The Wanderer: Racing Yacht to Slave Ship

Illustration of the Wanderer, a racing schooner turned slave ship, in 1984

The Peabody Museum

Cover of Southern Exposure's issue titled "The Poisoning of Louisiana."

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 2, "The Poisoning of Louisiana." Find more from that issue here.

The racing schooner Wanderer first set sail from East Setauket on New York's Long Island in June 1857, bound for the rarefied life of yacht races and regattas. Within a year, though, she had veered into notoriety as one of America's last slave ships. Such dizzying changes of fortune characterized the vessel's short life; besides the racing and slaving, the Wanderer served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, limped along as a Caribbean fruit boat, and met its end in the Windward Passage in 1871. And her story sheds a bit of light on the last few years of the North American slave trade. 

An estimated 10 million African people were shipped across the Atlantic and sold as slaves before the Wanderer appeared. Most went to the Caribbean islands and Brazil, but British-ruled North America imported at least 427,000, and continuation of the African slave trade was among the hotly debated topics of the convention that drafted the U.S. Constitution in 1783. A compromise between those who abhorred the traffic in human flesh and the wealthy, influential Southern planters who thrived on it was eventually achieved: Congress was granted power to ban further importation of slaves after the passage of 20 years. 

Congress so acted in 1807, outlawing the slave trade beginning in 1808. By this time, Africa had become less important as a source of slaves: at the start of the Civil War, about four-fifths of the nation's three million black slaves had been born in the United States. But Congress never stopped the slave trade. Even after 1820, when the law was rewritten to equate slaving with piracy, a crime that carried the death penalty, the illegal trade continued, and no one was ever executed. The nation had no will to enforce the law, and Congress never voted any but token funds toward its enforcement. 


The Wanderer began life with impressive credentials. Designed by master mariner and yacht architect Captain Thomas B. Hawkins, she closely resembled the America, a great American racing schooner that won the America's Cup in 1851. The Wanderer was somewhat larger, measuring 114 feet in length, registered at 234 tons. 

Colonel John D. Johnson, who commissioned her construction, was an experienced yachtsman and a member of the New York Yacht Club (NYYC). Johnson began his career as a Mississippi River pilot and became the wealthy owner of a large sugar plantation on the Delta below New Orleans, as well as a summer home on Long Island. In the summer of 1857 he took the Wanderer on a shakedown cruise, sailing to New England with the NYYC squadron. 

From the sweeping convex curve of her hull to the long, slightly concave deckline, Johnson's new yacht exemplified speed and luxury. The captain's cabin and stateroom reflected the taste of a Southern white man of means, with a carefully chosen library, the best available nautical instruments, satinwood furniture, damask and lace curtains, fine engravings, and Brussels carpets. Flying the NYYC burgee and commanded by Captain Hawkins, the Wanderer cruised down the Atlantic coast in December 1857, touching at Key West and New Orleans before going on to Havana. 

Like the America, the Wanderer was built for speed. At her fastest she exceeded 20 knots, fester than any contemporary steamship and all but a few of the fastest sailing vessels. During one 24-hour ocean run the Wanderer averaged 14 knots. In January 1858 she easily defeated five Southern yachts in a regatta off Brunswick, Georgia, and Captain Hawkins handled her with a finesse that drew crowds and approving notices in Southern newspapers before she returned to New York on April 11 of that year. 

Soon after the Wanderer put in at Port Jefferson, on Long Island Sound, she was to lose her spotless reputation. Colonel Johnson sold her to William C. Corrie, described in newspapers as a "high-toned Southern gentleman from Charleston, South Carolina," for a sum variously reported at $12,000 to $30,000. With Johnson's sponsorship, the new owner was promptly accepted as a member of the Yacht Club. 

Corrie was said to be very rich, a member of a prestigious South Carolina family, a tall, suave man with a flair for lavish hospitality, fully acceptable, it seemed, to New York society. Few Northerners knew him as the Washington lobbyist for his state's slave and mercantile interests, who claimed to know the price of every member of Congress. In feet, the British consul believed that Corrie exercised more political influence than any of the South Carolina congressmen. 

But it was the fate of the Wanderer after he bought her, not his Washington activities, that soon became the subject of lively gossip. Why, for example, were 15,000-gallon water tanks being installed aboard the schooner? Corrie's explanation — that the tanks would provide water ballast — was accepted by few. Then again, with her tanks filled and 20 people aboard, the Wanderer would have a two-year drinking supply. But what yacht owner would want that? 

On the other hand, if one wanted to provide drinking water for 500 slaves during a one-month voyage from Africa to the United States . . . well, that seemed a more likely possibility to the observers along the Port Jefferson shore. 

