Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Herndon, William Lewis
HERNDON, William Lewis, naval officer, b. in Fredericksburg, Va., 25 Oct., 1813; lost at sea, 12 Sept., 1857. He entered the navy as midshipman in 1828, and was promoted passed midshipman in 1834 and lieutenant in 1841. He served on various cruising-stations and was actively employed during the Mexican war. After three years of duty at the naval observatory he was sent to the south Pacific station, where in 1851 he received orders detaching him from his ship, and directing him to explore the valley of the Amazon to ascertain its commercial resources and capabilities. He started from Lima, and crossed the Cordilleras in company with Lieut. Lardner Gibbon, who separated from him to explore the Bolivian tributaries, while Herndon followed the main trunk of the Amazon to its mouth, returning to the United States in 1852. The report of this expedition was published by the government in two volumes, of which Herndon wrote vol. i., “Explorations of the Valley of the River Amazon” (Washington, 1853). This work was extensively circulated, and is still cited in works on ethnology and natural history. In 1855 he was made commander. He took service in the line of mail-steamers plying between New York and the Isthmus of Panama. On Tuesday. 8 Sept., 1857, he left Havana in command of the “Central America” (an old steamer, formerly named the “George Law”), carrying a large number of passengers returning from California and gold amounting to $2,000,000. The ship encountered a cyclone in the edge of the Gulf stream, and her lack of water-tight bulkheads and general unseaworthiness allowed water to extinguish the fires, so that steam could not be used to keep the ship under control or to pump her out after Friday noon. The next day a small brig was signalled to stand by, and all the women and children were transferred to her in the three remaining boats. Herndon kept the boats from being overloaded, and preserved order on board to the last. He sent his watch to his wife, saying that he could not leave the ship while there was a soul on board. He took his station on the paddle-box when the ship was seen to be sinking, and made signals for assistance. At 8 P. M. the steamer went down. Some of those who remained on deck were picked up by passing vessels, after clinging to spars, but Herndon and 426 others were lost. His devotion to duty excited general admiration, and led his brother officers to erect a fine monument to his memory at the naval academy in Annapolis. A daughter of Commander Herndon became the wife of Chester A. Arthur, who was afterward president of the United States.