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Brigantine RECOVERY — Revenue Vessel of the Fraser River

August 24, 2010

Without the little Recovery we should not have been allowed, I believe, to call the Fraser River our own.” —Correspondent of The Times,  London, 1858

The brig Recovery was a Hudson’s Bay Company trading ship leased by Governor Douglas in the gold rush summer of ’58 for service as a Revenue vessel in Fraser River.

She played a strategic role in concert with vessels under the command of Captain Prevost of the British Navy,  and as she was leased by the civil authority here, and later owned by the government of British Columbia, and with her Captain Mitchell appointed by the Governor in command of British sailors, she could rightly be seen as constituting a specifically British Columbian Navy.

The Recovery augmented the deployment of the HMS Satellite and her launches, and the HMS Plumper, whose presence in the Fraser River, as acknowledged by Captain Prevost, RN, was

“for the purpose of preserving the territorial rights of the Crown, and of issuing Licences to the miners who were daily flocking to the mines.”

The Recovery was originally called the Orbit, and had been on the west coast since 1849, bringing out a party of fortune seekers from the eastern seaboard to the California goldfields.

Launched in 1846, the Orbit was described as an “American Baltimore clipper-built brig,” 90 feet in length, with a 22 foot beam. She was registered at 154 tons, and at 200 tons fully laden drew just 6 1/2 feet of water, adaptable to river and ocean alike.

On her arrival at Sutter on the Sacramento River, in July 1849, her partners dispersed to the mines, and her contents were sold off under the agency of California pioneer George McKinstry Jr.

She was acquired by a party of four founding settlers of Washington Territory—IN Ebey, BF Shaw, ET Sylvester and S Jackson—who departed California in November for Budd Inlet at the head of Puget’s Sound, making her the first American vessel to journey there.

On arrival at Olympia, her new owners again had no further use for her and she was sold on to MT Simmons who sent her back to San Francisco with a load of spars, opening up the lumber trade from Puget Sound.

Her voyages were extended to British territory in February 1851, when Dr Tolmie of Nisqually arranged with Capt Simmons to employ the Orbit in carrying sheep to Victoria.

The Orbit was wrecked once on the Columbia Bar and claimed for salvage. Fixed up, she was engaged in transporting lumber and shingles to Hawaii when, in January of 1852, she was partially wrecked by a gale in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, driven on to the rocks at Esquimalt, with loss of her rudder and otherwise damaged, and all but written off.

It was an opportune moment for the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had just lost the brig Una returning from gold explorations in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Broken up in the same storm that wrecked the Orbit, the Una had been plundered and burnt to the water by the Cape Flattery Indians. Captain William Mitchell had barely escaped with his life; the native wife of HBC Trader Dr JF Kennedy was stabbed.

The HBC bought the Orbit, refitted her, and renamed her Recovery. She was immediately taken by Captain Mitchell up to the west coast of Moresby Island, where she anchored at Gold Harbour (Mitchell Inlet) in March 1852.  The Fort Simpson journal noted her presence there with optimism.

“We were most pleased to hear that all our friends to the south were well, and that the Recovery, one of our vessels, had gone to Queen Charlotte Island to hunt for and obtain gold. Captains Mitchell and [CE] Stuart and Dr Kennedy were the superior officers of the party, in all forty souls.”

The Recovery was soon joined by two American vessels, the Tepic and the Susan Sturgis, with six more expected. Finding there was no more gold to be found, the Americans soon departed.

The Recovery remained at Moresby Island until May, afterward serving as a trading vessel for the HBC.

[Informative accounts of the Queen Charlotte gold expeditions are given by RJ Staines and by Capt Kuper at

In the first week of October 1852 she was loaded with 130 tons of coal, in barrels, from the new mine at Nanaimo, her departure for California opening up the export market.

In December, under tow of the steamship Beaver, the Recovery took up miners and mine machinery.

In January of 1853, under the command of Governor James Douglas, she was towed up Vancouver Island with a force of marines on board from the warship Thetis, to capture the murderers of a HBC shepherd, and in March she was once again taken up by the steamship Beaver to serve as a guard-ship at the coal mines.

Marine notices in newspapers around the Pacific recorded her trading missions on a regular route that included stops in San Francisco, Victoria and Honolulu. She carried barrels of salted salmon and cranberries from Fort Langley to the Sandwich Islands.

