By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
A gravestone in Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) churchyard in Philadelphia was erected following the death of Sarah (Mitchell) Sandgran, who passed away in May 1860 at the age of 72. Sarah had lived as a widow for 31 years following the untimely and mysterious death of her husband Charles, a sea captain, whom she had married at the church in 1807.*
The inscriptions on the stone are now obliterated, but a century ago it was possible to read the terrible pronouncement on Capt. Sandgran’s demise: “lost at sea in the year 1829.” That is followed by the sentence:
“The earth and the sea shall give up their dead.”
Accordingly, I have searched for some indication of whether the sea would indeed “give up” the facts of how Capt. Sandgran lost his life. The historical record has been rather grudging with that information, but we know a bit about Sandgran’s battles with the sea though a first-person story about sailing on his vessel, the Mary Becket. The story was written by John A. Dahlgren and published under the title “The Fragment” in the Saturday Evening Post of Nov. 12, 1825.
Dahlgren’s father, Bernard, who was the Swedish consul in Philadelphia, was a congregant at Gloria Dei and was buried in the churchyard — although his body was later moved. Both Sandgran and Bernard Dalhgren were probably close acquaintances; both were born in Sweden. There’s a good chance that Sandgran had known young John from childhood.
Soon after his father’s death in 1824, 15-year-old John Dahlgren, now an orphan, opted for a life at sea. Indeed, he later became famous as a U.S. Navy admiral during the Civil War and inventor of a type of cannon. Young Dahlgren wrote in his journal, “in order to obtain a knowledge of my intended profession, on the 30th of March, 1825, I embarked ‘before the mast’ on board the brig ‘Mary Beckett,’ owned by Lyle and Newman and commanded by Charles Sandgren [sic], bound for Trinidad de Cuba. On the 2nd of April experienced a very severe gale from the N.E., in which several vessels were lost.”
“The 23rd May,” he continued, “We again set sail from Trinidad for Philadelphia. On the evening of the 29th May, the most severe gale that had ever visited the coast of the United States commenced. It lasted till the 4th of June. Twenty-four hours more, and our fate had been sealed. We were doubling the northwest head of Cuba when it commenced. Not being able to carry any sail, we were drifted by the current on the western coast of Florida, a lee shore. It was that eventful time that suggested ‘The Fragment.’”
After he had returned from his voyage to Philadelphia, John Dahlgren was taken in and employed as a helper by Dr. Collins, the pastor of Gloria Dei church, and spent many hours with the old man in the former rectory. To while away the hours, Dahlgren wrote “The Fragment” at that time. Here is a fragment of ‘The Fragment”:
“Too much agitated to retire to my berth, I threw myself on the cabin floor and soon fell asleep, dreaming of the various hardships to which we had been and still were exposed—of our dreadful prospects. I already fancied I felt the shock of the vessel striking, and the cries of the sailors. The shrill whistle of the boatswain rang in my ears. I started from my bed and fancied it a dream, but the hoarse cry of ‘All Hands ahoy!’ convinced me that it was dreadful reality; I was on deck in a minute.
“The vessel was laying to under a close-reefed main top-sail, and so strong was the gale that it alone was sufficient to heave her on her side; the bleached strip of canvas on the mizzen that was exposed to the wind was just discernible by the steady but feeble light from the battle lanterns on the quarterdeck, and the proud bunting at our peak was fluttering madly amid the blasts.
“The commander was standing near the wheel, with a desperate calmness stamped on his features, and with keen interest watching every plunge she made, and then gave his orders to the helmsman, in a low distinct voice, to ‘Ease her with the helm.’”
[Later] “… Scarcely had I closed my eyes when the hoarse summons of ‘All hands ahoy!” called me on deck again. How different! The moon had just risen, the wind had abated in a great degree, and rendered the loosening of the topsails, fore, and main sail safe, and the orders were accordingly given.”
You can imagine that the men and boys had all crawled out onto the yardarms, ready to loosen the sails. The boys, like Dahlgren, were often given the most dangerous jobs, tasked with climbing to the highest reaches of the masts and crawling out to the ends of the yardarms since they did not weigh as much as the older men.
“The order of ‘ready about’ was answered by a general cry of ‘Aye, aye, sir,’ and hardly had the words of ‘Hand-a-lee, fore-sheet, fore-top-bow line, job and stay-sail sheets let go,’ issued from the master, before the helm was put hard down, and the gallant ship bore up, and looking in the wind’s eye, fell off majestically, as the yards were braced sharp, and bowing down to leeward seemed to fly from the dangerous coast which had so lately threatened us with destruction.”
The wise and calming commander in Dahlgren’s story, Charles Sandgran, was 45 years old in 1825. He had been carrying sugar and fruits from Trinidad, an old Spanish colonial town on the south coast of Cuba, to Philadelphia for almost 20 years and knew those waters very well.
We know from newspapers of the era that three years later, after spending Christmas Day in Philadelphia with his family, Charles Sandgran sailed on the Mary Becket on Dec. 26, 1828, for his usual run to Trinidad de Cuba. Two months later, he was sighted by other mariners at the Cuban port, and all seemed well.
