Almost from the time of discovery, seamen lived in fear of the Cape Cod shoals in Massachusetts. With good cause, sailors steered clear of the Cape coast, for over the years, thousands of vessels have been destroyed on its bars and rocks, and uncounted lives have been lost in the storm-tossed waves.
Cape Cod has long represented both a hazard and a haven to the mariner, as all shipping between Boston and New York must either pass into its sheltered bay or ground on its treacherous shoals. Combined with the forces of countless “nor’easters” and its precarious location, the Cape has been the site of more than 3,000 shipwrecks in 300 years of recorded history.
The lonely form of Cape Cod stretches its fist-clenched forearm 25 miles into the ocean. The shallow sand bars several hundred yards off the beach present the greatest danger. Here is where storm-driven ships ground, break into pieces under the pressure of tons of raging water, and spill their fragile contents and occupants into the bone-chilling surf.
When a storm struck the Cape in the early days, no one was surprised to hear the alarm: “Ship ashore! All hands perishing!” The townspeople would turn out on the beach, but usually, the surf was too high for them to attempt a rescue. And by the time the storm was over, there was usually no one to rescue.
Even if the passengers and crew of these early ships couldn’t be saved, the cargo often was. After a wreck, townspeople would come out with their carts and horses and haul away the spoils: wine, coffee, nutmeg, cotton, tobacco, and whatever the ship had been carrying. Sometimes owners of the wreck paid the local people to salvage their cargo; often, the locals believed that finders were keepers.
The Sparrow Hawk – 1826
One of the first recorded wrecks was that of the Sparrow Hawk. Originally from London, England, the Sparrow Hawk was making a six-week voyage to Virginia when it was wrecked. It ran aground off Nauset Harbor in 1626 when a gale arose and forced the vessel over the bar into the harbor. It grounded near Orleans. At low tide, the people aboard were able to get ashore safely. When they landed, some English-speaking Indians arrived and offered to conduct them to Plymouth or carry a message. The group sent a message which brought Governor William Bradford with repair material. Before long, the vessel was prepared, but before it could set sail, the ship was sunk by another storm and wasn’t seen for over 200 years. Afterward, the ship was abandoned.
Over two centuries later, the wreckage reappeared on May 6, 1863, after the sand shifted. The exposed remains reappeared briefly, showing that it had been burned to the water line. Because of the vessel’s unusual shape, two local men made a drawing of it. Out of curiosity, visitors came to see the ship, and nearly all took a fragment for a souvenir before it was again covered by sand in August of that year. It has since been excavated, and the ribs of the ship were removed to the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth.
The Whydah Gally – 1717
Another early shipwreck involved the pirate ship, the Whydah Galley, commanded by Samuel Bellamy. Commonly called the Whydah, it was commissioned in 1715 in London, England, as a slave cargo ship for the Triangular Trade. The ship was named for the slaving port on the coast of West Africa that it planned to operate from. It left England in 1716 on its maiden voyage, landing at the port to collect nearly 500 human slaves and other supplies. It then sailed to the Caribbean to exchange the slaves for precious metals, sugar, indigo, rum, logwood, pimento, ginger, and medicinal ingredients to be transported back to England.
On the Whydah’s return to England, the ship was intercepted and captured by the pirate Captain Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy. Whydah Gally was then fitted with ten additional cannons by its new captain, and 150 members of Bellamy’s crew were detailed to man the vessel. Now Bellamy’s flagship, utilizing it to plunder vessels throughout the Caribbean. After capturing multiple ships, including the Mary Anne, carrying a large Madeira wine cargo, the Whydah sailed north in the direction of Cape Cod. Lulled by the wine, the pirates were unprepared for a bad storm they encountered near the Cape. Navigating 70 mph winds and swells of 30 feet high, the vessel ran aground on April 28, 1717, off the coast of Wellfleet at Marconi Beach and was wrecked against the tableland. Capsizing, over 4.5 short tons of silver and gold, more than 60 cannons, and 144 people were tossed to the ocean floor. Only two men in the crew of over 100 survived, along with seven others on a sloop captured by Bellamy earlier that day. Its entire crew and contents – including silver and gold – were lost to the ocean.
