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Yorker William Gibson Barely Survived San Francisco Mutiny

William Gibson came from a talented York family. His great-grandfather, Dr. David Jameson, was a colonel during Revolutionary times. Grandfather Horatio Gates Jameson was a distinguished physician and surgeon. Mother Elizabeth Jameson was said to be one of the two most beautiful women in Baltimore when the family lived there. (The other was Elizabeth (Betsy) Patterson, who married the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte.)

His other grandfather, William Gibson, and father, John, were well-known Presbyterian ministers. Brother Horatio Gates Gibson was a Civil War officer, becoming a General. Judge John Gibson, the editor of the massive 1886 History of York County, Pennsylvania was another brother. Uncle Robert Fisher was another long-time 19th century York County judge.

Still, William, naval officer and acclaimed poet, probably let the most exciting life of them all. See my recent York Sunday News column below for an episode of mutiny and mayhem from which William barely escaped alive.

York Naval Officer Led an Exiting Life

William Gibson (1825-1887) was born in Baltimore, the son of Presbyterian minister John Gibson and Elizabeth Jameson, and grandson of Dr. Horatio Gates Jameson. He moved with his family to his mother’s native York in 1836. He was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1841 and spent virtually the rest of his life in the U.S. Navy, rising to rank of Commander.

Gibson first saw duty in the Brazil Squadron, the U.S. Navy presence at Rio de Janeiro, and he later served in the Mediterranean and on the gunboat Reefer during the Mexican War. He commanded various steamers and iron-clads during the Civil War, engaging in important operations, such as those at Ft. McAllister and Charleston.

Between and after the wars, Gibson conducted nautical surveys in far-flung parts of the world, such as the Gaspar Strait in Indonesia. As commander of the schooner Fenimore Cooper in the 1850s, Gibson made surveys of the Japan Sea and of the Aleutian Islands, which facilitated the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia.

He almost wasn’t around to conduct the important 1850s surveys, due to a traumatic incident at San Francisco Bay in September 1849. Ships were being abandoned by crews in the harbor as the men answered the call of gold. Those who stayed demanded $150 a month wages, ten times the usual rate. Midshipman Gibson’s survey schooner, the Ewing, was down to a five-man crew, when they too succumbed to gold fever and mutinied. Gibson tried to stop their desertion and was thrown overboard, dragging two of his assailants with him. He struggled in the water with them, trying to draw a pistol, as they tried to drown him. He wrote a letter as soon as he was able to his aunt Catherine Jameson Fisher (wife of York Judge Robert J. Fisher) in anticipation of “incorrect or exaggerated statements” that might appear in the papers. As he describes his ordeal, it is hard to imagine that exaggeration could have been worse than reality. He related that he became exhausted and “had not strength to keep my head above water. I called for assistance and, though late at night, my call was answered. That assistance did not reach me, however, until I experienced all the sensations of drowning, and was picked up cold, pulseless and insensible.”

According to the September 18 Pacific News, he was picked up by a boat and quickly taken to shore where Dr. Bowie of the Navy, later assisted by Dr. Coit, revived him and started him on a slow road to recovery. The Baltimore Sun reported the Gibson story, quoting the Placer Times. The York Gazette published both newspaper accounts, as well as Gibson’s letter to Mrs. Fisher, in their November 20th edition.

Some Yorkers already knew of Gibson’s harrowing ordeal. The ship Andulusia, carrying “The California Company,” 20 young men from the York area, was just arriving at San Francisco. They were still on board the Andulusia in the process of unloading their supplies. One of the Yorkers, Robert C. Woodward, wrote back to his wife about the attempted drowning, and that too was printed in the Gazette.

In addition, Ann Willson Booth, niece of the Andalusia’s captain, had also travelled on the five-month-long voyage from Baltimore. She mentions the occurrence in her diary, now at the University of California at Berkeley, relating that five seaman had been captured and were awaiting trial on the naval flagship Savannah. They were expected to be hung after being tried for the attempted drowning. In the letter to his aunt, Gibson also related that they were in custody and that there was talk of lynching.

The York Gazette excerpt from the Baltimore Sun and Placer Times stated that the mutineers “Beattie, Cummerford, Hall and the brothers Black” had been captured on September 16th and were in irons awaiting trial and that they would “hardly escape the punishment ‘merited’ by their cowardly and cold blooded crime.” (Another account gives the names as John Black, Jonathan Biddy, William Hall, Peter Black, and Henry Commerford.)

Crowds of spectators reportedly lined the hills and boats plied the waters of the bay, trying to get a glimpse of the hangings aboard several navy ships. To some surprise, only two were hung—the Blacks had confessed that they instigated the plot, so the other three were resentenced to 100 lashes, hard labor and/or solitary confinement with a ball and chain, at no pay, for the rest of their enlistment. Gibson also may have asked for mercy for these three.

William Gibson resumed his career of surveying and charting in the U.S. Navy, interrupted only by naval military actions during the Civil War, till near the time of his death in October 1887 at 62 years of age. In December 1868 he had married Mary Murray Addison of New Orleans, a niece of Rear Admiral Sands [USN]. I found no record of any children.

Gibson, though, did have an avocation. He has three published books of poetry: A Vision of Faery Land, and Other Poems (1853), Poems of Many Years and Many Places (1881) and The Poems of Goethe, consisting of his Ballads and Songs, done into English Verse (1883). According to his biography in the 1886 History of York County, edited by his brother, Judge John Gibson, William “won praise from Longfellow, Bayard Taylor and London literati.” That assessment may be true. The two books of original poems were inspired by the sea and the exotic places he visited as a naval officer. I found a glowing contemporary New York Times review for the Goethe translation, done in collaboration with his wife Mary. All three books are currently available as reprints through booksellers. They have also been digitalized by Internet Archive and Google Books. William Gibson’s poetry lives on.

Click this link for a longer article on the “Mutiny on the Ewing” by Dr. Erwin G. Gudde, University of California from The JOURNAL, Coast and Geodetic Survey (from website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).