Acting on rumors that the Wanderer was about to become a slave ship, the U.S. surveyor there alerted the local port authorities. On June 9, 1858, the steam cutter Harriet Lane intercepted the Wanderer as she headed out to sea, towed her to Manhattan, and subjected her to inspection by customs officials. Corrie — who later boasted that bribery had carried the day — somehow convinced the officials that his ship was not a potential slaver, and the Wanderer cleared the port. 


Corrie sailed south to Charleston, where the water tanks were filled and hundreds of tin pans, spoons, and cups were taken aboard. Then the Wanderer set out to sea. Ostensibly, she was headed to Trinidad and St. Helena, but the schooner missed the latter by nearly a thousand miles, sailing instead into the Congo River of West Africa on September 16, 1858. 

The provisions of an 1842 treaty called for Great Britain and the U.S. to patrol jointly the African coast to suppress the slave trade, but the ships used were steam-powered and slow. Few slave ships were caught as they raced from West Africa to Cuba, the usual route. The U.S. patrol squadron never numbered more than seven slow vessels, and they spent most of their time in support of Liberian-American trade, neglecting the slavers. Between 1842 and 1853, the American patrol captured only nine slave ships and released them all after, at most, the payment of small fines. 

The British patrollers were more zealous, but they knew America would flare up in indignation if they were to search and seize a vessel flying the U.S. flag. So, when the Wanderer laid up in the Congo River for 10 days while the crew built a temporary slave deck below the yacht's regular deck, the British man-of-war Medusa — which was docked nearby and whose crew was probably aware of the Wanderer's mission — did nothing to stop it. 

About the time the slave deck was nearing completion, two American patrol ships, the USS Cumberland and the USS Vincennes, got word of the Wanderer's mission, but they were too far from the Congo to intercept her. With its new deck in place, the Wanderer moved out of the river and sailed along the African coast, dropping anchor here and there to pick up groups of Africans imprisoned ashore in detention pens. By the time she was sighted by the anti-slave patrol, the Wanderer had 490 Africans chained to her deck. 

Captain Benjamin Totten of the Vincennes, steaming south along the coast toward the Congo River, saw a tall-masted schooner in full sail dart out from shore. He hailed the yacht, but it failed to acknowledge him. Captain Totten had no real chance of intercepting her; she was doing at least 20 knots, and his top speed was eight-and-a-half. The yacht sped west until Totten saw it disappear into a white dot on the horizon. Days later, Totten learned that the westward-fleeing yacht was the famous Wanderer, now far beyond his range. 

The manacled captives — mostly young men — were stowed along the temporary deck in tight parallel rows. Sanitary conditions, ventilation, food, and water were barely sufficient to keep them alive. But when the ship reached the doldrums, her sails went slack and the temperature rose to intolerable levels. Deaths from disease and the equatorial heat abounded. 

Finally the Wanderer reached American waters; on November 28, 1858, the light-keeper at Cumberland Island, Georgia, sighted her standing offshore. The next day a local pilot guided the slave yacht through St. Andrew Sound to Jekyll Island, whose owners, the Dubignon family, are supposed to have received $15,000 for allowing the slaves to be landed there. 

The surviving slaves, shivering with cold, were unloaded at night. Their first meal was cooked in a huge mess kettle still exhibited on Jekyll Island, which is now a state park. Then the Wanderer was guided to a concealed anchorage on the Little Satilla River; the crew was paid and told to make themselves scarce. The yacht's slave deck was quickly dismantled and the vessel thoroughly scoured. A tug transported 170 of the new slaves to a Savannah River plantation; others were marched overland in small groups. The remainder stayed on Jekyll Island, where many blacks still claim them as ancestors. 


Cleared of her human cargo and refurbished throughout, the Wanderer quickly resumed the role of a pleasure boat, moving on to Savannah for entry clearance. Port collector Woodford Mabry at first accepted Corrie's story of making port to avoid a storm and was ready to grant clearance. But then a fresh storm blew up: a gale of rumors that the Wanderer had landed slaves from Africa. Mabry canceled the clearance and notified federal officials; they hauled the Wanderer to Savannah as a suspected slave ship. 

Reports of the incident reached Washington by the end of 1858, and the Senate asked President Buchanan for a full report. Buchanan confirmed the landing of slaves and promised a thorough investigation and prosecution. Three members of Wanderer's crew were charged with piracy, but Corrie fled to escape arrest. Corrie now claimed that not he but a syndicate was the actual owner of the yacht, and that his was only a one-eighth interest. Among the syndicate's most prominent members was Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar, who was soon arrested and identified as Wanderer's principal owner. 

Lamar was a figure out of nineteenth-century melodrama. The son of Gazaway Bugg Lamar, one of the South's richest men, Charles A.L. Lamar had been baptized in the arms of the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825. He became a hero at age 14 by striving to save his mother and five younger brothers and sisters after an explosion aboard his father's steamship Pulaski. His relatives included such notables as Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, who would become a U.S. senator, secretary of the Interior, and an associate justice of the Supreme Court; Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar, a president of the Republic of Texas; and Howell Cobb, secretary of the Treasury under President Buchanan. 

