This medal for bravery, for rescue of the crew from the shipwreck “Eric the Red” on 4th September 1880, was awarded to one of the crew of the steamer S.S. Dawn by the President of the United States in July 1881.
The medal is engraved with the name “Nelson Johnson” (the anglicised version of his Swedish name Neils Frederick Yohnson). It was donated to Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village in 2013 by Nelson’s granddaughter. Nelson had migrated from Sweden to Sydney in 1879. The next year in 1880, aged 24, he was a seaman on the steamship Dawn and involved in the rescue of the survivors of the Eric the Red.
Nelson Johnson was a crew member of the S.S. Dawn and was one the rescue team in the dinghy in the early morning of September 4th 1880. Medals were awarded to the Captain and crew of the S.S. Dawn by the President of the United States, through the Consul-general (Mr Oliver M. Spencer), in July 1881 “ … in recognition of their humane efforts in rescuing the 23 survivors of the American built wooden sailing ship, the Eric the Red, on 4th September 1880.” The men were also presented with substantial monetary rewards and gifts. The city of Warrnambool’s care of the survivors was also mentioned by the President at the presentation, saying that “the city hosted and supported the crew ‘most graciously’.
Previously, a week after the shipwreck, the Australian Government had also conveyed its thanks to the Captain and crew of the S.S. Dawn “Captain Griffith Jones, S.S. Dawn, The Hon. Mr Clark desires that the thanks of the Government should be conveyed to you for the prompt, persevering and seamanlike qualities displayed by you, your officers and crew in saving the number of lives you did on the occasion referred to. The hon. The Commissioner has also been pleased to award you a souvenir in commemoration of the occasion, and a sum of 65 pounds to be awarded to your officers and crew according to annexed scale. I am, &c, W Collins Rees, for and in the absence of the Chief Harbour Master.” The Awards are as follows: - Crew of DAWN'S lifeboat-Chief Officer, Mr G. Peat, 15 pounds; boat's crew-G. Sterge, A.B., 5 pounds; T. Hammond, A.B., 5 pounds; J. Black, A.B., 5 pounds; H. Edwards, A.B., 5 pounds. Dinghy's Crew-Second Officer, Mr Christie, 10 pounds; boat's crew -F. Lafer, A.B., 5 pounds; W. Johnstone, A.B., 5 pounds; Mr Lear, provedore, 5 pounds; Mr Dove, purser, 5 pounds. Captain Jones receives a piece of plate. (from “Wreck of the ship Eric the Red” by Jack Loney)
The medal’s history, according to the Editor of ‘E-Sylum’ (the newsletter of the The Numismatic Bibliomania Society “… appears to be an example of an 1880 State Department medal, catalogued as LS-3 (page 322 of R. W. Julian's book, Medals of the United States Mint: The First Century 1792-1892). The reverse is mostly blank for engraving, surrounded with a thin wreath. It was designed by George Morgan, chief engraver for the Philadelphia Mint, and struck in gold, silver and bronze. The one pictured here (in The Standard newspaper, 2nd July 2013) appears to be silver.”
The following is an account of the events which led to the awarding of this medal. The American ship Eric the Red was a wooden, three masted clipper ship. She had 1,580 tons register and was the largest full-rigged ship built at Bath, Maine, USA in 1871. She was built and registered by Arthur Sewall, later to become the partnership E. & A. Sewall, the 51st ship built by this company. The annually-published List of Merchant Vessels of the U.S. shows Bath was still the home port of Eric the Red in 1880. The vessel was named after the Viking discoverer, Eric ‘the Red-haired’ Thorvaldsson , who was the first European to reach the shores of North America (in 980AD). The ship Eric the Red at first traded in coal between America and Britain, and later traded in guano nitrates from South America. In 1879 she was re-metalled and was in first class condition.
On 10th June 1880 (some records say 12th June) Eric the Red departed New York for Melbourne and then Sydney. She had been commissioned by American trade representatives to carry a special cargo of 500 exhibits (1400 tons) – about a quarter to a third of America’s total exhibits - for the U.S.A. pavilion at Melbourne’s first International Exhibition. The exhibits included furniture, ironmongery, wines, chemicals, dental and surgical instruments, paper, cages, bronze lamp trimmings, axles, stamped ware, astronomical and time globes, samples of corn and the choicest of leaf tobacco. Other general cargo included merchandise such as cases of kerosene and turpentine, brooms, Bristol's Sarsaparilla, Wheeler and Wilson sewing machines, Wheeler’s thresher machine, axe handles and tools, cases of silver plate, toys, pianos and organs, carriages and Yankee notions.
