Salvaged Cape Cod Shipwreck Wood is the 1626 Sparrow-Hawk, Says Study



Did the remains of a Cape Cod shipwreck found in Massachusetts in 1863 really come from the long-lost Sparrow-Hawk, a name given in the 19th century to a “small pinnace” vessel known to have sunk in the area in 1626? An extensive new analysis published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports has produced new and impressive evidence supporting the idea that the shipwreck found in 1863 was the Sparrow-Hawk, something shipwreck historians have long believed but were never able to prove.

Through the application of techniques that can accurately date wood and trace it to its place of origin, the scientists involved in this study have linked the pieces of timber found on a Cape Cod beach in 1863 to the shipbuilding industry of late 16th and early 17th century England. The 40-foot small pinnace ship that was scuttled just off-shore in Cape Cod in 1626 was built in England, and there are no other known shipwrecks in the region that match the characteristics of this vessel.

Sampling a crutch timber (2018.605.053) from the Sparrow-Hawk for tree-ring analysis (Calvin Mires/ Science Direct).

Sampling a crutch timber (2018.605.053) from the Sparrow-Hawk for tree-ring analysis (Calvin Mires/ Science Direct ).

“I am just over the top about this news,” Donna Curtin, executive director of the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, where the 109 timbers alleged to have come from the Sparrow-Hawk have been kept since 1889, told the Associated Press.

It should be noted that no one knows what the name of the ship that was lost in Cape Cod in 1626 actually was. For reasons that remain obscure, that ship was first called the “Sparrow-Hawk” by the 1863 discoverers of the wreckage, and that name has been used ever since.

How the Sparrow-Hawk Became a Cape Cod Shipwreck Story

After leaving England in 1626, the small pinnace ship that came to be known as the Sparrow-Hawk crossed the Atlantic largely without incident. But near the end of their voyage, rough seas became more common, and before they could reach the colony of Virginia (their planned destination) they were thrown hopelessly off-course and battered into submission by a sudden and terrible storm. With control of the ship lost, its wrecking was inevitable, and it eventually sank in the shallow waters off the eastern shore of Cape Cod Peninsula near the settlement of Orleans, Massachusetts.

The Sparrow-Hawk’s 109 surviving timbers were assembled and displayed on the Boston Common in 1865 and soon they will be assembled for permanent exhibition. (Public domain)

The Sparrow-Hawk’s 109 surviving timbers were assembled and displayed on the Boston Common in 1865 and soon they will be assembled for permanent exhibition. ( Public domain )

Following the wreck, two survivors were rescued by the indigenous Nauset people, who took them to the Plymouth Colony . Governor William Bradford dispatched men in a boat to rescue the remaining passengers and crew (there were 25 people on the Sparrow-Hawk in total), and it was Bradford’s written account of this incident that helped keep the memory of the shipwreck alive.

The ship was carrying two English merchants , John Fells and John Sibsey, who planned to purchase enough land in Virginia to start a tobacco plantation. They were accompanied by a group of Irish indentured servants and several Irish farmers who had been recruited to develop and farm the land. No one on board was killed in this accident, and the survivors remained at Plymouth Colony with the Pilgrim settlers until two other ships headed for Virginia picked them up nine months later.

Unfortunately, the vessel itself was judged unrepairable. Over time shifting sands buried the remains of the ship, and it seems that no serious attempt was ever made to dig them out.

But nature intervened in 1863, when another severe storm swept over what was then called Old Ship Harbor in eastern Cape Cod. The rain and wind and high seas turned over significant quantities of sand, which exposed the broken and aged pieces of a ship’s hull, keel, planks, and rudder. The timbers of the hull were in surprisingly good shape, and after being salvaged it was featured in a traveling show that put the remains of the reconstructed hull on display in many cities. In 1889 the ship’s timbers were donated to the Pilgrim Society, and they have remained in the collection of its museum for the past 133 years.

Hull lines of the Sparrow-Hawk as drafted by Dennison J. Lawlor, circa 1864. (Dennison J. Lawlor / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hull lines of the Sparrow-Hawk as drafted by Dennison J. Lawlor, circa 1864. (Dennison J. Lawlor / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The ship’s timbers have been “disassembled, measured, drawn, and exhibited many times,” Donna Curtin told the Boston Globe . “But they have never been fully examined archaeologically or forensically until now.”

The innovative archaeological and forensic research in this new study was performed by three scientists with expertise in shipwreck analysis, including lead author Calvin Mires from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, Fred Hocker from the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, and Aoife Daly from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

These scientists applied two different techniques to acquire relevant data on the 109 pieces of timber. One was a type of radiocarbon analysis known as wiggle-match dating, which showed the wood of the timber had been grown sometime between the years 1556 and 1646. The second involved a branch of science known as dendrochronology, which involves the analysis of tree ring growth patterns.  

According to the researchers, the ring patterns of the Sparrow-Hawk’s timber matched data obtained from trees that grew in southern England in the 17 th century. The timber tested was found to have been made from oak and elm, which the Vasa Museum’s Fred Hocker identified as another sign that suggests it came from the Sparrow-Hawk.

“That combination of woods is a traditional combination of materials in shipbuilding in England in that era,” he said. “Everything I looked at just screamed 17th century to me.”

“We cannot say with 100% certainty that this is the Sparrow-Hawk,” Curtin said. “But we can say with much more confidence than ever before that what we have is compatible with the story in Gov. Bradford’s journal.”

Sparrow-Hawk To Be Rebuilt For Permanent Display in 2026

The last time the reconstructed timbers of the Sparrow-Hawk were on display for the public was in 2007. Since then, the ship’s remains have been kept in storage at the Plymouth Museum, where they will remain for the time being.

In the coming months, Donna Curtin plans to use digital modeling software to construct a 3D image of the ship.

A more thorough and accurate representation of its appearance could be helpful, since the museum plans to launch a new exhibit that will feature a reconstructed version of the Sparrow-Hawk in 2026, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the shipwreck. This will give the public a renewed opportunity to revisit the story of the Sparrow-Hawk, which remains a fascinating tale from the very earliest days of the American colonial experiment.

Top image: A recent extensive new analysis published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports has more or less proven that the mysterious 1863 Cape Cod shipwreck is the 1626 Sparrow-Hawk small pinnace that sailed to the early English colonies but floundered at sea. Source: Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports

By Nathan Falde


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