Latvian schooner becomes focus of ‘strange shipwreck yarn’

“If any one wants an experienced skipper for sailing craft and a crew of seven able bodied seamen to sail any old sea on the face of the map they can get such a company right now at this port, for Capt. T. Krastin and his crew are without ship or employment.”

So began a January 19, 1906, story in The Sun, a daily newspaper in New York City.1 It told of the “strange shipwreck yarn” of the captain and crew of the Kauss2, a three-masted wooden schooner typical of the kind built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the Baltic Sea region. Not so typical was the fate of the Kauss, which was less than three years old when it sank during a storm off the southern coast of Cuba. (A similar story appeared the same day in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.)

The Kauss was built by Jānis Strādnieks in 1903 at Ķesterciems, a village on the southwest side of the Gulf of Rīga. The region was known for its shipbuilders, who had ready access not only to the sea but also to wood in the nearby forests. Ķesterciems, according to historian Edgars Dunsdorfs, in the 19th century was among the most important shipbuilding centers. The schooner belonged to Krišs Lonfelds (1845-1932, in some contemporary sources cited as K. Lohnfeldt) and Jēkabs Fišers (1849-1919), who owned a number of ships.3

Sailing was big business in pre-independence Latvia. Perhaps inspired by the nationalist, writer, and politician Krišjānis Valdemārs — who in 1864 at the opening of a nautical school at Ainaži had called on Latvians to take to the sea — thousands of men became sailors. Newspapers of the region in the late 19th and early 20th century often carried “shipping news,” reporting on the comings and goings of schooners and steamers, many of which were led by ethnic Latvians.4 Not surprisingly, the comings and goings of Latvian sailors had an impact on some immigrant communities abroad, such as those in New York and San Francisco. In New York, religious services were held for Latvian sailors; in San Francisco, sailors in 1897 founded the first Latvian organization on the West Coast.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle was one of two New York newspapers to cover the story of the schooner Kauss. (Brooklyn Newsstand / Brooklyn Public Library)

The first captain of the Kauss was Ansis Grauds (ca. 1873-1904), who steered the schooner from Rīga to various ports in England, France, and Sweden. He was a 1900 graduate of the Liepāja nautical school. When in July 1904 Grauds died after a motor vehicle accident in Marseilles, command of the Kauss was taken up by captain Tenis Krastiņš, a 1903 graduate of the Ainaži nautical school.5 Under Krastiņš, the schooner continued to visit European ports, but in late 1905 was steered across the North Atlantic Ocean and to its eventual demise in the Caribbean Sea.

The Kauss began its time at sea on September 25, 1903, leaving Rīga with a load of wood bound for King’s Lynn, England. During the next several months, the ship visited a number of ports in England, but ran into trouble on January 4, 1904, as it approached Teignmouth carrying a load of coal. As it was being towed into Teignmouth Harbor by a tugboat, the schooner hit a rock. The Kauss was damaged and filled with about three feet (about a meter) of water. The captain and crew of the Kauss blamed the master of tugboat, who they said had been “repeatedly told to keep further out to sea” but instead towed the schooner closer to the coast. The owner of the tugboat blamed the crew of the Kauss, arguing that the schooner had been damaged earlier. He sued the Kauss for the cost of salvaging the schooner, while the owner of the Kauss countersued for damages to the Russian ship. The owners of the Kauss won the case.6

The Kauss was taken to Plymouth for repairs and returned to service in April 1904. However, its ill fortune continued. After trips between France and Sweden, the Kauss stopped in July at Marseilles. While there, Captain Grauds was badly hurt in an automobile accident and died in a local hospital. Krastiņš became the new captain of the schooner.

For the next year, the ship continued to visit European ports, but then in late October 1905 left the French city of Le Havre bound for the West Indies. During the second week of December 1905, the Kauss arrived in Port du Moule, Guadeloupe, probably having visited other ports in the islands. The ship set sail again on December 17, heading for Laguna de Términos in Mexico.