The Eric the Red left New York under the command of Captain Zaccheus Allen (or some records say Captain Jacques Allen) and 24 other crew including the owner’s son third mate Ned Sewall. There were also 2 saloon passengers on board.
The ship had been sailing for an uneventful 85 days and the voyage was almost at its end. As Eric the Red approached Cape Otway there was a moderate north-west wind and hazy and overcast atmosphere. On 4th September 1880 at about 1:30am Captain Allen sighted the Cape Otway light and was keeping the ship 5-6 miles offshore to stay clear of the hazardous Otway Reef. However he had badly misjudged his position. The ship hit the Otway Reef about 2 miles out to sea, south west of the Cape Otway light station.
Captain Allen ordered the wheel to be put ‘hard up’ thinking that she might float off the reef. The sea knocked the helmsman away from the wheel, broke the wheel ropes and carried away the rudder. The lifeboats were swamped, the mizzenmast fell, with all of its rigging, then the mainmast also fell and the ship broke in two.
Some said that the passenger Vaughan, who was travelling for his health and not very strong, was washed overboard and never seen again. The ship started breaking up. The forward house came adrift with three of the crew on it as well as a longboat, which the men succeeded in launching and keeping afloat by continually bailing with their sea boots. The captain, the third mate (the owner’s son) and others clung to the mizzenmast in the sea. Then the owner’s son was washed away off the mast. Within 10 minutes the rest of the ship was in pieces, completely wrecked, with cargo and wreckage floating in the sea. The captain encouraged the second mate to swim with him to the deckhouse where there were other crew but the second mate wouldn’t go with him. Eventually the Captain made it to the deckhouse and the men pulled him up.
At about 4:30am the group of men on the deckhouse saw the lights of a steamer and called for help. At the same time they noticed the second mate and the other man had drifted nearby, still on the spur, and pulled them both onto the wreck.
The coastal steamer SS Dawn was returning to Warrnambool from Melbourne, its sailing time different to its usual schedule. She was built in 1876 and bought by the Portland and Belfast Steam Navigation Co. in 1877. At the time of this journey she was commanded by Captain Jones, and was sailing between Melbourne and Portland via Warrnambool.
The provedoreof the Dawn, Benjamin Lear, heard cries of distress coming through the portholes of the saloon. He gave the alarm and the engines were stopped. Cries could be heard clearly, coming from the land. Captain Jones sent out crew in two boats, and fired off rockets and blue lights to illuminate the area. They picked up the three survivors who were in the long boat from Eric the Red. Two men were picked up out of the water, one being the owner’s son who was clinging to floating kerosene boxes. At daylight the Dawn then rescued the 18 men from the floating portion of the deckhouse, which had drifted about 4 miles from where they’d struck the reef. Shortly after the rescue the deckhouse drifted onto breakers and was thrown onto rocks at Point Franklin, about 2 miles east of Cape Otway.
Captain Jones had signalled to Cape Otway lighthouse the number of the Eric the Red and later signalled that there was a wreck at Otway Reef but there was no response from the lighthouse. The captain and crew of the Dawn spent several more hours searching unsuccessfully for more survivors, even going back as far as Apollo Bay. On board the Dawn the exhausted men received care and attention to their needs and wants, including much needed clothing.
Captain Allen was amongst the 23 battered and injured men who were rescued and later taken to Warrnambool for care. Warrnambool’s mayor and town clerk offered them all hospitality, the three badly injured men going to the hospital for care and others to the Olive Branch Hotel, then on to Melbourne. Captain Allen’s leg injury prevented him from going ashore so he and three other men travelled on the Dawn to Portland. They were met by the mayor who also treated them all with great kindness. Captain Allen took the train back to Melbourne then returned to America.
Those saved were Captain Zaccheus Allen (or Jacques Allen), J. Darcy chief mate, James F. Lawrence second mate, Ned Sewall third mate and owner’s son, John French the cook, C. Nelson sail maker, Clarence W. New passenger, and the able seamen Dickenson, J. Black, Denis White, C. Herbert, C. Thompson, A. Brooks, D. Wilson, J. Ellis, Q. Thompson, C. Newman, W. Paul, J. Davis, M. Horenleng, J. Ogduff, T. W. Drew, R. Richardson.
