On October 3, 1855, a ship carrying 56 passengers and crew ran into a submerged coral reef in the Pacific Ocean about 200 miles from Tahiti destroying the ship. Of the twenty-eight Latter-day Saints on board, five lives were lost. For nearly two months they managed to survive on an uninhabited island nearby. They lived on turtle eggs, brackish water and what other meager provisions they could obtain. They were later rescued as a small crew of ten brave men daringly followed the dream of a missionary through the providence of God.  Their captivating story has now been revealed in the book and companion documentary, DIVINE PROVIDENCE: The Wreck and Rescue of the Julia Ann; the only vessel carrying Mormon passengers to Zion whose lives were lost due to a shipwreck. This article is a distillation of their story:  

Captain Benjamin F. Pond, co-owner of the vessel Julia Ann, was impressed with the Australian Latter-day Saints he had carried to the United States the year before and was eager to do it again. In fact, the LDS Australian periodical, Zion’s Watchman, reported that Pond and others had certified “that they never saw business more correctly and expeditiously transacted, than was the business pertaining to the shipment of that company, and they also stated that they never saw a company that were so easy to be governed, by the voice of one man as that company of Saints were, who, they remarked, were always ready to hear and obey my counsel.”

He could not have known that the next voyage carrying Saints on the Julia Ann would run into disaster when it hit a submerged coral reef in the Pacific Ocean about 200 miles from Tahiti destroying the ship. Of the twenty-eight Latter-day Saints on board, five lives were lost.

At the time of the departure, in addition to the Latter-day Saints on board, eleven other passengers and fourteen more crewmembers brought the total to 56. As the boat departed, the Saints were singing “The gallant ship is under weigh,” a hymn written by the famous LDS poet and hymn writer W. W. Phelps.

Still for all the Latter-day Saint jauntiness about “gallant ships”, the first two weeks, according to Captain Pond were “exceedingly unpleasant” with “head winds accompanied with much rain.” However, when they entered the southeast trades, “everything brightened, promising a speedy and pleasant voyage.”

That promise was not fulfilled as John McCarthy recalled. Nearly a month into the journey, on the 4th of October as the ship was sailing at 11 knots per hour, the sea became broken up and the boat “with a tremendous crash, dashed head on to a coral reef. She immediately swung round with her broadside to the reef, and the sea made a complete breach over her at every swell.”

The Ship was Breaking Up Fast

Andrew Anderson, the second missionary to Australia in the early 1840s and a Julia Ann passenger, recounted,

About half-past eight o’clock she struck on a reef. . . . This was an awful event in our lives. There was four of our children asleep and in bed; there was very few in the steerage, chiefly on the steerage house, poop, &c. I had been asked two or three times why I was not out,-was I well enough? Yes, well enough thank you, but lazy or something else, (it seems a forboding of what took place,) there was Sister Harris, Sister Logie, my wife and myself in the steerage house at the moment the Julia Ann struck, my wife ran to me and said what shall we do, I said I do not think there is much the matter, compose yourself. Mr. Owens, 2nd mate, came in and told us to compose ourselves and remain as we were. . . .

Word came out from some one for the passengers to go to the cabin, and by the time I got the four children out of bed, the water was knocking about the boxes, I got my leg very much bruised with a large box, with difficulty we gained the cabin, and about ten minutes after we left, house, gally, and box was all over board, preparations were made to go on the rocks to ascertain whether we could get any footing, as there was no land in sight, the ship was breaking up fast.

In her report to the San Francisco Daily Herald, actress Esther Spangenberg[i] said the man who was at the helm at the time of the wreck was Mr. Coffin, who was said to have a rather ominous name. She added, “The night was dark, neither moon or stars visible, when suddenly the chief officer called out to the man at the wheel, Hard down your helm,’ and in an instant after the ship struck on a reef, from which she rebounded, and afterwards we could hear her bottom grate harshly on the rocks. The Captain . . . rushed on deck, but before he could reach it the ship was completely fast on the reef.”

