Cape Cod – Storms And Pirates – Pt. 1

THE sea that was at every man’s threshold, combing down the beaches of the outer shore, lapsing from the sands ebb-tide and flood again in the bay, formed such a part of the day’s experience as would be inconceivable to one of inland habitude. It was a friend to be loved, an enemy to be fought, a giver of food, and a solemn harvester that brought dead men to the door. Memorable storms have ravaged the shore: it is amazing that anything so delicate as the charming curve of Champlain’s Cap Blanc could withstand the pull and push of the Atlantic surges; Gosnold’s Point Gilbert and Tucker’s Terror have been torn away and moulded elsewhere in other form; and the shoals of that cruel outer strand might be piled high with their wrecked ships. Nor has tragedy been all oceanwards.

In 1827 there was a lowering capricious winter when with more than common malice the wind, “bringing cold out of the north,” would swing to the melting south and back again to freeze and destroy. It was on such a day that the schooner Almira, loaded with wood, put her nose out of Sandwich Harbor. The rain had stopped at noon, the air was thick with vapor, and high overhead, as if seeking their shepherd wind, scudded little ‘ anxious clouds. Then, change about, by nightfall the iron hand of the north had stripped the heavens bare and stars looked coldly down upon the scene. The air had filled with needles of frost to cut the faces of the miserable crew, and drenched as they were with spray they froze as they stood. The boat was headed for Plymouth Light; but Plymouth lay directly in the eye of the wind, and it was tack and tack again with sails slowly shredding to rags and every rope unyielding steel. The boat still answered her helm, but it was useless to drive her longer against wind and tide, and they turned her about for home. Into Barnstable Bay she swept, and in the moonlight that was more relentless than shrouding storm the master could see his own comfortable white house. The boat travelled as “if intent on some spot where it might be wrecked,” and there on the teeth of a cruel ledge, less than the turn of twenty-four hours since she had set sail in the languorous south wind, the land once more received her. At the helm, his hands frozen to the tiller, his feet set fast in ice, pitiful rescuers found the only man who breathed: the others of that little company had made the cold port of death.

There have been historic wrecks, historic storms. As early as 1669 a quarrel over the salvage of a wreck was settled in court. Bradford, in 1635, records such a storm “as none living in these parts, either English or Indians, ever saw, causing the sea to swell above twenty feet right up.” “Tall young oaks and walnut trees of good bigness were wound as a withe.” And “the wrecks of it will remain for a hundred years.” It was this storm, raging up and down the coast, that threw Anthony Thacher and his little family upon the rocks of Cape Ann. And some Connecticut colonists, wrecked in Manomet Bay and wandering for days in the snow, finally reached Plymouth and were hospitably entertained there for the winter. Brad-ford’s storm “took the roof of a house at Manomet and put it in another place”; and Rich reports the great gale of a later year that washed a house from its moorings on the Isles of Shoals and landed it at Truro so far intact that a box of linen and some papers were preserved to tell its story. He seems to think that if the family had had the courage to stand by their house, they might have made the voyage to Cape Cod in safety. After a savage September gale in 1815 that centred in Buzzard’s Bay, a coasting schooner was found upright in some large trees, and another, lifted clean over a bluff, blocked the door of a house. Every-thing ashore was laid waste; even springs became brackish; but some land was enriched by its flooding and where only moss had been grass was to grow.

In 1703 the body of Captain Peter Adolphe, cast upon the shore at Sandwich, was there decently buried; and his widow, in grateful acknowledgment, presented the town with a bell cast in Munich and inscribed, “Si Devs prop bvs [ sic) qvis contra nos 1675,” which was later sold to Barnstable where it is preserved as a relic.

In 1723 “The Great Storm” that “raised the tide three or four feet higher than had been known afore-time,” was reported by Mather to the Royal Society of London. In 1770 and 1785 were similar storms.

Bradford records that “the moon suffered a great eclipse” the second night after his storm; there were comets, portents of evil, during the Indian troubles, and earthquakes — in 1638 one so violent that “people out of doors could scarcely retain a position on their feet”; and the dating of subsequent events as so long “after the earthquake” was “as common for many years as once with the Children of Israel.” In 1727 a heavier shock still was “reformatory of some loose-livers in America who became apparently devout penitents”; and in 1755 was the worst earth-quake that ever was known.

In November, 1729, one Captain Lothrop, Boston to Martha’s Vineyard, espied off Monomoy a vessel in distress, and boarding her discovered shocking evidence of her state. Of the one hundred and ninety souls who had set sail from Ireland for the port of Philadelphia, no less than one hundred, including all the children but one, had died of starvation. Twenty weeks they had been afloat, and were out of both water and food. “They entreated him to pilot them into the first harbor they could get into, and were all urgent to put them ashore anywhere, if it were but land.” Lothrop would have taken them to Boston, but, when they threatened to throw him into the sea, landed them hastily with some provisions, at Sandy Point where there was but one house. A writer in a current number of the “New England Weekly Journal” remarks that “notwithstanding their extremity, ‘t was astounding to behold their impenitence, and to hear their profane speeches.” Their captain proceeded to Philadelphia where he was arrested for cruelty to passengers and crew, sent in irons to Dublin, and met his just deserts by being hanged and quartered. The one young survivor of that wretched company, James Delap, found his way to Barnstable, and was apprenticed to a blacksmith there. In due time he married Mary O’Kelley, of Yarmouth, and in winter practised his trade, in summer was a seaman on the Boston packet. This Irishman was something of a Tory, and in 1775 emigrated to Nova Scotia where he died. A son, master of a vessel in the king’s service, perished on Nantucket where his boat was wrecked in a furious blizzard; two of his daughters married in Barnstable.

