alsop King Papers, Box 1834-1856, Folder 1824-1839, N-YHS.
“I know(?) the terrible [illegible] which your feelings and that of your amiable family, must have experienced by the sad catastrophe of the Pulaski – and you may be assured no one more than myself deeply sympathised with you on the occasion. You have had ample evidence of the strong and anxious public feeling which was felt by the whole community & especially by those of your county and neighborhood –
I have therefore foreborne to trouble [you] on the subject of my former communication till now – I have therefore to solicit from you a statement or memorandum of whatever in your examinations (if any you have made) may have occurred to you, as important & worthy of a place in my projected History of Long Island.”
This was a reference to the harrowing ordeal of John’s daughter Mary King Nightingale (b. 28 October 1810) on the steamship Pulaski, which sunk off the coast of North Carolina after a boiler explosion on June 13-14, 1838. On board was Mary, traveling with her seven-month-old daughter Laura Greene Nightingale. Laura’s father was the grandson of Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene, Phineas Miller Nightingale (b. 1803) of Cumberland Island, Georgia. Mary and Phineas married at what is now the Rufus King Manor House in Jamaica, Long Island on 16 November 1836 and moved to Georgia. It seems that Mary was taking Laura north to visit her relatives. The Pulaski left Savannah, Georgia with a crew of 37 and 90 passenger. It stopped at Charleston, South Carolina where it took on another 65. Over 100 of them would die.
The Pulaski Disaster, June 1838
A description of Nightingale’s traumatic trip can be found in S.A. Howland, Steamboat Disasters and Railroad Accidents in the United States. To Which is Appended Accounts of Recent Shipwrecks, Fires at Sea, Thrilling Incidents, &c, 2nd ed. (Worcester, MA: Published by Door, Howland & Co., 1840), 48-51. Howland took this description verbatim from newspaper accounts of the time.
“There were four boats belonging to the Pulaski; two being swung to the sides, and two placed on the top of the promenade deck. The side boats were both lowered down, within five minutes after the explosion. In that on the starboard side the first mate, Mr. Hibbert, Mr. Swift, and one other person had placed themselves;—in that on the larboard side were Mr. J. H. [James Hamilton] Couper [who owned a 4,500 acre plantation in Glynn County, Georgia], with Mrs. Nightingale and child, and Mrs. Frazer and her son, who were under his charge. Capt. R. W. Pooler and son, and Mr. William Robertson, all of Georgia, Barney and Solomon belonging to the crew, and two colored women. By direction of the mate two of the crew launched one of the deck boats and got into her; but as, from her long exposure to the sun, her seams were all open, she immediately filled, and Mr. Hibbert removed the men to his boat. The boats met, when those in the second proposed to Mr. Hibbert to strike for the land, as it had on board as many as it could safely carry; this he declined to do, as he said he was determined to stay by the wreck until daylight, and had yet room for more persons. Both boats then continued to row about the wreck until the mate’s boat had picked up as many as she could carry, when Mr. Hibbert yielded to the propriety of consulting the safety of those in the boats, by going to the land, as their further stay would endanger them, without affording any aid to their suffering friends, and they left the wreck at 3 P. M. The boats took a N. W. course, being favored by a heavy sea and strong breeze from S. E.
At 12 o’clock they made the land, and at 3 P. M. were near the beach. Mr. Hibbert then waited until. the second boat came up, and informed them that those who were in his boat refused to row any farther and insisted on landing;—Mr. Couper united with him in protesting against this measure, as, from the heavy breakers which were dashing on the beach, as far as the eye could reach, it was obviously one of great peril. Being overruled, they submitted to make the attempt. The mate, who had previously taken the two colored women from the second boat, then proposed to lead the way, and requested Mr. Couper to lie off, until he had effected a landing and was prepared to aid the ladies and children. The first boat then entered the surf, .and disappeared for several minutes from those in the other boat, having been instantly filled with water. Six of the persons in her, viz.:—Mr. Hibbert, Mr. Swift. Mr. Tappan, Mr. Leuchtenburg, and West and Brown of the crew landed in safety. An old gentleman supposed to be Judge Rochester, formerly of Buffalo, N. Y., but recently of Pensacola, Mr. Bird of Georgia, the two colored women, and a boat hand, whose name is unknown, were drowned. The other boat continued to keep off until about §unset, when, finding the night approaching, and there being no appearance of aid, or change in the wind, which was blowing freshly in to the land, and the persons in the boat having previously refused to attempt to row any farther, Mr. Couper reluctantly consented to attempt the landing.
Before making the attempt, it was thought necessary, to prevent the infant of Mrs. Nightingale, which was only seven months old, from being lost; to lash. it to her person, which was done. Just as the sun was setting, the bow of the boat was turned to the shore, and Mr. Couper sculling, and two men at the oars, she was pulled into the breakers—she rose without difficulty upon the first breaker, but the second, coming out with great violence, struck the oar from the hand of one of the rowers. The boat was thus thrown-into the trough of the sea, and the succeeding breaker striking her broadside, turned her bottom upwards. Upon regaining the surface, Mr. Couper laid hold of the boat, and soon discovered that the rest of the party, with the exception of Mrs. Nightingale., were making for the shore ;—of her, for a few moments, he saw nothing, but, presently, feeling something like the dress of a female touching his foot, he again dived down, and was fortunate enough to grasp her by the hair. The surf continued to break over them with great violence, but, after a struggle, in which was spent the last efforts of their strength, they reached the shore, utterly worn out with fatigue, watching, hunger, thirst, and the most intense and overwhelming excitement. Besides this, the ladies and children were suffering severely from the cold. The party proceeded a short distance from the shore,, where the ladies laid down upon the side of a sand hill, and their protectors covered them, and their children with sand, to prevent them from perishing. Meantime, some of the party went in quest of aid, and about 10 o’clock the whole of them found a kind and hospitable reception, shelter, food, and clothing, under the roof of Siglee Redd, of Onslow county.
Mrs. Nightingale is the daughter of John A. King, Esq. of New York, and a grand-daughter of the late distinguished Rufus King. During the whole of the perils through which they passed, she and Mrs. Fraser displayed the highest qualities of fortitude and heroism. They owe the preservation of their own and their children’s lives, under Providence, to the coolness, intrepidity, and firmness of Mr. Couper and his assistants, and to the steadiness with which they seconded the wise and humane efforts of that gentleman in their behalf.
On Monday they reached Wilmington, where they found a deep sympathy for their misfortune pervading the whole city, and generous emulation among its inhabitants to render them’ every possible assistance.”
26 others who clung to a makeshift lifeboat made from the bow of the ship and other floating debris were picked up four days later by a passing ship. Mary and Laura made their way north and eventually arrived at Jamaica, Long Island. The Long Island Farmer of 28 June 1838 noted they “arrived in this village yesterday afternoon.”