By Dan Brogden, Archives Specialist
The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park's historic document department has recently catalogued and made available for study four journals written between 1835 and 1840, by George S. Payne, a remarkably talented diarist who sailed on the first four voyages of the Niantic. Both the Niantic and George Payne came to extremely interesting and important endings in the same eventful year of 1849, but on opposite sides of the continent. Niantic ended her days as the most famous of the Gold Rush ships that were converted into buildings in downtown San Francisco, and George Payne ended up the victim of a brutal murder that touched off an even more brutal war in Florida.
In 1835, fourteen years before his tragic date with destiny, an eighteen-year old young man from Connecticut named George S. Payne signed up to sail on the maiden voyage of the Niantic. He also decided to keep a journal "for the entertainment of his land loving friends." The Niantic, unbeknownst to any of her crew, was destined to become one of the most famous ships of the Gold Rush fleet, and has periodically returned to public attention long after fire consumed much of the hull in 1851. Rediscoveries of the buried wreck in the heart of San Francisco, in 1872, 1907, and again in 1978, have ensured that she has become one of the best known of the ships that were hauled ashore and converted to "other uses" in the frenzied growth of the city's waterfront in 1849 and 1850.
The four Niantic journals of George S. Payne narrate each of the journeys he took onboard the ship while it was engaged in the China Trade. At first he describes himself as a novice, suffering from seasickness and describing the rigging as "a vast wilderness of ropes, the uses of which I have yet to learn" but he quickly grows into a confident sailor gaining knowledge and responsibilities rapidly until eventually being promoted to Second Mate in charge of the Starboard watch. By his third voyage he has moved out of the forecastle and is sharing officer's quarters with the first mate, and dining daily with the Captain.
But, how do we know that this diarist is the same man whose death in Florida was such a monumental event? In the journals, the author notes his 22nd birthday as November 3, 1838, which would make his birth date November 3rd, 1816. He also describes himself as homesick for the cold and frosty Connecticut winters of his youth, and in another case longs for the cool clear waters of "Cornwall." The Cornwall, Connecticut vital records list the birth of a George Silliman Payne to a John and Sarah Payne on November 3rd, 1816. The gravestone in Florida, located on the grounds of the Payne's Creek State Historic Park, clearly reads "To the memory of Capt. George S. Payne, aged 32 years, a native of Cornwall Conn. also of … and killed by a party of Seminole Indians on the evening of the 17th day of July 1849." There is a letter that was published in June of 1992 by the local newspaper of Bowling Green, Florida, entitled the "Last letter of Captain Payne" and in the preface to this letter Payne is described as a native of Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut. In the body of the letter, the author writes that he detests slavery (a clue to his northern roots perhaps?) and that if not for a touch of rheumatism, he would "put out for California, & go at my old trade again," presumably he meant sailing. In a two-part newspaper article entitled "The Pease Creek Tragedy" that was originally printed in the Herald-Advocate of Wauchula, Florida on July 22 and August 19, 1999, the author, Mr. Spessard Stone, describes Captain George Payne as a "32 year old former sailor and native of Cornwall, Connecticut." All of this evidence makes a clear case that the George S. Payne, who sailed on the first four voyages of Niantic is the same George S. Payne who met his violent end deep in the Florida wilderness in July of 1849.
So now that we know more of Mr. Payne, what of the ship Niantic? Mr. Thomas Childs, of Chatham, Connecticut, laid down Niantic for the New York mercantile company N.L. & G. Griswold in the spring of 1835. Completed in the fall and registered at New York in October of that year, the vessel was rigged with three masts, was one hundred nineteen feet long and listed at ninety tons. She was also described as having a square stern, round neck, two decks and a simple billet head, and was a typical full-bodied cargo carrier with a twenty nine foot beam and a twenty foot depth of hold with a nearly flat interior bottom. Built for capacity, not for speed, she used that capacity in her short but eventful lifetime in the China Trade, as a whaler in the South Pacific and finally on land as a warehouse and as the foundations of a hotel, ultimately her remains ended up laying adjacent to the sub-structure of the Trans-America Pyramid in the Financial District of San Francisco.
