The Saga of the Brooklyn: 1845–46

Richard O. Cowan and William E. Homer, California Saints: A 150-Year Legacy in the Golden State (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1996), 23–40.

While Latter-day Saints from the northeastern states gathered in New York City during the closing weeks of 1845 and the beginning weeks of 1846, the pace of preparations quickened. Samuel Brannan scoured the harbors of New York and Boston for a vessel suitable for the Saints’ long voyage to California. With war on the horizon, sea captains, hoping to secure more lucrative government contracts, were reluctant to agree to a lengthy voyage. Brannan persisted, however, and chartered the sailing ship Brooklyn.

Preparing for the Voyage

This three-masted, square-rigged cargo ship had two decks and measured 125 x 28 feet. [1] After being refitted, the adapted vessel had 2,500 square feet of living quarters—the size of a modern four-bedroom home. Between two and three hundred individuals were squeezed together into that space for six months. The vessel was approximately eleven years old and was described as “one of the old time build, made more for work than beauty or speed.” It was chartered because it “could be had cheap.” [2] It was owned by three men: two brothers, Abel W. and Edward Richardson, and Stephen C. Burdette, all of New York. Abel would be the ship’s skipper during the voyage. [3]

On 15 December 1845, Brannan wrote in the New-York Messenger:

We have chartered the ship Brooklyn, Capt. Richardson, of four hundred and fifty tons, at twelve hundred dollars per month, and we pay the port charges; the money to be paid before sailing. She is a first class ship . . . a very fast sailor. . . . The between decks will be very neatly fitted up into one large cabin, with a row of state rooms on each side, so that every family will be provided with a state room, affording them places of retirement at their pleasure. . . . The ship will sail on the 24th of January. . . . All persons that can raise fifty dollars will be able to secure a passage. [4]

Since the average wage at that time was about one dollar per day, the fifty dollars amounted to about two months’ pay for the average worker. In addition to this basic fare, each person paid twenty-five dollars (another month’s pay) for simple provisions. Children sailed for half this rate. A special issue of the Messenger decried the fact that of the three hundred individuals who initially expressed interest in participating in the voyage, only about sixty had sufficient means to carry their plans through. However, by 12 January 1846, that number was augmented to “about one hundred and seventy-five” who were able to go. [5]

When the voyagers arrived in town, they loaded their heavier baggage on board and temporarily moved, with only the bare essentials, into a boarding house which Brannan had secured for them. Brannan cautioned the Saints to keep a low profile and call one another “Mr. or Mrs.,” rather than “Brother or Sister,” to avert unwanted attention. [6]

Brannan and the Saints had prepared well. In addition to their personal belongings, the passengers gathered all the implements needed for survival. The cargo included the following: a large assortment of machinery, tools, and equipment (including Brannan’s printing press with printing supplies for two years); two sawmills; a grist mill; farm machinery; implements and tools for eight hundred men including plows, plow-irons, shovels, hoes, scythes, and forks; blacksmith, carpenter, and millwright tools; lathes, sawmill irons, and nails; utensils of glass, brass, copper, tin, and crockery; a large assortment of seeds; a large quantity of dry goods for resale; several cases of smoothbore muskets; two milk cows, forty pigs, and several crates of fowl; educational supplies for schools and libraries, including books on grammar, mathematics, geography, history, astronomy, and Hebrew; and a 179-volume set of Harper’s Family Library. They also took along effects belonging to Church members not traveling on the vessel who planned to make the trip overland and then reclaim their property when they reached the coast.

To help defray the cost, the voyagers agreed to stop in Hawaii and deliver five hundred barrels of merchandise, including Bibles for a Protestant mission located there. [7]

As the cargo accumulated, carpenters reconditioned and converted the ship to accommodate passengers. Sixteen thousand dollars were spent in creating thirty-two small staterooms along the outside walls between the decks. Between these rows of staterooms a long table, almost the length of the ship, was constructed. This area was used for church and other meetings, meals, school, sewing, and other projects, as well as recreation. Backless benches were nailed in place around the table. Except for berths, there was no other seating. Brannan later claimed to have had this reconditioning done “at his own expense.” [8]

