At the end of November in 1866, the British cargo ship Coya had almost reached San Francisco. Laden with coal from Australia, it had been sailing for a month across the Pacific. But during the last couple of days, stormy weather hid the coast. Captain Richard Paige estimated that they were near the Farallon Islands—approaching the mouth of San Francisco Bay—where there was a lighthouse to save ships from the rocks. Setting a watch, he went belowdecks to have dinner. At around 7:30 p.m., the lookout yelled, “Land on the lee bow!” Unfortunately, the ship was actually 50 miles south of the Farallons, just past what is known as Franklin Point today—and dangerously close to land.

Despite the crew’s efforts to turn the ship around and slow it by furling the sails, the Coya smashed into the craggy coastline. Lifted up by the waves and pounded back down, the iron-plate hull broke and began filling with water, forcing the wooden deck to split. Waves swept over the deck, washing screaming passengers into the ocean. The ship turned on its side, and those remaining on board, drenched and freezing, looked below to see a hissing mass of foam from the waves pounding the rocks. Then they were all washed into the frothing sea.

Of the 30 people on board, only 3 reached the shore alive. Among the victims was likely a woman of African descent, around 20 years old, whose name and history have been lost. She was found interred with the other dead at Franklin Point. But unlike the others, she was buried facedown—a very rare practice often associated with sinister deaths.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.

It was nearly two years after the United States had formally abolished slavery, and our Jane Doe would have been a “free” woman. Fueled by the gold rush, California was growing rapidly, attracting immigrants from all over. But trying to figure out Jane’s identity and her route here opens up a view of the greater African diaspora beyond the well-known story of American slavery.

“In the day, you had sailors and steerage passengers, oftentime immigrants, and there’s no record of a lot of those folks because they don’t have any social standing. They become the invisible people,” says Mark Hylkema, an archaeologist with the California Department of Parks and Recreation, who in 2002 led a team that did a forensic analysis of the remains of several shipwreck victims found at Franklin Point. “I’ve gone through a litany of possibilities, but it’s impossible to know who she was. The questions are greater than the answers.”

Who could she have been? San Francisco’s explosive growth during the gold rush meant that supplies and people were coming from many places. Before the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, shipping was the fastest and easiest transportation—although far from guaranteed. A year before the Coya sank, the American ship Sir John Franklin, with a load including pianos, coal, oil, and whiskey, made it past the treacherous waters of Cape Horn—only to founder on the rocks of Franklin Point (named for the lost vessel). And two years after the Coya capsized, the American ship Hellespont sailed from Newcastle, Australia, also carrying “black gold” to power California’s growing cities and industries, and similarly lost its way in the fog and crashed in almost the identical spot as the Coya. Victims of all three calamities—a total of 40 people, by one account—were buried in the same informal graveyard following the recovery of their bodies.

franklin point, shipwreck victims
Remains of two shipwreck victims buried at Franklin Point that were disinterred in 1999 and moved to a protected site. Top photo: Mark Hylkema, an archaeologist with the California Department of Parks and Recreation, at Jane Doe’s original burial site at Franklin Point.
California Department of Parks and Recreation

A review of the ship lists offers clues about Jane Doe’s identity. Neither the Sir John Franklin nor the Hellespont had passengers on board—only crew. Although there were African seamen in the American and British merchant marines, crews at the time were all male.

The Coya, with several women on board, is the most likely ship to have carried Jane to California, although it’s doubtful she was traveling independently. For someone who was both African and female, albeit a “free person,” the socioeconomic options were tightly constrained in this time period.

Captain Paige, who was 39 at the time of the shipwreck, was a family man. He was bringing his 45-year-old wife, Amelia, and their five-year-old daughter, Marion, on what would have been his third trip from Sydney to San Francisco. The passengers included two other English couples: Dr. and Mrs. Rowden and Mr. and Mrs. Jeffries. Mrs. Jeffries must have been pretty uncomfortable during the journey; she gave birth just days before the shipwreck. There were also two solo female travelers returning to California: Forty-year-old Anna Lassiter and her husband had taken the Coya from San Francisco to Sydney a couple of months before, and Anna was heading back home to Napa alone. Henrietta Pearson, a 30-year-old teacher in San Francisco, was ending a yearlong sabbatical; she was one of approximately 30,000 Americans who sailed the oceans in 1865, mainly bound for Europe.