When the emigration of loyalists was well under way, boat after boat, crowded far beyond safety, set out from Boston and New York for Nova Scotia, where, as one such traveller said, “it’s winter nine months of the year, and cold weather the rest of the time “; and where, even were they fortunate enough to escape disease or starvation or wreck on the voyage, they were to suffer privations beyond any the early Pilgrims endured. In March, 1776, “a sloop loaded with English goods, having sailed from Boston for Halifax, with sundry Tories and a large number of women and children, some of whom were sick with smallpox,” was cast ashore at Provincetown. Nathaniel Freeman was one of a committee appointed “to repair forthwith to the place and prevent the escape of the passengers and crew and secure the vessel and cargo,” and the selectmen of Truro shared in the task. What became of the sick women and children we are not told, but we may be reasonably certain that the rancor of the Whigs was not vented on them. Another of these Tory refugee ships was wrecked on Block Island, and it was said that for years after the ghosts of those who perished there could be seen struggling in the surf and their cries heard by men ashore.

English ships, in these days, were raking the coast of the Cape from their stations at Tarpaulin Cove and Provincetown, but in November, 1778, a sorry landing was made when “The Somerset, British man-of-war,” sung by Longfellow in his “Land-lord’s Tale,” struck on the murderous Peaked Hill Bar off Provincetown and, lightered of guns and ammunition, at high tide was flung on the beach. For two years, patrolling the coast or “swinging wide at her moorings” in the harbor, she had been a familiar sight to patriots ashore, and now, without observing too closely the letter of the law, they were to take what the sea gave them. Rich records some preliminary amenities between the captain and a company of visitors from Hog Back, one of whom, “a short old man with a short-tailed pipe,” asked for the captain, and Aurey, supposing him in authority, received him civilly. “Well, cap’n,” drawled Cape Cod, “who did you pray to in the storm? If you called on the Lord, he wouldn’t have sent you here. And I’m sure King George would n’t.” Whereupon the captain: “Old man, you’ve had your pipe fished.” An anecdote that goes to show not unfriendly relations between adversaries. In due time the captain and crew, to the number of four hundred and eighty, were marched to Boston to the exultation of all beholders, and the Board of War stripped the ship of her armament. But before and after this was accomplished, the neighborhood engaged itself with plunder, and there seems to have been some confusion in the right to loot. “From all I can learn,” wrote Joseph Otis, of Barnstable, “there is wicked work at the wreck, riotous doings.” He excused himself from the duty of regulating matters there as his father, the old chief justice, lay a-dying. “The Truro and Provincetown men made a division of the clothing, etc. Truro took two-thirds and Provincetown one-third. There is a plundering gang that way.” Certainly Barnstable was too remote to share in the largess. Mr. Rich had seen canes made from the Somerset’s fine old English oak, and cites a certain silver watch, part of the “effects,” that was still keeping good time at Pond Village. Drifting sands piled up to conceal the wreck, a century later swept back to disclose her to the gaze of the curious, and then again buried the bones of her.

In December of 1778, the Federal brig General Arnold, Magee master and twelve Barnstable men among the crew, drove ashore on the Plymouth flats during a furious nor’easter, the “Magee storm” that mariners, for years after, used as a date to reckon from. The vessel was shrouded in snow and ice, men froze to the rigging, others were smothered in the snow, a few were washed overboard; and when, after three days, succor came to them, only thirty-three men lived of the one hundred and five who had sailed from Boston so short a time before. Of the twelve Barnstable men only one survived. Bound in ice, he lay on deck as one dead: conscious, but powerless to move or speak. By one chance in a thousand, the rescuers caught his agonized gaze; they bore him ashore, nursed him back to life, and when he was able to travel sent him home over the snow-blocked roads in an ambulance improvised from a hammock slung between horses fore and aft. The Plymouth folk, unlike the looters of the Somerset — who, to be sure, looted only an enemy — not only buried the dead and sheltered the living, but guarded the property aboard the General Arnold for its owners. As for Barnstable, he lost both his feet from frost-bite, but could ride to church on the Sabbath as ‘well as an-other. He busied himself about his garden in summer, and in winter coopered for his neighbors; with considerable skill, also, he cast many small articles in pewter and lead.