But none of his relatives outshone Charles Lamar in his ability to attract attention. When his father moved north in 1846 to direct the Lamar empire of plantations, ships, banks, and other interests, Charles stayed on at Savannah to run the Southern end of the business with great success. His participation in politics was loud and aggressive. He settled personal disputes by dueling his opponents — or by knocking them flat. With his uninhibited use of a coarse voice and a gold-headed cane, he rallied a substantial following to his rabid pro-slavery stand. 

Almost all his kinsmen supported slavery, but "Roaring Charley" must have struck even them as an extremist. He advocated revival of the African slave trade and had participated in several slave-trading expeditions before the Wanderer set sail. Moral arguments fell on deaf ears: if you could buy a black for $30 in Africa and sell him or her in America for $600 or more, it was a profitable business and Charley wanted to be in on it. 


The Wanderer was soon forfeited to the federal government as a slaver. But Lamar managed to buy her back at auction on March 12, 1859, for only $4,001. Corrie had surrendered to the authorities in January 1859, but he was never tried. Lamar, for his part, bent every effort to erase the evidence of slaving by keeping the newly arrived slaves out of federal hands. On the brink of Civil War, local officials in Georgia gave Lamar unsparing assistance by releasing to him the Africans who had been held as witnesses, thus eliminating the chance of their testifying. The accused crew members were freed; several of Lamar's partners in the voyage were cleared by Southern courts; and Lamar himself suffered only one conviction: 30 days' imprisonment for freeing a Wanderer defendant by force, and he served it in the comfort of his own home. The NYYC expelled Corrie and erased the Wanderer from its ship list. 

Frustrated in his attempt to revive the slave trade, the resourceful Charles Lamar had a new idea: why not use his yacht to pick up Chinese laborers and ship them into the U.S. through Cuba? That scheme died, and thoughts turned to the Central American fruit trade. In October 1859 Lamar announced that he was selling the Wanderer to one David Martin, a man never positively identified but who used at least four different names, as occasion warranted. 

While Lamar was out of the city, Martin employed the eloquence of the experienced confidence man to wangle $2,000 worth of supplies out of Savannah merchants. Fully armed and thoroughly drunk, he signed on a full crew for a fruit-trading voyage to Cuba and sailed without paying Lamar's price. When the Wanderer reached the high seas, Martin announced that their destination was Africa, to pick up "a cargo of blackbirds." 

First Mate Henry Welton tried without success to dissuade Martin, who stayed drunk during most of the eastward journey. Along the route, he halted an occasional ship by firing a six-pounder across its bow, borrowed rum and navigation instruments, and paid for them with promises. 

When the Wanderer reached the Azores, Martin conned local chandlers out of $1,500 worth of supplies. Reaching the Madeiras, he hailed the Jeannie, a French ship, and induced her captain to replenish the Wanderer's dwindling supply of rum and whiskey. As Martin and his aides rowed back to the Wanderer, Mate Weldon seized the opportunity to act. He rallied the crew, told them to ditch Martin and his slave-trading scheme, and brought the Wanderer about. 

She swung past the howling captain in his small boat and headed for the western Atlantic, stranding Martin and four crewmen. They were promptly rescued by a French bark, and Martin obtained passage to America as a distressed seaman. He was arrested and drew a five-year sentence for stealing the Wanderer. 

Welton brought the Wanderer into Boston harbor on Christmas Eve, 1859, placing it in the custody of a federal marshal. Lamar soon managed to regain possession, but the outbreak of the Civil War scuttled his plans to send it on another slave trip; her future lay elsewhere. 

The Union Army seized the yacht at Key West, installed additional guns on her deck, and assigned her the classification of gunboat, fourth class. Her enormous water tanks were put to use replenishing the supply of ships on blockade station, and her unusual speed made her an efficient dispatcher of messages. She regained some of her early glory by capturing the sloops Belle, Ranger, and Anna B. and demolishing a Confederate salt works at Pensacola, Florida. 

There are many gaps in the rest of the Wanderer's story, but she seems to have changed hands several times after being sold to a commercial firm in 1865. She was registered for the West Indian fruit trade in 1869 when Gazaway Bugg Lamar made an attempt to regain possession of his son's yacht by appealing directly — and unsuccessfully — to President Andrew Johnson. (Charles Lamar had fought through the war and survived until a week past its end, when he was killed by a stray shot in Columbus, Georgia, as Union forces took possession of the town.) 

As for the Wanderer, with shortened masts and her glory gone, she disappeared in 1871 while carrying a cargo of fruit through the Windward Passage. Just east of Cuba, she crashed against the rocks of Cape Maisi and sank forever.