Journals Detail Four NIANTIC Voyages

An oil painting of a sailing vessel/\.
An oil painting of NIANTIC in port at Ningpo, China.

NPS SAFR 22386

This is an excerpt of Mr. Brogden's article. To read the complete, fascinating story please click here.

By Dan Brogden, Archives Specialist

The Park's historic document department has recently catalogued and made available for study four journals written between 1835 and 1840, by George S. Payne, a remarkably talented diarist who sailed on the first four voyages of the Niantic. Both the Niantic and George Payne came to extremely interesting and important endings in the same eventful year of 1849, but on opposite sides of the continent. Niantic ended her days as the most famous of the Gold Rush ships that were converted into buildings in downtown San Francisco, and George Payne ended up the victim of a brutal murder that touched off an even more brutal war in Florida.

In 1849, deep in the swamps of south Florida, a band of Seminole Indians attacked a trading post, killing two men in a blaze of gunfire. Store manager, army veteran and ex-Niantic journalist Payne was shot in the back while eating his supper. This "Massacre at Payne's Creek," as it became known, ignited a series of escalating tensions between the Natives and the white settlers of Florida that eventually became the Third Seminole War.

In 1835, fourteen years before Payne's tragic date with destiny, the then 18-year-old from Connecticut signed up to sail on the maiden voyage of the Niantic. He also kept a journal "for the entertainment of his land loving friends." The Niantic, unbeknownst to any of her crew, was destined to become one of the most famous ships of the Gold Rush fleet. Rediscoveries of the buried wreck in downtown San Francisco in 1872, 1907, and again in 1978, have ensured that she has become one of the best known of the ships that were hauled ashore and converted to "other uses" in the frenzied growth of the city's waterfront in 1849 and 1850.

The four Niantic journals of George S. Payne narrate each of the journeys he took onboard the ship while it was engaged in the China Trade. At first he describes himself as a novice, suffering from seasickness and describing the rigging as "a vast wilderness of ropes, the uses of which I have yet to learn" but he quickly grows into a confident sailor, gaining knowledge and responsibilities rapidly. By the third voyage, Payne was promoted to Second Mate in charge of the Starboard watch.

In addition to Payne's personal story, the journals also describe in great detail the daily operations of a square-rigged ship in the 19th century, with the crew clambering up the masts to reef sails and splice lines. They also describe, in a particularly intense episode, the murder of the captain's steward by the ship's cook, the actions and dress of the "Heathen Chinese" as Payne calls them, and the threats of Malaysian pirates. Payne makes a diary entry about twice a week through the four voyages, and his writing style and eye for details is such that the reader can really feel the voyages as if onboard.

An old map of downtown SF.
A section of a map showing beached Gold Rush vessels. NIANTIC is at the intersection of Clay and Sansome Streets. The wiggly line indicates the original water’s edge of Yerba Buena Cove.

NPS SAFR T.41.412N

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Last updated: April 23, 2021

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