Four men had lost their lives; three of them were crew (Gus Dahlgreen ship’s carpenter, H. Ackman steward, who drowned in his cabin, and George Silver seaman) and one a passenger (J. B. Vaughan). The body of one of them had been found washed up at Cape Otway and was later buried in the lighthouse cemetery; another body was seen on an inaccessible ledge.
Twelve months later the second mate James F. Lawrence, from Nova Scotia, passed away in the Warrnambool district; an obituary was displayed in the local paper.
Neither the ship, nor its cargo, was insured. The ship was worth about £15,000 and the cargo was reportedly worth £40,000; only about £2,000 worth had been recovered. Cargo and wreckage washed up at Apollo Bay, Peterborough, Port Campbell, Western Port and according to some reports, even as far away as the beaches of New Zealand.
The day after the wreck the government steam ship Pharos was sent from Queenscliff to clear the shipping lanes of debris that could be a danger to ships. The large midship deckhouse of the ship was found floating in a calm sea near Henty Reef. Items such as an American chair, a ladder and a nest of boxes were all on top of the deckhouse. As it was so large and could cause danger to passing ships, Captain Payne had the deckhouse towed towards the shore just beyond Apollo Bay.
Between Apollo Bay and Blanket Bay the captain and crew of Pharos collected Wheeler and Wilson sewing machines, nests of boxes, bottles of Bristol’s sarsaparilla, pieces of common American chairs, axe handles, a Wheelers’ Patent thresher and a sailor’s trunk with the words “A. James” on the front. A ship’s flag-board bearing the words “Eric the Red” was found on the deckhouse; finally those on board the Pharos had the name of the wrecked vessel.
During this operation Pharos came across the government steamer Victoria and also a steamer S.S. Otway, both of which were picking up flotsam and wreckage. A whole side of the hull and three large pieces of the other side of the hull, with some of the copper sheathing stripped off, had floated on to Point Franklin. Some of the vessels yards and portions of her masts were on shore. The pieces of canvas attached to the yards and masts confirmed that the vessel had been under sail. The beach there was piled with debris several feet high. There were many cases of Diamond Oil kerosene, labelled R. W. Cameron and Company, New York. There were also many large planks of red pine, portions of a small white boat and a large, well-used oar.
Other items found ashore included sewing machines (some consigned to ‘Long and Co.”) and notions, axe and scythe handles, hay forks, wooden pegs, rolls of wire (some branded “T.S” and Co, Melbourne”), kegs of nails branded “A.T. and Co.” from the factory of A. Field and Son, Taunton, Massachusetts, croquet balls and mallets, buggy fittings, rat traps, perfumery, cutlery and Douay Bibles, clocks, bicycles, chairs, a fly wheel, a cooking stove, timber, boxes, pianos, organs and a ladder. (Wooden clothes pegs drifted in for many years). There seemed to be no personal luggage or clothing.
The Pharos encountered a long line, about one and a half miles, of floating wreckage about 10 miles off land, south east of Cape Otway, and in some places about 40 feet wide. It seemed that more than half of it was from Eric the Red. The ship’s crew rescued 3 cases that were for the Melbourne Exhibition and other items from amongst the debris. There were also chairs, doors, musical instruments, washing boards, nests of trunks and fly catchers floating in the sea. Most of the goods were saturated and smelt of kerosene.
A section of the hull lies buried in the sand at Parker River Beach. An anchor with chain is embedded in the rocks east of Point Franklin and a second anchor, thought to be from Eric the Red, is on display at the Cape Otway light station. (There is a photograph of a life belt on the verandah of Rivernook Guest House in Princetown with the words “ERIC THE RED / BOSTON”. This is rather a mystery as the ship was registered in Bath, Maine, USA.) Parts of the ship are on display at Bimbi Park Caravan Park and at Apollo Bay Museum. Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village also has part of the helm (steering wheel), a carved wooden sword (said to be the only remaining portion of the ship’s figurehead; further research is currently being carried out), a door, a metal rod, samples of wood and this medal awarded for the rescue of the crew.
Much of the wreckage was recovered by the local residents before police and other authorities arrived at the scene. Looters went to great effort to salvage goods, being lowered down the high cliff faces to areas with little or no beach to collect items from the wreckage, their mates above watching out for dangerous waves. A Tasmanian newspaper reports on a court case in Stawell, Victoria, noting a man who was caught 2 months later selling tobacco from the wreckage of Eric the Red.
