The Narrative of a Shipwreck, by Sarah Allen, appeared as a pamphlet in two successive Boston editions (1816, 1817). New England readers at the time indeed must have valued this story told, ostensibly, in a female voice, set along the exotic and contentious frontier, and portraying the hardships of a shipwreck along the remote Florida coast, as well as a satisfying and miraculously happy ending.
Like other works of the day, the Narrative may have been an attempt to capitalize upon the patriotism and interest surrounding the War of 1812. Trips resembling Sarah Allen’s journey aboard the ship Mary to join her husband in Louisiana were likely real, as soldiers who served with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans were paid with land and may have sent for their wives to join them. Yet the veracity of the Narrative remains in dispute. Allen played upon the terror associated with the savages inhabiting the frontier, the embryonic moments as the American empire began to thrive, and the role of women in the new national project of Manifest Destiny.
Taking the form of a lady’s letter, the Narrative is supposedly a description written from the woeful but rescued traveler to her sister. It is not only significant in the manner it explores the idea of the frontier and the lives of those who live there, but in the way it explores developing concepts of American geographic, cultural, and ideological identity. Many details match historical context, and the generation to which Sarah Allen belongs would have been the very first to have been born within the newly formed United States. Whether this is a contrived formula, copied from earlier examples, or an actual account, edited for effect, The Narrative of Sarah Allen remains a dry tale that could be used to justify continued American expansion, yet serves also as a mild counterbalance to other stories of the era that make the Jacksonian genocide of Southeastern American Indians seem a justifiable response to violence against white women or an inevitable evolution of the inadequate maternal habits of indigenous peoples.
Edited by Keith Lewis Simmons, University of South Florida St.Petersburg
Miskolcze, Robin. Women and Children First: Nineteenth-Century Sea Narratives and American Identity (U of Nebraska P, 2008).
Tonkovich, Nicole. “Of Compass Bearings and Reorientations in the Study of American Women Writers.” Legacy 26:2 (2009). 242-261.
Allen, Sarah. A narrative of the shipwreck and unparalleled sufferings of Mrs. Sarah Allen, (late of Boston) on her passage in May last from New York to New Orleans : being the substance of a letter from the unfortunate Mrs. Allen to her sister in Boston. (Boston: Benjamin Marston, 1816).
“New York, July 2, 1816
“You have undoubtedly suffered much anxiety about me of late—you complain that I have barely informed you of the shocking incident that attended me, on my late passage to New Orleans, without acquainting you with any of the particulars of it; and having first had your mind rendered easy with regard to my life and health, you desire now a more circumstantial detail of my unhappy adventures. I can refuse you nothing but it is a task that friendship alone could urge me to, as even the recollection of sufferings, like mine, must ever be attended with pain I cannot reflect on the miseries I have passed through, without the severest shock. You will see to what an excess of despair my sufferings had reduced me; and will not be surprised, therefore, that they had exhausted my strength, weakened my constitution, and that a situation and circumstances so forlorn as mine, should have almost impaired my reason.
I shall now relate the circumstances of my misfortunes, just as they happened, without exaggeration. Having received a letter from my husband, requesting me to join him in the Louisiana country, where he had been the winter past, I took passage in May last in the ship Mary, bound to New-Orleans. We had pleasant weather for six or seven days after our departure, but on the 12th it became squally, while the clouds wore a threatening aspect. At twelve at night it was discovered that the ship had sprung a leak, which threw the crew into the utmost consternation—the captain ordered all the heavy articles to be thrown overboard, and the pumps to be worked continually to keep the ship from sinking. But all in vain. The water increased fast, and the strength of the hands at the pumps became less and less; so that, finding that it was impossible for the ship to float long, the captain ordered her steered for Pensacola—but in this he was disappointed, for the winds, which had now almost increased to a hurricane, continued still to oppose; every endeavour that was made; so that we were left without resource, in the midst of an enraged ocean, against which we combated at unequal odds, deprived of all prospect of reaching any haven at all, expecting every moment the deep to open its waves, and swallow us up in its bosom.
As it was now found utterly impossible to save either ship or effects, the preservation even of our lives becoming every moment more difficult to us, the ship’s crew began to employ every thought and deed to that single consideration, and unanimously agreed to run the vessel aground at the Apalaches, but were not able to achieve even this desperate adventure, and continued still-the cruel sport of waves and wind, in a state between life and death, sighing over our misfortunes, certain of our destruction and yet making indefatigable efforts to extricate ourselves from the perils that surrounded us.
