Cape Cod’s Oldest Shipwreck

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The shoals off Orleans on Cape Cod where we’ve rented for the past six years is often referred to as the “graveyard of the Atlantic.”  Thousands of ships have run aground or sank there.  Another Atlantic graveyard is off the Outer Banks in North Carolina.  I also remember the shoals off Nantucket labeled “graveyard of the Atlantic.”  The Andrea Doria, an Italian ocean liner collided with the MS Stockholm in 1956 sunk there.  Forty-six people died.  Remains from the ship were displayed in the historic life saving station museum across the street from our Nantucket rental.

My first Cape Cod book this season was “Cape Cod’s Oldest Shipwreck: the desperate crossing of the Sparrow-Hawk,” by Marc C. Wilkins.  A History Press imprint, so I wasn’t expecting a lot.  They tend to be written by amateurs.  But it was a good story. The Sparrow-Hawk (named after a Cape family, Sparrow, that discovered it’s remains, we don’t really know the ship’s name) left England in 1626.  Bound for Virginia, John Fells and John Sibsey shipped off with a boatload of Irish servants/workers to make a fortune in tobacco culture. Their ship was only about 50 feet.  The Captain’s name was Johnson.  Planning was not the best.  There were too few provisions and water, especially since they were sailing the northern route in winter.  The year was 1626.

Captain Johnson was sick.  The ship (like the Mayflower) approached Cape Cod rather than Virginia.  In rough water they ran aground at Nauset between Chatham and Orleans.  Not far from our Orleans rental.  The crew freed the ship but they were grounded a second time and the ship was lost.  William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation rescued them and it is through his writing that we know something of their fate.

The rough “rowdy bunch” of Irish did not get along with the pious Puritans.  John Fells also complicated their relationship when he got his maid pregnant.  In 1627 Bradford arranged for two barks to take the group to Jamestown, Virginia.  It seems Fells and Sibsey did become involved in the tobacco trade.  Their ship, later christened “Sparrow-Hawk” was covered by the shifting sands of the Cape’s “graveyard.”

 

The “old shippe” appeared briefly in 1782 and then it wasn’t seen again until 1863 when the bones of the Sparrow-Hawk surfaced.  A local Amos Otis made drawings of of the remains.  Many Cape Codders took souvenirs from the wreck.  There was considerable interest in this “oldest shipwreck.”  In 1865, the remains were moved and displayed in Boston Commons.  Despite its history and symbolism, the Sparrow-Hawk was sold and put in storage in Providence, R.I.  Eventually the Massachusetts Historical Society gave the remains to the Pilgrim Society of Plymouth, Massachusetts.   In 2005 it returned briefly to the Cape to be displayed in the Cape Cod Maritime Museum in Hyannis.  We could have viewed the Sparrow- Hawk then.  The author Wilkins and others studied the remains in an attempt to understand the construction and history of the ship.

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The Sparrow-Hawk was returned to storage in Plymouth until recently when some Swedish scientist-historians have unpacked the remains and are attempting to date the timbers and confirm the “legend” surrounding the ship.  Was she the 1626 wreck that Bradford wrote about?  Is she the “oldest wreck” along our Atlantic coast?  Did she transport a boatload of Irish farmers and English gentlemen to Cape Cod in search of the American dream?  History is always questions.

Last week I sat on the beach at Pleasant Bay.  I gazed across at marshlands, out to the Atlantic and thought about the story and the skeleton of the Sparrow-Hawk.  A fascinating trace of history.  A voyage that brought some of the earliest settlers to these shores nearly 400 years ago.  Amazing.  Someday we’ll get to Plymouth to view the Sparrow-Hawk.

 

 

 

 

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