last man to leave

Original image from Naval History and Heritage Command

Men go back to the mountains, as they go back to sailing ships at sea, because in the mountains and on the sea they must face up, as did men of another age, to the challenge of nature. Modern man lives in a highly synthetic kind of existence. He specializes in this and that. Rarely does he test all his powers or find himself whole. But in the hills and on the water the character of a man comes out.

Abram T. Collier

Just after Thanksgiving 2022, a local headline became a national headline, then grew into an international headline. It began with Seattle’s Feliks Banel: Sunken ship lost 150 years ago, found off WA coast. Then national news sites like Fox News blared Washington search crew discovers site of 147-year-old Gold Rush era shipwreck that claimed over 300 lives. Then the British press picked it up: Has the SS Pacific’s gold-laden wreck been found 150 years after it sank? Gold-rush steamer SS Pacific is found almost 150 years after it sank with nearly $5M worth of gold on board, killing 325 people, as it sailed from British Columbia to San Francisco.

By mid-December, much of the world had learned about the Titanic of the Pacific Northwest. People asked, “Is the gold still there?” “Are there bodies?” “What in the world is left at this point?” To those of us in the modern era, those who lost their lives in this preventable and horrific disaster are merely ghosts. We focus on the tangible, objects that may be of historic or monetary value, things we can control. We debate the legal ramifications of salvage and who the gold and property actually belong to. “Cui bono?” the Romans asked. “Who benefits?”

When I was told what the big secret was, I was stunned. The SS Pacific was likely one of two dozen local shipwrecks I’d heard about over the years and had jumbled up in a far left corner of my mental warehouse. But it quickly dawned on me which one it is and why it’s so significant. “The PACIFIC?!!” I asked those involved, sitting heavily in a chair. “You found the PACIFIC?!!” I didn’t believe that anyone actually would ever find the Pacific. Not ever. Perhaps it wasn’t found because it wasn’t meant to be found.

In disbelief, I furiously began researching the topic. I started making notes in an email:

This (site) has a passenger list. Chuck (Charles) Norris was a passenger. And that poor girl’s body drifted past her parents’ house.

Wow, it’s clear that this ship was a deathtrap. And the captain was Jefferson Davis’ brother-in-law. I think he has a marker in Lakeview.

Ugh, there were horses and dogs and chickens as well.

I’m wondering what exactly is left.

And 41 unnamed Chinese people. That’s sad. I wish there was a way to properly honor all of the victims. This is so culturally significant too.

This guy witnessed the wreckage. 

…the wreck was found in a weird place. That is not making sense to me. I thought it was closer to Tatoosh Island.

I’m one of these types that leans towards leaving such wrecks intact. But what artifacts… are there? I’m not sure how you’d ever find or recover gold dust.

I have so many legal questions now.

Having trouble going to bed because it sounds like the 4th of July outside. So many trees and branches falling.

Overall, this is blowing my mind. The ship shouldn’t have been in service, the other captain could have stopped and saved everyone (but went and wrecked just after that), and miraculously, two people survived.

I had to ask myself why this seemed to be jogging a memory. Where did I first hear about this? I pondered time spent on Makah Nation land as a kid, when you could wander the Neah Bay and Cape Flattery areas. In a definite “PLEASE do not try this at home” scenario, our family would lash two differently sized canoes together with fiberglass poles and paddle out off the coast to fish the wealthy waters.

Sitting just above the waterline, we’d cast our lead-headed sparkly rubber worms into the water, wait a while for the lure to hit bottom, and then reel in a foot or two. The diversity of what we caught was astounding. Some of these fish put up a fierce battle, knowing their lives depended upon it. We ate all of it, something I probably wouldn’t do now. Some of the fileted fish had curious chromatic tints like mint green.

As we rode our catamaran over gentle rolling waves or, at times, sat in almost still waters amongst legendary rock formations, I would look over the side and wonder, “what’s down there?” The water was so deep, and in places it was unabashedly dark. I was not afraid as long as I was in a boat. The whales were friendly and our mammoth basking sharks are filter feeders. I was concerned about what one-eyed monster in a 2000 foot-deep abyss might be staring at my toes if I swam.