At 6 o’clock the succeeding evening our ship struck with great violence upon a rock!–even the little hope that we had till then preserved, now failed us—-on the instant the ship resounded with the lamentable exclamations of the mariners, who interchanged their last adieus, prepared for death; implored the mercy of their Creator, addressed their fervent prayers to Heaven, interrupted sometimes by vows, in the midst of a shocking certainty of never being in a capacity of accomplishing them.
What a spectacle, my dear sister, was here! One must have been a witness of it to form an adequate idea of our distress; and that which I am taking so much pains to trace out to you, falls infinitely short of the reality. Being the only female on board, my terror it cannot be expected was much less than that of the mariners—-I submitted to the fate that attended me, when it was beyond my power to avoid it; I resigned my life to the Being who had lent it, and preserved an astonishing degree of fortitude.
The wind drove the ship over the rocks toward the land, but the agitation of the sea would not permit us to reach it—at midnight the gale having greatly increased, our ship was once more thrown upon the rocks by the force of the waves. The moon which till this moment, had lent us a feeble light, interrupted only now and then by the intervention of the clouds, now left us suddenly in the dark, and in such circumstances, we found it impossible to reach the land. What an age of night it was! Alas! Sister, it would be vain for me to attempt to paint to your imagination a true description of my deplorable situation! While the rain fell in torrents, the waves rising every instant covered our bark, and rolled their mountains over our heads; the heavy peals of thunder roared through the air, and the quick intervals of lightning only served to open to us the horizon, and a devouring sea, ready to swallow us up, every moment, which was as quick succeeded by the most dismal darkness.
In such a situation, the ship thrown nearly upon her beam ends, and we drenched with rain and exhausted with the constant efforts we were obliged to exert against the fury of the waves, we at length perceived the morning’s dawn, only to afford us a clearer view of the dangers we had passed, and those we had yet to encounter.
As the storm had somewhat abated, we perceived the main land at about a mile’s distance—but the sentiment of joy, with which the first sight of it inspired us, was much abated upon a more distinct view of the enormous rocks which appeared to rise perpendicularly along the coast. The ship’s boat was too small to contain the whole of the crew, and the raging of the sea would have daunted the stoutest and most expert swimmers; for the waves rolled with such fury, that whoever had delivered himself over to them, must have run the risk of being launched back into the main ocean, or dashed to pieces against the rocks—indeed it appeared as if we had made this fatal land only to render it a witness of our loss.
The day was again near closing, we reflected with terror on the last night, and trembled beforehand at that which was to come. We had a wretched boat, indeed, but in no sort of condition to weather even the short passage that appealed to lie between us and the land. The situation in which the ship lay upon her beam ends rendered it difficult to get at the inside of her, we remained, consequently, all this while, without meat or drink to recruit our strength or support our spirits; and without sleep, also, to forget our miseries, for the shortest moment. Fate seemed to have emptied its quiver of the sharpest arrows against us, and never could death appear with more horrid aspect to wretches before.
As night approached, the horizon was again obscured by black and angry-looking clouds, and the wind which during the whole day had been moderate, by nine in the evening blew a tremendous gale—the sea, agitated by the wind, dashed against the stranded ship in every direction, and indeed with so much force, that at midnight, contrary to all expectation we found her once more afloat, and that having nearly righted, she was driving toward the main land—it was so very dark that only when assisted by the light of the sharp flashes of lightning, we could not perceive an object the shortest distance from us—our ship was driven once-more stern foremost upon the rocks, while one of a perpendicular descent and of a great height before us, prevented our discovering during the night that these rocks communicated with the main land; when the discovery was made by day-light, how is it possible to describe the transport of all on board? It was expressed by shrieks, by most delicious tears, and mutual embraces, felicitating one another.
Having with some difficulty reached the summit of the huge rock before us, our first emotion was upon our bended knees to offer up our thanksgivings to Heaven, for having still preserved us alive even in such a deplorable situation, to raise up our suppliant hands, in petition to Providence to complete its miracle, by affording us some unforeseen means of reaching some hospitable dwelling. There never was sure, a more fervent prayer.
