Quest to Find the Painting of the Ship Brooklyn

By Glen Greener

How genealogical research skills and the standards of art provenance guided a research physicist to find the painting of the ship Brooklyn that played an important role in Mormon history.

In 1845, Mormon newspaperman Samuel Brannan was instructed by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to charter a passenger ship that could transport approximately 240 Mormon emigrants from the eastern seaboard of the United States to the west coast (California achieved its statehood a little later in 1850). The arduous six-month trip would take them through the treacherous waters around Cape Horn on the southern tip of Chile in South America and then northward to California, then still part of the Republic of Mexico. Brother Brannan ultimately secured the services of Captain Abel W. Richardson, who co-owned and captained the ship Brooklyn.

Members of the Church continued to be severely persecuted in 1845. Their leader, the Prophet Joseph Smith, had been assassinated the previous year by an angry mob in Carthage, Illinois. Brigham Young and other Church leaders were working to relocate their members to the western territory by all available means—foot, wagon, handcart, and ship. They were fleeing to a location outside the United States for their own safety.

As President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Brigham Young later became Joseph Smith’s successor as the new President of the young Church. However, in 1846 as the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he organized the Mormon exodus west and was nicknamed the modern Moses. The arduous overland travel of the Mormon faithful in wagons and handcarts ended in 1869 with the completion of the transcontinental railroad. This shortened the journey significantly and added to the comfort of the experience for those still migrating west.

Dedicated to Record Keeping

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints goes to great effort to document every element of its history. From personal journals to minutes of weekly church meetings in Mormon congregations throughout the world, recording the history that documents the growth and restoration of the Church is part of its divine charter. The voyage of the faithful Mormons aboard the Brooklyn was significant not only to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ history, but that of the United States as well, and tracking the history and voyage of the Brooklyn was important to the Church. California became one of the spoils of the Mexican-American War, which started in 1846. The Mormon immigrants on the Brooklyn became some of the early settlers in California following the Mexican-American War.

The Church engaged Dr. Lorin K. Hansen, an energy physicist and historian of early Mormons in the California territory, to help track down the location of an original painting of the ship Brooklyn in about 1995. A few black-and-white photographs of the painting existed, but the whereabouts of the original painting or its artist, remained a mystery.

In his article, “Acquiring the Painting of the Brooklyn” found in the Church History Library archives, Dr. Hansen writes, “That painting is probably the only contemporaneous painting of the ship Brooklyn in existence. One might ask why the acquisition of the painting would be important to the Church? The answer would be that since the Brooklyn carried the first official, organized immigration of members into California (1846), the painting of the Brooklyn becomes the essential illustration for any history of the Church in California.1

While the story of the Latter-day Saints who sailed on the Brooklyn is not well known, the event marks an important moment in United States history. It is the story of members of a persecuted religious minority, fleeing as refugees from the land of the free--the United States of America--to find a haven to practice their own religion. It’s a story like that of the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower.

The long voyage was difficult, and people died during that journey. One of the most poignant stories was that of Laura Hotchkiss Goodwin. Laura was traveling, pregnant with her eighth child, with her husband Isaac, and their seven children, when she fell down a ‘hatchway’ during a storm and died after a prolonged illness at age 31. They were close enough to the Isla of Juan Fernandez off the coast of Chile when the death occurred, so Laura was buried there. She was buried at ‘Mas a Tierra’ in front of a large cave in the side of the mountain. She was the only one out of 11 passengers and one sailor who died during the voyage to be spared the traditional burial at sea.


In spite of the passenger deaths, two children were born on the ship under these difficult circumstances and their parents named the infants in memory of the arduous journey of faith during which they were born.  Nathan Burr, his wife, Chloe Clark Burr, had four children when they embarked from the East Coast.  When they arrived in California, they were the parents of one more little boy whom they named John Atlantic Burr after his birth place (See photo of Nathan Burr, inset).  A girl was born to Dr. John and Phoebe Robbins on the voyage. They named her Georgeanna "Anna" Pacific Robbins.  (See Passengers on the Brooklyn.)

When the Mormon immigrants sailed into San Francisco Bay, there was a small community just inside the straits known as Yerba Buena. Hansen writes, “The Brooklyn voyagers were the first group of immigrants to enter California by sea after California was claimed by the United States. Among the first in California commerce and industry, these immigrants helped build the frontier village of Yerba Buena into a promising San Francisco. They helped discover and, for a time, develop the gold mines. But they also established homes and religious worship and pioneered California agriculture.”

Applying Genealogical Research Techniques to Art Provenance

At first glance, one might not make the connection between genealogical research techniques used by genealogy professionals to validate a person or familial relationship with the provenance protocol followed by curators of fine or historical art. However, very similar methods and approaches are used by the two professions.