While wrapping up one such trip to the northwestern corner of Washington State, my siblings and I were milling around one of the beaches that glittered with pearly seashells. The whitish beach was encompassed in a misty haze, glowing in the innocence of a mid-1980s midday sun. I was terribly disappointed that we couldn’t afford to go to the local museum. My siblings wanted to go too.

One of my siblings said a prayer that we would be able to afford the admission before we drove away. At that moment– one of the most surreal moments of my life– a $10 bill came blowing across the beach in a warm, light breeze. It wasn’t blowing towards the parking area or towards the water, it was just skittering across the sand and shells past us.

One of us grabbed it. We realized that there was no one else around, no one whose pocket or wallet it could have fallen out of. I looked up the beach and down the beach. The $10 was dry, not wet. And it was exactly what we needed to get our whole party into the museum. I knew, in that timeless, glowing, ethereal moment, that God loves history geeks.

Touring the museum was a blast. Perhaps it was there that I learned about local shipwrecks. It allowed us to learn more about the Makah and Pacific Northwest Coastal history in general. You leave such a place understanding that it is a shrine to an area of astounding beauty and an irreplaceable culture. In the years since, access to many of the places we visited, including with the permission of Makah friends, has been restricted.

Having learned at a young age about tides and jurisdictions and underwater geography from a daredevil diver parent who kept a large maritime map of Puget Sound on the wall, I found myself puzzled by the “what next” of the Pacific in 2022. Evidently those who found the Pacific had to appear in federal court and jump through some legal hoops before they could go public with their find.

More than that, though, I wanted to know how the brother-in-law of Confederate president Jefferson Davis ended up captaining a leaky ship that cost hundreds of lives, men, women, children of all classes, and various pets. While many Union and Confederate veterans headed west to start new lives after the Civil War, his was a story I hadn’t heard.

Union and Confederate veterans did, in fact, live as neighbors, business associates, and even as friends in the Pacific Northwest. Our highly divisive modern politics and culture have conditioned us to quickly condemn history and people who don’t align with our 21-century beliefs. In the later 19th and early 20th centuries, former enemies often did become part of the same communities and contributed to the common good. Union and Confederate veterans sometimes appeared at the same commemorative events.

In present day Seattle, some devoid of this same belief in redemption, forgiveness, and growth have taken it upon themselves to destroy the grave sites of Confederate veterans. The repeated vandalism and destruction of a monument at Lakeview Cemetery is a perfect example of this. Instead of channeling that rage towards rescuing the living from slavery, war, poverty, and other horrors, they feel justified in taking out their hatred towards the dead. This behavior would have been strongly condemned just a couple of generations ago.

Named after Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Finis Davis was born in 1808 in Fairview, Kentucky. Best known as the president of the Confederate States of America and as a slave owner, he was also the United States Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. As an ardent Democrat, he served in both houses of Congress, representing Mississippi, the state where he grew up. He opposed the secession of Mississippi, but after Mississippi seceded from the union in 1861, he stood by his state.

Earlier in life, he had attended the United States Military Academy, otherwise known as West Point. There he was involved in the infamous Eggnog Riot. This resulted in him being confined to his quarters for a month. He served as an Army lieutenant for six years. He later served as a colonel in the Mexican-American War. In-between these events, he married Sarah Knox Taylor in 1835. Both soon contracted malaria, and Sarah, the daughter of future president Zachary Taylor, died just three months into their marriage.

In 1845, Davis married Varina Anne Banks Howell at her parents’ home, The Briars. Her parents had questioned several aspects of Varina and Jeff’s budding relationship. Varina was just 17 when they’d met on his much older brother Joseph Davis’ property; Jeff was just a few years from 40. Varina’s parents were good friends of Joseph, who was then practicing law. They had named their firstborn after him. But they had not expected a mutual attraction between their young daughter and a worldly man of their own vintage.

Varina’s parents were also Whigs; Jefferson Davis was a Democrat. The Whig Party was the other major political party in the U.S. at that time, the more conservative party. The Howells clearly had friends of both persuasions. Throughout her life Varina would maintain strong relationships with friends and family in both the North and South. She moved to New York later in life and tried to achieve reconciliation between Yankees and Southerners. Perhaps knowing that their outgoing daughter was more open-minded than Davis was one reason they were concerned by the difference in politics.