Some Last-Minute Dramas

As the departure date drew near, several small dramas unfolded. Isaac Robbins’s wife, Ann, was in line to receive an inheritance from her father’s family in New Jersey. She and Isaac visited the family and asked them for the inheritance to help them emigrate. Ann’s father, already displeased over her conversion, now became enraged. He seized Ann and the children and forced Isaac out of the house at gunpoint. Isaac, praying that his father-in-law’s heart would be softened before the appointed departure time, went to New York City to secure passage. Ann and the children did arrive, having traveled afoot as fugitives over New Jersey’s snowy back roads. [9]

Another bit of human drama occurred as Abraham Combs headed to the wharf with his wife and a daughter from a former marriage. His former wife’s brother, reluctant to have his young and favorite niece leave her friends and home to live in a strange land, planned to abduct her. He therefore contrived to have Combs badgered and arrested—on false pretenses—to separate him from the girl. The alert father, however, foiled the scheme by attracting a friendly crowd who succeeded in rescuing her and escorting her safely to the ship. [10]

One couple married just before the voyage. Twenty-five-year- old John Horner married Elizabeth Imlay at his family’s home in New Jersey. The next day the newlyweds, hoping to improve their economic opportunities, joined the Saints who were gathering in New York. Horner later described the voyage as “a rather uncommon wedding tour.” [11]

The biggest drama, however, unfolded behind the scenes. Because of concerns that the persecuted Saints might ally themselves with either Great Britain or Mexico, some speculated that the government would stop the ship from sailing and confiscate all arms. The day of departure was postponed several times while Brannan negotiated with two influential men, Amos Kendall, who had served as Postmaster General from 1835 to 1840, and his partner, A. G. Benson, a New York businessman. These two, greedy for personal holdings in California, formed a partnership called “A. G. Benson and Company.”

They offered to use their influence to ensure President Polk’s support. In exchange, Kendall and Benson demanded half the land settled by the Saints. They warned the Saints that if they failed to cooperate, the president would claim that the Mormons planned to side with other nations against the United States and would therefore order them to be disarmed and dispersed. Eventually, Brannan signed their agreement. On 27 January 1846, he forwarded it to Brigham Young for ratification.

We do not know if a young, naive Brannan was baffled by Kendall and Benson or if a clever, cunning Brannan outsmarted them, manipulating the pair to finance the voyage—including the sixteen thousand dollars to outfit the ship. Brannan may have suspected that Brigham Young would never agree to the terms and that the ship would head for a foreign destination where it would be difficult to enforce an American contract. In any case, President Young balked at the agreement and refused to sign. [12]

Meanwhile, Captain Richardson and the Saints were anxious to leave. They did not want to chance a Cape Horn winter, nor did they like paying good money for the barren boardinghouse and its atrocious food while simultaneously paying for their rented ship to stand at anchor. The crew also grew restless. Realizing that there was not enough time to wait for Brigham Young’s response, Brannan and Captain Richardson decided to leave New York on Wednesday, 4 February 1846. Interestingly, that was the same day the first group of Pioneers abandoned Nauvoo for the West.

Setting Sail

Although the weather had been stormy earlier in the day, the sun shone brightly at 2 P.M. when the Brooklyn departed from the wharf opposite Franklin Market. Despite the Saints’ desire for a low profile, there was a crowd on hand to see them off. As the last of the heavy ropes was hauled in, the crowd on the dock erupted with “three hearty cheers, which were returned as heartily by the emigrants . . . on deck.” A reporter from the New York Herald wrote that these “bold pioneers . . . deserve our sympathies and most heartfelt wishes of success.” [13]

The rarity of such a sight was captured by young Edward Kemble, one of the few Brooklyn passengers who was not a Latter-day Saint. “Ship loads of emigrants arriving from foreign countries were scenes of daily occurrence but a vessel crowded with emigrating Americans departing for a distant and almost unknown shore was a sight of rarer if not unprecedented novelty.” [14]

After being towed out into the main shipping channel by the steamboat Sampson, the Brooklyn’s crew unfurled her sails. In keeping with the general tenor of disinformation about where the Saints were going, the Brooklyn, upon entering the Narrows and passing Fort Lafayette, flew from her main mast a banner proclaiming Oregon in large letters. [15] The Saints’ prayers were answered as they left the port without incident.

