Halfway to America

The Tragic Sinking of the William Nelson

Four hundred emigrants died at sea, but the privileged and the lucky survived

The Swiss government demanded an investigation after more than 400 European emigrants sailing to America died on a US ship that burned and sank June 26,1865. Only 16 of 176 Swiss nationals survived. The catastrophe was one of the worst disasters ever in the Atlantic Ocean. The true story of the disaster is told in a new book that follows Heinrich Dirkes and his son from the time they leave their village in Prussia until the horrible tragedy 330 miles south of St. Johns, Newfoundland. The events on that ship are horrifying to imagine. Survivors were outraged that the accident occurred, and they stated that the chaos was managed poorly. Captain Levi Smith denied it was his fault. Some 117 of the passengers and crew of more than 525 survived in leaky lifeboats and by clinging to wreckage and debris in the ocean. They were rescued by other ships that took them to Le Havre, France or to St. John’s Newfoundland.

Newspaper accounts across Europe reported that surviving emigrants stated the captain and crew held them back at knifepoint and commandeered the few lifeboats. The American Consul at Havre did all he could to prevent liability from falling to the captain and the ship’s owner. Captain Smith wrote a response to a British newspaper refuting the emigrant claims.

The newly formed Immigration Bureau in Washington, D.C. opened an investigation.

The steamship Lafayette was the first vessel to rescue passengers from the sunken ship William Nelson.  The Lafayette was a modern new ship with excellent accommodations, that was able to travel much faster than sailing ships.

Side Paddle Steamship, The Lafayette

John Baptiste Dirkes immigrated to the U.S. in 1863 from Prussia. His father and younger brother were moving to America two years later, and they were on the William Nelson when it caught fire in 1865.

John Baptiste Dirkes and his bride, Elizabeth Dobmeier – 1870.
John Baptiste Dirkes, circa 1888. Photo provided by Neil Schuler from the photos of Marie Dirkes, daughter of John Baptiste Dirkes. Photos preserved by Marguerite Helen Schuler, daughter of Marie Dirkes.

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