San Francisco November 16, 1853—“Br[itish] brig Recovery, [Capt] Mitchell, 26 days from Vancouver’s Island.”

On November 27th, 1854 the Recovery arrived with the steamer Beaver at Nanaimo, carrying Staffordshire coal miners and their families, ex Princess Royal. She also the same year took over the outfit from Victoria to Fort Langley, supplies which included 3,610 pounds of brown sugar.

Honolulu, Sept 30, 1856—“Br brig Recovery, Mitchell, 154 tns, 30 days from Vancouver’s Island.”

On May 3rd, 1858 she made what would be her last stop in Honolulu—“Br brig Recovery, Mitchell, fm Vancouver’s Island with ass’td cargo to HBCo.”

She departed May 13 for Victoria and on August 7th, 1858 Honolulu reported the “Brit brig Recovery, Mitchell, is now due from Victoria, VI.”

The Recovery never turned up, having been pressed into the Revenue Service on the Fraser River, in the gold rush summer of 1858.

Captain JC Prevost of the 21-gun HMS Satellite, in the service of the Boundary Commission, had recognized the prevailing state of emergency in Fraser River with the influx of miners and foreign vessels, and he positioned his own ship at the entrance to Fraser River to protect British sovereignty and police marine traffic into the gold district.

The launch and gig of the Satellite were deployed to Point Colvile, opposite Westham Island, where they could watch both channels of the south arm of the river.

Neither position observed the North Arm of the river.

Captain Prevost reported to the Governor the necessity for a more permanent force to regulate trade on the river.

“To ensure the carrying out of the [Customs] Proclamation, and to maintain the Revenue Laws, it is necessary that a much larger and better qualified Revenue Force be established than that at present employed.
I would respectfully suggest that a small vessel should be stationed at about the point where the north Channel enters the main stream of Fraser’s River.
She should be in charge of experienced and intelligent Revenue Officers, and should be supplied with two or more good whale boats.
This point effectually commands the passage of the River, and all boats ascending could be easily boarded.
If a display of greater force should be considered requisite, a mud battery with two small guns could be placed in a most commanding position on the right bank of the river.”

The point where the channels of the river become one stream is the site of the present city of New Westminster.

It would take some months to put this strategy fully into effect, and in the meantime the Governor commandeered the services of the HBC brig Recovery.

Prevost acknowledged Governor Douglas’s orders of July 23rd, 1858, issued to Captain William Mitchell of the Recovery:

“directing him to place himself under my orders and sanction—with the object of having that vessel fitted without delay for service as a Revenue Vessel in Fraser’s River, and requesting that I provide from Her Majesty’s Ship Satellite a sufficient force of officers and men to protect the Revenue Officers in the discharge of their duty, and strictly to enforce the Revenue Laws in Fraser’s River.”

Captain Prevost suggested to the Governor that Captain Mitchell, a civilian, ought to be assigned elsewhere to save him from the uncomfortable position of having to take orders, on his own vessel, from Naval Officers his junior in rank.

With astute discretion Governor Douglas appointed Captain William Mitchell of the Recovery a Revenue Officer for the lower Fraser.

A native of Aberdeen, Scotland, “Willie” Mitchell was 57 and had been employed on the Northwest coast 21 years as Captain and Trader in HBC ships, including the barque Vancouver, the brigantine Una, and the schooner Cadboro, sailing between the Columbia River, Puget’s Sound, Fraser River and as far north as Sitka and out to Honolulu. He had been a Master Mariner seven years.

A contingent of 30 men from the Satellite were assigned to the Recovery, under Lieutenant Richard Roche, Assistant Surgeon Peter William Wallace, MD and Midshipman Henry St Vincent Jenkings.

Also assigned to the Recovery was the gold district Revenue Officer Richard Hicks, delaying his departure for Yale by some four weeks.

The Recovery sailed up to the point where the Fraser River becomes one stream and there set anchor.

At times when the naval ships Satellite and Plumper returned to their assignment with the Boundary Commission, the Recovery was the only vessel on duty between the mouth of the Fraser and the gold diggings.

In one of many reports from the region sent to newspapers around the world, a gold-seeker wrote that he left Victoria on August 3 and

“About 10 miles up, we passed the revenue brig Recovery lying at anchor, with the license collector and custom house officers aboard.”

A writer in the London Times would later pay homage to the role of the Recovery at this critical time.