The actual number that sailed is not known. It has long been said there were 234 passengers, including 70 men, 63 women, and 101 children. [16] Yet, if every name listed on every known roster were counted, the total would be closer to 300, including a four-person crew: Captain Richardson, Frank Ward, a cook, and a stewardess.

To help supervise the Saints’ religious and other activities, Elder Brannan, following the pattern of Latter-day Saint Church governance, appointed two counselors. Those chosen to assist him were E. Ward Pell and Isaac Robbins, both married men with children. [17] Each would celebrate his forty-first birthday during the voyage.

Shipboard routine followed a set of rules which Brannan had published before departure. “Reveille” sounded every morning at 6 A.M., at which time all but the sick were to arise and dress before leaving quarters. “Immediately after the beating of reveille,” the corporal was to visit every stateroom and “receive the names of all the sick and of those . . . not able to do duty and report the same to the officer of the day”; two other passengers were chosen to care for those who were ill. Every stateroom was swept and cleaned, and beds were made by seven o’clock. A “health officer” was appointed each day to inspect every stateroom for cleanliness and neatness. Children were the first to eat at 8:30 A.M. and adults forty-five minutes later; everyone then returned to the staterooms or went on deck so the tables and halls could be cleared by 10 A.M. During the day all stateroom doors were left open to admit fresh air. From 10 A.M. to 2 P.M. various chores and labors were performed. Dinner was served to the children at 3 P.M. and to the adults an hour later. By five o’clock the tables were cleared so the next three hours could be “occupied in reading, singing, or other innocent amusements.” On behalf of those who preferred eating late, there was a cold luncheon at 8 P.M. By 9 P.M. the table was cleared and everybody retired. One cook and three “cook police” were appointed each week from among the passengers.

On the Sabbath, “divine service” began at 11 A.M., “when all that are able must attend, shaved, and washed clean, so as to appear in a manner becoming the solemn, and holy occasion.” [18] One passenger recalled that in the Sunday preaching the company was “admonished to live together in harmony and love.” [19]

The group gathered morning and evening in the large central room for prayers. Soon a choir was organized and the Saints enjoyed singing the “songs of Zion.” The Brooklyn’s passengers settled into their daily routine as the ship headed out into the Atlantic.

Southward in the Atlantic

Less than a week after leaving New York, a powerful storm beset the ship. All the sails were lowered except a small one that “rested against the shrouds of the main mast.” [20] For safety, everyone was confined below. Ventilation was poor. Food was prepared with great difficulty. The daily routines which had been so carefully planned were largely abandoned. [21] At night, women and children had to be lashed to their bunks to keep them from falling out as the ship pitched. Furniture also tumbled back and forth, “endangering limb and life.” [22] Most of the passengers were afflicted with seasickness from “being rolled from one side of the ship to the other.” [23] Nonetheless, a passenger noted:

Some that were more resolute than others struggled to the deck to behold the sublime grandeur of the scene,— to hear the dismal howl of the winds, and to see the ship with helm lashed pitching, rolling, dipping in the troughs of the sea and then tossed on the highest billow. These . . . sights once beheld are never to be forgotten. It was only by realizing the Lord has said He holds the waters in His hand, that we could have faith to be delivered from our perilous condition. [24]

Captain Richardson came below and bluntly told his passengers, “I have done all I can to save the ship. If any of you have not made your peace with God, you would better do it now, as the ship may go down any minute.” [25] Although some passengers were frightened, the majority had a calm “trust in God that all would be well.” Some expressed their confidence by singing the song “We Are Going to California.” The captain was amazed “that any could sing while in such peril.” [26] However, the Saints never lost faith, despite the captain’s bleak outlook. One of the women remarked, “We left for California and we shall get there,” and another said she had no more fear than if she were on dry ground. [27] When the storm subsided, Captain Richardson declared it to be the worst that he had ever experienced in his years at sea.