Spangenberg further described in detail the great confusion that immediately followed: “The steerage passengers rushed into the cabin – mothers holding their undressed children in their arms, as they snatched them from their slumbers, screaming and lamenting, when their fears were in some measure allayed by a sailor who came to the cabin for a light and told them that, although the ship would be lost, their lives would be saved, as we were close to the reef.” She also noted, “The scene that presented itself to my view, shall never be erased from my memory. Mothers screaming, and children clinging to them in terror and in dread; the furniture was torn from its lashings and all upturned; the ship was lying on her beam ends; the starboard side of her was opening, and the waves was washing in and out of her cabin.”

Getting to the Reef

At this time of great urgency, Captain Pond “called for a volunteer to attempt to reach the reef by swimming with a small line. One of the sailors instantly stripped; the log line was attached to his body, and he succeeded in swimming to the reef. . . . By this means a larger line was hauled to the reef, and made fast to the rocks.” Further, “I commenced the perilous task of placing the women and children upon the reef. A sailor in a sling upon the rope, took a woman or a child in his arms, and was hauled to the reef by those already there. . . . The process was an exceedingly arduous one, and attended with much peril.”

A young seventeen-year-old LDS mother, Rosa Clara Logie, would be the first brave woman to volunteer to be transported to the reef, tying her one year old baby daughter Annie Augusta on the back of her husband Charles before she departed. Spangenberg described how she too struggled onto the deck and managed to haul her self across the line, although by the time she reached the reef, “my clothes [were] torn in shreds, and my person bruised and mangled.

Another passenger on the Julia Ann described the ordeal: “The passengers and crue had to make the best of the way through the foming surf to the coral reef, And when it caim to my lot to test my strenth in brackers, I had to incounter broeken masts and spares in all directions, but through the aid of divine providance I reach’d the reef safe, while its corals shot fourth poison in all directions from their rugit speers.”

The following memorable scene occurred, as expressed with emotion by Captain Pond as he witnessed a mother desperately crying out for her teenage daughter amidst frantic terror:

There was a large family on board named “Anderson” a father, mother, three daughters, two sons and an infant. One daughter, a pretty girl, ten years of age, was washed off the deck shortly after the ship struck, and drowned; another daughter “Agnes,” sixteen years old, had escaped to the reef, the rest of the family were still on board. The hauling line had parted, the forward part of the ship had broken up, and no hope remained for those who were yet clinging to the quarter deck; but above the roar of the breakers and shrieks of despair, a mother’s voice was heard, crying “Agnes, Agnes, come to me.” Agnes was seated on the wreck of the main mast, that had floated upon the reef, but no sooner did she hear that mother’s piercing wail, than she sprang to her feet, threw her arms up, shrieking “mother! mother! I come, I come,” and plunged head-long into the sea. A sailor was fortunately near, seized her by the clothes and drew her back again.

The Penfold family had their own story to tell from the wreck. Peter Penfold told of a harrowing experience that claimed a total of five lives: “Sister [Martha] Humphries, and sister [Eliza] Harris and infant, were drowned in the cabin. Little Mary Humphries and Marian Anderson were washed off the poop and drowned. . . . After I had helped to get them all out of the cabin, I came up and found the vessel all broken into fragments, except the cabin, and into that the water was rushing at a furious rate, sweeping out all the partitions.”

McCarthy wrote that he had engraved on his memory “mothers nursing their babes in the midst of falling masts and broken spars, while the breakers were rolling twenty feet high over the wreck.” He recalled that some of the men clung to the wreckage. “Soon afterwards the vessel broke to pieces, and the part they were on was providentially carried high upon the rocks, and they were landed in safety.”

