STONINGTON — More than two centuries ago, Stonington sea captain Isaac Pendleton sailed around the world in search of seals, and found them off a South Australian island that the mainland aboriginal people called Island of the Dead in honor of their long spiritless ancestors.
A year or so before he arrived, a European explorer named the island for the area's native marsupial — Kangaroo Island.
Pendleton and his crew would do something for the year they were, besides hunting seals, that remains a significant part of the legacy of a community on the island known as American River; a place not American and without a river, but named for the Americans that came.
Pendleton, born across the Pawcatuck River in 1777, was 25 when he married Nancy Sheffield in Stonington. A year later, at just 26, he was commissioned by Stonington ship captain and sealer Edmund Fanning, the explorer known as the "Pathfinder of the Pacific," to helm a brig called Union on a sealing expedition to the southern hemisphere.
So with a crew from around Stonington, Pendleton arrived at Kangaroo Island in 1803.
“It amazes me that Stonington sent so many young captains to sea, and by young, I mean under 25, sailing to the other side of the world,” said Stonington Selectman John Prue, who is a descendant of Pendelton.
Pendleton and his crew decided to stay on Kangaroo Island and build a smaller vessel, presumably, residents say, to haul back more seal skin. Under the direction of the ship’s carpenter, David Wright, the young Stonington sealers built in just a few months the schooner Independence.
But as Prue noted, “Most came home... some, like Isaac Pendleton, did not.”
There’s one record of a grisly end to the lives of Pendleton and seven crew members in 1804 on the island of Tongatapu, the main island of the Kingdom of Tonga, some 3,000 miles from Kangaroo Island.
Capt. James Cook had called it the "friendly island" after he landed there in 1776 and was treated to a feast, but the amiable and social nature of the locals actually concealed a plan to raid his boats and kill Cook and his crew. The attack was never carried out due to a dispute among locals, and Cook sailed away none the wiser.
Not so lucky for Pendleton a few decades later.
Meanwhile, the 35-ton schooner Independence was reported lost, with marooned sealers from Stonington picked up by another Ameican vessel from islands far southeast of New Zealand in 1806.
Now, though, Independence, the first vessel constructed in South Australian waters in the area on Kangaroo Island now known as American River, is being rebuilt and celebrated as a significant part of the history of the island. A historical non-profit based in American River, the Rebuild Independence Group, sent an emissary to Stonington last month to do some research and honor the memory of those sealers who spent a year on the island more than two centuries ago.
In August, Doug Gray, a member of the Rebuild Independence Group, came to Stonington as part of a visit to the U.S. and met with Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons, Prue, Selectwoman Jocelyn Kepple, and members of the Stonington Historical Society to honor and learn about “the origins of these brave seafarers,” Rebuild Independence noted in a blog post.
“It is amazing that these Stonington sealers found themselves halfway around the world in South Australia building a ship,” Simmons said.
While in Stonington, Gray did research at the Collections Research Center of the Mystic Seaport Museum and at the Stonington Historical Society.
“The Aussies are doing a fantastic job of honoring that crew and the boat they built in three months,” Prue said.
Using the same types of wood that would have been used in the construction of the Independence by Stonington sealers centuries ago, Gray presented the town a plaque engraved in honor of the Stonington seafarers, the “courageous men of Stonington,” who built the Independence in South Australia in 1803.
Simmons, Prue and Kepple signed a commendation recognizing Gray’s “journey halfway around the world to pursue the historic details about a band of intrepid American sealers led by Captain Isaac Pendleton from Stonington, CT.”