The mate of the Kauss, Pēteris Priede (Peter Pride in news reports; also Preede), described in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle what happened next:

On the morning of the 28th we ran into one of those terrific storms which lace the southern coast of Cuba in the winter months. All day the captain stood lashed to the wheel, keeping the Kaus before the wind. When night approached he was nearly exhausted and ordered me to mind the helm for a while, while he went below to rest. Half an hour later I saw a rocky shore looming up dead ahead, over our starboard bow. “Land dead ahead,” I shouted down the companion way to the captain, who tumbled on deck in a hurry. We tried to come about, but the schooner refused to mind her helm. The next instant her bow rose high in the air on a gigantic wave and dropped her forefoot on a sunken rock. The vessel shook from stem to stern. The boiling sea raced over her, smashing her deck and hull. Then she careened to starboard as if she would turn turtle.7

It is doubtful that Priede used this exact language, but some of the phrasing in the story is similar to what was reported in The Sun. As the schooner struggled in the water and wind, Krastiņš, a sailor named Jēkabs Stūrītis (Jacob Sturit or Stuhrit in news reports), and a passenger named Leon Lichitivsky took to a lifeboat. They were separated from the Kauss before they could take on more of the crew.

Thirty-six hours later the lifeboat made it to shore, where the three men found the rest of the crew alive and waiting. The group made its way to Guantanamo, where a train took Krastiņš, the crew, and the passenger to Havana. In the Cuban capital, the Russian citizens from the Kauss arranged to go to New York on the steamer Morro Castle, where the Russian consul was working on their return to Europe. Three black sailors stayed in Havana.

Although the stories in The Sun and The Brooklyn Daily Eagle identified most of the crew members, immigration records provide a complete picture (not counting the three men left in Havana) of who was on the Kauss when it sank: Captain Tenis Krastin; Mate Peter Pride; and sailors Jacob Sturit, Peter Wanzkul, Michael Nutt, and Jules Bember. Immigration records8 listed Lichitivsky as a sailor, although The Sun identified him a Jewish shoemaker who had intended to settle in Mexico City.

From sailors to immigrants

Of the many Latvian men who took to the sea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a certain number became immigrants to other countries. In the case of the Kauss, at least two of the crew ended up permanently in the United States.

Tenis Krastiņš stayed in the United States, married, became a father, and worked as a chauffeur. In 1922, he applied for a U.S. passport so he could visit his family in Latvia. This photograph appears with his passport application.
Tenis Krastiņš stayed in the United States, married, became a father, and worked as a chauffeur. In 1922, he applied for a U.S. passport so he could visit his family in Latvia. This photograph appears with his passport application.

Krastiņš, it appears, stayed in the United States. He found work as chauffeur and married Lucy (or Lucie) Reimer, a German immigrant. In 1913, they had a daughter, Senta. In 1922, he applied for a passport so he could visit his mother and brother in Latvia.9

Priede, born 1882 in Engure, Latvia, either stayed in America or returned there shortly after traveling back to Europe. When he filed his Declaration of Intention in August 1907, he was living in Boston and still listed his profession as sailor. In 1911, for example, he worked on the crew of the S.S. Currier. Priede became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1914, by which time he had married Mary Saknit (Marija Saknīte) and had become a dock builder.10

The tale of the Kauss is not unusual for its time. Plenty of ships were lost during the period, and journalists had plenty of yarns to spin. For example, although Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World did not cover the story of Captain Krastiņš and his men, it gave front page exposure to the rescue of the crew of Newfoundland-bound schooner Kipling. The reporter described it as a “tale of sea wreck and rescue as thrilling as was ever penned by (a) novelist.”11

In the history of Latvian seafaring as well as the broader story of the Latvian diaspora, what happened to the Kauss is illustrative. It helps explain how some ethnic Latvians came to settle far from their homeland, perhaps with no initial intention of doing so.

Using StoryMap for visualization

The tale of the Kauss is in part a story of travel through time and space: the schooner was steered from Rīga to several European ports and then to the West Indies. To visualize this, I decided to use StoryMap, a JavaScript tool created by the Northwestern University Knight Lab.

The interface is easy to work with and provides a suitable range of options to enable some creativity. However, the map can only be as compelling as the story itself. As Knight Lab suggests, StoryMap works well for stories “that have a strong location narrative.”

The difficult part of visualizing the Kauss story was finding images that relate to the schooner’s voyage. So far, no image of the ship itself has been located, although I have to believe that at some point in 1903 someone must have photographed the ship, or perhaps in 1904 as it sat drying out at Teignmouth. I was excited to find a picture of Krastiņš in his 1922 passport application. Other images were gathered from sources such as the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the National Library of Latvia, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

One frustration with StoryMap is that the timeline it draws is straight. This may make sense for a traditional timeline, but when superimposed on a map muddies some meaning. For example, a schooner setting off in 1903 from Rīga for England would not cut straight across land to reach the Baltic Sea. Of course, to provide the control that would allow one to curve a line in StoryMap would require quite a bit of programming. Lacking that kind of control forced me to rethink what parts of the story should be told on the map. Would it be necessary to map every single port of call? No. What happened at Teignmouth was a critical point in the story, but the stops at places like King’s Lynn or Dartmouth were not and could be excluded.

