If you look at the standard sources’ background info about the song “The Loss of the Antelope”, there is a great deal of confusion about the historical background of the song. When did it happen? Was it in Lake Michigan or Lake Superior? Which Antelope was it? Ben Peckham, one of Walton’s informants from Oswego, claimed his father Thomas had been a survivor of the wreck and had written the song, but given all the uncertainty about the song this was treated as just a possibility.
Last winter I decided to try my usual trick of searching the Great Lakes Maritime Collection ship database. I quickly found http://greatlakeships.org/2901840/data?n=4, which seemed a likely candidate if Walton’s informant was telling the truth: it was an Antelope, registered in Oswego, that was driven onto the Michigan shore of Lake Michigan on the 20th of November 1857.
Hoping for more information on the ship, I wrote the Oswego Public Library to see if they had newspaper archives that might cover the wreck. It took a while due to COVID-19, but when they staff came back to the library in July, Edward Elsner poked around and found exactly what I was looking for in the Oswego Palladium. Here are the three articles kindly he sent me:
November 28, 1857
Loss of the Schooner Antelope — The schooner Antelope, Capt. Geo. Budd, bound from Chicago to Oswego, with 14,000 bushels of wheat, was lost of Friday last, about eight miles north of St Joseph, and Capt. Budd and four of the crew perished. The Chicago Press contains the following particulars, obtained from Capt. Parker, of the schooner H. Rand:
“The Antelope was seen on Friday evening by Capt. Parker, running before the wind, in a southerly direction; but it appears that during the same evening she was driven ashore. The Captain and crew, as soon as she struck, made ever attempt to get ashore, but failed — her small boat being carried away. Capt. Budd then determined to swim ashore, stripped and jumped into the water with a rope, but after several attempts he failed and had to be hauled on board again nearly dead. Shortly afterwards a wave washed him overboard and he was lost. During the course of the night three men of the crew were washed into the lake and met watery graves. The balance lashed themselves to the deck and rigging, where they were found by a party of men from St. Joseph, who reached the vessel with a scow.
Five of the crew were found completely paralyzed with cold and wet, and almost dead. — One they found lashed to the rigging, frozen to death. During the entire night, it appears, the sea made clean breaches over the vessel, and the suffering of the crew were dreadful. Life could not have held on more than an hour or two longer. As it was, they hae had to be most carefully nursed and attended by the people who live in the neighborhood — who most cheerfully exerted themselves to restore them. When Capt. Parker left, four of them were in a fair way of recovery. The fate of a fifth was most doubtful.
The Antelope will be a total loss. She was an A 1 vessel, owned by A. H. Hovey, Oswego, and valued at $11,000. We are informed that the Northwestern Insurance Company have risks on hull and cargo to the extent of $11,000.”
Captain Budd was a generous and hourable citizen and a thorough and experienced sailer. — He leaves a wife and child in this city to mourn his loss, and a numerous circle of friends and acquaintances. The names of the crew we are unable to learn.
November 30th, 1857
The Wreck of the Antelope — The Names of those Lost and Saved. — We copy from the Times the following particulars, from a letter written by John Budds, 1st mate of the Antelope, to Messrs. Penfield, Lyon & Co., dated at Colomo, Mich., 23d inst.: —
Having been saved from the wreck of the schooner Antelope, I am able this morning to send you the sad news, the loss of life as well as vessel and cargo, which lies a wreck six miles north of St. Josephs, on the shore of Michigan. To relate the whole of what I have witnessed, I am not able to do by writing. The Antelope struck on the shore Friday, November 20th at 5 o’clock P.M. Those that escaped from the wreck were no taken off Saturday, till 21st, 11 A.M. Two men left in the rigging were frozen. Two were washed overboard. One started from the wreck to swim ashore, but he did not go twenty feet before he went down, and was not seen again. There were five who escaped from the wreck, and to kind and stout hearted men, who made several attempts before they reached the wreck, we owe our lives. Those that are saved have got their feet and some of their hands frozen. I am just able with the right hand to pen this sad tale. Two days and three nights the pumps could not be left. Being covered with ice, both crew and vessel, we thought the Antelope would have foundered in the lake before striking shore. The following are the names of those
John Budds, 1st mate,
Moses Seeley, 2d mate,
Thomas Peckham, seaman, who I think will not recover, being badly frozen,
Arthur Clarkson, seaman,
Charles Belcher, seaman.
