Although it cannot be stated with absolute conviction, careful research has shown that these two scenes of an American merchantman in distress almost certainly depict the final hours of one of America's most renowned clipper ships, the Yankee packet Dreadnought, known affectionately to her contemporaries as "the wild boat of the Atlantic".
Although always described as a 'medium' clipper, Dreadnought's lines bore more resemblance to those of a packet ship than an ocean greyhound. Built by Currier & Townsend at Newburyport, Massachusetts, she was launched on October 6, 1853 and was ready for sea the following month. Her owners, the Red Cross Line, had ordered her for their highly profitable New York to Liverpool service and, having chosen Captain Sam Samuels as her master, they asked him to advise on and then oversee her construction. The result was a fast and reliable ship thanks largely to Samuels' superb seamanship and his determination to drive her hard under maximum sail whatever the weather conditions. Although her extraordinary run of 9 days and 21 hours from Sandy Hook to Queenstown, Ireland seems to be the only record she set, she nevertheless maintained her Atlantic schedules with greater regularity than any other sailing packet then afloat. Between December 1853 and February 1864, she completed thirty-one round trips across the North Atlantic for the Red Cross Line, Captain Samuels remaining in command for all but the last voyage.
In the summer of 1864, Dreadnought was sold and put on to the New York to San Francisco run where she remained for several years. Her last departure from the 'Golden Gate' took her back to Liverpool where, in the spring of 1869, she loaded a cargo of iron, crockery and hardware under a new master Captain Mayhew. Clearing Liverpool docks on 28th April, bound for San Francisco, the voyage south proved uneventful until, just before daylight on July 4, 1869, Dreadnought found herself "amongst the breakers" and in severe difficulties off Cape Penas, to the northeast of the island of Tierra del Fuego, as she approached the notorious Cape Horn. In Captain Mayhew's subsequent account of her loss, he wrote that "seeing no chance to save her, we put the boats into the water and, after much trouble, the crew got into them, but not before the ship struck...She soon became a complete wreck." After seventeen days of extreme privation, the entire crew was picked up by the Norwegian barque General Birch and safely landed in Chile in mid-August; as for Dreadnought however, she was declared a total loss and cost her insurance underwriters $83,000.
Since the two views offered in this catalogue have traditionally been identified as the treacherous waters off Tierra del Fuego, it seems highly probable therefore that they depict the tragic loss of a vessel which Buttersworth had already painted three times during his career. The earliest portrait, circa 1853, is held in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, while the two later works were both engraved and published as prints by Currier & Ives. Such was Dreadnought's fame that she was also painted by the English artist Duncan McFarlane (his portrait of the ship was recently sold Christie's, New York, 1 February 2006, lot 216) and, latterly, by Montague Dawson who produced several views of her at different times.