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

The Days to Follow
All over the nation bells had rung in a new year, a new beginning. For some this Monday morning, the sad business of 1876 had not ended. The first three bodies found were those of one young seaman and two Indians. When news of the identification reached the Reservation, almost all the Shinnecock not already there hurried to Montauk on horseback, by wagon, or on foot to continue the search and bring home their dead.

After the first bodies had been discovered the previous day, the search intensified. Captain Huntting was impatient to explore the wreck itself. On Monday morning the ocean, for the first time since the disaster, proved relatively calm, and Huntting and a crew of men rowed out to the ship. They could see down to the shrouds and rigging but no bodies were evident either on or near the wreck. The results of their expedition, plus the finding of the bodies four miles west of Montauk Point, led to conjecture that few men, if any, had lashed themselves to the rigging.

Before nightfall, eleven more bodies were recovered: three more Shinnecock, two of the apprentices, the cook, the sailmaker, two more seamen, and Captains Williams and Lewis, Both the British Consul and the Coast Wrecking Company were immediately notified. On the midnight patrol a Georgica crewman found a corpse about a half mile east of the station house, The next day a farmer's wagon brought still one more body to the Reservation. The body was that of David Bunn.

On Thursday, agents of the wrecking company identified and claimed the bodies of John Lewis and Patrick Donohue for burial at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. In the Bridgehampton wheelwright shop, frozen bodies lined a wall. Henry Morle assisted in identifying the original crew. By request of the British Consul, all British seamen. unless otherwise claimed, were to be buried locally.

James Thurston was taken to Southampton for burial by the Presbyterian Church of which he was a member. The next day, Sunday, January 7, eleven seamen were buried in East Hampton in the northeast part of the old South End Cemetery. Ironically. because of a severe storm on that day, a special funeral sermon prepared for the event was postponed.

Tuesday, January 9, was the day scheduled for the burial of the Shinnecock. Only six bodies had been found, leaving four more bodies, those of John Walker, William Cuffee, Russell Bunn, and Oliver Kellis yet to be recovered.

Services, led by Reverend Shiland and Reverend Hallock of Southampton, were held in the little Presbyterian Church on the Reservation. There was a large turnout of the Shinnecock, relatives and friends, and sympathetic townspeople from the neighboring communities, Widows, sisters, and other Shinnecock women filled the front pews.

Generation by generation the Indians had slowly taken for their own the new ways of the Anglo culture that surrounded them. Still, in their personal moments and deepest grief, the old traditions, like echoes from a past and sacred time, comforted them most. A cadence of moaning by the Shinnecock women was heard throughout the church.

An old Methodist hymn was sung, without musical accompaniment. its rhythm measured only by a beating of time by the singers and swaying of their bodies. When the hymn ended, a contagion of grief again swept the congregation. Reverand Shiland presented the text from the book of Job, starting with "Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble."

After the brief services the simple comes, which had been left outside the church, were opened for final viewing. Again, the women were overcome with grief and even men wept. The lids were replaced and the six coffms were loaded onto an ordinary farm wagon for the short trip to the Reservation cemetery. The procession, including the keeper and crew of the Southampton Life Saving Station, entered the small cemetery at the end of the Neck.

In the cemetery a common grave in the shape of a semi-circle open to the west had been dug out of the solidly frozen earth. In the roots of the native culture had been the belief that the spirits of the dead would go westward, far beyond the setting sun, to where they would find true and lasting happiness.

When the coffins were lowered in place according to the ancient tradition, the Indian mourners were again overcome by such sorrow that the others attending, not being able to bear the sight of such grief, quietly left.

For several days a steam tug of the Coast Wrecking Company had been at the wreck. Divers had sought gear, anchors, tackle, pumps - whatever they found that was salvageable. Some of the company's lost equipment had already been recovered. The search for bodies continued. Eight more had yet to be found - those of the four Shinnecock, one apprentice and one seaman, and two wreckers; within the next few days all would be recovered. Later, the Shinnecock would be buried on the Reservation near the others, the British seamen would be interred in East Hampton, and the wreckers' bodies would be taken to New York. For the dead, the tragedy had ended.

Loss of the ten Shinnecock men was a demoralizing blow to their people. There were several young men away on whaling voyages, and it would be a minimum of two years before their return. The struggle against poverty had always been hard; in this severe winter, even survival would be difficult. The tribe, now numbering about 175 people on the Reservation would find the loss of so many breadwinners extremely hard to bear. In any independent community, small and already poor, such a loss was a disaster.

In the 1800's the owner of a ship was not liable for loss of life upon his vessel, and wreckers engaged in their profession totally at their own risk. There would be no lawsuits, no settlements, nothing in the way of monetary compensation.

Knowing this, the villagers of Southampton had already taken up a collection to assist in burial of the dead. There were prayers for the distressed families and appeals for help for the Shinnecock people from the pulpits of local churches and in the Sunday Schools by the children. A committee organized by the Presbyterian Church in Southampton began a drive for money, clothing, and provisions to see the stricken families through the winter. Articles were collected at Hildreth's store on Main Street and then distributed.

In Bridgehampton, Greenport, and other communities other drives were organized to assist the Shinnecock. In Sag Harbor citizens met to discuss how they could best meet the needs of their suffering neighbors. Sea captains spoke from personal experience about the honor of the men lost. Members of the Montauk tribe, related to many in the Shinnecock tribe through marriage, appealed for assistance on behalf of their kinsmen.

Appeals also were published in various city papers, some of which had covered the story since the original grounding. All those contributions were to be collected by a Mr. B. L. Harsell of New York, a summer resident of Southampton and friend of the Shinnecock.

Because of the growing resort trade, many of the Shinnecock were personally known to many residents of Long Island and New York. John Walker, one of the tribe's Trustees, was especially popular both for his catered clambakes and for his successful excursion parties for sportsmen. Many Shinnecock women worked as maids and cooks in the homes of the summer residents. Some of the men also were farm hands, gardeners, or house servants. Thus, the Shinnecock were generally considered to be an industrious, hardworking Christian people, whether working locally on land or away at sea. Because of this reputation and out of sympathy for the families of the lost mariners, contributions were received from as far away as Stamford, Connecticut and Boston, Massachusetts.

Contributions received by Mr. Harsell in New York included several from the Roosevelt family, and one in particular from the household of Theodore Roosevelt. For several years, Mrs, Mary Rebecca Kellis had worked as a servant for the well-known family. "Aunt Becky" died in 1936 at nearly one hundred years of age. Frank Bunn, one of the men lost on the Circassian, was her brother. Though appreciated and helpful, none of the contributions were very large. For the Shinnecock, times ahead would still be difficult.