Cliff McCarthy, 2016
Initially, New Haven Colony had only a coastal trade; trade with English ports was conducted through the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1644, a group of New Haven merchants created the “Shippe Fellowship Company” and hired a Rhode Island shipbuilder to construct an ocean-worthy ship to enhance their prospects of establishing an on-going trade with England and the West Indies. This “Great Shippe” was to be captained by George Lamberton, a merchant and sea captain from London, who was one of the early settlers at New Haven.
Captain Lamberton had previously been involved with a company that had tried to establish a settlement near what is now Philadelphia. In 1642 fifty families settled at the mouth of Schuylkill River. The Dutch and Swedes, who were already in the area, burned their buildings. Lamberton was convicted in a court in New Sweden (Delaware) of “trespassing, conspiring with the Indians.” The colony got no assistance from its New England neighbors and the project was abandoned.
“The Great Shippe” was ready for its maiden voyage in January 1645/46. (Some sources claim this occurred in 1646/47.) In addition to all of the tradeable goods the people of New Haven could scrape together, and more than a half-dozen of the colony’s prominent citizens, the vessel carried the economic hopes and dreams of New Haven. “She was laden with pease [sic] and some wheat, all in bulk,” John Winthrop wrote at the time, “with about two hundred West India hides and a store of beaver and plate, so as it was estimated in all at five thousand pounds.”
At its departure, Rev. Davenport was said to have prayed, “Lord, if it would be thy pleasure to bury these, our friends, in the bottom of the sea, they are thine. Save them!” After being towed three miles out of the ice-filled harbor stern-first (a bad omen), the ship was found to be unstable, or “walty,” in the choppy Long Island Sound. Still, Lamberton pressed on. Then, the ship disappeared from sight and was not heard of, again, in this dimension.
However, six months later, following a June thunderstorm, an apparition appeared on the horizon at sunset. A joyous rumor spread around the village that their ship had been spotted emerging from the clouds and under full-sail, heading for home — even sailing majestically into the prevailing breeze which was out of the northwest. Prayers of thanksgiving were said and dozens of people raced to the shore to witness the return of “The Great Shippe.” Rev. Pierpont, who was not there, wrote, “At length, crowding up as far as there is usually water sufficient for such a vessel, and so near some of the spectators, as they imagined a man might hurl a stone on board.” Those on shore were said to have recognized their friends on deck.
Then suddenly, the ship’s masts appeared to snap, and the ship rolled and capsized pitching the passengers and crew into the sea. The whole horrifying show took between fifteen and thirty minutes. No debris or wreckage was ever found.
Rev. Davenport explained to his mystified flock that God had honored them with an explanation of what had befallen “The Great Shippe” and that the colonists should rejoice in having received this “extraordinary account of his sovereign disposal” of their loved ones and their economic hopes. Town fathers were to say the event gave them closure.
Years later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “The Phantom Ship” about the event, which includes the lines:
“A ship sailed from New Haven,
And the keen and frosty airs,
That filled her sails at parting,
Were heavy with good men’s prayers.
“O Lord! if it be thy pleasure”–
Thus prayed the old divine–
“To bury our friends in the ocean,
Take them, for they are thine!”
But Master Lamberton muttered,
And under his breath said he,
“This ship is so crank and walty
I fear our grave she will be!”
“On she came, with a cloud of canvas,
Right against the wind that blew
Until the eye could distinguish
The faces of the crew.
Then fell her straining topmasts,
Hanging tangled in the shrouds,
And her sails were loosened and lifted,
And blown away like the clouds.
And the masts, with all their rigging,
Fell slowly, one by one,
And the hulk dilated and vanished,
As sea-mist in the sun!”
(For three different accounts of the incident, as told by Winthrop, Hubbard, and Rev. Pierpont, see Atwater’s History of the Colony of New Haven, Vol. 2, Appendix III.)
- Atwater, Edward E., History of the Colony of New Haven, Vol. 2 (Journal Publishing Co., Meriden, CT, 1902).
- “New Haven Colony,” Wikipedia, accessed 25 June 2016.
- Philips, David E., Legendary Connecticut, (Curbstone Press, Willimantic, CT, 1992).