Therefore, like other such visualization tools, StoryMap requires thinking about the flow of the script. Not everything can or should fit into the visualization. StoryMap enables the creator to quickly pull together a visualization, but taking the time to write and rewrite can greatly improve the presentation.

I applaud Knight Lab for creating StoryMap. It’s a good tool for historians and journalists to present information and one that I certainly will let my students know about.


During July 2018, I traveled to Ķesterciems in an effort to add some context to this story. Although no vestige of where the Kauss and other ships were built was found, I did locate Krišs Lonfelds’ home, named Kausi, and spoke briefly with his great-great-granddaughter.

According to her, the Kauss may have been built near the water and then moved into the sea over wooden rails.

Lonfelds’ third son, Andrejs (1879-1950), became better known than his father. After a career as a sea captain, he moved into government administration. From 1920-1926, he ran Latvia’s State Shipping Board.

1. “Catapulted Men Ashore,” The Sun (New York), January 19, 1906, p. 3.

2. In the The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and in the 1998 encyclopedia Latvijas jūrniecības vēsture: 1850-1950, the schooner’s name was written as Kaus, but I have chosen to keep the name Kauss, which is the form found in news accounts in Latvian newspapers from 1903-1906, as well as in U.S. immigration documents and in The Sun.

3. Edgars Dunsdorfs, Deviņvīru spēks (Stockholm: Daugava, 1956), p. 214. For information on the ownership of the Kauss, see Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping, Volume 1 (London: Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, 1905). For information about Lonfelds and Fišers, see “Krišs Lonfelds,” Jūŗnieks, December 1932, p. 287; the obituary “Krišs Lonfelds,” Latvijas Sargs, October 31, 1932, p. 6; and Ilze Bernsone, ed., Latvijas jūrniecības vēsture: 1850-1950 (Rīga: Preses Nams, 1998), p. 59, 94.

4. For a history of Latvian seafaring, see Ilze Bernsone, ed., Latvijas jūrniecības vēsture: 1850-1950 (Rīga: Preses Nams, 1998), and Egīls Zirnis, “Tūkstoš kapteiņu,” Diena, November 29, 2009, retrieved June 13, 2018,

5. “Dzimtene,” Apskats, August 4, 1904, p. 2; Bernsone, p. 65, 272.

6. W.F. Barry, ed., The Times Law Reports, Volume 20 (London: The Times, 1904), p. 326.

7. “All Schooner’s Crew Saved as by Miracle,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 19, 1906, p. 3.

8. “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 26 January 2018), Roll 657, vol 1424-1426, 14 Jan 1906 > images 433, 435, and 436 of 765; citing NARA microfilm publication T715 and M237 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

9. “United States Passport Applications, 1795-1925,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 22 December 2014), (M1490) Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925 > Roll 1851, 1922 Mar, certificate no 125476-125849 > image 274 of 650; citing NARA microfilm publications M1490 and M1372 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

10. “Massachusetts, Boston, Crew Lists, 1811-1921,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 7 July 2015), Jul 1911-Jun 1912 > image 306 of 804; citing NARA NAID 4672201, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; “New York, Southern District, U.S District Court Naturalization Records, 1824-1946,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 31 May 2018), Petitions for naturalization and petition evidence 1914 vol 62, no 15151-15400 > image 409 of 828; citing NARA microfilm publication M1972, Southern District of New York Petitions for Naturalization, 1897-1944. Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685 – 2009, RG 21. National Archives at New York.

11. “Sailors Saved, Schooner Afire in Raging Sea,” The World, January 20, 1906, p. 1. A similar story, with an alliterative headline, was reported in “Liner’s Sailors Save 7 from Sinking Schooner,” The New York Times, January 21, 1906, p. 1. For one Latvian sailor’s experiences in America, see “Kāda latviešu jūrnieka vēstule no Amerikas,” “Balss” tirdzniecības un kuģniecibas pielikums, November 12, 1903.