How a Great Ship Went out through the Ice and Came Back in a Summer Cloud.

From E.H. Baldwin, Stories of Old New Haven (Taunton: C.A. Hack, 1903), pp. 71-83.

In proportion to the number of its inhabitants, New Haven was the richest colony in New England. Some of its Puritan settlers were quite wealthy for those early days. Many of them had been merchants and traders in England, and wished to engage in the same business in America and make their new colony a commercial city. One reason Quinnipiac was chosen as the place for their settlement was because of its deep and sheltered harbor, where ships could safely anchor and land their cargoes. And then, in laying out the town, the central square, or “quartter,” was reserved for a public “marketplace” where goods of all kinds could be bought and sold.

The colonial town-meeting made a number of laws to encourage commerce and aid traders. Ship captains were forbidden to throw ballast overboard into the channel of the harbor lest it should become filled up. Ship carpenters were excused from military service that they might spend their time building ships. No one was allowed to cut a spruce tree without the consent of the governor, for they wanted to preserve them, and use them all for masts. As the “flattes” prevented large boats from coming up to the shore, a wharf was built; this was near where the old City Market formerly stood. So, in these different ways they tried to help those who went down to the sea in ships.

It was not long before Captain Lamberton was making voyages to Delaware and Virginia; and others to Massachusetts Bay, Salem, Connecticut and Manhattan. Then a little later New Haven vessels sailed to the Barbadoes, the Bermudas and the West Indies. They carried away furs, clapboards and shingles, wheat, pork, and other products, and brought back cotton, sugar, and molasses. But these voyages were not very successful. The expense of building or buying new ships was so heavy, and the cost of sending out a trading expedition from a new colony was so great, that there was little left for profit. And then at first they were apt to make mistakes, and so meet with misfortunes. It they sold lumber that was not well seasoned, people in the West Indies would not buy any more of them. A man in Milford made flour and biscuit and New Haven traders shipped it to Virginia. It was such poor stuff that it did not sell well, and the traders complained of it. So the Milford baker had to go to New Haven and explain matters. He confessed the fault and declared it was due to bad grinding; but he promised to do better in the future. The damage had been done, however, and it was hard for New Haven merchants to sell flour or biscuit in Virginia after that.

But the worst misfortune that came to the New Haven traders during the first few years occurred at Delaware. The Indians at Quinnipiac were so few in number, that the trade in furs, there, did not amount to as much as was expected. So Mr. Lamberton and a few others decided to build some trading stations at Delaware Bay where they could carry on the fur trade with the Delaware and Susquehannah Indians. For a few hundred dollars they bought all the land in New Jersey, from Cape May to the mouth of the Delaware river. Some twenty men went down there to build a few huts and engage in trade. On their way they stopped at Manhattan where they met the Dutch Governor, who promptly ordered them to go home again. He said that New Jersey belonged to the Dutch and no Englishmen could settle there. This did not frighten the New Haven men, however, and they went on. But they promised to acknowledge the Dutch Government if they found that they were in Dutch territory.

Mr. Lamberton and his companions soon learned that not only was the land they had bought claimed by the Dutch, but the Swedes who lived near, said it belonged to them, also. Nevertheless they went to work, built their huts and began to trade. In 1642 the Swedes and Dutch united to drive the English away. A few Dutch ships sailed around to Delaware Bay and landed a small force. With the help of the Swedes they attacked the New Haven men, made some of them prisoners, drove the rest away, seized their goods and burned their huts. The Swedes captured Mr. Lamberton and put him in prison. They charged him with the crime of trying to stir up the Indians to war; but they could not prove it. They fined him heavily because he had traded at Delaware and then sent him home.

This affair was a severe blow to the New Haveners and cost them many thousands of dollars. They tried to persuade the other New England Colonies to help punish the Dutch and Swedes but without success. Mr. Lamberton was sent down to Delaware again to demand satisfaction from the Swedes but nothing ever came of his visit, and the New Haven men never recovered damages for the loss of their goods and huts. The claim to the land which had been purchased was not given up, however, and several years later another unsuccessful attempt was made to build a settlement at Delaware Bay. A few of the New Haven people were quite discouraged by the failure of this enterprise and feared that their ambitions to build up a successful commercial city at Quinnipiac would never be realized. But the rest, although discouraged, did not despair and bravely went on with their plans.

New Haven merchants had always been very desirous to have ships sail direct to England and return, and thus save time and trouble; for so far, they had had to go to Massachusetts Bay first. This was an enterprise which required large ships and no one person could afford to build them. In 1645, to make good the losses they had met with at Delaware and other places, the leading men of the town formed a company and bought a large ship, which, it is said, was built in Rhode Island, and would carry one hundred and fifty tons cargo. All who could possibly spare any money took stock in this company. Then Mr. Eaton, Mr. Goodyear, Mr. Malbon and Mr. Gregson formed a second company, called the “Company of Merchants of New Haven,” and hired this ship of the first company to make a trading voyage to England. So, nearly everyone in the town was interested in this enterprise and did what was possible to make it a success.

