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    The Steamship William Gibbons Runs Aground

    Theft by Crew Proven in Court of Law

    There’s a first for everything. Certainly, that’s true for shipwrecks on the Outer Banks. Somewhere lost in time, there was a first shipwreck between the Virginia line and Ocracoke. No one knows exactly when that was, but a good candidate is the skeleton of a mid-17th-century sailing ship that was exposed following a 2008 coastal storm.

    There would, of course, be a first fatality, a first rescue, and so on…but we have none of that.

    What we do know, however, is the name and date of the first steamship to founder along the shoals of the Outer Banks.

    At approximately 4:30 a.m. on October 10, 1836, the steam packet William Gibbons ran aground very close to where New Inlet and the Richard Etheridge Bridge are today. Unlike many of the shipwrecks to follow, there was no loss of life.

    No loss of life, though, does not mean there wasn’t a fascinating story attached to it.

    Steam Packet Sirius
    The steam packet Sirius, similar to the William Gibbons.

    The William Gibbons made a regular run between New York and Charleston, South Carolina, and had been doing that run for at least two years when she left the New York City dock on October 8 with 140 passengers. The New Hampshire Gazette wrote that “T’he William Gibbons had made one hundred passages between New York and Charleston.”

    According to David Stick in his book Graveyard of the Atlantic, when the William Gibbons steamed out of New York harbor, her captain was E.L. Halsey, who had “made an estimated four hundred trips past Cape Hatteras, the great majority as master.”

    Halsey, though, who had been the captain of the Gibbons for the past two years, had just retired but was back on board at the request of the ship’s owner because Captain Spinney, the new master, had taken ill.

    “It was Halsey’s understanding that he was not expected to take charge of the navigation…since First Mate Joshua Andrews and his navigator, T.W. Winship, both were experienced in that department,” Stick wrote.

    By October 9, the ship was off the North Carolina coast, and the weather was deteriorating. Visibility was so poor that the ship was navigating by taking soundings every 15 minutes. At 2:30 a.m., a light was seen that was identified as the Hatteras Lighthouse, and with Andrews at the helm, the ship came to a westward heading, the first mate believing he was past the point at Cape Hatteras.

    But the light was Bodie Island, not Hatteras, and the ship was heading into the shoals and breaking waves at New Inlet.

    At 4:40 a.m., the William Gibbons ran aground.

    Halsey realized he needed to be in charge and not the first mate. He ordered the engines reversed, hoping to back off the sandbar. It was too late. The rudder was damaged and without control of the ship, it could not be saved.

    According to records, at dawn, two people were seen onshore, and crewmen were sent to learn where the ship was and what help was available. The report that came back said there were two small deserted cabins nearby and that just four miles away, there was “Mr. John Midyett’s residence containing a bountiful supply of provisions,” Stick wrote.

    Lifeboats were pressed into service, ferrying six to eight passengers at a time to shore. 116 of the passengers made it to land, but as the day wore on, the weather got worse, and by afternoon, the trip to shore was no longer safe.

    The nor’easter blew hard for three days, and the 116 passengers crowded together in two small huts had almost no food and very little water. The food they did have was described in a letter written by passenger Catherine Ward as two “small sheep” that were “cooked and divided into one hundred and sixteen parts.” 

    Things were not so great on the William Gibbons, but not because of the weather. The crew had broken into the ship’s liquor supply and were becoming slow and sloppy in following Captain Halsey’s orders. The captain ordered the liquor destroyed but some of the crew had already stashed away some bottles.

    While the storm raged, the crew, led by First Mate Andrews, pillaged the luggage the passengers had been forced to leave behind.

    When the storm passed, Halsey rowed ashore and did what he could to help the passengers get to Norfolk, the nearest city.

    Meanwhile, Andrews and his cronies commandeered the other lifeboat and set out for Elizabeth City. When they got there, they went about selling the jewelry, clothing, and trinkets they had stolen.

    Captain Halsey received bitter criticism. Catherine Ward described him as “feckless,” although, according to Stick, a court of law later found him innocent of any blame in the matter.

    Andrews and his buddies, though, didn’t get off quite as easily.

    On December 7, 1836, the New York Courier and Enquirer reported “that Joshua Andrews, the first mate of the steam packet William Gibbons, has been arrested and committed for trial on the charge of robbing the passengers …of the steam packet after the wreck.”

    The Courier and Enquirer went on to write, “He was ordered to find bail in $1000 to appear at the Court of North Carolina for trial for the imputed taking and destroying the property, and in default was commuted to prison.”

    But, as Stick notes, it seems Andrews ultimately got off pretty easily, writing, “Andrews received only a token fine, which he immediately paid off from the proceeds with which he was charged.”