Re-typed to follow format of original letter. For convenience, the sketch map mentioned on the first page has been inserted into the text. Knox's reply follows the letter.
U. S. S. MALLARD Enroute, Galapagos Islands to Cocos Island. April 24, 1941. Captain Dudley W. Knox, U.S. Navy Office of Naval Operations Navy Department Washington, D. C. My Dear Captain:- On a recent visit to James Bay, in the Galapagos Islands, Submarine Squadron Three went on an intensive hunt for the grave of Lieutenant John S. Cowan of the ESSEX, who, as you know, was buried here in August, 1813. To assist in our search, we had copied excerpts from Porter's Journal as well as very helpful instructions from Mr. Joseph R. Slevin of the California Academy of Sciences, who was a member of the 1905-1906 Academy Expedition to the Galapagos Islands and who has, since then, taken a great interest in Lieutenant Gamble and hence, in the duel. Dr. Waldo Schmidt of the National Museum, who was with the President in the HOUSTON in 1938, was with us and very much interested and helpful. I am enclosing a sketch of the local topography as we found it. The narrow black sand beach is bordered by a fringe of man- groves behind which are two lagoons separated by a low ridge of soil on which are two prominent pinnacles about 40 feet high. The area behind the lagoons (to the eastward of them), is densely wooded, and is so thick that a thorough search would be impossible without first clearing the land. This land slopes up so steeply that it appears an unlikely spot for a grave.
Enlarged circled numbers added for clarity.
The MALLARD, Submarine Squadron Three rescue vessel, anchored as accurately as possible in the ESSEX's 1813 anchorage, correct- ing Porter's bearing for annual change in variation. The landing place was as indicated on sketch. This was chosen for its prox- imity to the ship and also because the surf seemed easier here. It seems probable that Porter used the same landing. Two and one-half days were used in the search with some thir- ty men employed, plentifully supplied with shovels and picks. A reward of $10. was offered the first man bringing information leading to a succesful search and a further $10. to the first man unearthing definite evidence. The small hole dug by the HOUSTON party in 1938 (Marked "1" on
U. S. S. MALLARD sketch) was found and was enlarged to 12 feet by 12 feet by 4 feet deep with an additional hole, 2 feet deep, in the center. At this final depth of 6 feet, a solid bed of loose clinkers was met with. It is positive that this is not the spot. Spot marked "2" on sketch, near the eastern pinnacle, was next investigated. This lies in an open glade, in attractive surround- ings, on gently sloping ground. Stones were found arranged in a square here. Similar formations of stones seem to occur, by hazard, throughout this area and our search was rather for a cairn or large mound of stones than for a rectangular arrangement. Close examina- tion of the surface here brought to light a fragment of a broken pottery jug as well as several lumps of pitch. This site has evidently been used as a camp. It was excavated over an area of 8 feet by 10 feet to a depth of 4 feet without finding anything at all. Numerous other small holes were dug in this vicinity but it is evident that stones and debris fall from the eastern pinnacle onto this site and that it has built up considerably during the 128 years that have elapsed. Numerous small parties scouted the entire vicinity, finding "indications" which proved to be illusury when investigated. One man, Short, from S-45, reported that he had found a blazed tree some 250 yards northeast from the northern end of the beach (Mark- ed "3" on enclosed sketch). The country in this vicinity is sparsely wooded, with numerous open glades. It slopes gently up but is both flat enough and open enough for a duel. It is also a suitable spot for a grave whereas site No. 1 is not. The tree was about 35 feet high, of an unidentified species, with a compound leaf and unripe fruit similar to a cherry. The trunk was about 18 inches in diameter. The blaze marks were as follows:
The hatched areas are very old blazes. The plain lines are distinct and possibly more recent than the large blazes. They were evidently cut with the point of a knife or machete. Both arrows pointed towards the ground by the tree. We dug there, after removing a quantity of loose stones and, at 2-1/2 feet depth, struck what appeared to be a cemented stone vault lying in an east-west direction. At this point it was realized that the tree grew directly over the center of the vault so it was cut down. The blazed section was cut -2-