How the Wreck Happened

Later as he reflected on this trying scene, Pond posed the question how the accident occurred. From an eyewitness who was also a fellow crew member, he discovered the following:

On the night of the wreck that fellow was ordered aloft to lookout, taking him along for company. That he saw a long white strip of white ahead and pointed it out, and asked what it could be, but our bright look-out was near sighted, and could not see anything peculiar, but thought he would go down into the forecastle for his spectacles, and of course before his return the doomed ship had solved the mystery. A startling revelation. Five lives lost, a great anxiety and suffering incurred, a large amount of property destroyed, all owing to the near sightedness of a common sailor, and yet did it ever occur to the Captain of a ship to have the sight of his forecastle men examined?

Notwithstanding, the courageous, steady character of Captain Pond, who was both an owner and a master of the vessel, was displayed during this entire ordeal. The Western Standard reported,

Capt. Pond’s chief desire throughout the whole sad affair, seemed to be to save the lives of the passengers and crew, as the following noble act illustrates: While the crew were engaged in getting the passengers ashore, Mr. Owens, the second mate, was going to carry a bag containing eight thousand dollars belonging to the Captain, ashore. The Captain ordered him to leave the money and carry a girl ashore; . . . the child was saved, but the money lost.

Captain Pond described in vivid detail their predicament when they finally reached the coral reef: Our situation on the reef can be better imagined than described. It was about eleven o’clock at night when all were landed; we were up to our waists in water, and the tide rising. Seated upon the spars and broken pieces of the wreck, we patiently awaited the momentous future.

Wrapped in a wet blanket picked up among the floating spars, I seated myself in the boat, the water reaching to my waist; my legs and arms were badly cut and bruised by the coral. Though death threatened ere morning’s dawn, exhausted nature could bear up no longer, and I slept soundly. ‘Twas near morning when I awoke. The moon was up and shed her faint light over the dismal scene; the sullen roar of the breakers sent an additional chill through my already benummed frame. The bell at the wheel, with every surge of the sea, still tolled a knell to the departed, and naught else but the wailings of a bereaved mother broke the stillness of the night, or indicated life among that throng of human automata; during the long hours of the weary night the iron had entered their souls, and the awful solemnity of their situation was brooded over in silence.

Another Threat

When sunlight broke in the dawn, land was discovered about ten miles away. A row boat was patched up, and spars and drift wood were assembled to make a raft. The women and children were placed in the boat, led by Captain Coffin, while the men were forced to remain on the reef for a second miserable night.[ii] The second morning, rafts were prepared for provisions as well as clothing, and the men slowly swam and waded beside them along the reef. The water was up to the men’s necks, and the shorter ones had to hold on to the rafts. What appears to be especially terrorizing were the schools of sharks which pursued them in their desperate condition. Pond noted, “At one time I counted over twenty-and not infrequently we were compelled to seek safety from them upon the rafts.” Finally, in a state of complete exhaustion, having had no drink or food for two full days, they reached the island, and were soon greeted by children who quickly escorted them to drinking water, which had come from holes dug beneath the coral sand.


Three days later, Pond led an exploring party to look for more provisions to sustain the castaways.

  On another island, some eight miles from their main camp, he found a much needed coconut grove. Turtles were also found to lay eggs on the island at night. Pond noted, “Our hearts dilated with gratitude, for without something of this kind our case would have been indeed desperate. Our living now consisted of shell fish, turtle, sharks and cocoa nuts. We also prepared a garden, and planted some pumpkins, peas and beans.” Charles Logie described how pancakes were made by grating the coconuts and mixing them with turtle eggs. John McCarthy added that “too much cannot be said in commendation of the Saints in this trying situation. I have seen an old lady upwards to sixty years of age out at night hunting turtle.” Further, “while on the uninhabited islands we held our regular meetings, dividing the time between worship and labor as we have done had we been at our ordinary occupations.”

With an established routine and provisions now stabilized, the next step for deliverance was to repair the quarter boat. The crew used great ingenuity in pulling strewn materials together in order to construct both a forge and a bellows so that nails could be made and iron work produced. The survivors were also divided into family units, wherein each group built thatched huts and used leaves from the pandanus tree. Five weeks later, the boat was ready for launching. The craft was not very sturdy, but there was no alternative; it was either make an effort to escape or remain trapped on the desolate reef.

