O'Cain

From Islapedia

O'Cain (1802-), 93-foot 280-ton ship in the sea otter and China trade in the early 19th century. She arrived opposite San Diego in December, 1803.

Joseph Burling O'Cain, an Irishman by birth and reared in the United States, "first comes on the scene in 1795 when Captain Hugh Moore of the Phoenix left him at Santa Barbara in August. Moore seems to have taken O'Cain from the Northwest Coast and left him at the California port at the latter's request." According to a post on Ancestry.com, O'Cain was First Mate on the Phoenix, a British vessel under Capt. Hugh Moore. According to Ogden [1941], O'Cain "originated a new way of doing business in the otter grounds held by Spain.


1803-1805: O'Cain was sailed by Captain Joseph Burling O'Cain; and in 1806-1808 by Jonathan Winship, Jr., 26. Both voyages went from Boston to the Pacific Coast. The O'Cain was built as a three masted, square rigged ship in 1802 by Elisha Foster near Boston. Its bottom was copper-sheathed, an advantageous practice not yet common in those early years of the Northwest Coast and China trade.

The O'Cain was owned in 1803 in part by Abiel Winship, the first born son of Jonathan Winship II. Joseph O'Cain was the commander and also a part owner of the vessel on this first voyage. On the first voyage O'Cain reached Kodiak in nine months. There, the enterprising Captain O'Cain met Baranov. They had already met in 1792 and 1801. Captain O'Cain proposed to Baranov in 1803 at Kodiak a new operational mode. O'Cain's suggestion would become the principal method of hunting furs on the American coast for the next twenty years!


The Russian would supply him with the natives and their baidarkas to hunt the otters in the south. O'Cain would convey the fleet of baidarkas and Aleuts for a winter of hunting along the California coast. With a good catch, the O'Cain would return and the production of the hunt would be shared, divided equally between the Russian-American Company and the Boston ship owners. Captain O'Cain had found large sea otter populations along the California coast on his cruise north but he needed native hunters. Baranov could not resist O'Cain's offer and he provided 17 baidarkas, 40 hunters and two Russians who would be under the supervision of his trusted assistant Shvetsov. In the exchange of personnel, two of the O'Cain's crew were left at Kodiak: Abraham Jones, second mate, who became an interpreter for Baranov until Winship returned in 1806, and George Stephens, cabin boy. The second year the Russians made an $80,000 profit.

Joseph O'Cain was older than the Winship brothers, and in view of his leadership role, likely admired by them. O'Cain was born in Ireland of English parents, and he had already appeared in the North Pacific more than a decade earlier. Jonathan Winship Jr., then only 23, was on board this initial cruise of the O'Cain in 1803 as first mate. This was his first voyage to the North Pacific, of which he kept a brief record in "Particular occurrences."


1805: On the second voyage of the O'Cain, Jonathan Winship, Jr. served as captain, and his brother, Nathan, sailed as chief officer. They sailed from Boston on on October 7, 1805, and arrived arrived at New Archangel (Sitka, Alsaka) on May 6, 1806. By mid-May, Winship had received an agreement to take baidarkas, 112 Aleuts, and three Russian supervisors. The stopped first at the unoccupied California coast north of the Spanish settlements to search for otters. They dropped off the hunting parties on Cedros Island, Mexico in August 1806 and returned to Sitka. They returned to Cedros on Aug. 9, 1807, then back to Sitka again. When the ship sailed for China it had 4,864 sea otter pelts aboard. The O'Cain reached Boston on June 15, 1808.



Journals from the O'Cain are the only two journals with primary sources of information regarding the system with Russians in the American sea otter trade and with China in the early 1800s.


  • Joseph O'Cain [Captain]. "Particular occurrences, Ship O'Cain [1803-1805]
  • Jonathan Winship, Junr. [Captain]. Journal of a Voyage from Boston to the North Pacific Ocean, from there to China back to Boston 1805.6.7.8.
  • Giesecke, E. W. Discovery of Humboldt Bay, California 1806 from the Ship O'Cain, Jonathan Winship, Commander in Terrae lncognitae: The Journal for the History of Discoveries (The Society for the History of Discoveries) Vol. 29: (51-71), 1997.



In the News~

1803-1804 “Another visit by an American vessel in 1803-04 was that of the 'O'Cain'. Capt. Joseph O'Cain inaugurated a new system of venture on the coast. O'Cain had been mate on the Enterprise, touching at San Diego in 1801, and was also supposed by Arguillaga to have sailed in the San Blas transports. The vessel was owned in part by Abiel and Jonathan Winship, the latter being on board when she sailed from Boston Jan. 23, 1803, arrived at Sitka probably September. There he succeeded in persuading Baranof, chief manager of the Russian American colonies, to furnish a company of Aluets with their bidarkas (two-man kayaks) under the direction of Sheetzof.---take orders on shares. Sailing from Kodiak on Oct. 1803--said to have done some trading and hunting along the coast of Alta California, but there is no definite record of this, except that he touched San Diego Jan. 8, 1804.” [Bancroft, H.H. History of California, 1886. Volume II, p. 25.]


1805: “One of the released captives--reported that there was another vessel hunting otters by the aid of northern Indians (this was poaching against Spanish decree, so a ship was captured) This vessel (the one alluded to, not the one captured) was perhaps the O'Cain, since the vessel was under a new commander, Jonathan Winship, with his brother Nathan as mate. Winship sailed from Boston Oct. 1805 with 30 men including officers, touching at the Sandwich Islands. He was welcomed at New Archangel (Sitka) April 1806 by chief director Baranof, who was willing enough to make a new contract for otter hunting on the south. On or about May 23, with 100 Aleut hunters, 4 Russians, 12 women, and 50 bidarkas, the O'Cain set sail for the south, and on June 10th anchored just off of Trinidad Bay, where Washington Sound, now Big Lagoon, was discovered, named, and partially explored. Winship remained in Trinidad Bay for 12 days. Fish were very plentiful and many skins were obtained, both by trade and by hunting. But the natives were numerous and hostile. All operations had to be conducted under the ship's guns. Field pieces had to be landed to protect the camp on the bay shore. Once a fight occurred in which a savage was killed, consequently it was deemed best to quit this region on June 22nd...

Then having sighted the Farallones on the way south, the adventurers reached Cedros Island on June 29th. Parties of hunters were distributed on the different islands while the ship cruised from one to another with supplies and water, spending also some time at Todos Santos and San Quentin, where a profitable trade was carried on with the missionaries...

After 2 or 3 months, Winship, leaving his hunters until his return, sailed by way of the Hawaiian Islands to Kodiak, where he arrived on Nov. 9th with skins valued at ~60,000 (note, this book was published in 1886--imagine what that sum would be today). He (made ready) for a new trip in completion of his contract.--- The Russians state that Winship returned in September with 5000 otter skins for sharing. He had quarreled at Cedros Island with the chief hunter --- (a Russian)--who later purchased an American schooner, possibly Hudson's Tomana, renamed the Nicoli; and arrived home by way of the Hawaiian Islands in August. ---”

After Rosanof's return to Sitka, there seemed to have been no intercourse between the Russian settlements and California for some time, and thus we may so regard the otter hunting expeditions of Americans made under contract with Baranof--O'Cain, Winship, and Campbell.

1807 In 1807, Swift, in the Derby, with 25 bidarkas and 50 Aleuts hunted the coast with results which are not known. Jonathan Winship likewise came down from Kodiak in the O'Cain with 50 native hunters, making a very profitable hunt, especially in northern California... [Bancroft, H.H. History of California, 1886. Volume II, p. 39.]