Category Archives: Phantom Ship

Hart and Hazard on the Phantom Ship (1905)

Over the harbor of New Haven appeared, in the evening, the form of a ship with three masts. Suddenly all the tackling and sails were to be seen. Shortly after, upon the ship there appeared a man, standing with one arm akimbo under his left side; and holding in his right hand a sword stretched out towards the sea.

Then from the side of the ship which was toward the town arose a great smoke, which covered all the ship; and in that smoke she vanished away. But some saw her keel sink into the water. This was seen by many men, women, and children, and it lasted about a quarter of an hour.

The unhappy mourners of relatives lost in a ship nearly two years before, tried to find some connection between the ship in the air and their own sufferings. In the gloomy and sad state of their minds they tried to find some meaning in the strange appearance.

There are many accounts of this air-ship. One says: “After the failure of news of their ship from England, prayers, both public and private, were offered by the distressed people. They prayed that the Lord would, if it was His pleasure, let them hear what He had done with their dear friends, and that He would help them to bow humbly to His holy will.

“Then a great thunder storm arose out of the northwest, and a ship was seen sailing against the wind. The very children cried out, ‘There’s a brave ship.’ The air-ship remained before their eyes and came up as far as there was water for such a vessel. It came so near to some persons, that they thought a man might throw a stone on board her.”

The people were so sure and satisfied that they had seen the ship that they believed that God, for the quieting of their troubled hearts, had been willing to send this wonderful ship to tell of what He had done to those for whom so many prayers had been made.

—Albert Bushnell Hart and Blanche E. Hazard, Colonial Children (New York: Macmillan, 1905), pp. 30-31.

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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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Rockey on the Phantom Ship (1892)

About this time an effort was made to create an interest in agriculture. But the people of New Haven were little inclined to its arts, and having no skill for this avocation, failed to reap profitable crops. Their commerce, also, further declined and their large estates were wasting away. An uncommon effort was now made, in the fall of 1646, to retrieve these broken fortunes, by gathering up whatever was merchantable and shipping it to England. A vessel of 150 tons burden was brought from Rhode Island and fitted up for this voyage, upon which such high expectations were based. That her mission might be the more properly fulfilled Captain Turner, Mr. Gregson, and several more of their principal men decided to accompany Captain Lamberton, the master of the vessel. The fate of this ship has been graphically portrayed by Longfellow, in his poem, the “Phantom Ship.” Another account of this ill-fated vessel is concisely given by Henry Howe:

“Captain Lamberton and about seventy others embarked in her, among whom were six or eight of their most valued citizens. They sailed from New Haven in January, 1647. She was so ‘walty,’ i.e. rolling, that Lamberton, her master, said she would prove their grave; and she did. They cut their way out through the ice of the harbor for three miles, and with many prayers and tears and heart-sinkings set sail. Mr. Davenport, in prayer, used these words: ‘Lord, if it be thy pleasure to bury these, our friends, in the bottom of the sea, they are thine, save them.’ Months of weary waiting passed over and no tidings from Europe of ‘the great shippe.’ She was never heard of—foundered at sea. The next June, just after a great thunder storm, the air being serene, there appeared about an hour before sunset, though the wind was northerly—there appeared in the air, coming up the harbor’s mouth, a ship just like their ‘great shippe,’ with her sails all set as filled under a fresh gale, and continued sailing against the wind for half an hour, coming near to the people standing on the shore, when suddenly all her sails and masts seemed blown overboard; quickly after her hulk brought to a careen and she overset and vanished in a smoky cloud. The people declared this was the mold of their ship and this her tragic end: and said Mr. Davenport, ‘God has condescended for the quieting of our afflicted spirits, this extraordinary account of his sovereign disposal of those for whom so many prayers had been made continually.'”

The loss of this ship was most disastrous to the hopes of the people of New Haven, and as the sea had now swallowed up most of their estates, they became greatly discouraged. In this state of affairs they were led to think of abandoning the country and settling themselves elsewhere; but all these purposes came to naught. For years they struggled on, a poor people. But the uses of adversity were not in vain. Their posterity learned to adapt themselves to the conditions which prevailed in this country and many of them having learned to become respectable farmers, New Haven flourished no less than her neighbors.

—John L. Rockey, History of New Haven County (New York: Preston, 1892), pp. 104-105.

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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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Beardsley on the Phantom Ship

I presume very few of the more intelligent people now residing in New Haven are ignorant of the sequel. The story as told is like romance. The colonists finding their commercial enterprises threatened with disaster, and their estates melting away, attempted to retrieve their fortunes by a great effort; and, “gathering together,” so the record runs, “almost all the strength which was left them, they built one ship more, which they freighted for England with the best part of their tradable estates; and sundry of their eminent persons embarked in her for the voyage.” In the month of January, 1646, when the harbor was completely frozen over, “a passage was cut through the ice with saws, for three miles,” and the “great ship,” with George Lamberton for the master, and Thomas Gregson as a commissioner “to procure a patent from the Parliament for these parts,” floated out amid the prayers and benedictions of the people, assembled to witness the departure of their friends. That ship, with “the divers godly persons, men and women,” who embarked in it, was never heard of again. Month after month elapsed, and finally a year, and still no tidings were received of their fate. It was a painful suspense, relieved by no hope. The legend of the Phantom Ship is doubtless familiar to you all. This was nothing less than “the mould” of Lamberton’s vessel coming up the mouth of the harbor after a great thunder storm in June, long subsequent to the sailing, first appearing with “her main-top blown off—but left hanging in the shrouds,” then with “all her masting” gone, and finally with the keel only, which quickly “careened,” and vanished out of sight. And so the “afflicted spirits” of the Colonists were quieted, because they superstitiously believed that God had in this way condescended to give an account of His disposal of those for whom so many prayers had been offered.

All expectation of seeing them again having ceased, their estates were settled according to law.

[Eben Edwards Beardsley], “Address of the President,” Papers of the New Haven Colony Historical Society, Volume 2 (New Haven: Printed for the Society, 1877), p. xx.

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