The Niantic was first put to work in October of 1835 in the China Trade, making four trips to the Chinese ports of Canton, Whampoa, and Hong Kong and the Philippine port of Manila, returning to New York after approximately twelve months. Packed with tea, porcelain, silks and other commodities, she was a major factor in the commercial success of her owners, as the four voyages between 1835 and 1840 are estimated to have made the company nearly $400,000 profit on each trip. One of the most lucrative aspects of this China Trade in the 1830's was the illicit, but highly profitable, trade in opium. In this trade, British and some American ships transported the drug from India to China. It was a controversial source of conflict between China and foreign traders, especially the British Empire, which in response to the Chinese closure of Hong Kong and the destruction of a massive cache of the narcotic in 1840, invaded and occupied the port during the First Opium War. In his journals, Payne records the Chinese preparations to repel this British invasion, including the beheadings of westerners involved in the trade and the arming of massive dragon boats. Fortunately for Payne and his crewmates, the Niantic made her money through the export of tea and not the importation of opium, and although Payne does describe the rescue of the captain of an opium trading ship and the transfer of casks of opium to the Niantic's hold, after only a short delay by Chinese officials she was allowed to sail home as a relatively unmolested witness to the conflict.
The four journals also describe in great detail the operations of a square-rigged ship in the 19th century, with the crew clambering up the masts in a gale to reef sails and splice lines. They also describe in a particularly intense episode the murder of the captain's steward by the ship's cook, the actions and dress of the "Heathen Chinese" as Payne calls them, the threat of Malaysian pirates, and the beauty and terror of an erupting volcano in the Philippines. Payne makes a diary entry about twice a week through the four voyages, noting the weather and the ship's position by latitude and longitude, enabling the reader to feel the voyages as if onboard.
The Opium Wars between Britain and China intensified in January 1841, just after George Payne and the Niantic returned to New York on their fourth and final voyage together, and the Wars effectively shut down the China Trade until the end of 1842. In 1843, the United States government, although not a combatant, negotiated its own treaty with China to restore trading relations, but Niantic did not return to her former occupation. Instead, N. L. & G. Griswold sold their controlling interest in the ship to a consortium that converted her into a whaler. Under the command of Captain Shamyois H. Slate, a part owner, Niantic sailed from Sag Harbor, New York, on June 4th, 1844, once again bound for the South Pacific. This time however, she sailed west around Cape Horn instead of her by now familiar route around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Indian Ocean.
There is no evidence to suggest that George Payne was offered his old job as Second Mate on this voyage, but it would not be out of the question. He had proven himself to be a capable, hard working, decent man, with a real skill at seamanship and dependable leadership abilities. However, it is clear from reading his journals that he would have probably refused the offer. He knew that whaling voyages sometimes lasted years, and that whaling ships were worked hard in dirty conditions and that as a whaler, Niantic was almost guaranteed to lose her shipshape appearance. George had a real affection for the Niantic, and would not have enjoyed seeing her lose her luster. She was bulky and slow, but to George Payne she was a beauty.
