The Circassian Story: "We'll Float Tonight or We'll Go to Hell!" cont'd.

Much has been said in attempting to affix blame in the incident, both at the time of the occurrence and since.

At the time, even the actions of the Life Saving Service were criticized by some city papers. The general opinion, however, by all who were on the beach that night, is that the Life Saving crews responded quickly and employed all possible means at hand to effect rescue. All crewmen were specially trained and able, ready to risk their lives if there had been the barest chance of saving the men.

Operations were in the capable hands of Captain Baldwin Cook, keeper of the Mecox Station. His men tried time after time, despite all odds, to fire the lifeline to the ship. Superintendent Huntting was on the beach from before midnight. His ability and sense of duty to send out a patrol to search the shore, even though there was no hope of anyone being saved has been lauded many times. The prompt action of the crews in rescuing and caring for the survivors was also praised. The later recovery of all the bodies was also credited to the diligence and watchfulness of the crews' patrols.

The official Life Saving Service report filed in Washington stated:

"The statement of this melancholy disaster which has been prepared with care and is supported by the testimony of the principal witnesses present, shows that the utmost possible service was rendered by the officers and crews of the Life Saving Stations. It will be observed that at the outset they brought ashore in safety every person on board the vessel."
Local sea captains of long experience and good judgment vindicated Captain Williams of any blame. They did feel, however, that he should have left the ship and taken his crew off once salvage operations had begun. He and his crew, between the rescue from the Heath Park and the stranding of the Circassian, had already been through enough and should have left salvage completely in the hands of experts.

During the storm, the ship had grounded on the bar amidships, and it is certain this bad position was related to her loss. Too much cargo had apparently been removed from her center, leaving a disturbed balance with much extra weight at either end. Hard aground, with the set undermining her bow and stern, she sagged. The constant pounding on the bar during the storm had snapped her in two at this weakened point. Had the lighters been able to work undisturbed by bad weather during the preceding days, perhaps the imbalance would have been avoided or corrected.

Captain Lewis had incorrectly gauged the danger of his predicament. He had been warned several times by local seamen of the severity of the coming storm; several times he had refused the lifeline recommended by the crew of the Life Saving Service. He had depended entirely and inflexibly on his own experience and not enough on the opinion of local authorities.

Long Island juts into the ocean with no other landmass to break the force of a raging sea. At the eastern end of the Island, because of this exposure and the angle of the shore to the incoming surf, the Atlantic is unpredictable, extremely rough in any storm, and dangerous. On board the ship there was total lack of provision for any emergency. Quite possibly there had never been a situation of a vessel stranded so near shore and so near a Life Saving Station. This does not explain the lack of life preservers or the lack of preparation should something go wrong. With sufficient life preservers more of the men, especially the Shinnecocks who were very strong swimmers, might have made shore. The loss of life had been accidental but needless.

Again, the Life Saving Service report reads as follows on the issue of blame:

The undue reliance of the persons in charge of the ship upon her power to withstand the force of the seas which broke her spine, and which led them, in the face of warnings of a storm of more than ordinary violence, to refuse to maintain connection with the shore, was undoubtedly the cause of the loss of life which followed. A line drawn between the vessel and the beach would have enabled the Life Saving crews to have effected a rescue at any time prior to the breaking of the hull, which forced the hapless wreckers and mariners to mount to the rigging. It is evident that from that moment no earthly power could save them.
Part of a report from Lieutenant Charles F. Shoemaker of the Revenue Cutter Service to Captain H. H. Merryman, head of the New York division, follows. Captain Merryman handled investigations of charges made against actions of the Life Saving Service in this area.
I may be pardoned for venturing to comment on what appears to me one of the causes of this sad catastrophe, as the same may seem useless, if not unkind, now that the chief actors are beyond answering for themselves; but while recognizing the fact that the officer of the Coast Wrecking Company in charge of the ship, Captain Lewis, who was drowned, was honestly certain in his own mind that she would go off at high water and that he could take her to sea at that time, prudence would seem to have dictated to him the necessity of running a line from ship to shore as was suggested to him by the crew of Station No. 10, so that in the event of an adverse gale communication could be established and assistance rendered. This was declined, and following the declination came the apprehended gale, and the penalty in the loss of twenty-eight lives "his own among them" was paid. I would not be understood to attach any positive blame to any one, but that there was lack of judgment in disregarding the suggestion above referred to considering the state of weather and the indications that presaged an approaching storm all that day, it seems to me there cannot be two opinions.
Lewis, in his bluster and overconfidence, had made a catastrophic error; despite his extensive experience, he had been wrong. Certainly, by today's standards, there is no doubt Lewis had been negligent. However, if the storm had held off only a few hours more, the ship would: have been safely off the bar, and on her way to New York with all hands on board alive and well. Lewis would have succeeded at his task: he would have been praised for a job well done. Lewis had overestimated both his own judgment and the strength of the ship; he had badly underestimated the severity of the storm.

On the Reservation, the Circassian widows survived the winter. The contributions had helped, but still the women faced both the loneliness and struggle of raising and supporting their fatherless families alone.

The tribe had been sadly depleted, but the loss of the Circassian men was not, as some have said, the end of the Shinnecock tribe. There were twenty-five Indian children from these families alone left to carry on.

Even the loss of the whaler Amethyst in 1887 did not mean the end of the tribe. Two of lames R. Lee's brothers were on the Amethyst, as was Moses Walker, a Montauk and close relative of the two Walkers drowned in 1876. Last seen in the Arctic Sea in June in 1887 the Amethyst met an uncertain fate. When discovered later in the year, she had split in two, with no sign of her thirty-eight man crew.

The Shinnecock men lost on the Circassian had, without doubt, met their death with bravery. The actions of the rescuers, fighting on to save the helpless men despite all odds, were praiseworthy and heroic. If there were heroes, the real heroes were the widows, sisters, children. parents, and other relatives who overcame their personal tragedy, went on with the business of living, and survived. Because of them, the tribe still exists.

Though in Indian characteristics somewhat changed by intermarriage through the years, these are the direct descendants of the great Shinnecock men and women of earlier days. They are still the Shinnecock people with roots dating back over many generations and centuries. If time and tragedy have thinned the ancient bloodlines, still the spirit "the special mixture of pride and human integrity" has kept regenerating and resurging strong and sure.