The Mysterious Disappearance of the brig Robert Willis

Lost Ship of the Month for May

The Mystery of Captain McLean,

the Mormons and the Medicine Man


Brendon Baillod

[This article originally appeared in Inland Seas, the journal of the Great Lakes Historical Society] 

Captain Murdick McLean was one of Lake Superior’s best-known vessel masters.  He had come from a long line of sailors.  His uncles on the Rowan side of his family were all Lake skippers and his mother “was also quite handy, and qualified to take her place at the wheel even in heavy weather.”  Captain McLean had first shipped in 1869 at age 14 on his Uncle Duncan Rowan’s steamer, the William Seymour and subsequently went on to captain at least 20 different Lake vessels.  He sailed with Captain Alexander McDougall, of whaleback fame and survived a number of shipwrecks.  His biography is found in Mansfield’s History of the Great Lakes:

Captain Murdick McLean, a well known master sailing out of Duluth, Minn., and a born sailor, is a son of Captain John and Mary (Rowan) McLean, natives of Inverness, Scotland, who came to America in the early forties, first locating near St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, and later removing to Kincardine, Ontario, where the birth of our subject occurred December 4, 1855.

Every time Captain McLean passed Beaver Island, his thoughts would drift back to the Fall of 1853 and the father he never knew.  His father, Captain John McLean had come to Canada in 1842 from Inverness, Scotland and had chosen the life of a Great Lakes mariner.  He sailed on many vessels over the course of his career, but the last would be the brig Robert Willis.  As a boy, young Murdick McLean had heard the stories about his father’s unsolved disappearance, sailing the Robert Willis through a Lake Michigan gale.  He was taking a cargo of wheat up the Lakes from Chicago to Buffalo when a blinding snowstorm overtook his ship.  Neither John McLean nor the Robert Willis were ever seen again.  Some years later, a grave containing the bodies of eight sailors was found on Beaver Island.  The locals claimed that the Robert Willis had been hijacked by King Strang and his Mormon followers, who had established a “Kingdom” on Beaver Island at the time.  Captain McLean never learned if the rumors were true, and he could only wonder what actually became of his father and the Robert Willis.

When the Robert Willis vanished, she disappeared both physically and historically.  Her career was very short, lasting just over a year and not surprisingly, she was easily forgotten.  Her documentation papers were misfiled and despite the unusual circumstances surrounding her loss, she quickly faded from memory.  The only surviving references to her loss were buried in the biographies of Mansfield’s History of the Great Lakes and in news microfilms.  It is consequently not surprising that the accounts of her loss remained buried until recently.

The Robert Willis was a very large vessel for her day and was probably the largest sailing vessel on the Lakes when she was launched in the Spring of 1852.  She was 152.2 feet long, 26.7 ft. in beam, with a depth of hold measuring 10.5 ft.  She had a carrying capacity of 367.86 gross tons by the Builders Old Measure system and sported an ornate figurehead under her prow.  She was a two masted vessel and was built as a brig, with square sails.  She was considered a fast sailer and her owners referred to her in advertisements as a “clipper brig.”  Her builders, Bidwell & Banta of Buffalo, were well known for high quality, massive vessels.  They had just built the 250 ft. palace steamer Lady Elgin the previous season and were at the height of their craft.  The Willis was one of three vessels built on a new design, the others being the Henry L. Lansing and Fox.  They reportedly “had little sheer, were straight and sharp and proved smart sailers.”  The Willis was reportedly named after her first master, Captain Robert S. Willis.  She was enrolled at the Buffalo Customs House on August 25, 1852 and immediately entered the trans-Lake trade between Buffalo and Chicago.