The joy to find ourselves, at length, secure from those dangers which had so long kept us in the most cruel alarms, caused us to forget, for a moment, that we had only escaped one kind of death, probably to endure another more terrible and painful. As the rain continued to fail in torrents, attended with a tremendous wind, frightful peals of thunder and the sharpest lightning that I ever before witnessed, it was thought by all the most prudent step to erect a tent upon the spit where we were, as a shelter until the storm should abate when the ship’s crew calculated that they should be enabled to obtain provision, fire-works, and many other articles from the ship which we stood greatly in need of. —But, alas, how sadly were we disappointed—during the night the storm rather increased than abated, and the wind and sea which had combined to compel us to quit the wreck, now apparently redoubled their efforts to destroy her—we were apprized of our fate by the noise of her breaking up, which the morning’s dawn confirmed, as there was not a vestige of ship or cargo anywhere to be discovered.
Thus, my dear sister, were we once more plunged into a state of unutterable despair!—nineteen souls of us on a wild and probably an uninhabited coast, without food or a prospect of obtaining any to satisfy the cravings of nature, and without the means to obtain a fire, by which to dry our cloaths and warm our limbs, now quite benumbed with cold and wet. This last distress being now our most pressing evil, made the crew apply their whole thoughts and diligence to remedy it. They tried the method said to be used by the savages, of kindling a fire, by rubbing two sticks quick and hard against each other; but, whether through awkwardness, or some other impediment, the experiment, failed them, and they gave over all further projects of this kind. The oysters that we happily found on the coast furnished us with a truly delicious repast; the total privation of food we had sustained for so long a period, gave them a peculiar relish.
As the storm had now somewhat abated we began to think more seriously of our deplorable situation. We had esteemed ourselves happy when we looked back upon our miraculous escape: but ceased to be so when we looked forward to our future safety. We were cast upon a desert coast—we perceived no beaten path to conduct us to any inhabited spot: we had great forests to pass through where we must run the hazard of losing our way every step. Wild beasts were to be apprehended, and the meeting of savages, perhaps, not less dangerous than they.
As there prevailed among the ship’s crew a difference of opinion, with regard to what course it would be most advisable to pursue, they now divided into two separate parties, the sailors (thirteen in number) with the second mate, composed one, and the supercargo, captain, mate and myself the other. The separation being decided upon, and the object of each party being to reach St. Marks, that headed by the second mate chose to pursue a route bordering upon the sea, while the captain, with those attached to his party, preferred a more inland course. This indeed proved an unfortunate circumstance, for us, for had we acquiesced in the opinion of the sailors, and accompanied them, our sufferings would have been much less, as they reached their place of destination three days before us.
Behold us now, dear sister, about to penetrate a wild and pathless forest, without resource, without food, and without arms to procure subsistence, and without an article of cloathing except what we wore en our backs! What a shocking situation! What hope, what possibility, even was left us now! And what could avail the noblest fortitude in such circumstances of despair?
It was now the 16th of May, when at about 10 o’clock in the morning we set forward—so little progress did our company make in penetrating a thick forest, that by the setting of the sun, it was thought that we had not travelled more than eight or nine miles—the extreme weariness we sunk under, and the fear of travelling in the night, made my miserable companions early seek a place of safety for the night—they made choice of a piece of rising ground, where several large trees, whose branches now furnished with leaves, sheltered us from the wind and dews. Here we hoped to have passed the night in peace, as our fatigue had inclined our eyes to sleep, and our limbs to rest, which, indeed, we much wanted; but no sooner had we reposed ourselves, than we were awakened with such dreadful howlings, as struck our hearts with terror and dismay; they seemed to answer each other, and encompass us on all sides. ‘Tis, impossible to conceive the horror with which we were seized, expecting every moment to become a prey to these ferocious animals, that seemed to approach us nearer and nearer, as the din grew—louder at every howl. Happily, as the morning approached, the howlings which had so much terrified us, grew less and less, and seemed every moment to retire to a greater distance as day light appeared. The welcome morn at length arrived, and by driving the beasts back to their dens, relieved our alarms, which had hitherto suspended the cruel sensations of hunger; but, as soon as our fears were abated these began to operate to a severe degree.