Their faith was vindicated. In fact, the winds had carried them nearly to the Cape Verde Islands off the northwest coast of Africa. Ships often went that far east to be in position to take advantage of easterly trade winds without being blown into the coast of Brazil. [28]

Route of the BrooklynRoute of the Brooklyn

Though death claimed a total of ten passengers on the voyage, [29] there were occasions when there was new life. After the terrible Atlantic storm, a baby boy was born to the Burrs, who lost an older son about three weeks later. They named their infant John Atlantic Burr. Dr. John Robbins and his wife also buried two sons in the Atlantic. Later, en route to Hawaii, a girl, Georgiana Pacific Robbins, was born to them.

On about 3 March, as the ship crossed the equator, a good-natured crew played customary pranks on the passengers. [30] In the summerlike weather, children spent their days on deck “attending their schools, jumping rope, and engaged in all the other amusements resorted to pass off the time.” [31] In the tropics, the passengers were “amused by the many flying fishes and the porpoises racing along the ship, first in the water then leaping high into the air.” [32]

Into the Pacific

On 10 April the ship uneventfully rounded the tip of South America, a notorious graveyard for vessels. “It was fine weather when we doubled Cape Horn,” John Horner recalled. “The women were making bread, pies, cakes, frying doughnuts, etc., and the children were playing and romping about the deck.” [33] The captain then continued farther south, as far as sixty degrees latitude, to find winds that would enable him to get far enough west. [34]

Many supplies, especially water, were becoming scarce as they traveled northward along the Chilean coast. The water, described as being green and ropy with algae, was rationed at a pint per day per person. Firewood for the galley was exhausted, which meant no hot meals nor warmth below deck. Captain Richardson decided to stop at Valparaiso to replenish supplies. Following nearly three months at sea, the passengers eagerly anticipated this opportunity to go ashore. However, as they were about to enter the harbor, another storm battered the ship, holding it out at sea for three days and blowing it southward, back toward the Cape. During the storm, Sister Laura Goodwin, mother of seven children, fell off a galley ladder and lay dying on her bunk.

Finally, instead of continuing the attempt to land at Valparaiso, the captain headed for Juan Fernandez Island. They arrived there on 4 May 1846 and dropped anchor. Paying tribute to the captain’s navigational skills, John Horner asserted that “he hit every thing he aimed at, and nothing which he did not want to hit.” [35]

Soon after arriving, the Saints buried Laura Goodwin. Of the pilgrims who died en route, she was the only one to have a final resting place on solid ground. Two or three Chilean families on the island, together with the captain and crew, joined the Saints in the funeral service.

The voyagers then replenished the ship. Its casks were filled with eighteen thousand gallons of pure drinking water. [36] Firewood for the galley was gathered, baled, and stowed on board. Goats, wild boars, and fish were salted and stored. Fruits from abandoned orchards as well as wild fruits were a delicious change from sea biscuits and brined pork. The huge crawfish in the island’s streams rivaled the voyagers’ eastern lobster. In all, it was a welcome respite from the sea and a most providential renewal of diet, supplies, and spirits. “If we had gone to Valpiraso,” passenger William Glover reflected, “it would have cost us hundreds of dollars; thus showing to us the hand of the Lord and His overruling Providence and care for His people.” [37]

Their ship next headed for the Hawaiian Islands to drop off its commercial cargo. During this leg of the voyage, typically pleasant South Pacific weather was with them. Edward Kemble recalled “riding gayly along with all sails set before a six or seven knot breeze, over a sea just sufficiently agitated to give grateful variety to a motion without retarding progress.” [38] When they hit the equatorial “doldrums” the “ship ran into a calm sea, not a breeze blowing.” After several days and much anxious prayer on the part of the Saints, “they felt a breeze, and the ship began to move toward their longed for land.” [39]

The ship BrooklynThe ship Brooklyn

During this part of the voyage, trouble erupted. Samuel Brannan excommunicated four persons for promoting what he regarded as false and dangerous doctrines and “for their wicked and licentious conduct.” [40] His brash action became a sore point and subject of much argument. Some accused him of misuse of authority or at least of overreacting.