The Willis was commissioned by a most interesting patron.  Cyrenius C. Bristol was the Sasparilla king of Buffalo.  He was, in the parlance of the time, a “Chemist”, specializing in various medicinal remedies and refreshments.  Cyrenius made his mark by inventing his restorative “Bristol’s Sasparilla” in the 1830s, which he hawked from his drug store at 302 Main St. in Buffalo.  His Sasparilla drink became quite famous and made Bristol a wealthy man.  He later added his “Balsam of Hourhound”, “Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills” and “Rose Hair Gloss” to his brands.  By 1850, Cyrenius had become wealthy enough to diversify and formed a side business “Bristol & Darrow, Forwarding and Commission Merchants,” which Bristol ran out of his drugstore-laboratory.  Bristol’s first venture into Lake commerce came in 1850 when he purchased a share in the steamer Ogontz.  By 1853, Bristol’s forwarding business was booming and he contracted additional vessels to haul railroad iron to Chicago and take grain back. The freight business with Chicago and Milwaukee was brisk and Bristol was convinced to build his own vessel for the booming grain trade with Lake Michigan.  He consequently commissioned Bidwell & Banta to build him a massive sailing ship that would bring huge revenues with each grain cargo it delivered. 

Bristol was highly educated and corresponded with many luminaries of the day, including Horace Greeley and Charles A. Dana, editors of the New York Tribune. Bristol was poised to become one of the leading businessmen in Buffalo, but the vessel that was to bring him prominence proved his undoing

Bristol and his partners made arrangements to ship grain cargoes from Chicago, but Bristol also shipped plenty of his Sasparilla and other concoctions to Chicago, often smuggling them amidst bulk cargo.  Unfortunately, like most grain vessels of her day, the Robert Willis soon ran into trouble.  She had only one season under her belt when she was dispatched to the western Lakes with a load of railroad iron and salt.  On reaching Chicago, she was to take on a shipment of grain for Buffalo.  She departed Buffalo on August 30th and had made the journey across Lake Erie, up Lake Huron and through the Straits, when a gale blew up from the west.  The Willis was coming up Lake Michigan when her seams began to open and water poured in. Her crew took to the pumps and worked feverishly for hours before the captain was obliged to anchor her under the lee of South Manitou Island.

We learn from Capt. Rossman of prop. LADY OF THE LAKE, that when he passed the South Manitou, on Monday evening, the schr. R. WILLIS, of, and from Buffalo, loaded with 300 tons railroad iron and a lot of salt, for Michigan City, was lying there leaking very badly, and keeping 2 pumps going continually to prevent the water gaining.  The captain expressed his intention to try and reach Beaver Island harbor, take out her cargo and heave the vessel on shore for repairs, but the wind has doubtless prevented him.  The leak was first discovered about 2:00 on Monday morning, and it was sometime in the afternoon before the vessel was relieved, though all hands worked steadily at the pumps.  The R. WILLIS belongs to C.C. Bristol, of Buffalo. - Chi. Trib. - Detroit Free Press, September 10, 1853

Cyrenius Bristol hired salvors in Chicago to raise the vessel and she was lightered, pumped out and reloaded at considerable expense:

Capt. Palmer has just arrived from Chicago having been up the lake to the scene of the wreck of the brig ROBERT WILLIS, which was sunk near the Manitou Islands about 2 weeks since.  Capt. Palmer succeeded in getting the vessel afloat, he succeeds in all he attempts, indeed, and having reloaded her with the iron she had on board, sent her to port in good order.  Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, September 23, 1853  

The Willis proceeded directly to Michigan City where she delivered her cargo, then on reaching Chicago, the Willis was to be hauled out for recaulking:

REPAIRING. - The brig WILLIS goes in the dry dock of Jordan & Alcott today, says the Chicago Dem. Press, in order to be recaulked.  She will come out in two or three days, when the brig GALE will be taken in at the same dock. - Buffalo Daily Republic, Saturday, October 8, 1853

The Willis’ bad luck continued and while being towed up the river to dry dock, she had another mishap:

The brig ROBERT WILLIS, on yesterday morning while being towed up the river, (says the Chicago Tribune) ran into the bridge tender house, on the Randolph Street Bridge, upsetting the house and tearing down the telegraph wires.  We believe the brig received no damage. - Buffalo Daily Republic, Friday, September 30, 1853