Looking for the Nearest Inhabited Land

The Society Islands were the nearest inhabited land, a little over 200 miles windward. Therefore, Pond decided to go leeward (with the wind, instead of against it) in hopes of reaching the Navigator Islands (Samoa), though their distance was about 1,500 miles away. Three days were then spent looking for the best place to launch their feeble craft. However, soon thereafter, devastation set in; the weather changed and a tornado swept the quarter boat away. The hopelessness was so great that “some threw themselves in despair upon the beach; the silent tear trickled down the cheeks of speechless women; others moaned aloud at their sad, sad fate, for our provisions were nearly exhausted, and starvation stared us in the face.”[iii] Fortunately, the craft was eventually recovered and was not injured.

After eight weeks of being stranded on the Scilly Islands, the weather suddenly changed its course and blew windward (towards the northwest) which Pond recognized as “Divine Providence in our favor.”[iv] Soon every person was recruited to carry the craft about 200 yards across land, where it could be placed on the incoming breakers. It was launched with a crew of ten brave men who would need to row continuously for several days, both day and night.[v] Esther Spangenberg recalled that as the small craft was about to embark on its vital mission, “We invoked God’s blessing on the captain and the nine brave men who accompanied him, who boldly risked their lives in an open, crazy boat, to cross an open ocean, to endeavor to bring us succor and relief. As we watched the boat recede from the land . . . there was not one amongst us but was aware that on that boat . . . depended our very existence.”

About a week before casting off in the long boat, Pond wrote to his father, Dr. James Otis Pond, a letter dated November 14, 1855, Scilly Island: “All of my property is yours until I am heard of alive & claim it. Witness Peter M. Coffin.”

One of the crew was John McCarthy who described the dire conditions for such a unpredictable voyage: “Our provisions were a little salt pork and jerked turtle, with two casks of water. . . . Our boat was almost level with the water.” [vi] Pond, recounting the perilous adventure to his niece Orella, explained that those aboard this untrustworthy craft felt that their days were numbered after rowing several days:

The sea . . . so sluggish, arose in all its might, and power, threatening to engulph us, in its appalling throes. For hours, and hours, the fearful, but unequal contest, was maintained, till human endurance could bear up no longer, and we lay exhausted in the bottom of our little boat, now floating at the mercy of the sea. The goal of our hopes, and our very lives, that dim cloud upon the verge of the horizon, gradually faded from our view! Oh! The blank despair of that moment; as we drew the tarpaulain over the boat, to shelter us from the dashing spray, thoughts of home mingled in our prayers. . . . Thus, for hours we were driven at the mercy of the raging wind and sea, but not forgotten by a kind Providence.

Late in the afternoon, we lay huddled together, under the protecting cover of the tarpaulin, drenched by the salt spray, faint and exhausted by severe toil, listlessly gazing out upon the combing, raging sea, that threatened instant destruction, the sudden cry of “land! land!” again startled us from the lethergy of despair which seemed, with its cold, icy hand, to gripe our very hearts. . . . Tears of gratitude filled our eyes; our sail was hoisted to the now favoring breeze; again the oars were manned, and our little boat fairly trembled at the onward impetus given, by the hope resusitated nerves, of my but recently faint and exhausted crew. . . . As we neared the land, the wind gradually subsided, and the sea no longer broke in heavy combers . . . but rolled, in long heavy swells, upon a coral reef that encircled the island. We pulled along outside of the reef about two hours, looking in vain for an entrance, . . . when a native who was engaged spearing fish inside, guessing our difficulty, motioned to us to proceed further up the reef, on complying with which we soon found a ship entrance to a fine harbor, and saw the huts of a native village at the head of the bay.

A Prophetic Dream

One additional part of the story involving a Mormon elder’s prophetic dreams was related by Pond in his autobiography published about four decades later and was also a significant factor that contributed to the direction in which the small crew went for safety:

 And now having safely reached one of the Windward [Society] Islands against all human probability when we departed from [the] Scilly reefs, I will give you a peculiar episode in connection with that boat voyage. I can simply vouch for the facts, without any attempt to argue, or explain.