Edward Kemble praised the young Latter-day Saint women he observed, who “were modest and discreet, and probably no emigrant ship ever crossed the ocean—certainly none ever sailed to California—whose female passengers at the end of a long voyage preserved their reputations as unspotted as did those of the Brooklyn.” He noted that even though the quarters were extremely cramped, “there was rarely an infraction of discipline or decorum among the members of the company, even in the most trying times, such as were occasioned by heat or stress of weather.” [41]

Captain Richardson likewise praised the Saints’ conduct: “They have lived in peace together, and uniformly appeared to be quiet and orderly” and “during most of the voyage they have maintained orderly and well conducted religious exercises.” [42]

Arrival at Honolulu

On 20 June, 136 days since they had left New York and six weeks after leaving Juan Fernandez Island, the ship reached land again at Oahu, Hawaii, and anchored at Honolulu. There the group found themselves next to an American warship, the Congress. The United States had declared war on Mexico the previous month, and this naval vessel was there to take on provisions for sailing to the same California coast to which the Saints were headed. Some undoubtedly rejoiced at the news that California might soon be part of the United States. To others, it was a “severe shock” that they might be returning to the very nation which had persecuted them, and which they had hoped to leave behind. [43] Many of the Saints began voicing apprehensions about going on to California now that war was breaking out. Some suggested that they go on to Oregon, others to Victoria Island, and still others believed that they should turn around and head back to New York.

Nevertheless, Brannan insisted that they had set out for California, and that was where they would go. The Congress’s commander, Commodore Robert F. Stockton, confided that he would begin attacking and seizing the California shoreline at Monterey. He candidly suggested to Brannan that the Saints might want to go to San Francisco rather than their advertised Oregon destination. Of course, that was their real intention. The plan, though possibly dangerous since no one knew what the strength of the Mexican forces might be, offered the possibility that these Saints might be the first Americans to claim San Francisco Bay for the United States.

Despite all the confusion and disinformation, Brannan prematurely told a reporter from Honolulu’s newspaper, the Friend, that California was to be the “grand central rendezvous” for the Saints who were then crossing the Great Plains and that the “beautiful region around San Francisco Bay is the chosen spot” where the Latter-day Saints would settle. [44]

On to California

After spending ten days in Honolulu and taking on needed supplies, the Brooklyn sailed on 30 June. Despite the concerns of some about returning to the United States, the Brooklyn Saints conducted “a spirited celebration” on the Fourth of July, hoisting flags, firing guns, and singing patriotic songs. [45]

There were still worries that they might not be allowed to land in California. Brannan encouraged his company to “be prepared for any emergency.” The women on board began sewing uniforms from blue denim purchased in Hawaii. With Captain Richardson’s approval, the muskets were uncased, and the men began military drills on deck. Samuel Ladd, who had spent years in army service, was placed in charge. He succeeded in making the men “tolerably proficient in military duty and prepared for any exigencies that might arise.” [46]

During the voyage “the people were called together and organized, and an agreement drawn up and signed by all of the men.. . that they would work together as a company to clear the debt of the ship and make all the preparations they could for the coming of the Church.” [47] Specifically, they agreed to “give the proceeds of their labors for the next three years into a common fund from which all were to draw their living.” [48] This pact proved to be more troublesome than useful, however, and led to disagreement and strife.

The voyage’s last leg from Hawaii took just one month. Finally, on Friday morning, 31 July 1846, the scrubby hills of Yerba Buena were sighted. As their new home came into view, Carolyn Joyce noticed how “barren and dreary” the country seemed. [49] As the ship entered the bay and approached the fort—present-day Presidio—Captain Richardson, unsure of how his ship would be received, ordered the passengers below deck as a precautionary measure. Once past the fort, the captain allowed all hands back topside. [50]

The Brooklyn passengers strained through the mist to see what they could of their new home. They could discern American flags, one flying from the mast of a warship anchored in the harbor and another above a low, red-tiled building on the hamlet’s center square. The Saints knew then that the United States had claimed and secured the area. The U.S. flag had been raised three weeks earlier. Brannan is reported to have exclaimed in surprise, and perhaps disappointment, “There is that damned flag again!” [51] Nevertheless, he gratefully realized that the Saints would not have to pay an anticipated twenty thousand dollars in import duties which might have been collected had Mexico still been in control. [52]

Cannons on shore boomed a salute to the new arrivals. These shots were answered from the Brooklyn’s muskets. A rowboat from the U.S. sloop Portsmouth brought a group of sailors on board. An officer said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have the honor to inform you that you are in the United States.” [53] The Saints responded with three hearty cheers.

