Once Upon a Time in Connecticut (1916)

The voyage of the “Great Shippe” which took place about this time is the most tragic adventure in the story of New Haven’s early shipping days. It began in this way. In 1646, as a last resource, the merchants of New Haven decided to fit out a ship with what was left of their “tradeable estate,” and send her to London. Up to this time they had sent goods to England by way of Boston or of the West Indies; there might be more profit, they thought, in a direct trade, cutting out the cost of reshipment. So they bought a ship. We do not know her name, she is always spoken of as the “Great Shippe,” although she was only one hundred tons; perhaps the title was given her because the colonists were staking so much on this venture. If it succeeded, their prosperity might be assured; if it failed, they must give up the sea and commerce as a dependence and turn their energies to agriculture. The “Great Shippe” was a new boat, said to have been built in Rhode Island, and she was loaded principally with wheat and peas shipped in bulk, with West Indies hides, beaver skins, and what silver plate could be spared for exchange in London. Her cargo altogether was worth about twenty-five thousand dollars, which was a large sum in those days, especially in a new and struggling colony.

The master of the ship was the same Captain Lamberton we have heard of before. He was a brave and bold skipper, but it is said that he was not altogether pleased with the ship when he first saw her; that he did not like her lines and thought her not quite seaworthy. Other people, too, besides Captain Lamberton, complained that she was not only badly built, but badly loaded, with the light goods of the cargo below and the heavy above, and some old seamen predicted that the grain would shift in rough weather and make trouble. These were mostly rumors, however, and few paid attention to them at the time; but long afterward, when people talked over the strange fate of the “Great Shippe,” Captain Lamberton’s words, “This ship will be our grave,” were recalled and believed to have been a prophecy.

That winter of 1646 was a bitterly cold one in Connecticut, and New Haven Harbor was frozen over. When the “Great Shippe” was ready to sail, it was necessary to cut a way out for her with handsaws through the thick ice for nearly three miles. A good many people from the town walked out on the harbor ice beside the ship to see her begin her voyage, and to bid good-bye to a number of their friends who were going home to England on business of one kind or another. Seventy people had taken passage in the “Great Shippe,” and among them were some who were very prominent in the colony, as, for instance, Captain Nathaniel Turner, who, having had experience in the war with the Pequot Indians, had been given “the command and ordering of all martial affairs” in the plantation, and Thomas Gregson, one of the magistrates, who was charged by the colony to obtain a charter for them, if possible, from the English Parliament, then in control in England.

The Reverend John Davenport, the minister, stood in the crowd of people on the ice that winter day and offered a prayer to God for the protection of the travelers. “Lord,” he said, “if it be thy will to bury these our friends in the bottom of the sea, they are thine, save them.” This does not sound like a very cheerful sendoff, but we must remember that a long voyage was a serious undertaking in those days and that people sometimes made their wills even before sailing from New Haven for Boston.

When the “Great Shippe” had really gone, when the people had seen the last of Captain Lamberton standing on her deck giving orders, and had watched her white sails dwindle and disappear, they walked back over the ice to their homes on the shore remembering sadly that it would be a long time before they could expect to have any news from her. It might be two or three months before she reached London and as many more before word of her arrival could come back to them. So they waited patiently through the hard New England winter and the early spring, but by summer time they were eagerly looking for tidings of her. Ships came from England as usual to the colonies, but no one of them brought news of the safe arrival in London of the “Great Shippe” from New Haven. Then the people began to question the skippers of other boats, boats from the West Indies and from the plantations on the southern coasts, and to ask if anything had been heard of her in that direction. For they remembered that there had been an unusually violent storm soon after the ship had sailed, and they began to fear that she might have been blown out of her course and possibly wrecked on some such coast or island. Public prayers were offered for her safety and for the safety of her passengers.

Meanwhile, the summer passed and the cold weather came again, and still there was no word from the fated ship. Few vessels put into New England harbors during the winter, and, as the chance of news grew less and less, the anxiety of the people gradually changed to despair. They recalled the sacrifices they had made to fit out that ship, the precious cargo she carried, all the things that could not be replaced (such as the sermons and other writings of Mr. Davenport which he had sent to England for publication); and in the loss of the ship on which they had set all their hopes they saw the final blow to the prosperity of New Haven. No one now had the courage or the money for another venture of that kind. Slowly and reluctantly the people turned to agriculture instead of trade, and the days of New Haven as a commercial colony were numbered.

But far worse to them than any material loss was the loss of the dear friends and relatives who had sailed with the “Great Shippe” for England. No compensation could come to those who had loved them. In November, 1647, the passengers on the ship were finally given up as lost and counted among the dead and their estates settled.

Yet many to whom they were dear could not rest satisfied. They remembered all the perils of the sea, the dangers of shipwreck on some barren coast, of possible capture by pirates, such as those who had attacked Captain Carman off the Canary Islands not many years before, and they came to feel at last that they would be thankful to learn that the ship had foundered at sea and that their friends had gone down with her to a natural death in the waters.

Two years and a half after the sailing of the “Great Shippe” (so the story stands in a strange old book called the Magnalia Christi, by the Reverend Cotton Mather), a wonderful vision came to the people of New Haven. On that June afternoon in the year 1648, a great thunderstorm came up from the northwest. The sky grew black and threatening, there was vivid lightning, and a cold wind swept over the harbor. Before the rain had ceased and calm had come again, it was nearly sunset. Then, against the clear evening light, a strange ship sailed into New Haven Harbor. Around the point she came with her sails full set and her colors flying. “There’s a brave ship,” cried the children, and they left their play to stand and gaze at her. Men and women gathered on the water-front and the same startled hope thrilled every heart: “It may be the ‘Great Shippe’ come home again!” For there was the old familiar outline, there were her three masts, her tackling, and her sails. And yet there was something new and mysterious, something awe-inspiring about her, and the watchers held their breath as they realized that she was sailing toward them straight against the wind that blew strong off the north shore. For a full half-hour they stood and gazed, until they could distinguish the different parts of her rigging, until they could see, standing high on her poop, the figure of a man with “one hand akimbo under his left side and in his right hand a sword stretched out toward the sea.” Then, all at once, a mist rose out of the sea behind her and covered her like smoke, and through the mist and smoke men saw dimly her shrouds give way, and her masts break and fall, as though a hurricane had struck her, and slowly she careened and plunged beneath the surface of the water.

The people turned to their pastor. “What does it mean?” they asked. “It was the form of Master Lamberton. Why is this vision sent us?” And he replied that doubtless God had sent it in answer to their prayers, to show them the fate of their friends and to set their hearts at rest, for “this was the mould of their ship, and thus her tragic end.”

—Caroline Clifford Newton, Once Upon a Time in Connecticut (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916), pp. 38-44.

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