Pearson, a white woman, may have had a glamorous year abroad, but Jane may have seen quite a bit of the world under duress. Though the United States and Britain had both abolished the slave trade by 1808, the transatlantic slave trade continued illegally through the 1860s. In 1861, when Jane would have been around 15, Spanish enterprises smuggled more than 24,000 enslaved Africans to Cuba and Brazil. The British navy patrolled the African coast and captured slave ships, sending an estimated 100,000 “liberated” Africans to Sierra Leone, which became Britain’s military and shipping hub in West Africa.

It’s plausible that such a fate may have befallen Jane. “She might have been rescued from enslavement or escaped in some way,” says Emma Christopher, an associate professor at the University of South Wales Sydney. If so, “it’s not improbable that she [later]…became hired or apprenticed as a domestic servant aboard a ship.” Cape Town in South Africa and the island of Mauritius were major ports of call and, along with Australia, part of the British Empire.

Another theory is that Jane could have come on board as an informal nurse. When the Coya arrived in Sydney in June 1865, the ship list didn’t include anyone accompanying Amelia and Marion Paige from London. But a year later, when the ship was about to leave for San Francisco, perhaps Captain Paige and his wife, who also had a 10-year-old son back in England, saw the heavily pregnant Mrs. Jeffries waddle on board. Might they have decided that it would be a good idea to have some extra help during the voyage—specifically female help? Jane could have been hired as a midwife or nursemaid for the imminent arrival of baby Jeffries. While newspaper accounts of the time are not very reliable, in a Stockton Independent story about the shipwreck, the crew list ends with “and one, name unknown.” Was that Jane?

In the days after the wreck, the bodies of higher-status passengers—the captain and his family as well as the two Californians, Lassiter and Pearson—were transported by schooner to be buried in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the corpses of the remaining passengers and the crew were interred—Jane facedown—in an unofficial plot in the sand dunes nearby.

Jane was laid to rest with the Coya’s sailors, in coffins fashioned from milled redwood boards and nails conveyed to the site. They were all buried with their heads to the west, in traditional Christian fashion.

Prone burials happen throughout history, but they are so rare that the reasons often seem specific to the individual. A cemetery of enslaved people in Barbados includes one person who appears to have been a suspected witch; in medieval Europe, pandemic victims may have been buried facedown to keep them from coming back to get the living. Jane’s skull was also found damaged, presumably from hitting the rocks.

California had notably joined the Union as a free state in 1850, and some 3,000 African Americans migrated here over the next decade, looking for greater opportunities. However, California was not exactly a sanctuary for Black people, according to Gary Noy, a historian of the Sierra Nevada and the American West. An 1858 bill designed to prevent them from moving to the state nearly passed, and free Black people in California still faced frequent harassment and routine segregation—which could explain Jane’s unusual burial.

After completing their forensic analysis, Hylkema and a team reinterred the remains of Jane and seven other unknown victims at Franklin Point; in 2003, they finished building a deck over the spot to protect the victims’ bones from erosion. There is no marker to indicate that this is a grave site, but another deck nearby is a popular spot where tourists often admire the long stretch of coastline and contemplate the crashing waves.

As the possible answers to our mystery woman’s identity show, Jane’s situation was quite different from that of others heading to California for a better life—including African Americans. “Only about 3 to 4 percent of the victims of the slave trade went to the U.S.,” says Christopher, suggesting that Jane Doe of Franklin Point stands for the many Africans who were displaced by slavery and colonialism. “She is a symbol of the damage that was done that we’re not really accounting for,” says Christopher. “She shows that the African diaspora was very much wider than what is perceived by just tracing the ships across the Atlantic. From there, people went literally everywhere.”•

Lydia Lee writes frequently about design and architecture in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a local bicycle advocate.