In a recent posting concerning the erection of a lighthouse to guide mariners into Charlottetown I noted that Governors Island was opposed as a site owing to the danger of the shoals surrounding the Island. That this was no idle concern is given strength by the many accounts of shipwrecks on the rocks of the Island and is mirrored in the early sailing guides which warned of the dangers of the Bay.
In Holland’s survey of the Island in 1764-65 Henry Mowat was assigned responsibility for charting several of the bays and harbours and his rudimentary charts were used by later cartographers such as DesBarres for the few additional maps published through the 18th and early 19th centuries.
The danger of shipwreck is stirringly illustrated by the following account taken from the Prince Edward Island Gazette of 16 December 1820. This appears to be the earliest account specifically mentioning wrecks on Governor’s Island (shown on many charts as Governor Island) but wrecks on remote shores were so common that they did not always attract newspaper coverage and in the sparsely populated colony wreckage and bodies found on the beaches and rocks often were the only indication that a vessel had been lost.
This incident seems to have a relatively happy outcome — except perhaps for the old and infirm who were “irrecoverable from fatigue and cold.” What is less immediately clear from the narrative is that the survivors were stranded either aboard the ships on the rocks or the shore from Sunday until at least Thursday, much of the time in the midst of a winter storm.
By the arrival of a small vessel on Sunday night last from the Gut of Canso, information was brought to Town that two schooners had run upon the shoals of the Governor’s Island, about the distance of seven miles hence, a most exposed situation to the W. and N.W. and at this season of the year to vessels grounding upon it, threaten immediate destruction — The Schooners are the Lord M’Donald, Dodd, belonging to Alexr. Campbell Esq. of Bedeque, and the other the Providence, Long, of New Brunswick, both from Newfoundland, the latter with 52 passengers on board. At about 7 o’clock P.M. a heavy gale sprung up from the westward and continued during the night and hauling more to the northward, the two succeeding days. On Tuesday a signal was made from the Block-House (a distance of four miles from thence) of two vessels ashore in great distress. His Excellency Lt. Governor Smith feeling particularly the imminent danger to which the crews and passengers were exposed, offered very liberal rewards to persons who would venture to afford them relief, and his Excellency’s son G. Sydney Smith of the R.N. volunteered his services upon the occasion, but the weather continued tempestuous and the ice making rapidly in the harbour, it was found impracticable to proceed from this place, and a Mr. Mudge, living opposite the Town, by crossing over at considerable risk, undertook by engagement of the Governor, to repair to the outer shore and employ men and boats with provisions, etc. to their assistance. It was not until Thursday that any relief was afforded. To the surprize and joy of the inhabitants of the surrounding shores, fires and other signals were discovered on the Island when Messrs Woods, Burhoues, and others of the Lot 49 settlement, went off in boats with sheep and other provisions to their assistance. When they arrived on the island they found with happiness and surprize that all hands had providentially landed alive. These humane delivers arrived in the utmost time of need. The sufferers flocked to them with grateful salutations, and offered them money and whatever they had for their exertions and provisions.– and to their memories be it ever spoken as a theme of admiration, what were their answers — “We do not come to afford you relief for the hope of any considerations but that of helping the distressed.” When the boat left the Island they saw another boat (supposed to be Mudge) with a further stock of provisions going to their assistance. Soon after these vessels grounded the tide receded far enough to let them careen upon their broadside — the Lord M’Donald fortunately inclining inwards and the Providence out, with her deck exposed to the whole force of the sea– the former we understand is little injured except the cutting away of her mast, protected by the way she lay, while the latter was soon bilged, and the master, crew, and passengers were obliged to keep to the wreck in the cabin and hold, from the frost and blast without; but in this their sheltered situation they were until the again receding of the tide, up to their middles in water, severely bruised by the casks and boxes in the hold, and expecting every surge of the sea to meet a dreadful fate. At 7 o’clock in the morning the Captain cut a hole through her inward side, and some of the most determined hearts sounded the depth of the water (about three feet) took fire works, axes, &c. and to the joy of all gained the Island where they made fires, and during the morning all hands got on shore in safety. — Some of these (we may say fortunates) are frozen, and some of the old and infirm are said to be irrecoverable from fatigue and cold. During the night several gave up to despair and drank too freely of Spiritous Liquors to dissipate the horrid gloom. — Capt. Dodd, is unloading the cargo of the Lord M’Donald When the boat arrived all had been allowanced upon one potatoe and a bit of fish, with some molasses and rum.
The PEI Gazette seems to have taken no further notice of either the vessels or their crews and passengers.
The whole of Hillsborough Bay was surveyed by George Wright and Capt. Peacock in 1839 and a chart published in 1842 and another in 1846 by Captain Bayfield. While Bayfield’s Chart gives more detail of the rocky outcrops surrounding the Island it would have done little to lessen the danger to a sailing vessel caught in the grip of a northwestwardly gale in early winter.
Other postings about Governor’s Island can be found on this blog site including a visit to the Island, an Account of the search for oil, a rescue in 1875, the Hochelaga on the rocks, and a marooned hunting party