Upon learning of the disaster, the colonial governor sent colonial Navy Commander Cyprian Southack to recover any remaining cargo. After an arduous journey, he reached the accident on the afternoon of May 3 by sailing across the Cape through Jerimiah’s Gutter. Southack’s trip was the last recorded passage of a vessel through this channel. He found the wreckage strung over a four-mile stretch of the beach and at least 200 men plundering it. Too late to obtain anything of value, Southack had to be content to gather pieces of the wreck which he burned for its iron content.
Six of the nine survivors were hanged, two forced into piracy were freed, and one Indian crewman was sold into slavery. Before his ship went down, Captain “Black Sam” had captured the riches of approximately 53 other vessels, making him the wealthiest and most successful pirate to date.
Over 260 years later, in 1984, treasure hunter Barry Clifford discovered the wreck spread over a span of four miles along the Cape’s coast. Buried under 10–50 feet of sand, in depths ranging from 16–30 feet, it was parallel to the Cape’s easternmost coast. With the discovery of the ship’s bell in 1985 and a small brass placard in 2013, both inscribed with the ship’s name and maiden voyage date, Whydah Gally is the only fully authenticated Golden Age pirate shipwreck ever discovered. The ship’s location has been the site of extensive underwater archaeology, and more than 200,000 individual pieces have since been retrieved.
HMS Somerset – 1778
During the American Revolution, several times, British shipwrecks provided unexpected supplies. Late in 1776, the supply ship HMS Friendship was grounded on the ocean side of Truro. Its cargo which went to aid the American war effort, included maritime equipment, cannon, and small arms.
The greatest prize, however, was the wreck of the sixty-four gun HMS Somerset, representing a symbol of British oppression. The British Royal Navy’s HMS Somerset launched in 1748. The early missions of the HMS Somerset included the Seven Years’ War (1756- 63), known as the French and Indian War in North America. She played a pivotal role in helping the British capture Louisburg and Quebec from the French. During the American Revolution, her role in rescuing British troops after the battles of Lexington and Concord and the bombardment during the Battle of Bunker Hill influenced the outcomes of both battles.
After sailing in later military campaigns, an intense storm drove the Somerset onto the shallow Peaked Hill Bars on November 2, 1778, off Provincetown. While pursuing a French squadron, she had been battered by gales in August. By the time the Somerset had wrecked, Cape Codders had suffered greatly from the British blockade during the American Revolution. Commercial fishing and whaling were virtually shut down. Some locals engaged in privateering and smuggling along the coast, while others turned to the land for subsistence. The local populace likely had a strong emotional reaction when the giant Somerset wrecked on the Cape.
According to the official account of the ship’s captain, George Ourry, only 21 men were lost during the wreck. Captain Ourry was forced to walk under guard to Providence, Rhode Island, where he was exchanged for two American officers. The officers and crew, numbering over 400, were escorted to Boston, Massachusetts.
Local residents chopped or pried away from the wreck a tremendous amount of scarce war material before the state put a guard over what remained. Eleven 18-pound and five 9-pound cannons and powder were entrusted to Colonel Paul Revere to be used in fortifying Castle Island in Boston Harbor. Severe winter storms in December finally broke apart the ship’s remains, moved it closer to shore, and buried it under tons of sand in an area known locally as Dead Man’s Hollow. It took several months of bitter court proceedings to sort out who owned what in the aftermath of salvage operations.
The Somerset’s wreckage has been partially exposed, briefly, only three times since 1788 – in 1886, 1973, and 2010 – by storm currents that caused part of the wreckage to be uncovered. It was estimated that only the lower ten percent of the ship remains, buried once again under the sand. The National Park Service currently preserves some of the remaining large timbers from the wreck.
USS Merrimack – 1801?
The USS Merrimack was initially launched in December 1798 by an Association of Newburyport Shipwrights and presented to the Navy. Captain Moses Brown commanded Merrimack when she was placed in service. She was the first ship of the Navy to be named for the Merrimack River. She departed Boston on January 3, 1799, for the Windward Islands to protect American merchantmen in the Caribbean during the naval war with France. She saw action in the Quasi-War, an undeclared war fought almost entirely at sea between the United States and the French Republic from 1798 to 1800. The ship captured several French vessels and exchanged fire with French troops during its service. The Merrimack captured the French privateer sloop Phoenix on October 20, 1800, and later in the year, took the French brig Brilliant. After her service in the Navy, she was stripped of naval equipment and sold in 1801. It then became a merchant vessel known as Monticello and wrecked off the coast of Cape Cod at an unknown date.