Just months after the marriage, Davis would be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Soon, he not only voted to go to war with Mexico, but literally joined the effort and led the charge in 1846. Davis would serve in the army of Zachary Taylor, his former father-in-law. He’d never fully recovered from the death of his first wife, mourning her deeply for many years to the chagrin of the Howells. This was another reason they initially questioned his union with their daughter. Their concerns were legitimate. For the rest of her life Varina would feel like a second-tier wife who lived in the shadow of Sarah.

Jefferson and Varina Davis

The Howells had been influential Quakers in west England and Wales before coming to the American colonies. Varina’s father was William Burr Howell, the son of Federalist Governor Richard Howell of New Jersey. You might recognize Richard Howell’s name from Revolutionary War history. That is indeed the Richard Howell who served as an intelligence officer who reported directly to General George Washington. He was involved in pivotal events that formed this nation, including the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington’s inauguration, and the ratification of the Constitution. His twin brother played a similarly important role in the Revolution but lost his life in 1778.

According to Varina Howell Davis’ biography, her father was a United States Marine who served in the War of 1812:

My father, William Burr Howell, was the fourth son of Governor Richard Howell and Keziah Burr. When quite young he was appointed an officer in the Marine Corp (acting Marines), and served with distinction under Commodore Decatur in the war of 1812, in the engagements on the lakes. Though quite ill, he had come on deck to participate in the fight. At one time the fire was so hot that a stool was shot from under him, and a tin cup of water, which was being handed to him at the same time, was struck out of his hand by another ball. He was three times commended in orders for extraordinary gallantry in action. His brother, Franklin Howell, was killed by a splinter on the President, [47] and instead of the “bad bust” which Byron dreaded, was commended in orders, and his name printed “John Howell” in a book entitled “The naval monument.”

William Howell married Margaret Louisa Kempe in Natchez, Mississippi in 1823. They would go on to have a full dozen children together, beginning with Joseph Davis Howell followed by Varina, ending in the 1846 birth of son Jefferson Davis Howell, who was named after newlywed Varina’s husband. At least four of their children died as babies or toddlers. Their four Howell sons who made it to adulthood would all be gone by 1884. William Howell’s business failures and bankruptcies kept their family dependent upon the slave-holding Kempe side. Later, Varina would take in some of her younger siblings.

Margaret Kempe would help raise Jefferson and Varina’s children in Canada when Jeff Davis was imprisoned in 1865. He spent two full years as a prisoner at Fort Monroe before his release in 1867. His high bail was paid by prominent Northerners, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, Garrit Smith, and abolitionist Horace Greeley, a Whig. Six children were born to Jeff and Varina, but all four boys would die young, two before 1865, the end of the war. Their daughter Varina passed when just 34, leaving the elder Varina with only one surviving child at the time of her death in 1906.

The Howell and Davis families lost most of their children in tragic ways. Many children did not make it to adulthood in that era. The Howell’s youngest and twelfth child, Jefferson Davis Howell, did. According to John Hough, past president of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society among other distinctions, J.D. Howell was named after his much-older brother-in-law because the latter had been gravely wounded during the Battle of Buena Vista.

Jefferson Davis Howell grew up in New York, Virginia, and Washington D.C. He joined the Confederate Army (to his sister’s chagrin) at just 16 years old. In 1862 he became a midshipman in the Confederate States Navy. This should not be surprising given that his home state, Mississippi, was part of the newly declared Confederacy that had named his brother-in-law president. Nowadays people say, “I wouldn’t have done that!” But not many would leave their homes to go fight for a different state or country than their own. It’s doubtful that most people would be vocal opponents of their own state’s policies and risk their lives and careers in protest.

The U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command says that Midshipman Howell served aboard the CSS Patrick Henry in 1863 and with the Charleston Squadron from 1863 to 1864. W.B. Fort of Pikeville, North Carolina detailed Howell’s naval and maritime careers in a posthumous tribute. Fort says that during 1863 and 1864 Howell was on picket boat duty— patrol– between Fort Sumter and Morris Island. Some will recognize this as the area as where Union Colonel Robert Shaw and members of the renowned 54th Massachusetts Infantry waged a fierce battle in July of 1863 to take Fort Wagner as shown in the 1990 movie Glory.