We early set out in hopes of meeting with some vegetable or other, fit to eat, and tried every plant in the desert—but in vain—they were either dry heath or leafless brambles whose stems were only a hard wood, which we could scarcely set our teeth in and which we could not prevail on ourselves to swallow the juice of, after we had chewed them.
Every experiment we made failed equally of success, forced tears from our eyes, and sunk us to the utmost depth of despair. Toward evening we arrested our course, oppressed with the agonies of grief, and without the least ability to proceed one step further: we laid ourselves down on the ground, doubtful whether we should ever be able to raise our limbs from it, again. O! my dear sister, it is impossible for you to conceive what were my sensations at this moment! The horrid din of the wild beasts, with which we had been used to the preceding nights, began now to strike our ears at a distance! However, none of them approached us so near as to injure us, and before the morning’s dawn we fell into a slumber, and so received relief from our very weakness.
We early arose to pursue our uncertain journey, and directed our steps towards the forest, in further quest of Providence: its thickness and gloom made me tremble; the trees stood so close together, that there were but few opens left for us to pass through. We journeyed, for two days, with great difficulty and fatigue, sometimes labouring through strong high bulrushes, at other times through brambles, thorns, and various kinds of prickly plants, that tore our legs, and cut our feet in such a manner as occasioned great loss of blood, to weaken us still further.
This distress, though less miserable than hunger, retarded us considerably, and the stings of the musketoes, of sandflies, and an armed host of other winged insects, peculiar to that climate, had disfigured us so much, that it was difficult for either of us to distinguish a feature in the other; our faces, our hands, and legs being so swelled, with the venom of their bite.
In order to rid ourselves of such troublesome enemies, it was proposed by my unhappy companions, that we should again retire from the trees that harboured them, and travel along the sea-side, as we might there more probably meet with something that might serve to appease our hunger. We accordingly, at the first opening that pointed towards the right, directed our course that way, and happily reached the shore. We were not quite disappointed in our expectation; for, when the weather was fair and the tide out, we met with some small flounders, which the mate hooked up out of the water, with a sort of harpoon which he made of a branch of a tree, crooked and pointed at the end. But of such food we never could procure sufficient, at any one time, for a meal; and but seldom had the good fortune to meet with them. It was, however, some little relief to us, and for which we most gratefully returned our thanks to Providence.
I cannot, my dear sister, give you, day by day, an account of our difficult and fatiguing journey, the end of which seemed to be still farther off, the, longer we travelled. The sea-reeds, which spread all along the coast, gave us as much labour to pass through, as the thorns and brambles of the forest.
The wild beasts kept us in terror, every night; to which was added the horror of our very meals, as we never eat till we had finished our journey for the day. One evening, when we came to our usual halt, I felt myself so extremely feeble, that I had not strength to stand on my feet—my suffering companions, I could perceive, all viewed me with an eye of pity—the captain, mate, &c. gave me all the assistance that their miserable situation would enable them to do, always imparting to me a great portion of such food as they were enabled to obtain. On our next day’s journey we met with a new sort of provision, that was extremely palatable and nourishing to us—it was a wild Turkey, which the mate was so fortunate as to kill with a stone—it was very large, and supplied us with food for two days.
The succeeding day our journey was interrupted by a river that ran across our path into the sea. It was not broad, but its current was extremely rapid. The captain went in to sound it, to see if it possibly could be forded, but found the passage impracticable; the depth of water, prevented his wading through it, and had he or any one attempted to swim over, the violence of the stream, which, no strength could stem, would have hurried him along with it into the ocean. There was then no other measure to take then to travel along by the side of the river, towards its source, and seek where we might find the current more gentle, or some shallow that might render the fording of it practicable.
We then proceeded in this direction, and continued it for two entire days, without perceiving any place that afforded us the least probability of encompassing our end, for the further we went the more dangerous the attempt still appeared to be. Our inquietude and despondency increased with our difficulties, and we even began to despair of ever being able to get out of this desert.
We had not the good fortune to meet with any manner of aliment, during these two days progress, end we were consequently obliged to feed upon the leaves and roots of trees! Terrified at the past, distressed with the present, diffident of the future, and impatient at the obstinate continuance of our misfortunes, we passed the dismal hours in faint hopes, heavy sighs, and then closing our reflections in absolute despair. The continual view of a river always rapid, added to the weariness of our minds; the impossibility of passing it, with the necessity, however, of still-marching forward, quite out of our purposed course, without the least prospect of meeting with a fordable passage, now finally damped all the spirit and, courage we had yet been able to preserve through all our unexampled miseries.