U. S. S. MALLARD out and brought with us. A rough tree ring count showed 61 rings so the tree may have been a sapling about 1870. That corresponds with its appearance. The entire vault was then uncovered. It appeared to have a 1 inch layer of a sort of mortar over it. When that was removed, it appeared to be a lava bubble, which was quite easily broken with a pick. There were indications of joint- ing but the whole dome, about 6 inches thick was too perfect to have been laid by a mason. The space under the dome was hollow, about 16 inches in aver- age depth, of which about 8 inches was filled with loam. This was very carefully shoveled onto a tarpaulin and searched by hand for any buttons or brass sword fittings which might resist corrosion. This search was hindered by a heavy rain which made the entire excavation a sea of mud, but it was done carefully enough to make sure we missed nothing. We found nothing at all. In ground plan this "vault" or lava bubble, was 6-1/2 feet by 3-1/2 feet inside dimensions. It was somewhat broken at its easterly end so that if it was a natural bubble, as I believe, a body might have been inserted from that end. We dug thoroughly around both ends in search of the bottle with instructions left by Porter for John Downes, but found nothing at all. The bottom of the "vault" was solid rock which we finally broke through and found clinkers underneath. We put the loam from the "vault" back into it, but left the hole intact in case further search is to be made at any time. In "A Narrative of the BRITON'S Voyage to Pitcairn's Island" by Lieutenant John Shillibeer, Royal Marines, London 1817, there is a description of Cowan's tomb: "Among some green bushes near the beach is the tomb of Lieutenant Cowan of the United States Frigate ESSEX, who fell in a duel with Mr. Gamble of that ship. That this unfortunate young man was much esteemed by his brother officers, is evident by the great respect they paid to his memory." This passage indicates to me that we may possibly have found the tomb, first, because it calls it a "tomb" and not a "grave", and second, because it was a somewhat imposing structure. The blaze on the tree certainly indicated something of interest beneath it and, when we dug there, we found this lava bubble. Against our having found the tomb is the almost definitely natural origin of this lava bubble. It was too well made to be of masonry and a piece of the shell which we brought with us is definitely solid lava. The fact that it was completely underground is not -3-
U. S. S. MALLARD astonishing to my mind as soil would tend to build up due to weathering of the many rocks in the vicinity. The slope is now grassy with only occasional rocks but I can well imagine it to have been a foot or more lower and less fertile 128 years ago. If there were in existence any description of the tomb, it might settle our doubts. Are there any journals of Chaplain Adams or of Midshipman Feltus or Farragut? Are there any Porter papers which might go further into detail than the Journal? Before mailing this I shall enclose prints of photographs we took of the tree with the blazes and of the "tomb". I know of the President's interest in locating this grave and am en- closing a copy if you think this worth sending him. I have a slab of the tree showing the blazes and a small section of the lava "bubble" here. I can send them to you if they would be of any interest. At all events, we had an interesting search and learnt a good deal of history in looking it up. It was a revelation to see the interest the men took in the search, and it was not due entirely to the reward we offered. I am, with best personal wishes Very sincerely yours, Sherwood Picking, Captain, U.S. Navy.
31 May 1941. My dear Picking: I thank you for your exceedingly interesting letter of April twenty-fourth, describing the search under- taken by Submarine Squadron Three, for the grave of Lieu- tenant John S. Cowan of the ESSEX at James Bay, in the Galapagos Islands. I am very glad to have your report for our archives and have been very glad to make a thorough search among our manuscript collection and printed sources for further data. Unfortunately, we have not been able to find anything which might shed further light on the subject. In view of the President's personal interest in the matter, I will be very glad to adopt your suggestion of sending to him through his Naval Aide, the copy of your report which you prepared for this purpose. With renewed thanks and hoping to see you soon, Very sincerely, D. W. KNOX Captain, U.S.N. (Ret.) Officer-in-Charge. Captain Sherwood Picking, U.S.N., Commander Submarine Squadron 3, U.S.S. S-44, c/o Postmaster, New York, N.Y. CC: Mrs. Lawrence. §
§ Presumably, Alma R. Lawrence at the Office of Naval Records and Library