“The Recovery is not a man-of-war, but a private vessel, belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company.  She has a revenue officer (a civilian) on board, and a complement of 30 sailors and marines from the Satellite, in charge of the second-lieutenant of the latter ship, Mr Roach, and two midshipmen. . .Without the little Recovery we should not have been allowed, I believe, to call the Fraser River our own.”

The Recovery was not a welcome sight to those travelling upstream, either “warping” their way slowly along the river bank, or steaming along in larger flat-bottom boats.  The Northern Light, the newspaper of Bellingham Bay, took umbrage at the measures taken to collect the tax.

“Fired At:  A gentleman just returned from Fort Langley informs us that a few days ago, as Mr Samuel McCullough, formerly of Sacramento, was ascending Fraser River with his side-wheel skiff, he was hailed from a British brig lying in those waters, and ordered to lie to.  Mr McCullough paid no attention to the command.  He was hailed a second time, and kept on his course, when a shot was fired across his bows—of course to frighten him.  This decided Mr McCullough to submit to the process of being fleeced out of the amount necessary to secure a ‘sufferance.’
Should the Hudson’s Bay Company shed one drop of American blood, during the prevalence of this gold excitement, we rather think the country will become too hot to hold it.”

Some miners, having spent all their ready cash on supplies, had nothing left to pay to the Revenue Service. An American report dated November 1858 observed—

“The brig Recovery, stationed in Fraser river as a gun boat, for collection of licences and duty, would not be inappropriately named Pawn Brokers’ Shop.  They have in instances where parties have had no money to pay the charge, taken guns, pistols, flour, bags of bean, &c.”

Richard Hicks’ statement to the Treasurer attests to the success of his duties while based on the Recovery. During the three weeks of August 1st to August 18th he collected $2850.00 on the sale of Mining Licenses at $5.00 per.  Sufferances issued amounted to another $660.00 and a further $15.00 came from the sale of Trading Licenses.

At times the demands of Governor Douglas upon the ship Satellite were stretching her Captain and crew to the limits.  Following the Governor’s request of August 20th for assistance in the Fraser Canyon following an “alarming collision between white miners and the native Indian tribes,” Prevost had to explain the limitations of his Naval Surveying crew as a land-based army.

“I conceive it my duty to represent to you, how utterly incapable any force I could supply from Her Majesty’s ship under my command, would be found, if required to act on the offensive.”

Even with “30 of the Crew being already on detached service protecting the Revenue Laws in Fraser’s River,” Prevost was willing to assist the Governor with an escort, including the services of the Assistant Surgeon of the Satellite, Dr P W Wallace, who was then stationed aboard the Recovery.

Governor Douglas departed Victoria late in the evening on August 30, 1858 accompanied by 22 Royal Marines under Lieut HS Jones of the Satellite, and 14 Royal Engineers, all under the command of newly arrived Major John S Hawkins, the British Boundary Commissioner in charge of the land survey of the 49th Parallel.

After stopping briefly at Point Roberts the next morning, the party proceeded up the Fraser until they came to the Recovery at her anchorage in mid-stream, watching the channels of the river, and drew alongside her.

The accompanying correspondent notes:

“We deliver to the Recovery something ‘for the comfort of the inner man;’ and we pick up Dr Wallace, the assistant surgeon of the Satellite, to accompany Major Hawkins’ military party—a happy exchange for us. The Governor transacts some business. Our party get three cheers that ‘make the welkin ring’ from the Recovery’s men, which we, of course, politely return and we start in the dusk, which soon changes to darkness.”

After spending the night at Fort Langley, Hawkins’ expedition continued up to the gold region, where Governor Douglas met with miners and found that the Indian war was an exaggeration.

In the first week of November 1858, the Recovery passed into the hands of the Royal Engineers and was anchored at Derby, where an advance contingent were sent to build barracks and prepare for the arrival of the Sappers and their families in the coming months.

Revenue enforcement was left in the hands of William Bevis at Fort Langley, who soon received assistance from an additional officer, Charles Wylde.

The brig was adapted to a brighouse with the arrival in early November of the prisoner Mathias Neil, charged with the death of William Hartwell in a shoot-out in a saloon at the forks of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers. Neil was held until March, when he was tried in the new Barracks by Judge Begbie and a Jury.

The Royal Engineer carpenters had scarcely begun their work at Derby when, in the first week of 1859, they were called upon to quell an unrest at the gold diggings upriver.

