Captain James Riley—The Sea, the Sahara, the Swamp and the Sea

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When Deputy Surveyor Benjamin Hough crossed the Maumee River in Ohio on September 29, 1815, Captain James Riley was half way across the world stripped naked and tortured into what seemed to be a life of slavery. Hough along with 12 crew members surveyed the Michigan Meridian North while Riley and 11 shipmates were strapped on the backs of camels and marched across the Sahara Desert. Unbeknownst to Riley he would eventually become a free man and end up a Deputy Surveyor working in the Great Black Swamp of Northwest Ohio and following in the footsteps of Hough a mere six years later.

James Riley was the Captain of the American Brig Commerce. On August 28, 1815, while Hough was traveling to Fort Defiance from the North Cape of Maumee Bay, the Brig Commerce crashed into the rocks of Western Africa. Native Arabs, possibly carnivorous, stabbed and captured one of their crew members while the rest of the crew watched in horror as the scene unfolded. The crew pushed off in a rickety long boat and landed 300 miles farther to the south. This time they had no choice other than to be captured as their bodies were in a horrific state of dehydration, hunger and fatigue. This group of native Arabs decided to make them slaves instead of killing them. The group was stripped naked only to literally have all of their skin burnt off their bodies as they were forced to hike across the desert. Surviving on camel milk and urine the men were beaten and tortured to near death and continuously sold or traded as slaves.

While Hough was struggling with the swamps in Ohio and Michigan and ready to give up, so was Riley. At one point Riley “…searched for a stone, intending if I could find a loose one sufficiently large, to knock out my brains with it; but searched in vain”. Thankfully Riley came to his senses and created a plan to convince his masters that he was worth a handsome ransom if taken to the Consul at Mogador–now known as Essaouira, Morocco. A British man by the name of William Willshire agreed without hesitation to pay the ransom and after multiple months of hell they were free again. The experience took a perfectly healthy 240 pound man down to a mere 90 pounds of literally skin and bones. His surviving shipmates were even worse off and could not even stand and were lucky to weigh 50 pounds upon their rescue, not mentioning being almost blind, suffering from severe dysentery and infested with lice. It took months for Riley to recover enough to travel back to the States to his wife and children.

Once back in the States he did work for the government and spent some time soul searching. Riley was appointed a Deputy Surveyor by Edward Tiffin and eventually relocated to Northwest Ohio. He subdivided townships North of Sylvanus Bourne’s Ohio Baseline and even platted and laid out a town rightly named Willshire in Northwest Ohio. Riley wrote “In May, of the same year, I went again to my business of surveying at or near Fort Defiance, at the junction of the Auglaize and Maumee rivers, and up Tiffin’s river, and to the northern boundary of Ohio”. On July 13th of 1821 Captain James Riley, while surveying Township 7 North, Range 4 East crossed the Michigan Meridian as laid out by Deputy Surveyor Benjamin Hough on October 2nd, 1815. Captain Riley wrote in his field notes while running East on a Random line between Sections 24 & 25 “Crossed an old line marked R 1 E, T 11 S”. Hough calculated the start of the Meridian at Fort Defiance to be Range 13 South. Today the path of the Michigan Meridian (thru Ohio) literally can be recreated in your mind as it passes through one of the last patches of old growth timber in Northwest Ohio. The famous White and Burr Oaks at Goll Woods State Nature Preserve were well established even when Plymouth Rock was landed upon. Both tree types were called out in their field notes. Although it is not known if the two men ever knew each other it is quite interesting how their paths literally crossed in the swamp land of Northwest Ohio.

The result of Riley’s survey work in modern terms is nothing short of amazing. In 1994 the North Quarter Post of Section 14, Township 7 North, Range 4 East of the First Principal Meridian and Baseline of Ohio was excavated for a new 1st Order GPS Monument. The crew of the Fulton County Engineer’s Office dug and found an original wood hub as set by Captain James Riley. The hand hewn marks are clearly identifiable as it starts to near 200 years old. Captain Riley was sought after as a surveyor because of his excellent skills navigating with the night sky as a captain of the sea.