W.B. Fort says that when the Union finally held Fort Wagner, called Battery Wag(e)ner by the Confederates, a Southern commodore awoke one morning on his ironclad to find a jolting sight. A Confederate flag was waving from a red buoy closed to Battery Wagner where his side was forbidden to go. One by one he called his officers in and questioned them about the flag. Howell was last to be questioned and readily admitted that he did it: “I put it there myself.” He and his cohorts borrowed a drill and worked through the night to punch a hole in the buoy so they could plant the flag there. A restless 6′ 5″ teen looking for action, he wanted to keep the Yankees on their toes.

Attributed to a National Parks Service Map, copied from Lizzy’s Latest: The Battle of Fort Sumter

On December 9th 1865, after the war had ended, Jefferson Davis Howell was arrested and taken prisoner. He and a Lieutenant Maffit, identified as a former officer of the privateer Alabama, had taken the steamer Hibernia to Portland, Maine. They were intercepted as they tried to catch a train to Canada. In early 1866, he was released from Fort Warren, an island fort in Massachusetts that still stands today.

W.B. Fort says that after the war, Howell, who was just 18 and unemployed when it ended, embarked on voyages around the Atlantic, to the Cape (de) Verde Islands, and to Bordeaux. This became his career and he advanced to the rank of mate. At some point he was injured and worked for the New York News. He couldn’t stay away from the sea for long, though. Fort says that he went to China as quartermaster on the mail steamer Ariel. Howell went on to San Francisco, where he was the first officer on the steamers John L. Stephens, Ajax, and Oraflamme. Howell’s first command was the Idaho, then the steamers Moses Taylor, Pelican, California, Nevada, and finally, the Pacific.

Fort said that on February 23rd, 1874, J.D. Howell was a passenger on the steamer Los Angeles, which was traveling from San Francisco to Victoria. But something went horribly wrong on the way, gravely endangering the lives of the 150 people on board: the propeller shaft broke. The ship was without power and drifting. Howell and cohorts jumped into a smaller boat and headed for shore. Those left on the Los Angeles assumed they had died in the storm. But Howell walked to Astoria and secured a tug boat, which arrived on scene and towed the steamer to port. All 150 people survived. Howell was later given a commendation by the survivors that showed their deep and humble gratitude for his heroics.

Before or by the following year, Howell was captaining the Pacific. From what I have read, the Pacific seemed like a mass of floating putty and rotting wood held together with scotch tape and bobby pins. It’s horrifying that it was in service at all given its delicate condition and sordid history. Yet it had been declared seaworthy by the federal government. According to HistoryLink’s Daryl C. McClary:

The SS Pacific was a 876-ton side-wheel passenger steamship, 223 feet long and 33 feet six inches across the beam. The wooden-hulled vessel was built in New York in 1850 and ran for a time between the Isthmus of Panama and San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. In September 1858, the Pacific began San Francisco-to-Columbia River service for the Merchants Accommodation Line. On July 18, 1861, the ship was heading down the Columbia River, en route from Portland to Astoria, Oregon, when she struck Coffin Rock in the fog and sank. After considerable difficulty, the Pacific was raised, and the steamer Express came down from Portland with a fire truck to pump her out. The ship was repaired in San Francisco and continued in service until 1872 when she was retired and left to rot on the mudflats of San Francisco Bay.

McClary goes on to say that when the Cassair Gold Rush hit in the 1870s, the Pacific and every ship that could be “resurrected” was. He notes that the repairs to the steamer were largely cosmetic. Nevertheless, the Pacific was assigned to a route running from Victoria, British Columbia to Seattle, Tacoma, and San Francisco. This was a very busy route, and ships like this would run despite being grossly overloaded. Their owners were acutely aware that there was money to be made.

November 4th, 1875 would be the last day of Jefferson Davis Howell’s life. Accounts tell of an overloaded, listing ship teeming with nearly 300 people, dogs, chickens, horses, and cargo puffing out of port late due to Howell not feeling well. That night, a full-rigged, larger sailing ship, the Orpheus, mistook the Pacific’s lights for the Tatoosh Island light. Its sudden manuvering caused the two ships to collide. This caused massive trauma to the fragile vessel; water began pouring into the Pacific. But the Orpheus continued on its way, concentrated on determining the extent of its own damage, leaving all of God’s creatures on the Pacific to die in a frigid nightmare.

