Let’s Talk About: First U.S. Navy Death in Pacific

1856: First U.S. Navy Death in the Pacific

“Curiosity got the better of Gus Englebrecht. He poked his head above a log to view a Brave just fired upon and wrote himself into history.”

Thus, Gustavus/Gustave Englebrecht became the first U.S. Navy casualty in the Pacific. He died on 21 November 1856 during the Battle of Port Gamble.

The Battle of Port Gamble is an isolated engagement between the U.S. soldiers and the Tlingit native peoples. A minor incident, it is historically notable for the first U.S. Navy battle death in the Pacific Ocean. Here’s the story:

In November 1856, a Tlingit party of about 100 warriors and their families, in a fleet of canoes, entered Puget Sound in what was then Washington Territory. Why they came was never asked; their presence spooked the alarm among the white folks. When the fleet of canoes approached Steilacoom, the residents alerted the U.S. Army garrison at Fort Steilacoom who, in turn, sent word to the nearby U.S. Navy gunboat, the U.S.S. Massachusetts.

On November 20th, the Tlingit approached the logging community of Port Gamble and the nearby band of S’Klallam Indians. (Note: The Tlingit were likely on a slave raiding party a most common custom then.) The superintendent of the logging mill blew the mill’s whistle prompting the community to evacuate to the nearby blockhouse.

The U.S.S. Massachusetts arrived at Port Gamble soon thereafter and finding the natives landed and camped at the edge of town, put ashore an armed force of 18 sailors. The Massachusetts’ skipper had twice sent messengers to the Tlingit chief with offers to tow them to Victoria but both offers were refused. The next morning, the captain began shelling the native camp, inflicting heavy casualties. During this melee, small arms fire was exchanged between the war party and those 18 sailor/soldiers resulting in the death of Cosxwain Gustave Englebrecht.

Donna’s note:  I searched all the “low-hanging” fruit for more information on Gustave/Gustavus but found hardly anything. His official military death notice said he enlisted 15 June 1855. He is buried in a lovely fenced plot in the little hilltop cemetery in Port Gamble. Most information for this bit came from www.historylink.org, the free Washington history website.

Was he the Gustave Englebrecht, age 18, born 1832 in town of Heiligenstadt (Bavaria), and who left Bremen on 22 May 1850 bound for Baltimore, Maryland, on the ship Rebecca??

Guess it’s up to somebody else to solve the mystery of Gus Engelbrecht, the man “who wrote himself into history.”

Information and images below are from www.findagrave.org

“United States Navy Sailor. He was serving as a Coxswain on board the wooden steamer warship “USS Massachusetts” when it was part of the United States Navy’s Pacific Squadron in 1856. He was killed in a minor engagement between the ship and the Native American Tlingit people at Port Gamble, Kitsap County, Washington Territory on November 21, 1856, making him the first Navy combat death in the Pacific. A historical marker that was erected near his burial site reads: “1856. National Historic Site. First U. S. Navy man to die in action in the Pacific. During the Indian depredation, Port Gamble was attacked. Mill workers hoped for relief from a U. S. Navy Warship the ‘Massachusetts’. The ship arrived, and the skirmish resulted in this American casualty. Curiosity got the better of Gus Englebrecht. He poked his head above a log to view a brave just fired upon, and wrote himself into history.”