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Mary and the voyage of the Brother Jonathan

Mary Berry is now just a footnote, almost hidden in a few brief words that have echoed down for over 150 years.

Had Mary not boarded the three-masted, side-wheel steamship Brother Jonathan in San Francisco no one would likely remember anything about this 17-year-old; and even now, few have ever tried.

The Jonathan had been sailing between San Francisco and Victoria, Canada for seven years, making stops at many West Coast ports, but primarily Portland and Victoria. She was the ship that carried the first news to Oregon in 1859 that the former territory was now an official state of the Union.

Mary was the oldest child of some of Oregon’s earliest pioneers. Her father, William Berry, and her mother, Violet Wagoner, married in Pennsylvania in 1845. William was 28, and Violet was 15.

In the spring and summer of 1847, William and Violet joined a wagon train heading for Oregon Country with William’s older brother, Thomas. They all settled in the Willamette Valley, their properties spanning the borders of Benton and Polk counties, just northwest of Albany.

Mary, their first child, was born in 1848, and a brother arrived a year later. Five more children would follow.

After Thomas’ marriage in 1851, each of the brothers registered the 640 acres allowed to a married couple under the 1850 Donation Land Act. As farmers, Thomas was the most successful; however, William soon ran into trouble and wasn’t able to pay his debts. On November 19, 1855, the Benton County sheriff auctioned off nearly everything William’s family owned, including their land.

Somehow, perhaps with help from his brother, William was able to move his family to Southern Oregon, where he became a gunsmith occupying a store on Jacksonville’s California Street, opposite the Union Hotel.

It’s impossible to tell when they came and how long they stayed in our valley, but by 1861 or 1862 William had failed again and had moved the family to California, where their last child was born.

Except for an 1870 census and a city directory, elusive records of the Berry family have not been found.

Mary Berry appears in the 1864 Langley’s San Francisco Directory. At 16, she was working as “domestic,” perhaps a maid, in the home of Avery Harris, deputy city and county treasurer for San Francisco.

Friday morning, July 28, 1865, Mary boarded the Brother Jonathan in San Francisco. Days earlier, she had returned from a “pleasant European voyage” with her employers. Now 17, she was on her way to visit relatives in Oregon, either Uncle Thomas’ family or Uncle Simon Arrigoni, whose family owned and lived in one of Portland’s largest and earliest hotels.

As often happened, it was a rough trip. A screaming headwind was blowing down the coast from the northwest. In the heavy seas it wasn’t unusual for most passengers to remain in their cabin while sailing, lie in bed, for safety, or hoping to overcome seasickness.

About noon the next day, they passed by Crescent City and continued on their northerly course. In less than an hour, the ship was struggling to make any headway against the wind and surging swells. The captain decided to return to Crescent City and wait out the storm.

About 1:30 that afternoon, running under maximum steam, they struck full force into hidden and uncharted rocks. Passengers fell violently to the deck. Waves began to wash over the listing ship.

It was a scene of wild confusion. Those who had not already been thrown into the sea rushed around in panic, screaming, praying, grabbing for life preservers, and trying to get into lifeboats.

Three loaded lifeboats launched and two quickly overturned, spilling their passengers into the icy water. Only one lifeboat would successfully make land.

Of the 244 passengers and crew onboard, only 19 would survive; five adults, three children, and 11 crew members. Mary Berry was not one of them.

Within days, bodies began washing up on beaches from the Rogue River in the north to Humboldt Bay in the south. Some were found in ocean caves and some were never found. Most were never identified.

A military courier was ordered to the nearest telegraph to report the wreck and the loss of an Army general to headquarters in San Francisco. He covered the distance between Crescent City and Jacksonville in just less than two days. The telegraph had only come to Jacksonville a year and a half earlier.

On Aug. 9, Mary’s body was found floating about four miles off the Eureka, California lighthouse. She was still wearing a chemise dress, with a cross and small purse hanging from her neck. Someone had written her name in indelible ink on her dress. Local residents buried her near Eureka in an unmarked grave.

Her mother and father divorced, and Mary’s mother, Violet, remarried, taking all of the remaining children with her.

Mary’s life is but one of the many lives that were changed that day.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.