It is overwhelming to imagine the horrified screams that filled the lonely night as the Pacific sank near the northwesternmost tip of what, in 1889, would become Washington State. This is where the Pacific Ocean meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a remote location with deep water that was probably no more than 46 degrees. Passengers that escaped the vessel battled to grab something, anything to stop their descent into the depths and the darkness.

J.D. Howell was the last person seen leaving the Pacific. He was reportedly clinging to some sort of raft that some passengers and crew had managed to climb upon. One woman on the raft was swept off and Howell relinquished his hold to plunge in after her. It is unknown if he saved her (temporarily), but he was never seen again. He was five days short of his 29th birthday.

From Google Maps

What followed was that eerie stillness of breath extinguished save for two men, Henry Jelley and Quartermaster Neil Henly, who managed to survive for days before coming back into contact with humanity. The Orpheus soon ran aground. Bodies drifted ashore in time. Wreckage gradually showed up on beaches. A scrawled note from a victim was found. The Pacific still wrote chapters about its ordeal weeks, even months, after the tragedy, much of which can be read via the links at this beginning of this post. The courts were later involved, underscoring that this was a preventable tragedy.

Fast forward a decade, four more decades, and then a century. During that time, as generations passed, the Pacific was largely forgotten, its memory almost as buried in the silt as it is. Local historian Matt McCauley has suggested that J.D. Howell is referenced often by people who’ve never heard of him as Seattle’s Howell Street may bear his name. I don’t know. But in November of 2022 the world gasped as news of the Pacific’s location was revealed. I had trouble believing it myself.

I struggle with whether it should be left alone in final peace or forcibly resurrected yet again. It’s a ship that refused to stay above water, its remains degrading, in pieces, or gone. Some of its victims were recovered. For many, some of whom had names in life but not in death, for women whose heavy clothing dragged them under, this is their grave. Pieces of their lives likely still lie in the chasm they settled in. But the same gilded siren song that drove the battered Pacific back into service just a few years after the Civil War calls again. About five million dollars of gold may still be down there.

You can read the stunning depictions of the Pacific’s demise at The SS Pacific founders off Cape Flattery with a loss of 275 lives on November 4, 1875 and at The Northwest Shipwreck Alliance’s site. The Pacific‘s recovery is a joint effort between the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance and Rockfish, Inc. Some truly astounding detective work went into locating the steamer. They want to display any artifacts recovered in a dedicated museum, a tribute to the worst maritime disaster on the West Coast. Currently, they are seeking a facility that will allow for their preservation and a meaningful way to tell this story.

Jefferson Davis Howell may be deprecated because he fought for the South and was named after his brother-in-law. There is speculation over why the SS Pacific set out late and why he went back into his cabin later. Had he lived, he might have been held partially responsible for the disaster. But he was raised with families of varying views before the war, was beloved by his family, especially his sister, Varina, and was a well-liked, larger-than-life figure to his many friends. Those 150 lives he saved gave him their deep gratitude. His father and forebears were American heroes. No matter what his faults, sins, or omissions, in his last moments he tried yet again to save a life, knowing it would likely end his.

John Hough, the aforementioned past president of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society and complex litigation head for the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, spent years writing a book about Howell that will hopefully be published in the future. Hough has passed on, but others have picked up where he left off. It could add another dimension to this saga that is still being written, the questions that are still being answered.

W. B. Fort wrote the highly detailed recollection of his friend referenced above. I leave you with his words.

It was a sad sight to see Captain Howell go down to a watery tomb with nothing to mark his resting place, and yet he does not sleep alone. For in the mighty ocean sepulchre myriads lie buried, and the waves moan them a requiem as sweet as that sung by the trees to those who rest upon the land.

From WikiTree. Howell was actually born in 1846.

You can read the entire obituary that W.B. Fort wrote at Jefferson Davis Howell, The Confederate Officer: Dashing Young Midshipman, Who Performed Many Heroic Deeds– Death at Last in the Sea.

©2023 H. Hiatt/

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