Capt Parsons wrote to Gov Douglas to inform him that Colonel Moody, Judge Begbie, Capt Grant, Dr Mitchell, and 24 Royal Engineers had left

“to investigate some reported disturbances near Fort Yale.  I remain on board the ‘Recovery’ with 2 soldiers and 5 sick men to take charge of the ship, together with the stores and buildings on shore.”

Moody’s force would be augmented by Marines, seconded from the Satellite and Plumper.

John Frederick Mitchell, who accompanied this expedition, was the Assistant Surgeon of the HMS Ganges, the British flag ship which had arrived in Esquimalt on October 17th. Later in the spring, when the wives and children of the Royal Engineers arrived in British Columbia, they were housed at the barracks at Derby, under charge of Dr Mitchell, prior to the completion of their accommodation at Queenborough.

Three English businessmen—Bushby, Burnaby and Cochrane—had accompanied Moody’s party on the Beaver as far as Fort Langley, on the lookout for a site to establish a sawmill.   The Recovery being vacated by the Engineers who had gone upriver, Capt Parsons accommodated them on board. During their stay, on Jan 11, the cook shop on the Recovery caught fire, but no major damage occurred.

The Plumper came up the river in dramatic style, firing guns along the way.  She anchored just below the Fort and sent a party under Lieut Mayne to meet with Moody’s contingent at Hope.  The river was frozen up and steamers could not proceed.

In the Canyon the hostilities ended with Moody and the miner’s agitator Ned McGowan sharing a drink of champagne.

The Engineers completed their building at Derby and the Recovery was no longer needed there. By this time Col Moody had decided another site further downriver, called Queenborough, would better suit for a Military establishment and capital city for British Columbia. It was the place where Capt Prevost had proposed installing a mud battery and a couple of small guns—gateway to the main stream of the Fraser River.

Opposite the Camp, where once the Recovery was anchored to police passage upriver, a Revenue Station was built and occupied by a “Special Force for Revenue Service” under the command of Captain James Kirk.

On March 12, 1859 the Recovery was towed by a passing steamer downriver to Queenborough.  Judge Begbie and his clerk Arthur Bushby, who had been staying aboard the Recovery while holding Court at Derby, came down with her to pay a visit to Colonel Moody.

The Camp of the Royal Engineers was taking shape and a newspaper correspondent from Victoria observed—

“The Topographical Engineers mess on board the Recovery, an American built brig formerly used as a revenue vessel in the river, but which is now anchored a few feet off shore in front of His Excellency’s quarters.”

The Recovery was deemed superfluous once all the Engineers and their families were in barracks or houses.  She returned upriver to Langley.

Under the rules of apportionment, the value of fines and goods seized by Revenue Service  was divided equally, with HM Customs, the Governor, and the Seizer each getting a third, shown thus.

“1859 March 18 – Net Proceeds of a Boat Seized at Langley . . . $118.75
Her Majesty’s Customs . . . . . . $39.59
His Excellency Governor Douglas. . 39.58
Captain Mitchell ‘Recovery’. . . . 39.58”

Moody wrote to Douglas to inform Mr Dallas of the HBC that there was “no longer any necessity for the Brig Recovery, being retained here.”  Moody had a suggestion that the old brig might be put to use as a Light Ship at the mouth of the Fraser and suggested

“that she may be dropped down the river to this place, where I could make her of service, and there she could be fitted up with reference to her future destination at the sandheads.”

In May the Recovery, which was formerly leased from the HBC, was purchased by the Government and put at Moody’s disposal. Douglas noted that she could be moved to Queenborough without delay.

In apportioning his Expenditures, Colonel Moody officially recorded the Recovery as wholly a Military Expense:

“Rent of Brigantine Recovery > Used as a Temporary Barracks for the R.E. at Langley and Queenborough, hired by the Civil Authorities but occupied by R.E. on Navy ceasing to do the Revenue duty upon which she had been employed.”

Governor Douglas commissioned Captain Richards of the Plumper to assess the suitability of the Recovery as a Light Ship.  The Captain reported in the negative.

“It would in my opinion be worse than useless to put the Recovery there now with her own ground tackle for she would constantly come to destruction,” wrote Richards. He noted that any ship in the river, especially with the flood current, is constantly subjected to battering from large trees floating downstream, to the extent that, in the Plumper, such bumps in the night, and the consequent call for all hands on deck to free the ship from trees, were “keeping me awake.”   He suggested a more suitable firmly-anchored and well-built, bathtub-shaped vessel could be obtained cheaply in San Francisco.