The ship did go to the whaling grounds off New Zealand, spending the next three years there, returning to Sag Harbor on February 1st, 1847 with 2,400 barrels of whale oil, 120 barrels of sperm oil, and 10,000 lbs of whalebone. In 1848 she shifted homeports to Warren, Rhode Island, and new part owners joined the Griswolds, who had retained their shares in the ship. She may have made a voyage or two in the packet trade to Europe; indeed, accounts suggest that the New Line and Slate's Liverpool Line may have chartered her. What we do know, is that on September 16th, 1848, under the command of Captain Henry Warren Cleaveland, the Niantic left the Atlantic Coast for the last time, bound for the Northwest Pacific whaling grounds. She rounded Cape Horn for the second and last time, just as news of the discovery of gold in California began to spread around the world. When the ship anchored at the whalers' provisioning stop at Paita, Peru, on March 7th, word reached Captain Cleaveland that there were thousands of eager gold seekers stranded in Panama waiting for ships to carry them to California. Cleaveland made a command decision to postpone the whale hunt and sailed for Panama. Before leaving Peru he wrote a letter to the ship's owners in Rhode Island explaining his decision as a "great prospect … for all concerned." He also explained that the ship would only "lose one Northwest season." He was half right, it was a great prospect, but Niantic would never make it to the Northwest whaling grounds. Instead, after taking between 250 and 290 (reports vary) passengers from Panama through the Golden Gate and anchoring at Yerba Buena Cove on July 5th, 1849 she never again saw deep water. Like most of the ships arriving in San Francisco in 1849, the crew and passengers of the Niantic were fired up by the stories of gold just lying around to be picked up by anyone lucky enough to make their way up the Sacramento River, and they abandoned the ship. A few months after her arrival with no crew and no prospects to hire a new one, Niantic was sold to a group of investors in San Francisco, who at high tide hauled her close inshore near what was then the intersection of Clay and Sansome Streets, the shoreline being half a mile west of its location today. Her masts were taken out, her rigging and some of the ballast removed, piles driven on each side to keep her erect, a doorway was cut into her side and she was used as a storehouse, earning her new owners a substantial profit in rent.
The city grew around Niantic, as the docks were enclosed into square lots that were then filled in with sand and rocks pulled from the nearby hills by steam excavators. By the spring of 1850, the Niantic and other ships like her gave a puzzling appearance as ships in the middle of the street. In 1851, the ship burned to the ground in a fire that ravaged the entire waterfront. Fortunately for her owners half the hull was underground, leaving a remnant on which was erected a hotel, also named Niantic. At the time, it was regarded as the finest hotel in the city. Gradually the Niantic Hotel lost status, and in 1872, when the hotel was torn down to make way for a four story business block called the Niantic Building, the ship's hull was uncovered for the first time in twenty years. After the great earthquake and fire of 1906, the Niantic's remains were exposed for the second time until a new Niantic building was erected on the spot. In 1978 the remains of the hull were re-discovered for a third time by workers excavating in preparation for the building of the Mark Twain plaza next to the city's landmark Trans-America Pyramid. Maritime archeologists and historians, including a number from San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park worked together with the construction company to excavate as much of the ship and her cargo as possible in the crunch of time available by the construction schedule. The park's museum collection includes a number of artifacts from this excavation, including unopened champagne bottles, other cargo and entire pieces of the hull.
So we know much of the history of the Niantic, but what of George Silliman Payne? Unfortunately, we lose track of Mr. Payne during the decade of the 1840's. Although there is some evidence to suggest that he served in the US Army during the second Seminole War, he doesn't return to the historical record until the spring of 1849 as a former Army captain in charge of a trading post in southwestern Florida.
The Seminole Wars were a series of three conflicts between white settlers and an amalgamation of several groups of Native-Americans in Florida that began before George Payne was born, and many years before the Niantic ever went to sea. During the War of 1812, the British used their control of the Spanish Forts in northern Florida to harass the then southern border of the United States. The Spanish were in nominal control of the area but were in no position to interfere, ceding control of the forts to the British Empire. One of the tactics of the British was to use the forts as a haven for escaped slaves from Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. They also used the forts as depot points to arm and equip their Native-American allies. When the Treaty of Ghent was signed ending the War of 1812, these forts were turned over by the British to the Seminole Indians and to the escaped slaves. Fort Gadsden near Tallahassee was a particular sore spot for southern slave owners who called it "Negro Fort," as it was controlled by a group of escaped slaves. General Andrew Jackson used the southern fear of slave rebellion and other incidents to justify his invasion of "Spanish" Florida in the summer of 1816 and burned "Negro Fort" to the ground. The Spanish government ceded Florida to the United States in 1821, and the United States signed the Treaty of Moultrie Creek with the Seminole tribes in 1823, confining them to a reservation in the swampy center of the territory. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, with the goal of moving all Native-Americans to Indian Territory in what later became the states of Oklahoma and Arkansas. In 1832, the Seminole chiefs were forced to sign the Treaty of Payne's Landing. (Payne's Landing was named for a Native-American chief of the 1700's with no connection to George S. Payne of Connecticut, just another strange coincidence of history.) This treaty was in reality an ultimatum that gave the Seminoles three years to move west.