The Frances – 1872
At Head of the Meadow Beach at North Truro, Massachusetts, the wreck of the Frances, which was sunk in a December gale in 1872, may still be seen at low tide. The United States Life Saving Service men dragged a whaleboat from the bay across the Cape to the outer beach and rescued all aboard. The captain, who died several days later from the effects of exposure, is buried in Truro.
The Whittaker – 1876
On the night of November 20, 1872, Captain Cotton in Whittaker, with a cargo of coal, was headed from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Boston, Massachusetts, and went ashore on Hedgefence. The captain got off the next day, having ordered the vessel lightened, in which the crew disposed of 20 tons of cargo along with some coal. The ship continued to sail for four more years until the coal-laden Whittaker struck something in the water and became a total loss on December 9, 1876. However, all members of the crew were saved. In late December 1876, Jonathan Cook bought the wrecked Whittaker and got the brig off. Cook saw the Whittaker towed to the Cape Cod Oil Works, and on December 27, 1876, the Provincetown Advocate reported the brig was “now alongside the wharf.” Cook bought the wrecked and re-floated Whittaker to use as a hulk in this service at the repurposed Atwood Wharf.
The Portland – 1898
The most significant loss of life in the area occurred when the steamship Portland sank northeast of High Head on November 27, 1898. The Portland was a large side-wheel paddle steamer, an ocean-going steamship with side-mounted paddlewheels. She was built in 1889 for the Portland Steam Packet Company (later renamed Portland Steamship Company) for $250,000 to provide overnight passenger service between Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine. First launched on October 14, 1889, she was one of New England’s largest and most luxurious paddle steamers in existence at the time. After nine years of solid performance, she had earned a reputation as a safe and dependable vessel.
On November 26, 1898, the Portland departed Boston en route to Portland, Maine, following her traditional route. Unbeknownst to the crew, a powerful storm system was quickly traveling north, and Portland, despite her reputation as a remarkably safe vessel, was ill-equipped to handle such extreme conditions. The massive blizzard pounded the vessel with hurricane force and damaged its steering gear. Helpless, the steamship drifted toward Cape Cod and sank off Cape Ann the next day. All 175 of its passengers and crew died. Debris and bodies from the disaster covered the outer Truro beaches. The bodies of only 16 crew and 35 passengers were ever recovered. Her loss represented New England’s greatest steamship disaster before 1900.
The Paul Palmer – 1913
The Paul Palmer was a 276-foot schooner built and launched in Maine in 1902 and was used in the New England coal trade. The wooden, five-masted schooner had a cargo capacity of 3,500 tons. After picking up a load of coal on June 15, 1913, the Paul Palmer caught fire for an unknown reason, forcing its small crew to abandon the ship close to Cape Cod on Stellwagen Bank. The entire crew of 11 and two passengers were saved by a fishing schooner soon after. Throughout its 12-year career, Paul Palmer carried an estimated 280,000 tons of coal in 80 cargos. The wreck of the Paul Palmer lies off the coast of Provincetown and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
The Port Hunter – 1918
In early November of 1918, the Port Hunter, carrying $5 million in clothing, was traveling between Martha’s Vineyard and Falmouth at the same time as the tug boat Covington. Covington collided with the Port Hunter, ripping an opening in the side of the ship that was said to be 15 feet high and 7 feet wide, immediately allowing water to gush in and flood the forward compartment. The 20 crewmates were rescued because of the quick action of the Covington’s skipper, who pushed the Port Hunter onto the Hedge Fence Shoal, allowing help to rush to the scene. The infamous Port Hunter sank within two hours. It still lays only 20 feet underwater at the location of the bow.
