In 1863, a storm uncovered the bones of a ship that might have been the Sparrow Hawk, sunk off Cape Cod in 1626. William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony, had described it, making it the first recorded shipwreck in American history. And since both Nauset Indians and Pilgrims helped the survivors, it was also the first recorded mutual aid rescue.
Local people recovered the wreck and reassembled it on Boston Common. Then in 1889, 109 timbers of the Sparrow Hawk found their final home at the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Mass.
In April 2022, three scientists announced their finding that the wood discovered on Cape Cod had belonged to an early seventeenth-century English vessel. That made it extremely probable the wreck was, indeed, the Sparrow Hawk – the one described by Bradford.
For historians, the Sparrow Hawk was more than a shipwreck. The story of the victims’ rescue showed the Nauset and the Pilgrims had repaired their sometimes rocky relationship.
Wreck of the Sparrow-Hawk
The Pilgrims had antagonized the Nauset when they first landed. They did it by stealing a cache of their buried corn in Truro. Within the previous 20 years, European explorers had also not endeared themselves to the Cape Cod natives. Samuel de Champlain’s two visits had resulted in fights and deaths. Martin Pring and his men had to leave in a hurry after staying for two months. The worst, Thomas Hunt, had captured 27 natives from Cape Cod and Plymouth, taken them to Spain and sold them into slavery.
Then in 1621, a Plymouth teenager named John Billington got lost and ended up with the Nausets on Cape Cod. The colonists found out where he was. They were anxious about getting him back from the people they’d robbed, but their visit to the Cape ended well. They retrieved the boy, paid back the Nauset for the corn they’d stolen and made peace with Aspinet, the tribe’s sachem.
Following the Billington mission, several parties of Plymouth colonists travelled to the area to trade with the local Indians.
Then in December 1626, a ship from England bound for Jamestown, Va., ran aground during a storm in the waters off of Pleasant Bay, in what is now Orleans. William Bradford described the wreck in his history. The rescue began a heritage of shipwrecks and lifesaving that has endured for nearly four hundred years.
The first responders to this wreck were the local Indians, who approached the passengers and crew as they made their way to shore. The wariness of the survivors was no doubt ameliorated when the approaching Indians called out to them in English. Bradford describes the scene:
But shortly after they saw some Indians come to them in their canoes, which made them stand upon their guard; but when they heard some of the Indians speak English unto them, they were not a little relieved, especially when they heard demand if they were the Governor of Plimoth’s men or friends; and that they would bring them to the English houses or carry their letters.
The survivors sent two men and a letter with the Indians to Plymouth. Governor Bradford personally led the rescue mission. He assembled a crew, had a boat readied and traversed Cape Cod Bay to Namskaket Creek (now the border of Brewster and Orleans). He then crossed two miles over the future Orleans to the site of the wreck. They carried supplies and repair materials with the help of the Indians. After a failed attempt to repair the ship, they brought the survivors back to Plymouth.
The episode shows that relations between the colonists and Indians had improved significantly, and that the peace agreement reached in Nauset in 1621 was working.
The country was in the middle of the Civil War in 1863 when the remains of a ship surfaced in what was called “Old Ships Harbor” in the vicinity of the 1626 wreck. The shipwreck was recovered, and analysis at the time determined that the remains came from that first wreck described by Bradford.
A local resident named Sparrow reported that Indian legend, passed on to his family, indicated that the ship’s name was the Sparrow Hawk. Since the time the remains went to Boston, people have called it the Sparrow Hawk, though no record exists of the ship’s actual name.
Sparrow Hawk Identified
Three scientists have since tried to authenticate the 1863 findings. Their findings, published in The Journal of Archaeological Science, also included more information about the passengers on the Sparrow Hawk. The researchers are Calvin Mires, a maritime archeologist and researcher with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Aiofe Daly, an associate professor at the Saxo Institute at the University of Copenhagen; and Fred Hocker, research director at the Vasa Museum in Sweden.
They scientifically dated the wood using tree-ring analysis and a technique called wiggle-match dating, which put the ship’s construction between 1556 and 1646. They also concluded the ship’s timbers came from English wood, and that English shipbuilders had made the vessel. Those findings made it very, very probable that the ship was indeed the Sparrow Hawk.
“How many other early seventeenth-century English vessels are likely to have been lost in the same place?,” they wrote.
More About the Sparrow Hawk
In their report, the scientists added more information about the passengers aboard the Sparrow-Hawk. Two of them, John Fells and John Sibsey, were English planters who hoped to build tobacco farms in Virginia. They had brought the rest, farmers and indentured Irish servants. During the six-week voyage, the captain had gotten scurvy and they ran out of water and beer.
The Pilgrims gave them some land to keep them busy and fed for nearly a year. Then they found passage on other boats to Virginia.
Today, the Sparrow Hawk’s timbers are on display at the Pilgrim Hall Museum.
Images: Sparrow Hawk timbers PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21038030. Pinnace By Halfblue, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3697704. Pilgrim Hall Museum By Giorgio Galeotti – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50915900.
Ron Petersen co-authored this story. He is the chair of the Orleans Massachusetts Historical Commission. Ron has also served on the Orleans Community Preservation Committee, as chair of both the Orleans Historical Markers Committee and the 1918 Attack on Orleans Committee. He is a former board member and officer of the Orleans Historical Society, and is a board member and historian for the Orleans Firebirds of the Cape Cod Baseball League. Ron has written numerous published articles on regional history, and has lectured throughout Cape Cod on various historical topics.
This story was updated in 2023.