Dr. Hansen’s research uncovered a very helpful artifact--a photograph of an early painting of the Brooklyn. This vital clue deepened his resolve to locate the original painting. As an avid historian, Dr. Hansen is rigorous in documenting his sources. In his earlier article, “The Voyage of the Brooklyn,” he writes, “I have turned to the early sources to retell the story of that epochal voyage. The account here must be abbreviated, but I include especially those details which help correct past misconceptions and ambiguities.”

To locate the current owner of the painting, Dr. Hansen employed a scientific approach using both genealogical research techniques and the discipline of tracing the art provenance. He found that the painting of the Brooklyn had hung in San Francisco’s de Young Museum for many years, but their records showed that it was sold at auction through Hirschl and Adler in Manhattan.

“When I talked to a curator at the de Young, they told me that the painting was not especially a good one, and so they sold it to raise [money for] Museum operating expenses.” They didn’t seem to be aware of, or care about, the historical significance.” Both the de Young and Hirschl and Adler firms told Dr. Hansen that they had no records concerning what happened to the painting after it was sold.

So, with only some black-and-white, low-quality photo renditions in various books to go on, he began an in-depth search.1

The first step in this developing detective story began with the genealogy of the ship’s captain. Hansen explained, “First, I assumed the name ‘Brooklyn’ had some significance to the owners of the ship. Perhaps they lived in that area. I thought maybe descendants of Captain Richardson (the captain of the Brooklyn and one of the owners) may have purchased the painting, and they may still be in the Brooklyn area. It was just a guess, but that is where I began.”

He hired a genealogist in the Long Island area. Together they worked to find the descendants of Captain Abel Richardson. “We found when he died and where and found who his children were. Then we did reverse genealogy until we found a living descendant.” Reverse genealogy to trace descendants is more difficult than ancestral genealogy because records are not available until about a century after someone dies, and the researcher frequently doesn’t know where the descendants migrated to.

In some cases, Dr. Hansen said they would identify appropriate cities and go through phone books, cold calling people at random with the appropriate last names. “Finally, we found a descendant and through that descendant found many others. None of them had the painting, but one of them had a color negative of the painting and loaned it to me (See photo at the introduction of this article). I had copies of the negative and prints made. We still didn’t know where the original was, but now we had a good color rendition of the painting.”

The present descendants of Captain Richardson believed, and further research confirmed, that the painting was donated to the de Young by a descendant of the Captain. “The de Young had the negative made from the donated painting for the family to keep,” said Hansen.

The next step employed methods for determining the art provenance. Hansen describes that process: “One of the descendants mentioned to me that he was familiar with ship paintings in general, and from just how the waves were painted, he thought he could guess who the painter was. I thought I would follow up on that approach and see what I could learn about the painting myself. Maybe such information would help me locate the actual painting.”

By purchasing books from the key maritime museums, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, and the National Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, Hansen was able to view photos of their collections of ship paintings. He studied both the painters and their styles.

“Now that I had a good, sharp, color rendition of the Brooklyn painting I could compare it to other paintings in other museums,” said Hansen. “In the Mystic Seaport Museum, I found a painting that was very much like the Brooklyn painting, same background, same layout, same painting style, but of a different ship. That painting was attributed to Duncan McFarlane (1818-1865). So I guessed that our painting was by the same painter.”

Next, Dr. Hansen examined the paintings from the various museums, this time looking for a similar background scene to the Brooklyn painting. In the Liverpool’s National Maritime Museum collection, he identified the background as Holyhead Mountain and Skerries Reef on the coast of Wales. “The ship had just come out of Liverpool and was headed down the Irish Sea. Many painters used that scene,” he said.

With that knowledge, Dr. Hansen immediately did a computer search using the search terms “ship brooklyn duncan mcfarlane holyhead skerries reef.” “I got just a few hits on that search and one of them showed our painting and mentioned that our painting of the Brooklyn was in the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport, Massachusetts.”

The Brooklyn Discovered

Reaching the Custom House by phone, Dr. Hansen soon confirmed that his research was indeed correct. He was delighted to learn that curators at the museum had also attributed the painting to British American artist, Duncan McFarlane. And—they still had the painting! It was currently in storage to make room for another exhibit. He quickly learned that the painting was purchased through Hirschl and Adler by a New Englander to adorn his daughter’s bedroom. This new owner had later donated it to the Newburyport museum. Thus, another critical proof point in the painting’s art provenance had been made.

For a genealogist, the journey might end here, but for Dr. Hansen, his challenge to determine the full art provenance was only just beginning. Not only did his client (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) want to locate the painting, they wanted to purchase it. While the painting had been located at the Custom House Museum, acquiring it would take some tenacity and outright miracles since the painting was scheduled to again go up for auction soon.

