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

The Search
A skeleton of the wreck, like a ghost on the horizon, was all that was visible of the once staunch ship. Only a small part foreward stood above the white of the breakers, the rest of the three broken parts of hull completely submerged. Of the masts, the foremast alone remained, leaning over and washed by the surfs spray, encrusted with ice. The beach to the east of the wreck was strewn for miles with debris and wreckage.

The Mecox crew, who had been on duty all during the long and heartrending night, were in the station house resting. The equipment had been cleared off the beach and was once again stored. For their greater comfort, the four recuperating survivors had been moved from the cramped station house to the warmth of a nearby farmhouse. All survivors were doing well.

Meanwhile, at the office of the Coast Wrecking Company in New York, the news was also taken hard. Captain Merritt and those in charge were in shock, stricken with grief for their lost men, and helplessly at a loss for details. Friends, family, and newspapermen arrived seeking more information. All Merritt could relate was that the ship and a large number of men had been lost. He added that he was familiar with the condition of the iron ship, fully confident of the capabilities of his men, and the disaster was the last thing he would have expected. If he had been on the ship the day before, he would have felt as secure and safe as in the lobby of any of the city's grand hotels. If the storm had held off another few hours, he was sure the ship would have been freed. In addition to this loss, Merritt faced more distress: the company tug and schooners which had left Bridgehampton the previous day had disappeared.

Merritt ordered another tug to the scene to evaluate the damage. Additional company agents left by rail to assist in whatever way they could.

All afternoon both on the beach at Bridgehampton and also further to the east the thankless search continued. Life Saving crews all down the line kept vigil. Indian women, children, and old men endlessly walked the miles of beaches looking for their lost. The numerous groups of townspeople, who had gathered to help patrol for bodies, discussed details of the disaster with their neighbors, expressed sympathy for those lost, talked of blame, or simply speculated on reasons why. A list of the lost was compiled. Twenty-eight of thirty-two men were dead.

On Sunday morning, Deeember 31, the sun again rose over the remains of the wreck. All during the night, throughout a passing storm and later by moonlight, the Mecox crew's search continued. More wreckage washed ashore east of the wreck, near Montauk, and it was assumed that any bodies would also wash ashore there. Thirty miles of beach were actively under patrol. Some patrollers felt there was no chance of finding the bodies. Either the men had been dragged to sea and carried to the east beyond Montauk Point, or if lashed to the ten-ton iron mast, they would still be tangled in the rigging. Most patrollers held the hope that, sooner or later, the bodies would be recovered near Montauk. Many friends and relatives of the Shinnecock came to Bridgehampton to assist. Other volunteers, out of sympathy for the families of the lost, also came to the beaches to do their part. Many Shinnecock were out searching for hours along shore, stopping by the Mecox Station house now and then for any new word.

Every home on the Reservation had been affected because so many of their lost men belonged to the same families and so many of the families were interrelated. The two Walkers were brothers; the three Bunns cousins. The Cuffees too were of the same family, two brothers and a cousin. Andrew Kellis had left work on the Circassian a week before to start on a whaling voyage; now another Kellis brother was out on the beaches looking for Oliver. Every house was in mourning. All three of the tribe s Trustees were dead, and all of the men lost were married with the exception of William Cuffee. In one house a woman lost a husband and a brother; in another a husband and a brother-in-law. Her daughter, with several young children, was also made a widow. In all, nine widows and twenty-five fatherless children were left behind. Long Island history has never seen any shipwreck so devastating to so many closely related families. Brothers, brothers-in-law, and cousins were all lost.

By Sunday all four survivors were in good health. Charles Campbell had been down to the Life Saving Station to see once more the scene of the wreck. Alexander Wilson, also, had been down to the beach and was preparing for his trip to New York and his long sail home to England. Henry Morle and John Rowland were busy with representatives of Snow and Burgess, the Coast Wrecking Company, and various insurance companies. Deluged by reporters from local and city newspapers, each of the four had been interviewed. New York newspapers split their front-page headlines between news of a train wreck in Ashtabula, Ohio, which had killed ninety-two people, and accounts of the Circassian disaster.

At the Coast Wrecking Company, flags flew at half-mast. The Cyclops, which had left Bridgehampton on Friday to avoid weathering the gale on a lee shore, had been forced early Saturday to make harbor in New London, Connecticut. The schooners had also wired in. Having run before the storm, they had sought shelter at Fire Island and were safe. Then, from Bridgehampton, came the sad news: the first three bodies from the wreck had been found.