It took two months in 1785 for the ship, Faithful Steward, to near its destination of Philadelphia from Londonderry, Ireland. The excitement on board was palpable as the ship sailed towards Cape Henlopen. Philadelphia was so close.
Of the 249 passengers sailing on the ship, 100 of the passengers were women and children on their way to unite with their families who had already moved to America to start a new life. The Faithful Steward wasn’t just carrying people. The three-masted vessel also carried 400 barrels of British pennies and half-pennies. By 1785, America still had no mint and depended on European monies; money begrudgingly given for the American Revolution was still fresh in the mind.
To celebrate the end of their trip the ship’s captain organized a celebration. After months in cramped, dark quarters eating food near spoilage the party was a welcome diversion. Booze flowed freely enough that the Captain and the first mate had to be brought back to their cabins, insensibly drunk.
By 10 p.m. that September 1785 evening the wind had picked up. As the second mate checked on the storm’s progress, he realized that the ship had drifted. They were floating in just 24 feet (7.3m) of water but needed at least 35 feet (10.3m) to stay afloat. He urgently swung the ship’s wheel but it was too late. They struck one of the many banks that make Delaware’s coast so dangerous. The ship careened violently awaking many of the passengers and throwing two small children to the floor, killing them instantly.
Now awake and in disaster mode, the Captain ordered the ship’s main mast to be sawed down and thrown overboard in a desperate attempt to lighten the load. The measure only worked temporarily. Just after making their way closer to the safety of Lewes, Delaware they ran aground again. This time the sand held onto them with an unrelenting grip.
As the sun rose, passengers and crew spotted land nearby; they were less than 150 yards (137m) from shore. But the distance was insurmountable. Many of the passengers could not swim and waves were crashing forcefully onto the deck.
The crew attempted to lower longboats into the water but the sea carried them off or splintered them into pieces as soon as they hit the water. Pinned to the bank the waves used the Faithful Steward like a punching bag, insistently beating the ship’s side. A loud crack spread panic and fear through the passengers as the ship began to break apart.
The Faithful Steward rolled over tossing nearly everyone on board into the water. The captain and some crew, more experienced with the water, swam for shore. Many passengers, unable to swim, held onto anything floating as they screamed for help, screams lost in the deafening storm winds.
The storm lasted throughout the early morning. When some of the passengers made it to shore they found that America had not been the heaven they were dreaming of. Some of the more opportunistic locals had gathered on the beach to grab jewelry, clothing and other possessions that washed up…even those on the dead. It was more as if they had landed in hell.
As the sun fully rose it revealed a beach littered with bodies. Those who perished were collected and buried in common graves.
Only 68 people survived the disaster, numbers of those who died shortly after from injuries or exposure after the sinking were not kept. Of the 100 women and children aboard only seven survived.
The Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, kept a detailed genealogy of the family. He believed that his family had lost 48 family members in the Faithful Steward disaster. In his account, gathered from family members, he recorded a survivor of the wreck’s story that some male passengers had tried to hunt the captain down immediately after the storm but that the captain had already fled.
Today the beach near the site of the wreckage is called “Coin Beach” for the pennies washed up on the shore for years after it. You’ll still find people with their metal detectors today.