In 1798, the “Salem Gazette” reports: “seven vessels ashore on Cape Cod, twenty-five bodies picked up and buried, probably no lives saved.” In 1802, there was another memorable wreck on the Peaked Hill Bar when three Salem vessels richly laden, one for Leghorn, two for Bordeaux, foundered there in a blinding storm. And, slow as the posts then were, not for nearly three weeks were full details of the loss received at Salem. For many years, every great snow-storm following a fine day in March would revive the story of “the three Salem ships.” During the Embargo War, a Truro man fitted out an old boat to trade with Boston, and on one such trip was over-taken at nightfall, below Minot’s Ledge, by a furious northeast snowstorm. It seemed probable that there would be one embargo-dodger the less to harry the revenue officers. The crew consisted of a solitary seaman noted for good judgment, his only oath milk-mild. “Well, Mr. White, what would you do now?” inquired the skipper. ” By gracious, sir,” returned White, all unperturbed, “I’d take in the mains’!, double reef the fores’l, and give her an offing.” Laconic direction for the one course that offered hope, and the event justified its wisdom. In 1815 a September gale that equalled Bradford’s Great Storm swept Buzzard’s Bay, piled the tides higher than had ever been known, and all but excavated a Cape Cod Canal. Trees were uprooted, salt-works destroyed, and vessels driven high on land. In 1831, to vary the story, unprecedented snows were fatal to deer in the Sandwich woods where they fell easy prey to hunters on snowshoes who brought in no less than two hundred, forty of them trapped alive.

All up and down the Cape, in every village and town, as the years passed, the sea took its toll of men. In 1828 some thirty of them, mostly from Sandwich and Yarmouth, small merchants and artisans who had spent the winter “prosecuting their business” in South Carolina, were lost on their homeward voyage. That was a disastrous year for many a man who followed the sea, and in Truro, especially, the number of grave-stones grew. Of all these memorials the most tragic is that “Sacred to the memory of fifty-seven citizens of Truro who were lost in seven vessels, which foundered at sea in the memorable gale of October 3, 1841.” Fifty-seven men of Truro, ten of Yarmouth, twenty of Dennis “mostly youngsters under thirty,” never made port in that gale. They were fishing on George’s Bank when the storm broke, and “made sail to run for the highland of Cape Cod,” we may read. “But there were mighty currents unknown to them before which carried them out of the proper course to the southwest. Finding they could not weather by the highland they wore ship and stood to the southeast but being disabled in their sails and rigging — the strongest canvas was blown into shreds — they were carried by wind and current upon the Nantucket Shoals.” A few boats did succeed in rounding Provincetown; others never made even the Nantucket Shoals; one was found bottom up in Nauset Harbor, “with the boys drowned in her cabin.” A captain, whose seamanship and indomitable pluck saved him that day, lived to write the record. “I knew we had a good sea-boat; I had tried her in a hard scratch, and knew our race was life or death.” Somehow, where other masters failed, he won. By a hair’s breadth he escaped the shoals. “We hung on sharp as possible by the wind, our little craft proving herself not only able but seemingly endowed with life. In this way at 3.30 we weathered the Highlands with no room to spare. When off Peaked Hill Bar the jib blew away, and we just cleared the breakers; but we had weathered! the lee shore was astern, and Race Point under our lee, which we rounded and let go our anchor in the Herring Cove.” Rich chronicles the almost incredible feat of another boat that turned turtle and around again and survived. The Reform lay-to “under bare poles, with a dragnet to keep her head to the wind. As it was impossible to remain on deck on account of the sea making a breach fore and aft, all hands fastened themselves in the cabin and awaited their fate, at the mercy of the storm. A moment after a terrific sea fairly swallowed them many fathoms below the surface. The vessel was thrown completely bottom up. The crew had no doubt it was her final plunge. A few seconds only, she was again on her keel. Two or three men crawled on deck; they found the masts gone and the hawser of the drag wound around the bowsprit. She had turned completely over, and came up on the opposite side.” For weeks after the storm, a vessel cruised about seeking disabled boats or some trace of their loss; but save the schooner in Nauset Harbor, not a vestige of boats or men was ever found. It is said that a Provincetown father, “who had two sons among the missing, for weeks would go morning and evening to the hill-top which overlooked the ocean, and there seating himself, would watch for hours, scanning the distant horizon with his glass, hoping every moment to discover some speck on which to build a hope.”

In 1853 another Great Storm swept away wharves and storehouses on the bay, and wrecked a schooner at Sandy Neck, with “all hands lost” to add to the tale of disaster on the outer shore. And so walks the procession of storms down to the one of yesterday when the coast-guard fought hour by hour through the night to save the crew of a boat pounding to pieces in the surf a scant two hundred and fifty feet from shore. And be-fore the days of the coast-guard, men had worn paths above the cliffs where they paced on the lookout for wrecks. “Thick weather, easterly gales, storms,” and on such nights men, even as they ate, kept an eye to the sea. One Captain Collins, of Truro, called from table by the familiar cry, “Ship ashore, all hands perishing,” within the hour had laid down his life in a fruitless effort at rescue — he and a companion whose widow had lost all the men related to her by the sea. By differing methods the same spiri has worked through all the years: “Ship ashore, all hands perishing,” and it is the business of men who might be safe to risk their lives in the fight with death.