John E. Seamen et. al vs. Schooner Forester and Cargo
About This Case
With its long coastline, numerous bays, inlets, and treacherous reefs, Florida presented unique problems for the creation and enforcement of maritime law.
In 1839, the Franklin Circuit Court of the Superior Court for Middle Florida, located at Apalachicola, considered the case John E. Seaman, et al. v. Schooner Forester.
This case highlighted the many perils faced by oceangoing vessels as they plied Florida’s waters. In September 1838, the schooner Forester, bound for New Orleans via Apalachicola and Mobile, ran aground off the west end of St. George Island. The schooner Orleans, at the port of Apalachicola for repairs, responded and began saving the crew, passengers, and cargo of the Forester.
During the operations, the Orleans suffered additional damages as it struck the shallow seafloor and bounced off the stranded Forester. These injuries further weakened the Orleans, necessitating continuous pumping by the ship’s crew to prevent it too from sinking beneath the waves. Over the course of several days, the crew of the Orleans succeeded in lightening the Forester and freeing it from the reef. Because of high seas, the salvagers quickly turned to loading smaller vessels rather than further risk the Orleans. Finally, once all the cargo was offloaded, the battered vessels returned to the nearby port of Apalachicola to assess the damage.
The crew of the Orleans, led by its Master and part-owner John E. Seaman, sought compensation for their heroic efforts to prevent the loss of life and cargo from the Forester. Because the Orleans was not regularly employed in wrecking, it appears that the intervention of the court was necessary to secure payment for services rendered. Also, apparently the insurance policy on the Orleans covered the vessel only in the waters of Apalachicola Bay and did not extend to the reefs offshore St. George Island. Seaman and his crew argued before the court that they had little choice but to act quickly to save the Forester as no other capable vessel was in port at the time.
Citing the customary practice of compensating wreckers and salvagers, the crew of the Orleans sought wages to the tune of $2 per day as well as funds to assist in repairing their vessel. Seaman for his part demanded $5 per day. According to documents included with the case, six men from the Orleans had aided the distressed Forester.
In order to determine the payment due to Seaman and the crew of the Orleans, appraisers had to assess the value of the Forester and its cargo. The initial appraisals met resistance from both parties. Their objections rested on the belief that the appraisers were not well enough acquainted with the business of shipping to properly assess the value of the Forester and its cargo. Another problem arose from the fact that some cargo, specifically about 150 sacks of salt, were thrown overboard to lighten the ship. Representatives on both sides grew impatient with the pace of the proceedings, as with every day the perishable cargo risked becoming worthless.
The court ordered the sale of goods salvaged from the Forester at a public auction. The crew of the Orleans was to be paid one-third of the amount collected as well as one-fourth of the court costs they incurred. It appears that at this point in the trial representatives for the Forester filed an appeal, the results of which are unknown.
As with other cases involving wrecking and salvaging, this case documents the complexities of maritime law and the dangers faced by shipping interests in the Gulf of Mexico. What is different about the Forester case is that its rescuers were pressed into service, rather than being regular wreckers. Their valiant efforts to save the crew, passengers, and cargo may have netted them an eventual reward, but at the expense of their own ship and a considerable amount of their time.