Pugwash, Nova Scotia was a bustling harbour, and its abundant lumber enabled many shipbuilders to prosper in the late 1800s. Cyrus Eaton had two well-known ancestors who were shipbuilders: Levi Woodworth Eaton and Donald McKay. Levi’s brother, Stephen Eaton, was Cyrus Eaton’s grandfather, so Levi was Cyrus’ great uncle on his father’s side. McKay was great uncle to Cyrus’ mother, Mary Adelia MacPherson. Levi Eaton was born on August 23, 1811, in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, and migrated to New Zealand while Donald McKay was born on September 4, 1810, in Shelburne, Nova Scotia and migrated to Boston where he designed and built clipper ships.
The 171-ton brigantine, the George Henderson was the last ship Levi Eaton built in Pugwash. Because he believed the era of wooden shipbuilding was ending, he decided to journey to New Zealand with his wife, Sarah Bigelow, two sons (Albert and George), two daughters (Lydia Ann and Sarah Jane) and Lydia’s husband.[i] Additionally, five Bigelow family relations of Sarah accompanied them: Annie, Sarah, Anna, John Bigelow, and John Bigelow, Jr.
John James, the ship’s captain, had previously “carried followers of Norman McLeod, a rather messianic leader, and five boatloads of people, mostly of Scottish descent, from Cape Breton to New Zealand. They eventually settled in Waipu, New Zealand. Captain James, an investor in Eaton’s ship, was instrumental in convincing him to pick up roots and emigrate to New Zealand.[ii] Levi’s younger brother, Alpheus Eaton, followed him to New Zealand a few years later around 1866 after working in California.[iii]
No complete passenger or crew list exists of those who set sail. Captain John James was married to Lydia, daughter of Levi and Sarah Eaton. The first mate George Eaton, Levi’s son, was married to Mary Anna Crane. Reverend William Hobbs, a Baptist minister, accompanied them with his wife[iv]. Malcomb and Murdock MacLean, two brothers, with wife and children joined them from the South Shore. One child was Annie MacLean.
The crew consisted of Captain James, mate George Eaton, second mate William McKenn (probably McKean), Richard Leadbetter, George Page, Thomas Severn, Archibald Dawson, Thomas Dawson, and Albert Eaton. Instead of the typical steward, a stewardess Isabella McLennan accompanied them to keep the cabin tidy and organize the food.
[i] The Eaton Family of Nova Scotia by Arthur Wentworth Hamilton Eaton, 1929 (Privately Printed)
[ii] A History of the Pugwash Estuary, Friends of the Pugwash Estuary Assisted by NCHS, 2016
[iii] The History of Pugwash by James F. Smith, 1978, Published by the NCHS (North Cumberland Historical Soc)
[iv] The History of Pugwash by James F. Smith, 1978, Published by the NCHS
The George Henderson set sail on December 4, 1859. The ship carried forty barrels of salt and 2800 bricks as well as tons of coal.[iv] The journey Levi and his family embarked on with others from Pugwash took over four months. Imagine the close quarters, the stormy seas, and the basic foods. For nine days, they suffered storms as they headed south.
Malcomb McLean, a passenger, wrote a letter[v] to his brother Peter on the Gulf Shore.[vi] “We had fine weather until four in the evening. The wind set in from the northeast, that with sleat of snow, blowing very heavy the bridge begun to pitch and roll. We soon had a guise sean below children crying mothers moaning passenger seciking (sickening) and heaving pots and pans rolling and kicking. There was a crow bar left in the hold commenced its pranks, broke the leg of my chair, and nearly killed one of my young ones.”
Then the passengers and crew welcomed calmer seas and warmer weather.[vii] When the ship crossed the equator on December 30th, the customary ceremony of Neptune "coming on board" and blackening the faces of some of the passengers and crew was observed. As the George Henderson approached Cape Town, South Africa, the light winds slowed their progress, and they only sailed 200 miles over a period of a week. Land was sighted on February 6, and the vessel anchored in Simmonds Bay, Cape Town, late that same evening. The following day, most of those on board went ashore, grateful to be able to wash their clothes in a stream close to the town. It was reported that some of the younger men enjoyed a "happy" time with some of the local washerwomen. Cape Town was described as a mile-long bustling town with many buildings of stone that were covered with a type of plaster. In the harbor, ten large merchant ships and five Men 'o War were anchored. The George Henderson’s main cargo of coal was unloaded in the harbour. Food was considered expensive with beef at 8d (240d = 1 pound) and potatoes 10/-s (120d) a bushel. Both wine and fruit, particularly grapes, were abundant and cheap to purchase.
