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Oregon Coast's First Documented Shipwreck? Sea Otter in 1808 at Reedsport

Published 11/07/20 at 4:45 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Oregon Coast's First Shipwreck? Sea Otter in 1808 at Reedsport

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(Reedsport, Oregon) – The United States of America had really barely begun: everything west of the Mississippi was still a complete unknown. Lewis & Clark had only been to the Pacific Northwest two years before, and famed mariner Robert Gray had crossed the Columbia River bar not even quite ten years before. (Umpqua River Lighthouse, courtesy Oregon Coast Parks and Recreation)

The year was 1808 and the Oregon coast did not exist yet. Or rather, the territory was still a long ways off from having that name. A couple of hundred miles south of the area’s first settlement, Astoria, the first documented shipwreck happened on the southern Oregon coast. It was the mouth of the Umpqua River around what would eventually become Reedsport.

A 120-ton trading vessel called the Sea Otter had come to these northwest waters out of London, a fur trading ship filled with an undisclosed number of crewmen. It was August 22 and suddenly a vicious, late-summer storm struck this section of the future southern Oregon coast. According to some accounts six men were onshore when the storm hit, and they watched the Sea Otter get tossed and splintered into pieces from the beaches. All of their shipmates went down with the vessel. The Sea Otter six were the only survivors.

Accounts differ whether it was six or four men.

Yet this is only the beginning of their wild journey, one which rather echoed that of Lewis & Clark’s.

The men were now alone, but luckily they were fur traders. So while that profession gave them no abilities to figure out where they were on the continent, it did grant them survival skills. They had a certain amount of guns and ammo on them, but otherwise not even meager supplies. However, they were able to salvage bits from the ship as those goods came washing in, drifting in along the rivermouth that would one day host a lighthouse.

They knew no one would be searching for them; no ship would arrive in this out-of-the-way coastal wilderness area for a long time – if ever. In fact, fur trading often meant hiding where you were going to make sure your competition didn’t figure out your rich hunting grounds. Men lied or misdirected, even to their families sometimes. This forced the Sea Otter crew to forge ahead east after apparently camping out through that winter of ‘08.

Mirroring the Corps of Discovery’s journey, they trudged across thousands of miles to Louisiana, arriving two years later. Along the way, they encountered native tribes both friendly and antagonistic, wandered harsh deserts, dangerous mountains, and swamps mostly on foot. Occasionally they were able to use the riverways. Once they reappeared in civilization at Louisiana, not far from New Orleans, it was the New Orleans newspapers that ate up their story, and it’s from there that the history of this remarkable trip was documented.

While there are older shipwrecks on this coastline, such as the odd Spanish galleon or two, this was the first to really to be told and written down. Details are absolutely unknown in all cases before this, and many other wrecks after. If it weren’t for the fact the Sea Otter survivors made it to Louisiana to relay their tale, this one, too, would be lost to history.

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