The Willis came out of drydock in mid October, having been repaired and recaulked.  She was promptly sent to Buffalo with a load of grain and made the trip with little difficulty.  Having sunk nearly $2000 into repairs on the Willis, Bristol wanted to get in at least one more trip before the season closed and he contracted for another cargo to be delivered to Chicago.  The Willis left Buffalo on October 29th and made slow time of it, coming up the Lakes in the heavy November weather.  She arrived at Chicago on November 15th with a cargo of mixed goods, including 494 barrels of apples, 857 bars of RR iron, 53 tons of  pig iron, 11 hogsheads of sugar, and a lot of merchandise.  She discharged her cargo, but was forced to lay over while a gale blew on the Lake. 

Finally, on Monday, November 21st, the weather had cleared enough for the Willis to get underway.  She departed Chicago with 14,000 bushels of wheat in the company of the brig Greyhound and the schooners Henry L. Lansing, Fox, North Star, Fame and Fortune, all bound for Buffalo.  On the evening of Wednesday the 23rd and Thursday the 24th, one of the worst gales in recollection swept over Lake Michigan.

A violent gale from the north swept over this lake on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, doing considerable damage to shipping and causing a number of vessels to be wrecked.  Captains of vessels who have sailed on the lakes a number of years inform us that for a time, the fury of the wind and the roughness of the sea they had never seen equaled.  Had the atmosphere been very cold or the air filled with snow, vessels would have been completely at the mercy of the storm and many that failed to get into harbor safe must inevitably have gone ashore. – Chicago Tribune, Friday, November 25th, 1853

Over the following weeks, the last of the grain fleet trickled into Buffalo, bearing the scars of having done battle with the storm.  It was not uncommon for vessels to lay up for weeks on end during the November storms in some secluded bay or harbor, and concern wasn’t felt for the Willis until mid December.  On December 8th, a brig was reported ashore on Pt. Abino and hopes were entertained that she was the Willis.  Tugs were sent to the vessel’s aid but she was found to be the brig S.F. Gale, recently rebuilt at Chicago.  By December 14th, the shipping interests in Buffalo began to express serious concerns for the Willis:

Private dispatch from Buffalo - The brigs Oleander and Lowell are just in, having seen nothing of the brig Willis.  The Willis has been overdue at Buffalo for some time and it is feared that she is lost. – Milwaukee Sentinel, December 15, 1853.  

Rumors began to pour in concerning the fate of the Willis, but all proved to be false:

It was reported yesterday that the brig Robert Willis, long overdue here, had gone ashore on Point Au Barque.  We could ascertain no particulars. – Buffalo Express, December 19, 1853

By the end of the season, the Willis was given up as a total loss.  She had not passed through the Straits and was believed by all to have foundered on Lake Michigan:

WILLIS, ROBERT, Schooner, cargo wheat, foundered in gale on Lake Michigan.  Total loss.  Property loss $29,000 and ten lives lost. – Buffalo Express Annual Casualty List, January 2, 1854

Then, at the end of January 1854, a cruel hoax was perpetrated concerning the fate of the Willis:

The Robert Willis Reported Safe – We are permitted to make the following extract from a private letter dated Buffalo, Jan. 28, 1854.  “A letter was received here yesterday by a man by the name of Clark, saying that the Indians who carry the Canada mail called on the writer of the letter at the request of John Clark and Sandy, who were known to have been on the Robert Willis, and got him to write and say that his nephews John and Sandy, were well and would be down before long.  Said the Willis and cargo were safe in Traverse Bay, on the Canada shore.”  It looks plausible from the fact that the man who wrote the letter could not have known the names of the crew of the Willis.  We take the above from the Chicago Journal of Thursday last, but hardly credit the story.  The Robert Willis cleared from here in October last [sic], loaded with grain for Buffalo and was reported lost with all on board in a severe gale in the week following her departure. – Milwaukee Sentinel, February 4, 1854

Hopeful family members put some credence in the letter, but the marine reporters remained skeptical:

The Schooner Willis – The Courier must be in error in stating that “the Willis cleared from Milwaukee in October last, loaded with grain for this city, and was reported lost with all on board in the severe gale on the week following her departure.”  She cleared from this port on the 29th day of October, as appears from our marine list, for Chicago.  She cleared again from Chicago on the 22nd of November, and did not put into Milwaukee at all, and had not since been heard from until about a week since, when a letter was received by Mr. Thomas Clark, of this city from an uncle named Clark, who resides in Canada, about 16 miles from Penetanguishene, who had a son on board the Willis.  The information which he received from the crew of the Willis, was by a white man and Indians who were carrying the mails from the Sault to Penetanguishene and called on him in pursuance of a promise given to Sandy, the mate and John, a sailor, one of whom is a son, and the other a nephew of the writer of the letter in question and gave him the information which he communicated to Mr. Clark.  Mr. Clark has since written to his uncle for futher particulars, which he hopes to receive soon.  We have these particulars from Mr. James Moore of this city who had a brother on board the Willis and has great confidence in the correctness of the information received by Mr. Clark.  The is never the less, a mystery about the matter, well calculated to create doubts.  If the vessel is frozen in Traverse Bay, as represented, we cannot understand why the owners who reside here, have not within the two months and a half that she has been missing, had some tidings from her directly.  The mail carriers, who brought down the verbal information from Sandy and John might have written a word and forwarded it to Penetanguishene from whence it could have reached here by mails. Buffalo Express –  reprinted in the Milwaukee Sentinel, February 14, 1854.

No conclusive word ever reached Buffalo about the fate of the Willis and the letter from Canada was revealed to be a hoax.  The next Spring, a visitor at the new Skillagallee Light Station in northeastern Lake Michigan came forth with a remarkable story that was reprinted in the biography of Captain Murdick McLean:

The last seen of the vessel [Willis] was at the lower end of Lake Michigan when laboring in a snow squall, being seen by J. P. Merrill, of Milwaukee, who was at the Skillagalee lighthouse on Thanksgiving day. Straight out from the island he saw the Willis through a rift in the snow. It would appear that the same rift enabled the crew of the brig to sight the island, as they put about, but the next minute she was shut in again by the storm. 

Thanksgiving 1853 was November 24th, at which time the Willis could well have been in that area.  One wonders how Merrill could have positively identified the Willis at a considerable distance in a raging blizzard, but the account was more plausible than any previously put forth. 

Then, on June 16, 1856, “King” James Jesse Strang was shot by one of his flock on Beaver Island and later died.  Consequently, on July 5, 1856, angry mobs descended on Beaver Island and drove the Mormons onto ships at gunpoint.  Within a few weeks all Mormons had been forced from the Island and mobs of angry gentiles roamed about looking for evidence of Mormon malfeasance.  

Beginning in 1850 when the Mormons arrived, friction had arisen with area fishermen and by 1853, some of the confrontations had erupted in violence.  Accusations were made that the Mormons hijacked ships and intentionally put up false lights to lure ships onto the rocks.  Many vessels steered clear of Beaver Island because of the rumors concerning this “strange cult” of Strangite Mormons.  Not surprisingly, when the dust cleared after the mass Mormon deportation, a grave was found containing 8 bodies, ostensibly from the Robert Willis.  Blame for the Willis disappearance was placed squarely on the Beaver Island Mormons who were no longer present to offer an explanation.  The accusations were taken seriously enough that the Robert Willis’ enrollment paper was annotated as “lost on Beaver Island,” and papers continue to fan the flames:

A Lost Vessel Come to Light - Her Crew Murdered by the Mormons - A rumor has been current for several days on our docks that the schooner Robert Willis, whose sudden disappearance on Lake Michigan last fall was noticed at the time and of which no intelligence was ever afterward received, had been captured by the Mormons of Beaver Islands, her captain and crew massacred, and the vessel unloaded and scuttled.  At the time of her loss, the Willis was bound from Chicago to this port with a cargo of wheat and was last seen by the schooner Lansing on the 22nd of November off Sheboygan, bound up the lake in a very heavy northeast gale.  The news of her capture, etc, is said to have been received through a Mormon who escaped from the community at Beaver Island, and who has made oath to the facts above stated. It is also said that the US steamer Michigan has been sent to the Island to look into the affair. - Buffalo Republic, October 16, 1854