My passengers were mostly Mormons, bound to Salt Lake City, densely ignorant and very superstitious and were bitterly opposed to my first proposition of trying to reach the Navigator Islands. They argued, the distance to be so great, some fifteen hundred miles, that if we succeeded in reaching them they would starve to death before we could hope to send them relief. They could not, or would not understand why we might not steer in face of head wind and sea to the Society Islands which were so much nearer. We, however, as nautical men, determined to act on our own judgment in that matter, and steadily continued our preparations until our plans were blocked in a most unexpected manner.

One of their Elders had a dream or vision. He saw the boat successfully launched upon her long voyage, and for a day or two making satisfactory progress. Another leaf in the vision, and the boat is seen floating bottom up, and the drowned bodies of her crew floating around her. This tale, so wrought upon the superstitions that not a man would volunteer to go with me, and I was reluctantly compelled to change my plan.

I then gave strict orders that there should be no more visions told in public unless they were favorable ones, and first submitted to me for my approval. After some days the same Mormon Elder came to me having had another vision. I asked him if it was a good one. Yes, a very good one. He saw the boat depart with a crew of ten men, bound to the eastward; after three days of rowing, they reached a friendly island where a vessel was obtained and all hands safely brought to Tahiti. When I, by compulsion, changed my plans and decided to double bank the boat and try to pull to windward, only nine men offered, including myself. It was useless to start short handed, and I had been waiting unsuccessfully to get one more man to complete my crew. On hearing this very good vision, I looked my man over. He was a fine, athletic fellow, and asked him if he believed his vision. “Yes, indeed, was it not a revelation from God?” I then suggested that it would be a good way to prove his faith by volunteering for the boat. “Of course he would”, and he did with alacrity, and thus was my crew completed. You have heard the account of how literally his dream was fulfilled against every probability.


After finally reaching Bora Bora in late November, Pond records that he and his nine-man crew “could not walk for some time after being removed from our boat by the natives.” Pond went for help and eventually found it with the help of the British Consulate, who recommended Captain Latham, docked with the schooner Emma Packer, waiting for oranges at the nearby isle Huahine. On December 3, the castaways on Scilly Island were rescued. Recalling this joyful, redemptive event, John S. Eldredge expressed his profound gratitude:

We were delivered from our exiled and desolate situation by the untiring perserverance of Captain B. F. Pond, master of the barque Julia Ann, connected with the charitable good feeling of Captain Latham, master of the schooner Emma Packer, that came to our relief. We were taken off the Scilly Isles, where we were wrecked, on the 3d of December, making it two months that we were left in this lonely situation on an uninhabited island. I need not attempt to describe our feelings of gratitude and praise which we felt to give the God of Israel for His goodness and mercy in thus working a deliverance for us; for I have not language to express my own feelings, much less the feelings of those around me, suffice it to say, I am thankful to know that His mercy endureth forever.

Although they were rescued from the Scilly Islands, the former Julia Ann passengers voyage home was not yet over, nor were their problems. After the stops in Huahine and Tahiti, Peter Penfold further explained in a letter to his brother that upon their arrival at Tahiti, the consuls would do nothing for these castaways. “The American Consul said he had nothing to do with us, because we were English; and the English Consul said he had nothing to do with us, because we were in an American ship; so we were in a very peculiar situation,-without friends, without money, without home, without clothes, without food, and in a strange land, under the French Government.” Yet delivery came in the form of the Free Masons of Tahiti. Penfold notes, “By the charity of the Freemasons’ Lodge we were found in food until the 19th of January, after which they could feed us no longer.”

The sufferers from the shipwreck continued to have difficulty finding their way to San Francisco, but eventually made it, some coming as passengers in fruit boats. It was an ordeal much different than what they had expected when they left home, but one they felt had been blessed by divine providence since they had endured.