DROWNED OR FROZEN
George W. Budds, captain, washed overboard,
John, and Thomas, (the remainder of their names I do not know, or where they resided — in Oswego, I think),
Thomas Burns and Frank Eaver, were frozen in the rigging.
We are most thankful to kind assistance. Seeing one [going?] after another, we thought no one would escape to make known what we have suffered. This comes from one of the survivors,
Mate of the schooner Antelope
December 5th, 1857
Survivors of the Antelope. — John Budds, the first mate, Thomas Peckham, and two others, survivors of the crew of the Antelope, arrived in this city yesterday.
So there absolutely was a Thomas Peckham on this ship. Ben Peckham was correct that his father was the survivor of an Antelope wreck. Is it the Antelope of the song?
Let’s take this in two parts. What can we learn about the makeup of the crew of the Antelope from the Walton and Snider texts? The crew has ten people, two of whom are new to the ship and who died. (Wv3, Sv9) The captain’s brother is named John. (Wv6, Sv7)
This appears to be confirmed by the Nov 30th article. The crew had ten people. Most interesting: Captain George Budds (deceased, washed overboard), 1st mate John Budds (survived), Thomas Peckham (survived), and “John and Thomas” (deceased, and John Budds did not know their last names nor where they were from). If we presume that the only two men on the ship whose names the 1st mate did not know were newly on board, this is an exact match to the information given in the song.
And what happened on the last trip of the Antelope? They left Chicago on November 16th (Wv2) or 17th (Sv2). The next morning a storm arose. (Wv3, Sv3) There is some disagreement in timing — Walton’s text seems to suggest that the 18th is the day they ran aground on the shores of Michigan (Wv5-7), Snider’s the 20th. (The last named day is the 18th, the next morning (Sv5), next evening (Sv6), and next morning again (Sv7-8).) The captain tries to swim to shore and is drowned. (Wv8, Sv8) Three men are swept overboard. (Wv7) The cook freezes in the rigging. (Sv5) “To the pumps went every man.” (Sv5) There is only one survivor and the ship is scattered across miles and miles of Lake Michigan shore. (Wv8)
What does the Nov 30th article tell us? “The Antelope struck on the shore Friday, November 20th at 5 o’clock.” The wreck lies six miles north of St Joseph, MI. “Two days and three nights the pumps could not be left.” Two men were frozen in the rigging. Two were washed overboard. One tried to swim ashore and “went down”. The captain was washed overboard. Five people survived.
The Nov 28th article contains information obtained from Captain Parker, who apparently visited the survivors in the hospital. In his account, Captain Budd [sic] tried to swim ashore, failed, was hauled back ashore and shortly afterward was washed overboard and lost. Three of the crew were washed overboard during the night, another froze in the rigging.
So, while there is some quibbling over the details all around, the basic outlines of the story in the texts matches these newspaper articles closely. Only two things jump out at me as real discrepancies. First is the claim in the next to last line of Walton’s text that there was only one survivor. That’s not mentioned in Snider’s text, and I think we can presume it got added somewhere in the transmission process. The other is the claim in Snider that they ran aground in the morning of the 20th, when the newspapers tell us it was in the evening. It seems likely this was just a simple substitution of “morning” for “evening” somewhere in transmission, or perhaps Peckham misremembered.
So what have we learned? I think we can be very certain the song was written about the November 20th, 1857 wreck. While there are minor discrepancies, if anything it seems surprising how closely oral tradition preserved the story from 1857 to Snider’s recording in 1946, 89 years later!