Cyrenius Bristol never recovered financially from the loss of the Robert Willis.  He sold his share in the forwarding business to his partner and started a newspaper, the Buffalo Daily Republic.  He never dabbled in marine matters again and became interested in paranormal phenomena, joining the Society for the Diffusion of Spiritual Knowledge in 1854.  He eventually lost his fortune and ending his days working as a night watchman at Buffalo in the 1870s.

Captain Murdick McLean sailed on Lake Superior until his retirement about 1910.  He died at Duluth on March 3, 1915.  His biography presents an interesting question when viewed in light of the Robert Willis loss.  How could he have been born on December 4, 1855 when his father was lost with the Robert Willis in November of 1853?  In all likelihood, the captain chose to shave a few years off his age for public consumption, as the 1871 Canadian census suggests he was born closer to 1853.

The Robert Willis still lies somewhere in northern Lake Michigan, most likely between Skillagallee Light and Beaver Island.  It is conceivable that the bodies on Beaver Island were from the Willis crew.  They may well have come ashore on Beaver Island where the Mormons buried them.  It seems doubtful, however, that the Mormons were involved in the vessel’s loss, given the hysteria of the day and the Mormon’s subsequent vindication for many of the prior accusations.  It is also unlikely that the Mormons would have been out in the gale that swept the Lake in November of 1853. 

The weather pattern and the Willis’ route offer some clues as well.  The preference of the grain fleet at the time was to run along the Michigan shore to benefit from the lee of the Manitous, Foxes and Beavers.  This also insured that they’d be blown ashore in short order if they capsized.  By the time the storm hit, the Willis would have been well into the northern end of the Lake.  By all accounts, the storm of November 1853 blew from the northwest.  The Robert Willis would have headed through the Manitou Passage and then toward the Straits, on the inside of Beaver Island.  As she came out of the lee of Beaver Island she would have been off Skillagallee Light, where she was reportedly spotted.  Had she foundered off this deserted stretch of coast, the bodies of her crew would have come ashore on the mainland and might never have been found.  One must also wonder why a relatively new vessel would have had the leakage problems she had.  Did her recaulking address the cause of the leakage or merely mask a more serious structural problem?  Did her engagement with the Randolph Street Bridge tender house play any part in her loss.

The advent of affordable remote sensing technology and the increasing popularity of technical diving insure that someday, perhaps in the near future, the mystery of the Robert Willis’ disappearance will be solved and she can be crossed off the long list of vessels that vanished in Lake Michigan’s November gales.      



John Brandt Mansfield – History of the Great Lakes, Volume 2

Jeff Rosenthal – Some Early Buffalo, NY Patent Medicine History – Online Genealogy Databases

Journal of Beaver Island History, 3 volumes

University of Rochester, Rush Rhees Library – C.C. Bristol Papers – 19th century spiritualist ephemera website

Detroit Free Press – September 10, 1853

Buffalo Commercial Advertiser – September 23, 1853

Buffalo Daily Republic – September 30, 1853

Buffalo Daily Republic – October 8, 1853

Buffalo Daily Republic, October 16, 1854

Chicago Tribune – November 17th, 22nd, 25th, 1853

Milwaukee Sentinel – December 15, 1853

Buffalo Express – December 19, 1853

Buffalo Express – January 2, 1854

Buffalo Times – February 22, 1897

Milwaukee Sentinel – February 4th, 14th, 1854

Certificate of Enrollment - Port of Buffalo dated August 25, 1852






1 Comment

I was just "dicking" around on GE around the island where this is said to have I found some questionable marks in the shallows. It looks like it could be an old ship. 45*36'37.63"N 85*37'29.69"W
Depending on the year, you can definitely see something there.

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