The brigantine remained in Cape Town for fifteen days and sailed on February 26, 1860. Three passengers from Pugwash chose to stay in South Africa while twenty-eight new passengers boarded from Cape Town. They arrived in Sydney a little over a month later on April 4, 1860.[viii] Having heard about the fighting in Taranaki, New Zealand, many of the passengers elected to stay in Australia, some going to the goldfields while others chose to farm. Some moved up to New Castle, Hunter River, and Ash Island in the river mouth.
According to “Shipping Intelligence,” from Port of Auckland, [ix]some passengers that arrived on the George Henderson from Sydney were Captain John James, his wife and son, Mrs. Stratford and three sons, Mr. de Blaquier, Capt. and Mrs. McKinnon, Dr. Morris, Mr. G. Eaton, Mr. and Mrs. L. W. Eaton, Mr. and Mrs. Chipman and 3 children, Mr. J. Fulton, Misses McEacheron and Eaton, Mr. Christopher, Mrs. Johns and son.
The George Henderson left Sydney harbor on April 11, 1860. After five pleasant days of sailing, they encountered strong winds at the tip of the North Island of New Zealand. Eaton’s brigantine reached Auckland Harbour on April 27, 1860. Levi thrived and became an auctioneer in Auckland. After his wife Sarah died in 1879,[x] he married Mary Ann Price from Scotland on November 11, 1882.[xi] His son George became Master of the schooner, Victoria, which ferried supplies between Auckland and New Plymouth for the Commissariat during the Taranaki war. He drowned at sea the same year his father remarried. George’s widow, Mary Anna returned to Pugwash and married Mr. Carter. Levi’s brother, Alpheus, became a merchant in New Zealand.[xii] Reported to have twenty grandchildren, Levi died on September 20, 1897, when he was eighty-six-years old.
The George Henderson, unlike its builder, did not thrive. Captain John James with wife and son left on May 9, 1860. for New Castle. On their return, they carried a cargo of 255 tons of coal and 300 bags of maize to Auckland. “The start of the voyage was difficult ‘against a strong gale and with such a heavy sea that she lost part of her bulwarks.” They reached Auckland on June 24.
The tension had ratcheted between the Maoris and the European settlers. One major cause was dispute over land ownership. On both sides, the cost in lives, burned homes, and illnesses like scarlet fever was enormous. Many settlers were evacuated to Auckland and Nelson. Weakening the Maori forces, Te Atiawa warriors returned home to plant crops. Major General Pratt arrived in August to replace Major Thomas Nelson who had suffered a significant defeat in June.[xiii] “In Edwin Harris’s painting of 3 August 1860, lighters ferry ashore Major General Pratt, Lieutenant Colonel Carey and 50 men of the 40th Regiment from the steam slope HMCSS Victoria to the beleaguered town of New Plymouth. Other vessels off shore include the Tasmanian Maid, the Airedale, and the George Henderson.”[xiv] This painting suggests it was painted on or close to the day Eaton’s brigantine met its demise.
“With the worsening war situation in the Taranaki, the government engaged the George Henderson to take stores to New Plymouth for the Commissariat which had to house and feed the growing numbers of troops plus some of the civilians whose farm houses had been burnt by roving gangs of Maoris.” The ship carried “53,000 feet of timber, 170 blocks, 8000 shingles, 7 cases of zinc, 234 sheets of zinc, 16 pieces of spouting, 19 kegs of nails, and 2 cases of iron”[xv]… “Upon unloading this at New Plymouth she was to be chartered by the government to take some of the women and children of New Plymouth.”[xvi]
While waiting to load, on August 3, 1860, a storm hit, ‘one of her cables parted, and she drifted toward Henui Beach, about a mile north of the town; an ensign hoisted, the Union Down – a sign of distress. There she grounded in the sand with the waves continuing to hurl themselves over her. Captain James put a rope ashore, and the crew were pulled in by soldiers and civilians who had gathered on the beach. In the finest tradition of British seamanship, the Captain was the last to leave the ship. The next morning, 20 carts arrived with an escort of soldiers to collect her guns, canvas, rigging, masts and as much of her cargo as they could salvage. During the night, a picket of soldiers had been posted at the wreck to stop the Maoris from stealing things from her. In an act of kindness, Lieutenant McKellar and one of the volunteers of the citizens’ militia, Mr. Ephraim Coad, went to the wreck to take some food and a warm blanket to one of the volunteers who was guarding her. Mr. [Ephraiam] Coad, the landlord of the Marsland Hotel, was a long-established settler of New Plymouth. While they were there, they were fired upon by some Maoris. Mr. Coad was killed and his dog wounded but Lieutenant McKellar escaped. [Several days later,] Mr. Coad’s body was found in the Henui River with four bullet wounds. Also on that day the Maoris burned down the houses of half a dozen settlers in the Henui area. By 21st August the George Henderson, completely waterlogged, had been stripped of all her riggings, masts and other movable gear and was abandoned completely. Among the salvaged materials was some of the old rigging of her sails; these were taken back to Auckland in the Kiwi.”[xvii]
After the wind-swept sand buried the ravished hull, the crew with the exception of the Eaton family returned to Sydney on a different ship. Not all of her cargo was salvaged; she was only insured for fifty percent of her value. Malcolm McLean wrote, “I was sorry to hear of the wreck of the George Henderson, that good little Brig that carried us safely here.”