Toward the latter end of the second day, while we were tracing the source of this river, the mate happened to turn up a tortoise, of an uncommon size. This precious gift of Providence suspended the murmurs which used to escape us every minute before, and changed them into acclamations of gratitude—and what added to our good fortune, We about sun-set succeeded in crossing the river. Upon the banks of the river we passed the night, with the usual precautions; and, the next morning, being a little recruited by food end sleep, we set forward for St. Mark, in the Appalachian mountains, bearing our course eastward, as much as we could, and trembling every step of the way, for fear of mistaking our road.
A wood that we met with in our course, we found it almost impracticable to pass through, on account of the strong reeds and briars it was choaked up with, so that our feet and legs suffered severely from the thorns and brambles, while our hands and faces were exposed to the musketoes, sandflies, and wasps as before, whose poisonous bites and stings soon swelled our bodies to an enormous size! We struggled, for many days, through all these difficulties which were augmented still by repeated sufferings, both of mind and body. No longer did fond hope sustain our drooping spirits, with expectations flattering, though vain; all distinction of our limbs and features was lost, and we resembled moving tuns, rather than human creatures. We marched heavily along, hardly able to set one foot before the other; and when we sat down to rest, it required our utmost efforts to raise ourselves from the ground again. In time, we were now sunk to the lowest abyss of misery and despair.
I had until now been enabled to display an equal degree of fortitude, and to keep pace with my companions in misery, but the weight of our misfortunes became, at last, too heavy for my strength, or rather weakness to support.
One morning, not being able to stir one step farther, totally debilitated, and almost deprived of sight by the blisters which the venom of the insects had raised about my eyes, I laid myself down on the shore, which we then had reached, about an hundred yards from the sea; and, after reposing my limbs for an hour, beneath a spreading tree, I attempted to rise again, with a purpose of continuing our march; but in vain. I felt as if the earth I pressed had been heaped upon me.
“It is over with me now, (said I, to my companions) hear must I remain forever; my grave encompasses me; this spot is, at length, the final end of my journey, of my misfortunes and my life. Avail yourselves of what powers you have yet remaining, to hasten forward to some inhabited part of the country, and do not idly spend them in waiting longer here with me; you see that fate has opposed my farther progress, and that my dissolution is beginning, from this moment; the ability which still remains to you shows that it is more favourably inclined towards you: take then the advantage of its kindness, and reflect sometimes with tenderness on the unfortunate associate of your miseries—should any of you survive to reach once more your native homes, do acquaint my husband and friends of my wretched fate!”
My unhappy companions could only answer me with tears and moans; their sensibility affected me; it is a consolation to the unhappy to see themselves the objects of compassion. The captain took my hands between his, and pressed them with the utmost tenderness, while I continued to persuade him to our separation, urging the absolute necessity of it, in vain. “No, my dear friend (said he) I will not abandon you; exert your spirits, and you strength may return again—we will now go in search on the borders of the sea, for some fresh nourishment, which may possibly recruit your strength once more.” —With saying this my companions left me, but in a short time again returned with a small tortoise, of which the first use I made was to wash my stings and blisters in its warm blood, as I imagined it allayed the heat and swelling—having made a refreshing meal of the flesh, we composed ourselves to rest, for some time, but my weakness was not relieved; and I found myself growing so much worse, after I awoke, that I had reason to conclude I had not many hours to survive.
While thus meditating on my wretched condition, we were all suddenly aroused by the accents of a human voice—and soon after discovered two Indians, armed with muskets, who did not appear to have yet perceived us. This sudden appearance reviving our courage, gave us strength to rise and advance towards them with all the dispatch we were able.