Just what the name of this vessel was is not known. Some have thought that it was called the “Fellowship.” In the old records it is always mentioned as the “great shippe.” When it sailed into New Haven harbor, people went down to the wharf to look at it. Many rowed out to examine it. Old sailors did not like the looks of it. Mr. Lamberton, who was made the captain, thought it was a “cranky” boat, and would easily capsize in the middle of the ocean. But whether they thought their new ship was seaworthy or not they went right to work and made ready for the voyage. The captain rigged the masts to suit himself and had a fine new set of blocks or pulleys made for the tackling. Then they filled the hold with everything they could find to sell. They put in lumber and hides, pease and wheat, and a lot of beaver skins. Some put in their silver plates and spoons; for they needed other things more, and their silverware was all they had left with which to buy them. Besides these there were some of Mr. Davenport’s sermons which were to be printed in England. This cargo was worth many thousands of dollars, and, if the voyage was successful, would bring a handsome profit; but if it was a failure, the loss would be ruinous, for it was like putting all their eggs in one basket.

The passengers who sailed in this ship formed the most precious part of its burden. There was a large number of them, all going home to England, and for various reasons. Mr. Gregson was one. He had charge of the cargo and was going to see if he couldn’t get a charter for New Haven Colony from Parliament. Nathanael Turner, who was captain of the military company, was another. Mrs. Stephen Goodyear was going home to see friends and relatives. And Mrs. Wilkes was going to see her husband who had gone the year before and had sent for her to join him. Then there were many others who were homesick for old England and anxious to see their native land again.

It was in the month of January, 1646, when the “Great Shippe” sailed away. The harbor was frozen over and a passage had to be cut for the vessel three miles through the ice. A crowd of people followed along the side on the frozen surface, bidding farewell to friends and loved ones with many a tear and many a fear. Mr. Davenport was there and prayed for their welfare and safety, but with an anxious heart. “Lord, if it be thy pleasure,” he said in a trembling voice, “if it be thy pleasure to bury these our friends in the bottom of the sea, they are thine, save them.” At last the ship was free from the ice and out of the harbor. Her sails filled with the cold wind and she soon disappeared in the gray East. The people watched her until she was out of sight and then slowly and silently walked back to the town and their winter’s loneliness; but not without thoughts of the happy home-coming in the fall.

The months passed away very slowly that winter. The thoughts of all were on the absent ship. But summer came at last and with it the arrival of ships from England. But they brought no tidings of Captain Lamberton or his ship. This did not cause much anxiety, however, for often a vessel was driven far out of her course and was slow in reaching the end of her voyage. So they waited with patience and hope. But the months went by and still no news. Friends became anxious. Others tried to cheer them by suggesting reasons for the delay. “Perhaps a storm has driven them to a foreign shore,” they said, or “it may be they have been cast on some distant island and a passing ship will pick them up.” Fall came and the days grew shorter. Still no word from the absent ship. Hope gave way to despair. Many a home was filled with sorrow and mourners went about the streets. They realized at last that Captain Lamberton’s worst fears were come true, and the “Great Shippe” had been lost at sea.

Another sad and dreary winter passed in the stricken colony. And while all had given up hope of ever seeing their lost friends again, many longed and prayed to know if they had really been lost at sea, or had suffered some harder fate at the hands of savage enemies. When summer came again it brought an answer to their prayers, but”in a way they had never expected. During the afternoon of a warm June day, a thunderstorm passed over the town of New Haven and disappeared across the water to Long Island. Soon afterwards, about an hour before sunset, the people beheld a wonderful sight. The “Great Shippe,” whose loss they had mourned so long, came sailing in a cloud through the air into the mouth of the harbor. There could be no mistake about it. There were the keel, hull, masts and rigging of the same ship that had sailed away so many months before. And there on the deck, standing erect, was Captain Lamberton pointing with his sword out to sea. On came this wonderful ship, her sails bending before the wind, until one standing on the shore could almost toss a stone on board. Suddenly there came a change. Her topmasts seemed to be blown off and hung tangled in the rigging; soon all her masts fell overboard; then the hull capsized and all disappeared in mist and cloud. The people gazed upon this strange sight with great awe. But good Mr. Davenport comforted them and said that God had sent this ship of air to show them how their friends were lost at sea.

Just as the loss of so many precious lives crushed the spirit of the new colony, so the loss of so much valuable property destroyed all hopes of its commercial success. In fact, the disaster nearly put an end to the New Haven Colony. There was at one time serious talk of moving to Ireland. And then Oliver Cromwell, who was at the head of the English government, offered them a place for settlement in the island of Jamaica. But the people feared the plague in the West Indies, and many of them were now too old to again undergo the hard labor of building a colony. So they gave up their ambitions of becoming wealthy traders and turned their attention to farming. They soon found that they could make a comfortable living in that way and were contented. But they never forgot the sad year of 1646, and how their happiness and hopes had gone down in the “Great Shippe.”

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