Aug 26

Washington Spots Slave Ship Amistad, 26 August 1839

Thursday, August 26, 2010 6:00 AM


The U.S. brig Washington was one of a number of vessels employed by the Navy to survey and map the coasts and harbors of the United States for the Coast Survey. The Coast Survey (predecessor to today’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) was part of the Treasury Department, but employed officers of the U.S. Navy. A number of young, scientifically minded naval officers were assigned to survey duty when their services were not needed for naval operations.

The brig Washington, under the command of Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, was employed in summer 1839 in surveying and sounding operations off the eastern end of Long Island, New York. While working between Gardiner’s Island and Montauk Point on 26 August, the ship’s crew spotted and captured a suspicious vessel lying at anchor off Culloden Point. They found her to be the Spanish schooner Amistad, which had set sail from the coast of Africa a few months previously carrying two white passengers and 54 slaves, bound for Guanaja, Cuba. Four days out of port the slaves rose and murdered the captain and his crew, saving the two Spanish passengers to navigate the ship back to Africa. Instead the Spaniards sailed the vessel northward and westward by night in hopes that Amistad  would be intercepted. During two months of aimless sailing the ship ran low on food and water, and nine slaves died. Lieutenant Gedney took possession of Amistad, taking her first to New London, Connecticut, and then turning her over to authorities in New Haven, the closest port with a U.S. District Marshal.

The brig Washington was transferred to the Coast Survey on 23 April 1840, but was called back to naval service during the Mexican War. The vessel was stationed at New Orleans at the outbreak of the Civil War and was taken over by Louisiana authorities soon after that state seceded from the Union on 31 January 1861. Little is known of the ship thereafter. In June 1861, Commander David Dixon Porter reported that the ship was being fitted out at New Orleans and was almost ready for sea, but no clues to the ship’s subsequent career thereafter have been found.