Some of the silverware is still treasured by descendants of Mr Mackenzie who was given these items by officials for his help in securing the cargo. The gifts included silver coffee and tea pots, half a dozen silver serviette rings and two sewing machines.
A Mr G.W. Black has in his possession a medal and a purse that were awarded to his father, another Dawn crew member who was part of the rescue team. The medal is similarly inscribed and named “To John Black ….” (from “Shipwrecks” by Margaret E. Mackenzie, 3rd edition, published 1964).
The wreck and cargo were sold to a Melbourne man who salvaged a quantity of high quality tobacco and dental and surgical instruments.
Timbers from the ship were salvaged and used in the construction of houses and sheds around Apollo Bay, including a guest house, Milford House (since burnt down in bushfires), which had furniture, fittings and timber on the dining room floor from the ship. A 39.7 foot long trading ketch, the Apollo, was also built from its timbers by Mr Burgess in 1883 and subsequently used in Tasmanian waters. It was the first attempt at ship building in Apollo bay.
In 1881 a red light was installed about 300 feet above sea level at the base of the Cape Otway lighthouse to warn ships when they were too close to shore; It would not be visible unless a ship came within 3 miles from it. This has proved to be an effective warning.
Nelson Johnson married Elizabeth Howard in 1881 and they had 10 children, the father of the medal’s donor being the youngest. They lived in 13 Tichbourne Place, South Melbourne, Victoria. Nelson died in 1922 in Fitzroy Victoria, age 66.
In 1895 the owners of the S.S. Dawn, the Portland and Belfast Steam Navigation Co., wound up and sold out to the Belfast Company who took over the Dawn for one year before selling her to Howard Smith. She was condemned and sunk in Suva in 1928.
The State Library of Victoria has a lithograph in its collection depicting the steamer Dawn and the shipwrecked men, titled. "Wreck of the ship Eric the Red, Cape Otway: rescue of the crew by the Dawn".
The medal for bravery is associated with the ship the “The Eric the Red which is historically significant as one of Victoria's major 19th century shipwrecks. (Heritage Victoria Eric the Red; HV ID 239)
The wreck led to the provision of an additional warning light placed below the Cape Otway lighthouse to alert mariners to the location of Otway Reef. The site is archaeologically significant for its remains of a large and varied cargo and ship's fittings being scattered over a wide area.
The site is recreationally and aesthetically significant as it is one of the few sites along this coast where tourists can visit identifiable remains of a large wooden shipwreck, and for its location set against the background of Cape Otway, Bass Strait, and the Cape Otway lighthouse.“
(Victorian Heritage Database Registration Number S239, Official Number 8745 USA)
This medal was awarded to Nelson Johnson by the U.S. President for bravery in the rescue of the Eric the Red crew.
The obverse of the round, solid silver medal has an inscription around the rim. In the centre of the medal is the head of Liberty to the left, hair in a bun, with a sprig of leaves in the top left of a band around her head. There is a 6-pointed star below the portrait, between the start and end of the inscription. There are two raised areas on the rim, horizontally opposite each other, from the edge to just below the lettering and coinciding with the holes drilled in the edge. Slightly right of the top is a round indentation in the rim.
The reverse has a wreath of leaves as a border, joined at the bottom by a ribbon bow. In the centre of the medal is an inscription, decorated with 3-pronged design and dots.
The edge is plain with 2 small, rough and uneven holes horizontally opposite to each other, as though they had been used for mounting the medal at some stage.
The medal has a matte finish on both sides and is slightly pitted and scratched.
Inscriptions & markings
“PRESENTED BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES” around the perimeter of the obverse of the medal.
“TO / Nelson Johnson, / seaman of the British, / str “Dawn”, for bravery, / at risk of life, / in / rescuing the crew of / the American Ship / “Eric the Red.”
“M” on obverse, truncation of the portrait
- flagstaff hill,
- flagstaff hill maritime village,
- maritime museum,
- shipwreck coast,
- great ocean road,
- shipwreck artefact,
- eric the red,
- zaccheus allen,
- melbourne exhibition,
- cape otway,
- otway reef,
- victorian shipwreck,
- nelson johnson,
- neils frederick yohnson,
- s.s. dawn,
- george morgan