History, Mystique Surround Cape Cod’s Shipwrecks

Courtesy: Cape Cod Maritime Museum

Courtesy: Cape Cod Maritime Museum

One visit to the Cape Cod National Seashore and you’ll feel it.

The intense history of the region is mysterious as it is fascinating.

Of course you have the stories about Cape Cod Indians, lighthouses, and pilgrims. But let us not forget about the ghosts at sea –  Cape Cod shipwrecks.

Cape Cod shipwreck stories are told at almost every maritime museum and they are a favorite among park rangers at the Cape Cod National Seashore. In fact, rangers call the waters off Cape Cod an “ocean graveyard” – and with good reason.  Between Truro and Wellfleet alone, there are more than 1,000 wrecks buried deep in the Atlantic.

The first recorded wreck was the Sparrowhawk which ran aground at Orleans in 1626. The people aboard were able to get ashore safely, and the ship was repaired. But, before it could set sail, the ship was sunk by another storm and wasn’t seen for over two hundred years. In 1863, after storms had shifted the sands again, the skeleton of the Sparrowhawk reappeared briefly. (The ribs of the ship are now on display in Plymouth at Pilgrim Hall.)

Traditionally, whenever a shipwreck occurred a frenzy to save the ship’s cargo ensued. 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 local people simply went on the theory that finders were keepers. Certainly, this was their theory when the famous pirate, Samuel Bellamy, and his ship, the Widah, went down off Wellfleet in the spring of 1717.

Have we piqued your curiosity yet?

On your next Cape Cod vacation, head down to the Cape Cod National Seashore and hear the story of Sparrowhawk for yourself.  Who knows, the rangers may even throw in a good Cape Cod pirate story to boot.

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