Two months after the loss of the George Henderson, Major-Genral Pratt and his troops in an unplanned encounter killed one-third of the Maori forces.[xviii]
In January, 1980, 120 years later, “at the time of some of the worst erosion to have affected Fitzroy Beach, the ribs of an old wooden ship suddenly appeared from beneath the sand. There was barely enough of the wreck visible for any firm conclusion to be reached as to the ship’s identity, but the general consensus among historians is that the wreck was that of the two-masted brig George Henderson.”[xix] She haunted the shores less than a week before disappearing once again beneath shifting sands. A photograph of the remains of the ghostly George Henderson appeared in a New Zealand paper.
The industry and pioneer spirit of Levi Eaton mirrored many of the hardworking, courageous residents of Pugwash. His ability to embrace a new profession when the wooden ship building industry was being replaced parallels the many Pugwash families who have resiliently embraced new jobs or careers as the timber and fishing industry declined.
In 2013, Chip and Theo Dennison from Virginia visited Pugwash to see their ancestral home of Levi Eaton and his father Amos Eaton.[xx] In 2018, John Eaton, grandson of Cyrus S. Eaton, with his wife, Beth Ferree, journeyed to New Zealand, and enjoyed connecting with one of Levi’s descendants: Russ Eaton and his wife, April. Ralph Waugh[xxi] has been in touch with Louise Parker from Tasmania, (who was a direct descendent of ta George Henderson passenger), John Calvin Human, and Russell Eaton. Ralph continues to pursues leads in Australia and New Zealand to learn more about Annie MacLean, who is his great, great, great aunt, a passenger on the George Henderson.[xxii] Joanne Phillips of New Zealand is a great-great granddaughter of Levi Eaton. Hopefully, many more descendants of these courageous pioneers, who ventured from a small Canadian fishing village across the world to New Zealand and Australia, will connect in the years to come.
[i] Vivian Godfree, member of the North Cumberland Historical Society (NCHS), email; the historical society also has a file with various details about the George Henderson as well as death certificates, marriage certificates, and birth certificates of some of Levi Eaton’s descendants.
[ii] The History of Pugwash by James F. Smith, 1978, Published by the NCHS, 81
[iii] Archives North Cumberland Historical Society, Pugwash, NS
[iv] A History of the Pugwash Estuary, Friends of the Pugwash Estuary Assisted by the NCHS, 2016
[v] MacLean Letters owned by Brian and Helen Gordon in Pugwash
[vi] The History of Pugwash by James F. Smith, 1978, Published by the NCHS, 22
[vii] The History of Pugwash by James F. Smith, 1978, Published by the NCHS,122, 123
[viii] The History of Pugwash by James F. Smith, 1978, Published by the NCHS, 123
[ix] Shipping Intelligence,” from Port of Auckland
[x] The New Zealand Society of Genealogy
[xi] Entry of Marriage No 6156 New Zealand, Archives from the NCHS
[xii] The History of Pugwash by James F. Smith, 1978, Published by the NCHS
[xiii] War in Taranaki 1860-63,” New Zealand History
[xiv] Ron Lambert, ‘Tranaki region – Pakenha settlement’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand
[xv] War in Taranaki 1860-63,” New Zealand History
[xvi] Articles archived at NCHS and discovered by Dianne Elliot
[xvii] Articles archived at NCHS and discovered by Dianne Elliot
[xviii] Ralph Waugh, Interview with Cathy Eaton in 2017