Scroll down for a list of more Immigration Vacation destinations.
Many of us have swum off Nassau Beach at Nickerson County Park in Long Beach. If you had been there in the second and third days of January 1837, you would have seen one of the most horrible shipwrecks in New York history.
Just 300 yards offshore, less than three football fields from land, the immigrant ship Mexico was stranded in bad weather. The temperatures were bitterly cold and waves were washing over the decks of the ship. The passengers’ screams could be heard by those on the beach. The immigrants were not drowning; they were slowly freezing to death.
Some Long Islanders organized a rescue. They dragged a rescue boat miles over the sand and risked their lives to reach the ship through rough seas. The captain and his white crew members jumped into the rescue boat, leaving the mostly Irish immigrants and black crewmen behind.
Nassau Beach, where the coffin ship Mexico wrecked.
(Credit: Patrick Young, Esq.)
After the rescue boat struggled back to land, the storm worsened and the ship’s human cargo had to be left to their fate. Faced with no other options,116 immigrants and crew perished.
Several months later, the victims were described at a meeting in Hempstead:
Who that saw the scene, the lingering death of a hundred martyrs to cold and hunger and hope disappointed, freezing in the sight of comfortable hearths, starving in the view of abundance, despairing in the midst of promise! I cannot attempt to paint a description of that day and night of horror!
Local historian Arthur S. Mattson of Lynbrook uncovered this forgotten piece of history. He has devoted many years of research to investigating the details and he recently published a book on it called Water and Ice. His research uncovered the lack of respect for immigrants that led to this tragedy, and this article relies, in part, on Mattson’s work.
Immigrants in the late 1830s were unwelcome by many New Yorkers. Asan editorial from the May 22, 1836, edition of the New York Sunday Morning News argued, the Irish and English immigrants were seen as a drain on the region’s economy and a danger to its moral standing:
The tide of emigration from the demoralized communities of the old world, which has been constantly setting towards this country, is from year to year, and from day to day, becoming stronger. Can no means be taken to check it? How much longer are we to sit quietly and suffer this moral pestilence to roll unrestrained over this land? . . . [T]he unrestricted admission of the ignorant, lazy and vicious emigrants from England and Ireland, will in time entirely blight the fair fruits of our free institutions, and debase to the low standard of European pauperism the present high moral and intellectual character of our people.
Within a month past, several thousand of degraded beings, who would be a disgrace to the social and political state of the most barbarous nation on the globe, have arrived at [the Port of New York]. Every vessel that arrives comes crowded with them, and many thousands more are collected at Liverpool and other English ports, waiting for passage. We might, were it not for them, dispense entirely with our prisons, our penitentiaries, and our alms-house establishments. At least three-fourths of the inmates of the alms-house at Bellevue are foreign paupers, who have been sent over for us to support, by the poor-masters of England and Ireland.
This antagonism towards immigrants was reflected in the government’s failure to regulate the immigration transport industry. Immigrants came to the US on what the Irish called “coffin ships,” so named because of the thousands who died on them. The ships’ owners, whose main business was shipping commodities like cotton from America to Britain, used the immigrants for the return trip to America essentially as ballast to weight the ships properly. The immigrants were classed by the shipping companies as “white cargo.”
The wreck of the coffin ship Bristol off Far Rockaway occurred just six weeks before the Mexico disaster.
The owners of the Mexico violated one of the few laws regulating the immigrant trade: They did not put enough food on board for the passengers. Bad weather delayed the ship on its journey, compounding the lack of provision, leaving the passengers weak and close to starvation by the time the Mexico reached New York.
The ship arrived at the Narrows on New Year’s Eve. It could not get a pilot to bring it into the harbor because they were all reportedly drunk. Hangovers kept the pilots from responding to signals from the ship the next day. When bad weather rolled in, the ship wandered to its death off Long Island.
The pilots, the ship’s owners, and the Mexico’s captain were not the only malefactors in this story. When the weather cleared, locals rowed out to the ship to rob the bodies of the dead. One newspaper reported rumors that some Long Islanders may have murdered passengers who were not dead enough.
Finally, however, charity took hold and the dead were brought ashore and placed in a barn.
An eyewitness who visited the barn where the recovered victims were laid for identification wrote this horrifying account of what he saw:
I went out to the barn. The doors were open, and such a scene as presented itself to my view, I certainly never could have contemplated. It was a dreadful, a frightful scene of horror.
Forty or fifty bodies, of all ages and sexes, were lying promiscuously before me over the floor, all frozen and as solid as marble-and all, except a few, in the very dresses in which they perished. Some with their hands clenched, as if for warmth, and almost every one with an arm crooked and bent, as it would be in clinging to the rigging.
There were scattered about among the number, four or five beautiful little girls, from six to sixteen years of age, their cheeks and lips as red as roses, with their calm blue eyes open, looking you in the face, as if they would speak. I could hardly realize that they were dead. I touched their checks, and they were frozen as hard and as solid as a rock, and not the least indentation could be made by any pressure of the hand. I could perceive a resemblance to each other, and supposed them to be the daughters of a passenger named Pepper, who perished, together with his wife and all the family.