One report was delivered by Capt. Charles Shankland, who had left Philadelphia two weeks earlier than Sandgran on the brig Harp. Shankland returned to Philadelphia on March 4, with the brig battered from having weathered a gale. He reported that when he sailed from Trinidad one month earlier (Feb. 5), Sandgran had recently arrived and was unloading his cargo.
Another captain reported to the newspapers that he had left Trinidad on Feb. 28 in tandem with the Mary Becket, but he had lost sight of the other brig in the vicinity of Cape Corrientes, in the far southwest corner of Cuba. That is the last mention I can find of Sandgran and the Mary Becket. In looking at the ship manifests at the Pennsylvania Historical Society, neither the Mary Becket nor her captain ever appear again.
One of the seamen on board the Mary Becket does appear in the port of Philadelphia on a later voyage, however. That was one of Charles Shankland’s brothers, Robert, who shipped out on another vessel later in March 1829. Another brother, Benjamin Shankland, the first mate on the Mary Becket, does not appear in any ship manifests on file at HSP, but we know that he survived because he continues to be listed in street directories at his home on Christian Street. In fact, as Philadelphia city death records indicate, all the Shankland brothers lived well into old age.
So, what happened to the Mary Becket and her captain? There are no reports of severe storms around Cuba at the time that the Mary Becket was lost. However, there definitely was a strong resurgence of pirate activity in early 1829, spurred on by the fact that during the previous year the U.S. Navy had stropped patrolling the area against pirates. A number of American ships in the Cuba trade reported sighting pirates or being boarded by pirate ships at just about the time that Sangran and the Mary Becket were making their way home from Cuba.
Some of the actions by the pirates seem to have been taken out of sheer villainy. A French warship came into Havana harbor in March 29, for example, with the report of having found the brig Charlotte, from Portland, Me., with the crew members nailed to the deck, all dead, though the cargo of the vessel was still intact. Around the same time, a Spanish government schooner arrived in Havana with a pirate schooner she had captured after a battle. One person who had been captured said that he had been forced to join the pirates after the rest of the crew of his vessel had been murdered. During his cruise, the man said, some 115 people had been killed by the pirates.
About eight days before Sandgran left Cuba, the brig New Priscilla, commanded by Capt. Hart from Salem, Mass., was sighted being preyed upon by a pirate ship off the Florida keys. When the brig Scion approached them, the pirate schooner sailed off, leaving the New Priscilla with no signs of life. Later, another mariner, Captain Kemp of the brig Industry, was brave enough to climb aboard the New Priscilla. He found utter destruction on the deserted vessel — rigging cut, sails shattered, bags of rice scattered on the deck, lockers and a chest broken open.
According to the Essex Register newspaper, people also found on the New Priscilla, “a boy of Salem, just a lad in his teens, spiked to the deck.”
Another well-publicized act of piracy took place a couple of weeks later to the Boston brig Attentive, which had sailed from Matanzas, Cuba, on Feb. 22, 1829. About eight hours after sailing, she was taken by a pirate schooner. The entire crew was murdered except the second mate, Alfred Hill, who had concealed himself in the hold. Hill reported later that after capturing the crew, the pirates called them onto the deck one by one. From his hiding place, he distinctly overheard the captain say, “Lord have mercy on my soul.” He then heard a scuffling on the deck, and groans of pain. After the noise had ceased, the pirates searched throughout the vessel—he supposed for money. Around 4 in the afternoon, they knocked out the porthole in the bow of the vessel, which allowed it to fill with water, and then they left.
Hill remained hidden until twilight, and then crept up to the deck and saw that the pirates had fled. He tried to stop up the porthole with blankets, but the sea kept washing them away. He then filled the top sails to try to get the Attentive back to the harbor, but she had drawn too much water and sank while still over three miles from shore. He managed to grab a plank and to paddle toward land, landing on the beach about 4 a.m. the following morning. He soon made his way to a house and to safety.
And so, with dozens of pirate attacks taking place at the time and place where the Mary Becket was sailing, there is a fair chance that Capt. Sandgran was killed in a battle with pirates, but it is questionable why the Shankland brothers survived and he didn’t. It will take more investigation to ascertain the truth.
* Charles Sandgran was the son of John and Botilla Sandgren of Scania, the southernmost province of Sweden (they lived near Malmö). On Nov. 14, 1807, at Gloria Dei, the 26-year-old mariner married Sarah, 20, daughter of carpenter George (1752-1821) and Anne Mitchell (1760-1847), of 243 Swanson St., Philadelphia. In their early years of married life, the young couple lived in Sarah’s parents’ home on Swanson St.
In the 1813 Philadelphia directory, Charles Sandgran, mate, is listed as residing at 272 S. Front St. Sarah’s parents still lived with the growing family. Charles’ and Sarah’s children at the time included Mitchell (1810-1886), Charles M. (ca. 1811-1891), and Anne Bonilla (1813-1901). Charles M. and Mitchell went into the plumbing business with their younger brother George (1818-1891).
The Sandgran children are buried in the Gloria Dei churchyard, as are their grandparents, George and Anne Mitchell, their mother Sarah, and the stone for their father, Capt. Charles, who never came home.