The Second Seminole War was fought between 1835 and 1842, when the deadline of the Treaty of Payne's Creek passed and the natives continued to resist the efforts of the United States Government in forcibly removing them to Indian Territory. The Second Seminole War is often cited as the most expensive Indian War ever fought, with Congressional appropriations between 30 and 40 million dollars. The money is hard to follow though, as some of it was spent in fighting Native-Americans in the Illinois and Indiana territories during the same time. Much of the money that was spent in Florida went to bribing individual chiefs to move their people west. One historically interesting aspect of the War was that the United States Government, for the first and only time prior to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, officially granted freedom to 500 of the escaped slaves that had aligned with the Seminoles. As a condition of their emancipation however, they were forced to live on reservation land in Oklahoma. One of the most tragic results of the Second Seminole War was that by 1842 the Native American population of Florida was counted as only 300 individuals, more than 3,800 having been sent to Oklahoma over the infamous Trail of Tears.
There are quite a number of men named George Payne who show up in United States Army muster reports in the 1840's, but it is impossible to determine which one of these soldiers is our Niantic journalist, it is also difficult to find Payne's path to Florida. However we do know that in early 1849, Tampa businessman Thomas Kennedy and his partner, John Darling, who had served in the Army Supply Corps, were given permission by the new Florida State government in Tallahassee to open a trading post in southwestern Florida on a tributary creek of the Peace River. They hired a man they knew from their service in the Second Seminole War, Army Captain George S. Payne to build and operate it, and in just six months Payne built a large two-story trading post and a dock at a strategic crossing point of the river, near a small group of Native-Americans who were living outside of the official boundaries of the reservation. Because the group was outside the boundaries, they were deemed to be outlaws by both the white settlers and the official Seminole Tribe. The group contained upwards of twenty warriors under the leadership of a Red Stick Creek Indian, named Echo Emathla Chopco, also known as Chipco. On July 17th, 1849, five of these outlaws attacked the Kennedy and Darling store, killing two men at the trading post in a blaze of gunfire. Store manager, army veteran and ex-Niantic sailor Captain George S. Payne was shot while eating his supper. Another worker and his wife who lived in the back of the store were both severely wounded as they escaped with their small child. They hid in the woods for two days before making their way the twenty-five miles to the nearest farm and described the store being looted and burned to the ground.
This "Massacre at Payne's Creek," as it became known, ignited a series of attacks and counter-attacks between the Native-American tribes still in Florida and the settlers, which resulted in a slow buildup of United States Army troops in South Florida. Five years later, these escalating tensions between white settlers backed by Army troops and the remaining Native-Americans in Florida erupted into what became known as the Third Seminole War. Lasting eight years, the Seminole Indians held out against the overwhelming force of the United States Army in the hostile alligator and mosquito infested swamps but were overwhelmed, and by 1858 the Native-American population in Florida had dwindled to a paltry total of about 200 individuals with no formal organization or leadership. The conflict was declared over by the War Department in 1858 however a formal peace treaty ending the War wasn't signed until 1936.
George Payne and the Niantic parted ways in 1840, and it can be said that both died in 1849. George literally died, when he was murdered in a violent attack at the trading post in Florida and the Niantic figuratively died when she was grounded and stripped of her sailing masts and rigs in San Francisco. Both of their burial plots are memorialized. George Payne's gravestone is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is on the grounds of the Payne's Creek State Historic Park. Niantic is buried next to San Francisco's most iconic skyscraper with a plaque memorializing her important role in the city with ships for buildings, and pieces of her hull and cargo are in the museum collection at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. The early history of both the man and the ship are illuminated beautifully by these four journals written by George S. Payne as a young sailor onboard a young ship, the Niantic.