Navy Submarine, S-4 – 1927
Another disaster of a different type gripped the nation’s attention in 1927. At 3:30 p.m. December 17, 1927, the Coast Guard destroyer Paulding collided with the Navy submarine S-4 as it prepared to surface off Wood End within sight of Provincetown, Massachusetts. The cutter’s bow sliced into the submarine’s hull, sending it to the bottom of the bay within minutes. The submarine sank with all aboard. The Coast Guard and Navy immediately dispatched rescue ships and divers who ascertained that six of the 40-man crew initially survived. However, a growing nor’easter and treacherous underwater currents thwarted their attempts to rescue the six trapped survivors. By the time divers reached them again four days after the accident, all six had died.
The failed rescue attempt got international media coverage, and an inquiry followed. To the outrage of many, only the submarine captain was held responsible for the tragedy. However, subsequent improvements in rescue equipment helped save lives in later sea disasters. Three months later, salvagers raised the sub and towed it to the drydock at the Charlestown Navy Yard. The S-4 was repaired and returned to active duty as a submarine rescue and salvage test ship.
SS James Longstreet – 1943
The SS James Longstreet was built in the US during World War II and was named after Confederate General James Longstreet. The ship was launched in 1942. However, it ran aground in 1943 in Sandy Hook, New Jersey, after forceful winds pushed the ship onto the flats. After the tide fell, the ship was towed to New York to be repaired, where it was stated as “structurally unfit for sea.” The Navy decided that although the ship would never make waves again, it could serve a purpose as a test ship. In 1944 the Navy used the ship for target practice for experimental missiles. The SS James Longstreet was towed and sunk in Cape Cod bay in 1950. From here, it was used as a target for the US Military, now covered in holes from bullets and bombs. The Navy eventually stopped the bombing in the 1970s under pressure from former congressman Gerry Studds. Some of the ship remains above the surface and can easily be spotted with the naked eye off the coast of Eastham. This site is listed as a restricted area for diving because of the unexploded ordinance which surrounds the wreck.
USS Bancroft – 1945
The USS Bancroft, launched in 1919, was the second ship to carry the name. The ship stayed in reserve until the start of World War II. In 1940 the Clemson-class destroyer was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy and served under the name HMCS St. Francis. During the war, she served as an escort for convoys in the Battle of the Atlantic. Once the war was over, she was declared surplus on September 24, 1940, and was sent to be scrapped. On its way to Baltimore, Maryland, the destroyer was under tow of the tug Peter Norman on July 14, 1945. After passing through the Cape Cod Canal, the vessels encountered a thick fog, which enshrouded Buzzards Bay. Near the entrance to the bay, the collier Windward Gulf collided with the old destroyer opening a hole in its hull. The crew of the Peter Norman tried to ground the destroyer, but it was taking on water too quickly, and it soon sank on an even keel in 60 feet of water approximately two miles off Acoaxet with no loss of life.
SS Andrea Doria – 1956
The SS Andrea Doria was an ocean liner for the Italian Line home-ported in Genoa. Named after the 16th-century Genoese admiral Andrea Doria, the ship had a gross register tonnage of 29,100 and a capacity of about 1,200 passengers and 500 crew. Andrea Doria was the largest, fastest, and supposedly safest of all Italy’s ships at the time. Launched on June 16, 1951, the ship began her maiden voyage on January 14, 1953.
The 51st westbound crossing of Andrea Doria to New York began as a typical run on the North Atlantic. On July 25, 1956, while the ship was approaching the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts, the eastbound Stockholm of the Swedish American Line collided with her. Struck in the side, the top-heavy Andrea Doria immediately started to list severely to starboard, which left half of her lifeboats unusable. The consequent shortage of lifeboats could have resulted in significant loss of life, but the ship stayed afloat for over 11 hours after the collision. The calm, appropriate behavior of the crew, together with improvements in communications, and the rapid response of other ships, averted a disaster similar in scale to that of Titanic in 1912. While 1,660 passengers and crew were rescued and survived, 46 people on the ship died directly from the collision. The evacuated luxury liner capsized and sank the following morning. This accident remains the worst maritime disaster to occur in United States waters since the capsizing of the Eastland in Chicago, Illinois, in 1915.
©Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, January 2023.
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Famous Cape Cod Shipwrecks
National Park Service Publications
National Park Service – Cape Cod
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Wikipedia – Andrea Doria
Wikipedia – USS Merrimack
Wikipedia – Whydah Gally