In September of 1855, the American barque Julia Ann set sail from Sydney for San Francisco. Of her fifty-six passengers, twenty-eight were Mormons. Twenty-seven days into the voyage, the ship struck a coral reef off the Society Islands and broke apart. Five of the Mormon passengers were drowned.
Accounts of the shipwreck are a gripping part of Australian sea lore, and were featured in a display at the Sydney Maritime Museum in 1997. Gordon B. Hinckley, then President of the Church presented Premier, Bob Carr with artefacts and records for the display.
A reporter for the San Francisco Herald, upon hearing an eyewitness narrative of the wreck wrote, in 1855, that it exhibited “a picture of suffering, privation and distress seldom equalled in the annals of maritime disaster.”
Nevertheless, seeming miracles also surrounded the tragedy. The captain recorded two dreams of one the Mormon men—dreams which are credited with saving the company of survivors.
Captain Pond prepared a small craft for ten men to seek help by sailing west. He wrote, “One of their Elders had a dream (contradicting my plan)...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...”
Pond’s narrative continues, “I gave strict orders that there should be no more visions told in public unless they were favourable ones. After some days the same Mormon Elder ...had another vision. He saw the boat depart...bound to the eastward; after three days of rowing, they reached a friendly island and were brought safely to Tahiti.”
The small rescue vessel did sail east, and reached one of the Windward Islands “against all human probability,” according to the captain.
Tens of thousands of Latter-day Saint converts from many countries sailed to America between 1840 and 1890, urged to do so by Church leaders. Remarkably, the Julia Ann was the only vessel to be shipwrecked with loss of life.
The inspiring tale of the battered passengers making their way through vicious night seas to an uninhabited island and keeping themselves alive there for sixty days is a tribute to Australian endurance and explains much about the beliefs of early Church members.
The Captain’s Log, passenger journals, and interviews with the survivors provide details of the tragedy and the courage of those involved. One account has been preserved by Brigham Young University in Utah, USA:
Lee Drew, grandchild of survivors Charles (The Elder who had the dreams) and Rosa Logie, wrote the following account:
The first known Mormon family in Australia, Andrew and Elisabeth Anderson, were among the group, as were Edmund and Eliza Harris, who arranged the first meetings for the missionaries in the Maitland area. Australian convert John McCarthy, the first elder to proselytize in Queensland, was also a passenger on the fateful voyage.
Underwater researchers from Australia and the US located the remains of Julia Ann’s wreckage in 1996.