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The sea was a bountiful resource that fed life but it was also treacherous and could turn on the brave souls that sailed upon her waves and take it as well. Numerous vessels have fallen victim to storms and the dangers that lay just beneath the surface of the cold grey briny waters of the Atlantic Ocean off of the coast of Long Island.


The steamship Circassian at Sea, 1856
© The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
One such ship that met a disastrous end off our coast was The Circassian. This tragedy had far reaching implications that effected not only the sailors and owners of the vessel, but also the Indigenous Shinnecock people of Southampton.
 
Setting sail on November 6, 1876, The Circassian was an iron-hulled vessel sailing from its home port of Liverpool for New York laden with an industrial cargo which included bricks, chemicals such as soda ash, 471 bales of old rags and 281 bags of hide pieces.
She had already had an eventful life, being built in 1856 as a steamer but the engine had been stripped out and she was now used full sail. Over the years she had been a passenger and cargo ship working the Irish Sea, then a blockade-runner during the American Civil War, then captured and used as a Union troop ship and by this time was owned by DeWolfe and Co. of Liverpool as a cargo workhorse.
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1862 Harper's Weekly engraving of Captured Blockade Runners
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Bridgehampton- Life Saving Station and crew preparing life lines, c. 1900
Onboard there was a crew of 35 plus one stowaway named John McDermott. The weather was heavy-going and there were numerous storms during the voyage. At one point the ship needed to rescue the stranded crew of a smaller vessel called the Heath Park.
Continuing towards New York, on December 11, 1876 the ship ran aground off the treacherous Long Island shore. A rescue was launched by the local Life Saving Service, especially from the Mecox Station, and eventually all aboard the Circassian were delivered back to land safely.
However, insurance companies began to make plans to salvage the cargo and release the ship by using a wrecking crew if necessary. The Circassian’s captain insisted that his men would assist with salvage operations but not all were keen after what they had gone through and over half left for New York. He was left with fourteen crew plus the stowaway.
 
The remaining Circassian crew and the wrecking crew reached out to the local Shinnecock Native American community for assistance as they had a reputation for volunteering in similar situations in the past. By December 24th a third of the cargo had been removed but on the 29th a greater storm rolled in. All the men helping with salvage were ordered to stay on board; it is rumored at gunpoint.

Harper's Weekly Engraving of Circassian Wreck, 1876
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James Franklin Bunn, 1837-1876. He was lost in the Circassian disaster along with David W. Bunn, Russel Bunn, William Cuffee, George Cuffee, Warren Cuffee, Oliver Kellis, Robert Lee, John Walker and Lewis Walker. image scanned (and colorized) from Beverly Jensen's Shinnecock Indian Nation Book 2015
The force of the storm created a breach in the hull and the ship began to take on water. The crew sent up a distress signal and the Life Saving Service from Mecox Station again responded. It was the worst storm in living memory and the rescuers could not get near the ship. The Circassian began to break up and disintegrated around 4.30am on December 30th.
 
There were only four survivors: three from the Circassian’s original crew and one of the wrecking crew. Twenty-eight had perished including all ten Shinnecock volunteers. It is still remembered as a great tragedy of the Long Island coast. The loss of the ten men was a horrific blow to the closely knit Shinnecock Nation, leaving nine widows and twenty-five fatherless children in the small community. 
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