Dr. Hansen called the Custom House Museum and asked what the price was on January 19, 2005.The museum said that $250,000 was a fair market price, and that it would be sold quickly at that price. At that moment in January 2005, Dr. Hansen thought that the Church would never own the painting. The Custom House called Richard Oman at the LDS Museum of History and Art (Church History Museum) in August 2005 and told him that since the Church wasn’t going to buy the painting at the fair market price, the painting was going to go up for auction. They said that the Church could bid for the artwork along with everyone else at the auction in two days.

Oman said that he didn’t think he could get there in time, but then he got an unexpected call from Ben Bloxham, a retired history professor from BYU, saying that he was in the East doing genealogical work and saw the auction announcement in the newspaper. He wanted to know if Oman was aware of it. Oman said he was aware and didn’t think he could make it. Professor Bloxham offered to go. That was the first miracle.

Before the auction, Bloxham spoke to the owner of the auction and told him the story of why the Church wanted the painting. When Bloxham went to the auction and read the brochure, he saw that two vases had a suggested value of $400–$600 but they sold for $545,000. A painting called the Eastern Star, similar to the Brooklyn, sold for $913,500. He was getting nervous.

Just after the Eastern Star painting sold, the auction had a recess. When the owner came back to continue the auction, he said he wanted to do something different for the Brooklyn. He talked about its historical value and shared the story that Bloxham had told him before the auction began. Then, instead of starting at the suggested price of $40,000 to $60,000, he said, “Will anyone give me $28,000 for this painting?” No one offered a bid. He then pointed to Dr. Bloxham and said, “Would you be willing to pay $30,000 for this painting?” Professor Bloxham immediately said, “I sure will!” The second miracle.

Then the auctioneer said, “I believe this painting is finally going home.” At the end of the auction, the auction house rose for a standing ovation.

Professor Bloxham didn’t want to trust just anyone to take the painting to Utah. He put the painting in his car and personally drove it all the way to Salt Lake City. (A sidenote—Professor Bloxham died two months later. This was one of the last of his many accomplishments in his life.)

Applying sound genealogical research skills, coupled with applicable techniques for determining art provenance, and what appeared to be a little divine intervention, the painting of the ship Brooklyn is now on display in the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Art Provenance and Genealogical Research

Art provenance is essential in validating the origin or determining the worth of artwork. Comparative techniques, expert opinions, and the results of scientific tests may also be used to these ends, but establishing provenance is essentially a matter of detailed documentation.

The objective of provenance research is to produce a complete list of owners, including the supporting documentary proof, of an artifact. In the case of the Brooklyn, from when the painting was commissioned or in the artist's studio through to the present time. In practice, there are likely to be gaps in the list and documents that are missing or lost. The documented provenance should also list when the artwork has been part of an exhibition and a bibliography of when it has been discussed (or illustrated) in print.

Sound genealogical research is explained in the wiki section of “In genealogy, direct evidence is the gold standard. A marriage certificate provides full legal names and the names of each set of parents and dates that correlate to other certificates. That can be considered proof.

When direct evidence isn’t available, genealogists assemble pieces of historic evidence according to the Genealogical Proof Standard, or GPS. The GPS is a process to determine what is known and helps genealogists determine what they want to learn. It helps explain a genealogy to others.

GPS should provide confidence about the direction of the research. It provides a basis for approaching difficult research problems using indirect evidence. It gives genealogists confidence and security in their conclusions. The GPS is required for articles and topics on genealogy and family history before then can be published in either scholarly or recreational genealogy journals.”

There are five steps to the GPS:

1. Reasonably exhaustive research has been conducted.

2. Each statement of fact has a complete and accurate source citation.

3. The evidence is reliable and has been skillfully correlated and interpreted.

4. Any contradictory evidence has been resolved.

5. The conclusion has been soundly reasoned and coherently written.

Any proof statement is subject to re-evaluation when new evidence arises ( Wiki).

Dr. Lorin K. Hansen’s efforts to find the original painting of the Brooklyn is an illustration of how these standards for genealogy and art provide clear substantiation for history. His articles “Acquiring the Painting of the Brooklyn” and “The Voyage of the Brooklyn” are interesting, enjoyable, concise, and clear descriptions of a time of immense importance to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the United States of America.

The landing of the immigrants aboard the Brooklyn contributed directly to the colonization of the western United States by Mormons and also helped spark the Gold Rush that began the ascending population of California, now the most populous state in the nation.

Search the passengers of the Brooklyn during the 1846 voyage to the west coast to see if your ancestors were aboard.

1“Conway Sonne,” Wikipedia,


About the Author

Glen Greener spent 38 years in various aspects of politics and public opinion research in Utah and California. He and his wife Debbie are writers for FamilySearch and Coordinators for the Family History Center at the Central Utah Correctional Facility. Glen was born and raised in Gunnison and is happy to be back home.  


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