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What do we know about her? She was just a kid really, no more than two years old, but she was cutting edge, a propeller-driven steamer built for the Great Lakes in Buffalo, NY, where thousands of European immigrants would be waiting to be transported out to the frontier of the American Midwest, all of them strangers in a strange land. Aboard was as much cargo as she could hold–coffee, molasses, and hardware, not to mention people, hundreds of them. 

It was November of 1847, so when the Phoenix left Buffalo, bound for Wisconsin, the crew might well have been celebrative–after all, it was late in the year, and the owners had made clear this trip would be the last before old man winter would make things treacherous, Lake Michigan winter storminess not to be toyed with.

By weight alone, most of the cargo was Dutch–as many as 250 immigrants climbed on board for the last leg of their trip to a new home in a new country, to Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, the place the leaders had decided upon, a land whose woodlands meant days and days of hard work if the soft and sandy soil were to be cleared for crops. They wanted to farm. Like all immigrant people, what they really wanted was a new chance.

Most, if not all, were “separatists,” members of a religious sect some called “the Afscheiding,” the rebel church, arch-conservatives who’d departed the state church of the Netherlands not that long before and whose persecution therefore by civil authorities opened their ears and hearts to the possibilities of immigration to a new land where they could be free. They were an American trope.

Historians claim Lake Erie was calm when they left Buffalo on November 11, the weather not at all as menacing as it might have been. But it turned nasty quickly. People took refuge where they could on board as the swells rose like the shoulders of giants and made everything on board roll. When they came through the straits at Mackinaw, Lake Michigan was no more fair a host, the storms went unabated

Then, slowly southward, the Phoenix moved along into calmer waters and entered the port at Manitowoc, just thirty miles from the dreams of so many aboard. Some cargo was put ashore, but when the captain noted the wind’s return, he kept his ship in the harbor until the lake calmed. The crew went ashore. Some claimed they returned drunk.

At one a.m., the lake calm, the night awash with stars, the Phoenix left for the last leg of a trip I’m sure some had believed would never end, on their way to Sheboygan harbor. Maybe it was haste that lit the fire; some believed it was shoddy negligence fueled by drink. Whatever the cause, those boilers overheated and lit the timbers above them. Soon the Phoenix steamer ship went up in flames.

Soon enough, passengers late that night, November 21, 1847, were awakened to two choices: the flames behind them or the water beneath. Both meant death. As many as 250 died, many–most–of them Hollanders. But then, who was counting, really?–after all, they were only immigrants.

When I was a boy, a highway sign along old 141, the Sauk Trail, told the story. My parents didn’t know much about it, never mentioned it as I remember. Mom’s people were here before it happened; Grandpa Schaap and his family didn’t arrive until ninety years after. 

It was the highway sign that put the story into me, not only the tragic and horrifying death out there on the water, on the lake that was a playground when I was a boy; but it was also a story about “tribe” because somehow as a kid I understood–no one taught me as much–that those who died were by some force of nature my own people.

It was a quiet night, I guess. When the ship went up in flames, Sheboygan residents gathered on the beach because the fire was all-too-horribly visible. When the few lifeboats came to shore (only forty survived), I couldn’t help but think that the people there on the beach had to have heard the screams. 

I did–so much so that the very first story I ever wrote was about the Phoenix, about God’s presence in darkness and other mystifying questions, about suffering and death, about life and hope.

Somehow, here in the vale of tears, I had in mind that this stark chapter of human sadness was part of a story, an immigrant story I carry, as so many of us do. 

Phoenix disaster survivor’s gravestone,
Gibbsville, WI

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

9 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I always look forward to your posts. I had read about the Phoenix before, and it’s always worth remembering, for the sake of those who died. Perhaps you know the story of the General Slocum in the East River.

  • Andrew Rienstra says:

    Also, remember the story of that tragic event from my days in Sheboygan County, never better told than you did today! I remember your grandfather telling us about it one evening at the dinner table. Have a number of memories of those evening meals with him.

  • Phil says:

    A powerful reminder of many things, including the power of the Great Lakes. Thanks to the author. One small correction: Straits of Mackinac, not Mackinaw (though Mackinac is pronounced Mackinaw).

  • Pam Adams says:

    Jim, I forwarded your retelling of that event to Chuck, who lives in Sheboygan. Thank you for another immigrant story.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Sailors know the mantra, “Let the boat take care of you.” Modern fiberglass keel boats will do that. I have experienced the safety of a modern sailboat in horrible weather. I can only imagine therefore the terror of a wooden steamship furiously burning, death either way as you said. Your blog conveyed the horror those poor people experienced in that frigid water.

  • Trudy (Harmelink) Bosman says:

    I was just thinking of looking for more information about this. Thanks for this telling of what happened.

  • Henry Ottens says:

    Always good (and sad) to be reminded of that bit of tragic and fascinating history off the shore where my wife grew up. Like you, she didn’t know what had happened in her “back yard” some 170 years ago. Its oral retelling had long petered out by the time the historical marker appeared 150 years after the fact.

  • Thank you for this. It is easy for some of us to forget the dangers and horrors that all immigrants have faced over the years.

  • Sue Preder says:

    Tragic! The story of the Phoenix sure made me understand their trials and was the direct reason why I have such a huge data base of geneology, as our family were direct descendent of one of the survivors from this ship accident. Thank you.

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