In August the Recovery once again entered the Customs service. William Henry Bevis was ordered to bring her downriver from Langley. It would be his last official act with the Revenue Service. New Collector of Customs Wymond Hamley ordered the Recovery to be moored at the Custom House wharf at New Westminster, with Capt Kirk’s men on board. The Revenue Station on the opposite side of the river was shut down.  This would save money and enable the Revenue Service to better watch the comings and goings from the town.

On November 7, 1859, the Colonial Secretary wrote to Col Moody that

“Mr Hamley has been instructed to carry out a suggestion made by him for the erection…of a building for the accommodation of the Revenue Department hitherto lodged in the Recovery.”

In November the Recovery was sold into private hands.  Purchased by the Portland firm of Leonard & Green, the Recovery was given back her old name, Orbit.  She was first noticed again in marine reports February 29, 1860.

“Brig Orbit, Leonard, 5 das from Columbia River, lumber, to master.”

She resumed her trading career crisscrossing the Pacific between San Francisco, Northwest ports, Hawaii and the China coast, making regular stops at Hong Kong, the Siberian port of  Nicholaesfsky, Amoor, Kamchatka, and Hakodadi, Japan and Vancouver Island until,  in 1862, she was sold on  in Shanghai to the agent of an American firm newly established in Yokohama. Her Captain Obed Sherman remained on with the vessel.

EC Leonard recounted his last look at her as he passed out of Shanghai.

“Immediately after I sold her she left for her new home port and was with a number of other vessels lying at Woosung at the mouth of the river at anchor waiting for the weather to clear before starting out to run over to her new home port in Japan. Our steamer on her way out passed close by her. Her captain and crew (so long with me) were on deck to give a parting salute which passed between us. A few days after reaching Hong Kong, an American bark came in, partially dismasted, that was also lying at Woosung as I passed out, her captain told me that the following day he and the Orbit went out in company and when both were fairly out in the Yellow Sea a typhoon struck them, with which they had a hard battle; his ship was partially dismasted, but he reached Hong Kong. He said the brig, which he watched from time to time as they were near together, and as far as he could see she also rode out all right, making ‘better weather’ than he did, but alas, this was the last authentic news that ever came back to me or to any one of the fate of her. Captain Sherman, his wife who went with him on his last voyage, the crew of six men, cook and boy, all went down. About a month after I reached Portland a bark arrived from Japan bringing me the sad news that she never reached her destination.”

The Daily Colonist reported at Victoria:

“The brig ‘Orbit,’ lately lost in the China Sea, was formerly the Hudson Bay Company’s trading vessel, ‘Recovery.’ She was stationed at the mouth of the Fraser as a kind of portable custom house, in 1858, and her officers used to overhaul miner’s canoes and make them shell out the $5 license before they permitted them to enter the country.”

On January 14, 1876 Captain William Mitchell, one time master of the Recovery and Revenue Officer  of ’58, died aged 74. He was eulogized for his popularity, his cheerfulness and his kindness. Walbran called him “a generous good-hearted sailor who utterly despised anything small or mean.” In 1877, there was installed “a handsome monument over the old navigator’s tomb.”


The Orbit was launched October, 1846.
The Orbit sailed from New York on Jan 13, 1849 with 35 passengers and a crew of 10, rounded Cape Horn and arrived at San Francisco July 23, 1849 after a voyage of 190 days, with 26 passengers declared.

A list of the 35 adventurers from Hudson, NY, who in 1848 subscribed $500 each to purchase and outfit the Orbit and journey to California in January 1849.

Captain Francis (Frank) Best
John N Best
John Ward Penoyer
Derrick H Plass
Abner P Norton
Frederick Reynolds
George W Garretson
Peter L Traver
Henry Van Dyck
John G Chapman
John D Jessup
M D Curtis
Walter Dorchester
Frederick E Stowe
Jesse Squire
Edmund Waldorph
Charles Pierson
George Parton
Edmund Hatfield
Charles C Massey
Jeremiah Race
Edward C Coffin
Ira Buckman Jr
Thomas Newell
Benjamin F Harder
F Hogeboom
George Jerome
Marshall Coventry
Hiram L Loop
Norman Jacobie
John R Chapman
Charles C Penfield
Robert H McClellan
Ardent J Van Dyke
Morris Ten Eyck

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