Dr. Thomas Layton researched the Frolic shipwreck, initially not knowing his subject was a ship. Dr. Layton and his students made their first discovery of Chinese porcelain and bottle glass fragments in 1984 in some Mitom Pomo house depressions at a site, which he named Three Chop Village, halfway between Fort Bragg and Willits.
- What possible explanation could there be for the pottery fragments?
- Had the archeological site been contaminated with garbage from a more recent settlement? [The Hop Sing hypothesis]
Layton and his students knew that the native Pomo had possessed these artifacts, that they hadn’t been deposited there at a later date when pieces of porcelain and bottle glass worked into beads were found.
Dr. Layton’s initial interest in the ship was for the purpose of dating the pottery fragments. While little is known about the Pomo people of the period, substantial academic material existed to date the Chinese pottery. The pottery fragments were like being able to “inject a dye into the vein of history”. Through these artifacts, Archaeologists might be able to trace the settlement and trade routes of the Pomo people and learn something of their ways.
Layton spent the next 10 years unraveling the Frolic story. His research evolved from the study of Pomo Indian settlement patterns and Chinese pottery, to a study of maritime commerce and the opium trade in the first half of the 19th century, shipbuilding in Baltimore, the slave trade, and the economic development and ethnic diversity of the north coast.
Layton’s research into the origin of the pottery fragments led him to a community of sport divers and local residents of the area who had long ago named the cove “Pottery Beach” for the many shards washed up on shore. They brought him cardboard box after cardboard box of salvaged artifacts: ceramic fragments, ship’s hardware, firearms, jewelry, shoe horns and toothbrushes, etc. “The kinds of things that were made then and bought then, produced today and bought today.” These sport divers donated most of the artifacts on view in the exhibit Journey of the Frolic to the lighthouse museum.
Layton traced the history of the wreck through an 1850 newspaper article in the “Alta California”, and from there into the ship’s history in the opium trade through the “Bombay Times” and other defunct venues. He discovered that the records of the ship’s owners, the Augustine Heard Co., were archived at Harvard University. Layton planned an afternoon to look over the records but discovered 264 shelf feet, almost a football field of papers stacked on edge. On its final voyage, the Frolic was carrying household goods from China for sale in Gold Rush San Francisco. He calls the Frolic a “floating Cost Plus – a veritable emporium of Chinese export items.” The ship was also carrying a complete, prefabricated house with oyster shell windows.
The Frolic was a two-mast clipper brig of “209 tons, 97′ long and 24′ wide, built by the Gardner Brothers of Baltimore. Completed in 1845, her hull was of white oak and her decking and masts of pine, with a V shaped hull, or “Sharp built”.
- Why would she have a V shaped hull?
- She was built for drug running, an illegal enterprise that required speed above all. Cargo vessels were built with U shaped hulls to hold larger loads, but were slower in the water.
Her best sailing time was just over ten miles an hour with an average speed of about 5.5 mph – she was one of the fastest ships of her class.
The Gardner Brothers were known for their fast ships, which were used as privateers and slavers. They built the Venus, which was the subject of a federal investigation and earned the Gardner Brothers lots of publicity.
An account of the Gardner Brothers shipyard is preserved in the writings of an eighteen year-old slave who worked for the company. This young man grew up to achieve international recognition as the abolitionist writer and orator, Frederick Douglass, the most prominent African-American of the nineteenth century. Douglass writes that competition for jobs in the Baltimore shipyards of the 1830s erupted into bloodshed between the young English and Irish immigrants, and the free and indentured blacks.
Douglass carried a scar on his cheek, which he received in a shipyard brawl.
The Opium Runner
The Frolic was built to carry opium from Bombay for sale in Canton. Though banned by the Chinese government and technically illegal, the opium trade was a profitable venture for British and American shipping interests.
China produced silk, porcelain and most importantly tea for export to the West. But there was very little that the Chinese wanted in return except silver coinage.
Consequently, a major negative balance of trade evolved between the entire tea consuming world and China. In an effort to solve their economic problems, in the 1770s the British government gave a monopoly to the British East India Company to grow poppies in India and produce opium for sale to China. Within 10 years the British had succeeded in balancing their trade with China. By the 1830s the Chinese were spending more on opium than they received for their tea, causing inflation in the value of Chinese silver. The Emperor, in an effort to deal with foreign “barbarian” merchants and force the British out of business, confiscated several thousand trunks of opium. The British used this as an opportunity to attack China and exacted a 3 million dollar ransom on Canton. In the settlement, Britain received 5 treaty ports, including Hong Kong. The opium trade remained illegal but continued unhindered by the Chinese government.
The Last Voyage
In January of 1849 gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in the Sacramento River Valley. The triggered the California gold rush. There was no north coast lumber industry in California at the time, but rapid growth and regular fires in San Francisco created a high demand for timber and household goods.
By 1850 steam ships were coming into favor in the opium trade. They were more reliable and could carry more cargo. Having outlived her usefulness, the Heard Co. was looking for a way to unload the Frolic, which had developed rot in her hull and was otherwise outdated. The California gold rush opened up a new market to the Heards and provided them with an opportunity to use the Frolic for one final profitable voyage. The Frolic’s journey from China to the California coast took 44 days, a distance of some 6000 miles.
Mistaking their distance from shore in the coastal haze, the Frolic wrecked on the reef at the north edge of what is now the state park, the night of July 25th, 1850. No lives were lost in the wreck. Captain Faucon and his officers landed at Big River after abandoning ship and making for land in the lifeboats. They left at least 18 of the Malaysian, Chinese, and Lascar seaman behind on the boat or on Big River Beach to fend for themselves.
- What became of them?
Ten days later Faucon arrived in San Francisco where news of the wreck was publicized in the local paper.
The Frolic was well insured. The Heard Co. may not have made as great a profit as they might have had the cargo reached San Francisco, but they still saw a return on the venture.
- Was there a deliberate scuttle?
- Why would the captain abandon the ship without making an effort to salvage the cargo? Why was he so anxious to cut his losses?
Edward H. Faucon, Captain of the Frolic began his merchant seaman’s career in 1829 as first mate aboard a fur-trading vessel on the California coast. This was late for the fur trade, which was already suffering from over hunting by the early 1820s. The ship carried New England manufactured goods to the Pacific Northwest, trading them to the natives in exchange for furs, especially those of the sea otter, which was hunted to extinction for its luxurious pelt. These furs, in turn, were exported to China. A chapter of the book Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, is devoted to Captain Faucon
Before her death in 1942, Catherine Faucon (daughter and sole heir) donated her family’s extensive collection of heirlooms to museums and archives. In this process she carefully edited and burned the records of her father’s participation in the opium trade.
The only document saved dating to his employment in China was a small penciled Portrait, sketched there sometime during the late 1840s, a reproduction of which is exhibited in Journey of the Frolic.
Additional study materials on the Frolic story are available on request, including a videotape of Dr. Layton’s training lecture. A permanent exhibit of artifacts from the ship is on display at the County Museum in Willits.
You may enjoy The Voyage of the Frolic by Tom Layton. Just visit our giftshop where you can purchase a copy of this exciting book.