The Brooklyn and its passengers were finally at rest. “Of all the memories of my life,” Carolyn Joyce reflected, “not one is so bitter as that dreary six months’ voyage, in an emigrant ship around the Horn.” [54]

As far as we have ascertained, the Brooklyn Saints were the first colony of home-seekers with women and children to sail around Cape Horn, the first group of Anglo settlers to come to California by water, and the first group of colonists to arrive after United States forces took California.

The Brooklyn arrived in Yerba Buena one year before Brigham Young and the overland Pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley. Thus, this forlorn little California outpost, later renamed San Francisco, was the first city in the American West colonized by Latter-day Saints.


[1] Conway B. Sonne, Ships, Saints, and Mariners (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987), 32.

[2] Augusta Joyce Crocheron, “The Ship Brooklyn,” Western Galaxy 1 (1888): 79. Because Crocheron was an infant at the time of the voyage, her accounts must be based on information supplied by her parents or others. Crocheron claimed that her mother, Caroline Joyce, kept a meticulous diary, since lost, of the voyage.

[3] Sonne, 33; Lorin Hansen, “Voyage of the Brooklyn,” Dialogue (fall 1988): n. 2.

[4] New-York Messenger, 15 December 1845, quoted in Times and Seasons 6 (1 February 1846): 1112–14.

[5] History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 7:588 (hereafter HC).

[6] New-York Messenger, 15 December 1845.

[7] Friend, 1 July 1846,103.

[8] Samuel Brannan, “A Biographical Sketch Based on a Dictation,” 2, MS, C-D 805; Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.

[9] Kate B. Carter, The Ship Brooklyn Saints (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1960), 569–71.

[10] New York Herald, 5 February 1846.

[11] Quoted in Hansen, 49.

[12] HC 7:587–91.

[13] New York Herald, 5 February 1846.

[14] Edward Cleveland Kemble, A Kemble Render: Stories of California, 1846–1848, ed. Fred Blackburn Rogers (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1963), 17.

[15] Kemble, 18; compare HC 7:588.

[16] Hansen, 52 n. 4.

[17] Ibid., 54; Carter, 566, 570.

[18] Times and Seasons 6 (15 February 1846): 1127–28.

[19] Samuel Stark, Life and Travels of Daniel Stark (Salt Lake City: Samuel Stark, 1955), 26.

[20] John M. Horner, “Voyage of the Ship ‘Brooklyn,’” Improvement Era 9, no. 10 (August 1906): 797.

[21] Kemble, 20.

[22] Crocheron, 81.

[23] New-York Daily Tribune, 27 August 1846.

[24] William Glover, The Mormons in California (Los Angeles: Glen Dawson, 1954), 14.

[25] Horner, 797.

[26] Glover, 14.

[27] Crocheron, 81.

[28] Horner, 797; see also Hansen, 54–55.

[29] Friend, 1 July 1846,101.

[30] Stark, 26.

[31] New-York Daily Tribune, 27 August 1846.

[32] Stark, 26.

[33] Horner, 797.

[34] New-York Daily Tribune, 17 August 1846.

[35] Horner, 795–96.

[36] New-York Daily Tribune, 27 August 1846.

[37] Glover, 16.

[38] Kemble, 22.

[39] Stark, 27.

[40] Millennial Star 9, no. 20 (15 October 1847): 307.

[41] Kemble, 17.

[42] Friend, \ July 1846,101.

[43] Stark, 28; Kemble, 23–24.

[44] Friend, 1 July 1846, 101.

[45] Horner, 798.

[46] Kemble, 24–25; Stark, 28.

[47] Glover, 15.

[48] Crocheron, 83.

[49] Carolyn Joyce Jackson, quoted in Edward W. Tullidge, The Women of Mormondom (New York: Tullidge and Crandall, 1877), 446.

[50] Kemble, 7–11.

[51] Hubert H. Bancroft, History of California (San Francisco: The History Co., 1886), 5:550.

[52] Millennial Star 9, no. 20 (15 October 1847): 307.

[53] Tullidge, 446.

[54] Ibid.