On the arms of some, were seen the impressions of the rope which they had clung to, the mark of the twist deeply sunk into the flesh. I saw one poor negro sailor, a tall man, with his head thrown back, his lips parted, and his now sightless eye-balls turned upwards, and his arms crossed over his breast, as if imploring heaven for aid. This poor fellow evidently had frozen while in the act of fervent prayer.
One female had a rope tied to her leg, which had bound her to the rigging; and another little fellow had been crying, and was thus frozen, with the muscles of the face just as we see children when crying. There were a brother and a sister dashed upon the beach, locked in each other’s arms; but they had been separated in the barn. All the men had their lips firmly compressed together, and with the most agonizing expression on their countenances I ever beheld.
As I was about to leave, my attention became directed to a girl, who, I afterward learned, had come that morning from the city to search for her sister. She had sent for her to come over from England, and had received intelligence that she was in this ship.
She came into the barn, and the second body she cast her eyes upon, was hers. She gave way to such a burst of impassioned grief and anguish, that I could not behold her without sharing in her feelings. She threw herself upon the cold and icy face and neck of the lifeless body, and thus, with her arms around her, remained wailing, mourning, and sobbing, till I came away; and when some distance off, I could hear her calling her by name in the most frantic manner.
If you travel to the Rockville Cemetery in Lynbrook you will see a large obelisk on a small hill in the middle of the burial ground. The monument tells the story of the wreck of the Mexico and the hill is a mass grave for the immigrants and sailors who died on it. But theirs are not the only bodies in the grave.
Monument over the mass grave of the victims of the Bristol and Mexico disasters. (Credit: Patrick Young, Esq.)
Six weeks before the Mexico horror, another coffin ship, the Bristol, was wrecked off Far Rockaway killing nearly 100 Irish and English immigrants.
In addition to the monument of stone, Walt Whitman, who was a 17-year-old living in Hempstead when the wrecks occurred, left a poetic memorial in Specimen Days called “The Sleepers”:
The beach is cut by the razory ice-wind, the wreck-guns
The tempest lulls, the moon comes floundering through the
I look where the ship helplessly heads end on, I hear the
burst as she strikes, I hear the howls of dismay, they
grow fainter and fainter.
I cannot aid with my wringing fingers,
I can but rush to the surf and let it drench me and freeze
I search with the crowd, not one of the company is wash’d
to us alive,
In the morning I help pick up the dead and lay them in
rows in a barn.
Historical marker over the mass grave. (Credit: Patrick Young, Esq.)
Raynor “Rock” Smith, who had organized the rescue with three of his sons,was honored a few months later at Conklin’s Hotel in Hempstead. He and his sons had dragged the large rescue boat over frozen ice from Freeport, where he lived near the present-day library on Raynor Street. They then dragged the boat over the sands of Long Beach for miles, before plunging it into the ice cold and stormy Atlantic at the risk of his and his son’s lives to save people none of them had ever met.
The rescue by Rock Smith.
Here is a complete list of the rescuers, compiled by historian Mattson: Captain Raynor Rock Smith (51), Zopher R. Smith (Raynor Smith’s son, 30), James R. Smith (Raynor Smith’s son, 28), Oliver R. Smith (Raynor Smith’s son, 24), Oliver C. Smith, Samuel Raynor, and, Willet Smith.
Rock and his men deserve to be remembered today, as do those who died on the Bristol and the Mexico. At the bottom of the Lynbrook local history website, Arthur Mattson has provided a complete listing of those who died and where they were emigrating from.
We should always remember that the immigrants who brought our families here often risked their lives for a better future for us, their descendants. They too were heroes.
They still are.
The map above shows the location of Rockville Cemetery in Lynbrook. The monument to the shipwreck victims is in the center of the cemetery and is the highest point there.
Nickerson Beach (formerly Nassau Beach) is located at 880 Lido Boulevard in Lido Beach. Admission is free outside the summer season, but is $8 for leisure pass holders and a whopping $30 for non-residents during the summer. For more information, consult Nassau’s park site. Its location is shown in the map below.
The Immigration Vacation series on Long Island Wins takes you to places around the New York area where you can explore our region’s rich immigrant heritage. Each Immigration Vacation installment features images and video, directions to the site, and links to ticket prices and hours.
Battery Park and Castle Clinton
If your family came to New York before 1892, this is likely where they landed.
America’s best immigration museum.
The New York State Museum in Albany
Italian and Chinese immigrant life in New York City and the Jewish refugee experience on view in one of the best free museums in the Northeast.
Lowell National Historical Park
Great way for kids to learn the vital role of immigrants in industrialization and labor protection.
Lackawanna Coal Mine and Steamtown
Kids from ages four and up can learn about the tough jobs our immigrant ancestors did.
Old Croton Aqueduct
Nature, exercise, and immigrant history in a park 100 feet wide and 26 miles long.
Irish Hunger Memorial
Some of our ancestors came here for freedom, and some came simply to be able to eat. Some came for both.
The Tenement Museum
Great for teens and ‘tweens. Irish, German, and Jewish life on the Lower East Side.