The three-mast 1,183-ton ship General Grant was built in Bath in 1864, named for the famous Civil War general and future U.S. president, part of a series of ships built by R. Morse & Sons, which also included General Butler, General Shepley, and in 1869, General Chamberlain. The final two were named for Maine-born generals.

Launched into the Kennebec in late winter, General Grant went to Boston and loaded cargo for its maiden voyage to San Francisco. It departed March 10, 1864, with a consignment of stagecoaches built by Abbot-Downing Company of Concord, N.H. One of them even found its way into William Cody’s Wild West Show, where it logged more miles touring the U.S. and Europe, and now resides in the Buffalo Bill Historic Museum in Cody, Wyo.

General Grant successfully rounded Cape Horn and finished its voyage to California in decent time. From San Francisco, General Grant sailed in November under Capt. Albion P. Alexander for Singapore and then Calcutta, returning to Boston in late September by way of Cape of Good Hope, successfully circumnavigating the globe. It departed for Melbourne November 1865 and arrived off Port Phillip Head, Australia, after 107 days at sea.

Loaded with wool, hides, wood and zinc spelter, General Grant departed Melbourne on May 6, 1866, for England by way of Cape Horn. Part of its cargo included 2,756 ounces of gold, today estimated at nearly $4 million. A ship manifest said it carried 2,057 wool bales; 136 packages of leather; nine tons of zinc spelter; one bundle of hides; 753 calfskins; 18 bales of woolens; two boxes of gold, each containing 2,057 ounces; 26 bales of other skins; 130 packages of pelts; 87 bales of bags; 10,446 horns; 720 pieces of wood; 6,146 hides; 170 packages of sundries and, finally, a quantity of bones and hoofs.

A week after sailing and in near total darkness, General Grant appeared off the Auckland Islands, a treacherous gathering of storm-tossed rocks south of Australia. In thick fog and heavy swells, land suddenly appeared directly ahead, and winds dropped to nothing. Terror gripped the passengers and crew. James Teer, one of the survivors, wrote “…the heavy southwest swell was constantly setting her nearer and nearer the fatal rocks.”

Another survivor, Joseph Jewell, said they smashed into the cliffs bow-on, carrying away their jibboom. General Grant drifted astern for half a mile then struck a point of land which carried away the spanker-boom and rudder, a shock strong enough to severely injure the man at the wheel. The two points of land the ship struck formed an entrance to a cove and it was here General Grant went side-on to the perpendicular rocks. In the gloom, crew and passengers could barely make out the overhanging cliffs. A sounding was taken, they found 25 fathoms beneath the stern. Now General Grant began to work its way into the cove, which ended in a large cavern that Jewell estimated about 250 feet deep. When the foretopmast came in contact with the roof of the cave, the foremast splintered near the deck and was carried away. The main-topgallant mast fell with it and bowsprit and cathead sheared off with a tremendous crash. The collision dislodged numerous boulders from the overhang, which fell, struck the ship and stove-in the forecastle, smashing through its starboard deckhouse.

The captain ordered everyone to wait until daylight before launching any boats, even though General Grant continued grinding its way farther into the cavern. By dawn, its mizzen topgallant mast had crashed down. Three men in a pinnace were launched over the stern, and then the ship’s gig was launched with five aboard, including Teer.

The ship then lurched further into the cave and the heel of the topmast punched through the bottom of the ship. General Grant quickly began to sink; they hurried to get women into any remaining boats. Some passengers and crew fell into the sea and swam for the launched boats; some made it. Seas swept over the ship’s deck, inadvertently launching their longboat. A mad dash followed as remaining crew and passengers tried to climb aboard as it washed off the deck. Survivors watched as at least 40 people aboard the longboat tried to make their way out of the cavern, but a series of waves swamped it, leaving “her heavy human freight in the midst of great dashing waves.”

Fifteen survivors crowded aboard two boats and made their way for Auckland Island and Port Ross; it took them three days. There, they found some abandoned huts and decided to split in two groups and keep watch for passing ships. Nothing was seen and they settled in to wait. Their ordeal had actually just begun.

Nine months later, four of the crew had enough of waiting and decided to sail the pinnace to New Zealand. They departed with no compass, charts or nautical instruments and were never seen again. The remaining 11 moved to Enderby Island, where they subsisted on wild pigs left from an earlier shipwreck. In November 1867, the remaining 10 survivors (one had died of illness) spotted a ship but were not seen until the sealing brig Amherst saw their frantic signals two days later. They were rescued and taken to New Zealand.

Newspaper stories about their ordeal were quickly consumed by a fascinated public. But there always seemed to be something more to the story than just a horrible shipwreck and tales of being cast away. There were whispers and knowing glances by people who might have known more than what the public was being told. Speculation and rumor gained traction about gold, lots of it, way more than what was declared as having been loaded aboard General Grant.

The fact there had actually been some aboard ship added credence and more luster to the story. The 2,756 ounces of gold from the manifest was already well known. That amount of gold was frequently the object of intense discussion, but speculation also began to swirl about those nine tons of zinc pelter that had made up a large portion of General Grant’s cargo.

Some whispered it was not zinc pelter at all, but really ingots from the gold fields at Ballarat. Perhaps its true identity had been hidden on the manifest to avoid closer scrutiny or attraction. More rumors circulated that several passengers had also secretly brought gold aboard with them as well, more riches taken from the gold fields intending to go home with them to England. This may have been in reference to the 170 packages of sundries listed on the manifest.

A further twist came when it was learned that a steamship named London had been lost in Bay of Biscay on its way out to Melbourne; it had been scheduled to take charge of a large cargo of Australian gold. With its loss, some suggested General Grant may have quietly taken on that particular cargo instead.

And that set off the second phase of the story of the General Grant. It was now no longer just a Maine-built ship, wrecked in the Auckland Islands with a tale of desperate castaways trying to survive. No, the General Grant was now being talked about as a treasure ship, chock full of Australian gold! That is, if someone could find it.

To be continued….

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of "Whaling in Maine," available through Historypress.com.