Bacon on the Phantom Ship (1839)

For a while, the colonists here adhered steadfastly to their original plan, of supporting themselves in their exile, and building up their town, by commerce. They built some shipping. They purchased lands on the Delaware, and at some other places, and erected trading-houses to buy beaver of the natives. They sent their cargoes into foreign parts, and expected to make such gains as would support and extend their town, so beautifully planned. But soon it began to appear that their commercial enterprises, undertaken perhaps on too large a scale at first, and with too little knowledge of the particular nature of the business, were likely to be involved in disaster. Some of their number seem to have returned to England; while not a few, who had been expected to bring large accessions of wealth and strength, never came. Those that remained found their estates sinking so fast, that something must be done to retrieve their fortunes, or all their hopes would fail. Accordingly, about eight years after their arrival here, “they did, as it were, gather all their remaining strength to the building and loading out one ship for England, to try if any better success might befal them.” The ship, whose name no record and no tradition has retained, seems to have been the property of an association. The “company of merchants in New Haven,” consisting of Mr. Eaton, Mr. Gregson, Mr. Malbon, and Mr. Goodyear, appear to have united their resources in building, equipping and loading the vessel. “Into this ship,” says an ancient historian, “they put in a manner all their tradeable estates, much corn, and large quantities of plate;” and among the seventy that embark for the voyage, are several “of very precious account” in the colony. In the month of January, 1646, the harbor being frozen over, a passage is cut through the ice, with saws, for three miles; and “the great ship,” on which so much depends, is out upon the waters, and ready to begin her voyage. Mr. Davenport and a great company of the people go out upon the ice, to give the last farewell to their friends. The pastor, in solemn prayer, commends them to the protection of God, and they depart. The winter passes away; the ice-bound harbor breaks into ripples before the soft breezes of the spring. Vessels from England arrive on the coast; but they bring no tidings of the New Haven ship. Vain is the solicitude of wives and children, of kindred and friends. Vain are all inquiries.

“They ask the waves, and ask the felon winds,
And question every gust of rugged wings
That blows from off each beaked promontory.”

Month after month, hope waits for tidings. Affection, unwilling to believe the worst, frames one conjecture and another to account for the delay. Perhaps they have been blown out of their track upon some undiscovered shore, from which they will by and by return, to surprise us with their safety:— perhaps they have been captured, and are now in confinement. How many prayers are offered for the return of that ship, with its priceless treasures of life and affection! At last, anxiety gradually settles down into despair. Gradually they learn to speak of the wise and public spirited Gregson, the brave and soldier-like Turner, the adventurous Lamberton, that “right godly woman” the wife of Mr. Goodyear, and the others, as friends whose faces are never more to be seen among the living. In November, 1647, their estates are settled, and they are put upon record as deceased. Yet they were not forgotten; but long afterwards, the unknown melancholy fate of those who sailed in Lamberton’s ship, threw its gloomy shadow over many a fireside circle.

[Ten members of the Church were of the company in

“That fatal and perfidious bark,
Built in the eclipse, and rigg’d with curses dark.”

“Divers manuscripts of some great men in the country, sent over for the service of the Church,” were also “buried in the ocean.” Among these were Hooker’s “Survey of the Sum of Church Discipline,” and Davenport’s “Power of Congregational Churches;” both of which were afterwards re-written by the authors.]

Two years and five months from the sailing of that ship, in an afternoon in June, after a thunder storm, not far from sunset, there appeared over the harbor of New Haven, the form of the keel of a ship with three masts, to which were suddenly added all the tackling and sails; and presently after, upon the highest part of the deck, a man standing with one hand leaning against his left side, and in his right hand a sword pointing towards the sea. The phenomenon continued about a quarter of an hour, and was seen by a crowd of wondering witnesses,—till at last, from the farther side of the ship, there arose a great smoke, which covered all the ship; and in that smoke she vanished away. Fifty years afterwards, while several of the witnesses of this strange appearance were yet alive, the story was great in the traditions of the colony; and it was reported by some of the survivors, that Mr. Davenport publicly declared “that God had condescended to give, for the quieting of their afflicted spirits, this extraordinary account of his disposal of those for whom so many prayers had been offered.”

[Hubbard (321) gives a full account of the building and sailing of Lamberton’s ship, but says nothing of the famous atmospheric phenomenon which the traditions of New Haven colony connected with the loss of their great ship. Winthrop, whose history is like a newspaper of the times, mentions the sailing of the vessel (II, 254.) at the time, mentions also the loss, (266,) when the loss became certain, and afterwards repeats the whole story with corrections. He says, she was of “about 100 tons,” “laden with pease and some wheat all in bulk, 200 West India hides and store of beaver and plate, so as it was estimated in all at 5000 pounds.” There was a tempest not long after she sailed. According to Pierpont, she was “of about one hundred and fifty tons.” The account of the phantom-ship is given by Winthrop, (II, 328,) under the date of June 28, 1648. His story is the story as he heard it at Boston. Mather (Magn. I, 25) gives, in a letter from Mr. Pierpont, the story as it was reported at New Haven, half a century afterwards, by “the most sensible, judicious and curious surviving observers.” The identity of the two accounts seems to me more striking than the comparatively slight diversities. The mistake in Mr. Pierpont’s letter respecting the year in which Lamberton’s ship was lost, is rationally accounted for by Mr. Savage, in his note on the passage in Winthrop. I may add, however, that the records of the town, might mislead a hasty reader as to the time when Lamberton and Gregson disappeared from the scene. But the probate records, as they contain a will made by one of the passengers when she was about to embark, confirm the date given by Winthrop. Another great ship was built at New Haven in 1646, and some more diligent explorer may find that I have not distinguished between that and Lamberton’s with sufficient accuracy. Lamberton’s is said to have been built at Rhode Island. Magn. I, 25.]

Leonard Bacon, Thirteen Historical Discourses on the Completion of Two Hundred Years from the Beginning of the First Church in New Haven (New Haven: Durrie and Peck, 1839), pp. 105-108.

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