Upon his return as a slave Riley published a book in 1817 titled An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce–or simply known as Riley’s Narrative. When he came back he was urged by Congress and especially the Secretary of State James Monroe to write about his experience. Since 1817 this book has been published multiple times but most famously under the title Sufferings in Africa. In 2004 author Dean King revisited the story. King, with funding from the National Geographic Society, literally retraced the steps of Riley, along with the steps of Archibald Robbins. Robbins was a crew member along with Riley, but was separated early on and would eventually be rescued much later.

Robbins also wrote his own narrative. When Riley’s book was originally published many people did not believe his story and thought it was made up or exaggerated. King found out after comparing the two separate narratives they were very similar. King made a point to walk barefoot across the burning hot sand and run across jagged rocks, as well as spend days on the back of a camel–all as described by Riley. His bestselling book is titled Skeletons of the Zahara and is incredible in print or audio.

The History Channel also made a documentary of this. At one point Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks had the rights but the plan was shelved. In late 2015 Hollywood star Russel Crowe was selected to play Captain James Riley in a new movie titled In Sand and Blood. Unfortunately the film will probably never hit the big screen as Dean King has filed a 5 million dollar copyright infringement lawsuit against multiple parties. He is predicted to win the suit as he spent 11 years on his book and had a prior contract in 2008, was renewed, but eventually expired in 2012. The film company allegedly decided to pursue the movie anyway, but this time without King’s consent, or compensation.

The importance of Riley’s Narrative has no doubt changed history more than anyone can imagine. Without the unbiased detail of his narrative while Riley was a slave the opinion of a young Abraham Lincoln could have possibly been swayed. Lincoln, yet another surveyor, considered Riley’s Narrative one of his favorite books, next to the Bible itself. Even surveyor Henry David Thoreau cited Riley in the 1864 classic Cape Cod. Riley eventually moved back to New York after severe illness related to his Sufferings and in March of 1840 headed back to sea aboard the Brig William Tell and was never seen again.

A visit to Willshire, Ohio, respectfully named after William Willshire, will lead to streets named after his crew. Nearby in Mercer County is the Riley home and home to the Mercer County Historical Society. Much of this area was surveyed by Captain James Riley and his son James Watson Riley. Riley creek is also nearby and is named after James Watson Riley because he fell in it while on the survey crew of his father and nearly drowned and further losing his equipment. And one can only speculate if the Village of Archbold, which lies within land surveyed by Riley, was named after Archibald Robbins. The list goes on as James Watson Riley named Lake James in Northeast Indiana.

Here is yet another fine example of a General Land Office Deputy Surveyor with one of the most colorful histories we will ever see. I encourage everyone to read the books by Riley, Robbin’s and King and top it off with the classic folk song Skeleton’s on the Zahara as found on the self-titled debut EP by the Bold Riley Band and written and composed by John Gunn. I have no doubts the books and music will make all cherish the story of Captain James Riley for years to come and further respect the work these Deputy Surveyors did to make the grid we all know and work off of so well today. A new Ohio History Connection Historical Marker is also in the works for this famous surveyor to be debuted for National Surveyors Week in 2018.

Joseph D. Fenicle, PS is the Chief Surveyor at the Office of the Fulton County Engineer in Wauseon, Ohio. Joe also owns Angular By Nature, LLC a company specializing in Continuing Professional Development for Surveyors and Engineers as well as offering Land Surveying Services across Ohio and Michigan. Joe lives outside of Sand Creek, Michigan on his own active farm with his wife and three young boys.

A 3.460Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

About the Author

Joseph D. Fenicle, MS, PS

Joseph D. Fenicle, MS, PS is a Professor at the University of Akron for its award-winning Surveying/Mapping program. Immediately prior, he was the Chief Surveyor at the Office of the Fulton County Engineer in Wauseon , Ohio for 15 years. He also owns Angular By Nature, LLC, a company specializing in Continuing Education for Surveyors and Engineers across the Nation. Joseph has a MS in Engineering Technology with a Surveying Engineering Technology Concentration from the University of Maine, a BS in Surveying/Mapping from the University of Akron and an AAS in GIS/GPS from Hocking College. He obtained his FAA license in 2019.