The Great Colonial Hurricane, possibly the strongest storm in New England’s history, struck on Aug. 25, 1635. The Rev. Richard Mather and Anthony Thacher had the misfortune of being on board ships that day.
Mather, father to Increase Mather and grandfather to Cotton Mather, had been suspended by the Church of England for failing to conform to church expectations in conducting services, particularly in his dress. With his prospects limited in Britain, Mather decided he had better opportunities in the New World.
He set out on his journey to Boston with his wife, father-in-law and four children in June 1635. They were among 100 passengers on the James, one of five ships carrying Puritans during the Great Migration. Three smaller ships on the journey crossed quickly and landed safely.
Both arrived in the teeth of the hurricane, however. Both ships had to wait out the storm off the coast. The Angel Gabriel was able to send most of its passengers ashore at Pemaquid in Maine, and they slept as guests of the villagers already living there while their ship rested at anchor in the harbor.
Great Colonial Hurricane
By morning, the storm tore the Angel Gabriel from its anchor and reduced it to rubble. The several crew and passengers who stayed on board were lost and the remaining passengers were left to recover what they could of their belongings from the surf.
Farther south down the coast, the James had its own problems. The captain tried to find a safe harbor at the Isles of Shoals, but lost all his anchors in the effort as none of his cables were strong enough to withstand the storm.
On board, the passengers feared the worst as the wind and 20-foot storm surge began pushing the ship steadily toward the rocks. Waiting and watching as the ship edged nearer to calamity, the crew finally rejoiced when storm moved northeast. The hurricane winds reversed and began pushing the ship away from the islands.
Now, however, the ship faced the danger of crashing onto the rocks on land. With a careful deployment of a storm sail, the crew managed to direct the vessel into Hampton Harbor, where it finally found refuge. The James limped into Boston, its sails in tatters.
Mather described the passengers’ feelings in his diary:
When news was brought to us in the gun room that the danger was past, oh how our hearts did then relent and melt within us! And how we burst into tears of joy amongst ourselves, in love onto our gracious God, and admiration of his kindness in granting to his poor servants such an extraordinary and miraculous deliverance.
Watch and Wait
The news was not so good even farther to the south. Anthony Thacher and his cousin Avery had packed up their families and one family friend – 19 in all – and boarded a small ship, the Watch and Wait. They left for a journey that would take them from Ipswich, Mass., out around Cape Ann, and into Marblehead, where the families planned to relocate.
Together with four sailors, the hurricane caught the two families on board their vessel off Gloucester, Mass. The sailors made what seemed a sensible decision to try to ride out the rough weather at anchor.
But in the winds of the hurricane, it was a fatal choice as no anchor would hold. The wind and waves tossed the ship until it came crashing upon the rocks of an island off shore. The roiling sea smashed apart the small boat.
As the mariners were washed into the sea, Thacher bemoaned the ship’s fate, close to land but hung up on the rocks. He later wrote, “O cousin, it hath pleased God to cast us here between two rocks, the shore not far from us, for I saw the tops of trees when I looked forth.”
Resigned to his fate, he said to his cousin, “I am willing and ready here to die with you and my poor children. God be merciful to us and receive us to himself!”
The waves crashed over the boat, carrying Thacher and all his family into the sea. For a time, they managed to cling to a rock, but soon the storm swept them away. The waves carried Thacher and his wife to safety on the island. All the rest drowned.
The Damage Done
On land, the damage was staggering. The tides at Narragansett Bay were reported at 20 feet higher than normal. Unknown numbers of Native Americans caught in the surge drowned. Buildings in Plymouth and Bourne blew down and flooded. The storm damaged Boston less than Providence, but downed trees throughout the colony.
William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647, called it “a mighty storm of wind and rain.” None living in these parts, either English or Indians, ever saw anything worse, he wrote. Indians climbed into trees for their safety.
“It blew down many hundred thousands of trees, turning up the stronger by the roots and breaking the higher pine trees off in the middle,” he wrote. “And the tall young oaks and walnut trees of good bigness were wound like a withe, very strange and fearful to behold.”
Bradford predicted the marks of the great colonial hurricane would remain for a century.
Though the storm was noted in the records of the Virginia colony at Jamestown, it was not recorded as a major event, probably because it didn’t make landfall. When it hit New England, it was probably what today we would call a category three or four storm, with winds well over 100 miles per hour. Meteorologists reckon it the strongest storm to hit north of North Carolina.
Diarists noted as late as 1685 that they could still see damage from the storm. Thacher Island in Rockport, Mass., granted by the General Court to Anthony Thacher after the storm, still bears his name. It’s now home to twin lighthouses. Thacher ultimately settled in Yarmouth, Mass., where he is buried near a monument named after him.
This story was updated in 2023. Images: Thacher Island By Tim Pierce – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11761953.