Commander William Lewis Herndon

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William Lewis Herndon

Birthdate: (43)
Birthplace: Fredericksburg Virginia
Death: September 12, 1857 (43)
Cape Hatteras North Carolina
Immediate Family:

Son of Dabney Herndon and Elizabeth Herndon
Husband of Elizabeth Frances Herndon
Father of Ellen "Nell" Arthur, First Lady
Brother of Brodie Strachan Herndon Sr., M.D., (CSA); Ann Hull Maury; Dabney Herndon; John Minor Herndon; Elizabeth Hull Maury and 2 others

Managed by: Private User
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About Commander William Lewis Herndon

Commander William Lewis Herndon (25 October 1813 – 12 September 1857) was one of the United States Navy's outstanding explorers and seamen. In 1851 he led a United States expedition to the Valley of the Amazon, and prepared a report published in 1854 and distributed widely as Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon.

He was noted especially for ensuring the rescue of 152 women and children when commanding the commercial mail steamer Central America in September 1857. During a three-day hurricane off the coast of North Carolina, the ship lost power. Herndon arranged for getting some women and children safely off the ship to another vessel. With no way to save the ship, Herndon chose to stay with more than 400 passengers and crew who drowned as the ship sank off Cape Hatteras on September 12. It was the largest loss of life in a commercial ship disaster in United States history.

Two years later his daughter Ellen Lewis Herndon married Chester A. Arthur, the future U.S. President.

Naval Service

William Lewis Herndon was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Herndon was appointed Midshipman on 1 November 1828. He cruised in Pacific, South American, Mediterranean, and Gulf waters from then until 1842.

Service in the Depot of Charts and Instruments

From 1842 to 1846 Herndon served in the Depot of Charts and Instruments (later to become the United States Naval Observatory) with his brother-in-law, Matthew Fontaine Maury, preparing oceanographic charts and performing other scientific work invaluable to the safe and accurate navigation of the seas.

Mexican-American War

During the Mexican-American War, Herndon commanded the brig Iris with distinction.

Exploring the Valley of the Amazon

In 1851 Herndon headed an expedition exploring the Valley of the Amazon, a vast uncharted area. Departing Lima, Peru, 21 May 1851, Herndon and his small party of six men pressed into the wild and treacherously beautiful jungles. After a remarkable journey of 4,366 dangerous miles, which took him through wilderness from sea level to heights of 16,199 feet, Herndon reached the city of Pará, Brazil on 11 April 1852. On 26 January 1853 Herndon submitted an encyclopedic and profusely illustrated 414-page report to the Secretary of the Navy John P. Kennedy. The report was later published as Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon published 1853.

This volume was unusual and of such importance that in an unusual move, it was immediately ordered, "10,000 additional copies be printed for the use of the Senate."

Wreck of the sidewheel steamship SS Central America

After two years of active service in Potomac and San Jacinto, Herndon, now a commander, was given leave in 1855 to command the Atlantic Mail Steamship Company steamer SS Central America, 20 June 1857, on the New York to Aspinwall run. (Central America had recently been renamed from George Law. Aspinwall was an Anglo-alternative name for Colón, Panama.)

Making his way up the coast from Aspinwall with perhaps 15 tons of gold (then worth $2,000,000) and 474 passengers, as well as 101 crew members, Herndon encountered a three-day hurricane off Cape Hatteras on 7 September 1857. The hurricane steadily increased in savagery until the 12th, and Central America was shipping water through several leaks. As the ship pitched and rolled through the pounding seas, water in her hold put out her boiler fires.

Commander Herndon reluctantly admitted that, despite the valiant efforts of crew and passengers alike, his ship was doomed and summoned aid by firing the ship's minute guns. At 2 p.m., West Indian brig Marine arrived to aid the stricken steamer. Disregarding his own life, Commander Herndon supervised the loading of women and children into lifeboats and watched them pull to safety in Marine. Herndon's bravery and his concern for his passengers and crew helped save 152 of the 575 people on board.[1]

Commander William Lewis Herndon was last seen in full uniform, standing by the wheelhouse with his hand on the rail, hat off and in his hand and bowed in prayer as the ship gave a lurch and went down. The loss of so much gold contributed in part to the Panic of 1857.


Herndon's memory has been honored in various ways:

   * The Navy has named two ships USS Herndon in his honor.
   * The towns of Herndon, Virginia and Herndon, Pennsylvania are also named for him.

Further reading

   * Kinder, Gary, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. An account of the last days of Central America and the search for her wreck.
   * Ship of Gold web site
   * Final Voyage of the SS Central America Klare, Normand - Historian The Final Voyage of the Central America. Exhaustive research documentation of the tragedy from actual accounts by the survivors of the Central America. A further indepth biography of William Lewis Herndon' s life and US naval career.
   * Herndon, William Lewis; Gibbon, Lardner (1854), Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, Department of the Navy
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Commander William Lewis Herndon's Timeline

October 25, 1813
Fredericksburg Virginia
August 30, 1837
Age 23
Culpepper, Virginia, United States
September 12, 1857
Age 43
Cape Hatteras North Carolina