As soon as they saw us they stopped, as if their feet had been nailed to the ground. They looked stedfastly at us, motionless with surprise and, horror. Besides the astonishment that must naturally have been excited in them at the unexpected meeting with four strangers in a desert, our appearance alone must have been sufficient to shock the most intrepid. Our clothes hanging in rags, our eyes concealed by the bloated prominence of our lived cheeks, the monstrous bulk to which all our limbs were swelled, our hair flowing in disorder down our shoulders, must, altogether, have given us a frightful appearance. However, as we advanced, a thousand agreeable sensations were displayed in our countenances: some shed tears, and others laughed for joy. Though these peaceable signs were calculated, in some degree, to remove the fears of the Indians, they did not yet manifest the least inclination to approach us, and certainly the disgust which our whole figure must have produced, sufficiently justified their coldness. The captain now advanced toward them, holding out his band in a supplicating altitude, which they seized and gave it a hearty shake, which is the mode of salutation usual among these savages.
They then began to manifest some marks of compassion. One of them, who could speak English, begged of the captain to inform them from whence we came, and what accident had conducted us to that spot. As he seemed to be deeply affected with our narrative, he was asked if he could furnish us with any provisions. He replied in the affirmative, and taking up his musket, without saying a word went away with his companion.
Notwithstanding the distress in which we were for food, hunger was not, at least with me, the most pressing want. The good fire, which by our request the Indians had made, added much to my relief, having passed so many days of suffering from damp chills.
Three hours had elapsed since the departure of the Indians, and my afflicted companions began to lose all hope of seeing them again, when we perceived them turning a projecting point of land, and rowing towards us in a canoe of bark. They soon came on shore, bringing a large piece of smoaked venison, and a bladder filled with fish oil. They boiled the meat in an iron pot, and when it was dressed they took care to distribute it among us in every small quantity, with a little oil, to prevent, the dangerous consequences which might have resulted from our voracity in the debilitated stale to which our stomachs were reduced.
This light repast being over, they offered to conduct us to their habitations, which they represented as situated upon an island but a short distance—we accordingly all embarked, and soon reached the island; where upon landing we were received by three Indians and a dozen women or children, and by whom we were conducted to their huts or wigwams, four in number. We were treated by these good people with the kindest hospitality: they made us swallow a kind of broth, but would not permit us, notwithstanding our intreaties, to eat meat, or to take any other too substantial nourishment.
Upon finding ourselves at length thus safe among these savages, after enduring so much, caused sensations which it is impossible for me to express.–The hut appeared to us to be the abode of bliss. The savages, by the description which we gave them, appeared to be well acquainted with the place where our ship was wrecked, observing that had we proceeded in a proper course from thence, we might have reached St. Marks in six days, whereas we had been fifteen days travelling, and then some distance from our place of destination.
The savages offered to conduct us to St. Marks for a small compensation, which they represented about fifty miles distant water, which offer we gladly accepted of. —Our good fortune had delivered us into the hands of a generous and benevolent people, whose kindness we experienced in every instance. What would have been our condition if we had met with persona of less sensibility, those who more deserting of the name of savages, might have unfeelingly stripped us and left us to perish. But by providence it appeared to be ordained, that there should now be an end to our sufferings; they had commenced in a shocking manner, the 12th of May, and continued till the 31st. What a centery [century?] did it appear to us! Through how many, miseries had we passed, during that unhappy interval! —What persons in the world were ever so wretched for the time?
Could it therefore, my dear sister, be extraordinary that my constitutions should be broken; the surprize must certainly be much greater that I was able to support myself at all under such severe trials, and that I should ever have recovered my mind and health again. My situation indeed was critical for several days, but rest and proper nourishment, taken in small portions, at a time, restored me by degrees, and repaired those ails which hunger and unwholesome diet had afflicted me with.
After we had recovered sufficient strength, we embarked with the Indians for St. Marks, where we safely arrived after a pleasant passage of 12 hours. Here we had the pleasure to meet with the remainder of the ship’s crew (who arrived three days before us) except two, one of whom in the course of their journey, died in consequence of a bite received from a poisonous reptile, and the other was drowned in attempting to cross a river. In a few days after our arrival we were so fortunate as to obtain a passage to Saint Augustine and from thence to New York where I arrived on the 25th June.
Thus, dear sister, have I, as you requested, furnished you with some of the particulars of my unparalleled sufferings—I doubt not but that the sad relation will affect you much, and cause you to tremble at the very thoughts of my wretched fate. But, as it was the will of Him, whose pleasure it finally was to rescue me from my perilous situation, that I should thus suffer, I ought not to murmur. If you please, oblige my friends in Boston with the perusal of this letter, and should they think the whole or any part of it worth publishing, they have the consent of your