Plague and lost gold

The side-wheeler Brother Jonathan was commissioned at New York City in 1851 in response to the transportation demands of the California gold rush . She was 220 feet 11 inches (67.34 m) long with a beam of 36 ft (11 m). Her name was the personification of New England in an era when England was known as John Bull, and the United States as Uncle Sam.

Brother Johnathan Courtesy California State Lands Commission

Courtesy California State Lands Commission

On her maiden voyage from New York City to Chagres on the eastern seaboard of the Isthmus of Panama, Brother Jonathan set a record of 31 days. From Chagres, her passengers debarked and were required to travel across the Isthmus by mule train and canoe to board another vessel to complete their journeys to San Francisco.

As it turned out, she was built too late for the California Gold Rush, and in 1852 Cornelius Vanderbilt purchased Brother Jonathan, had her modified to increase her passenger capacity, then ordered her around Cape Horn to service his Pacific enterprise. In 1861 she was sold to the California Steam Navigation Company (CSNC) and served the San Francisco / Portland / Victoria route.

A Storied Vessel


On 12 March 1862, four years into the Fraser River gold rush, Brother Jonathan dropped anchor in Victoria’s harbour. Among the 350 who came ashore was a passenger infected with smallpox. The next day the steamer departed for Portland. Within a year about 60 per cent of the First Nation population of the time, over 14,000 people, died of the disease. The crisis left mass graves, deserted villages, traumatized survivors, and the general collapse of First Nations’ societies all along the coast from southern Alaska into Puget Sound.

Joseph Despard Pemberton

In 1864, Pemberton, engineer, surveyor, farmer, politician, Justice of the Peace, and businessman, returned to Victoria from London, England, aboard Brother Jonathan after marrying Theresa Jane Despard Grautoff.

Lost Gold

On 30 July, 1865, just over three years since introducing smallpox to the British Columbia coast, and with 244 passengers and crew aboard, Brother Jonathan struck an uncharted rock during a storm near Point St George, off the coast of Crescent City, California. Based on her passenger and crew list, 225 people were lost, making it the deadliest shipwreck on America’s Pacific Coast to that date. Included in her cargo were crates of gold coins… annual treaty payments for Indian tribes, and Wells Fargo gold consignments valued at $50 million in today’s dollars. The search for Brother Jonathan’s sunken treasure began within weeks of the disaster, but the Pacific holds the treasure close to this day.