Notes from the Field: Visiting America’s First Shipwreck

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So the title is a bit misleading. These photographs show the remains of the Sparrow-Hawk, described by the Pilgrim Hall Museum as the “only surviving remains of a 17th century trans-Atlantic vessel.” Firsts and oldests aside, this wreck has fascinated people for centuries (see this and this  as well as this earlier post)–it’s a testament to people’s (particularly New Englanders’) longstanding interest in shipwrecks and the preservation of their maritime cultural heritage.  In this sense the Sparrow-Hawk truly is “America’s first shipwreck.”

This wreck is easy to find. Take the bus to Hyannis, Massachusetts, follow the salt air to the harbor and walk into the Cape Cod Maritime Museum. The fledgling museum is small, but the visit was well worth the small admission fee. Artifacts and text introduce the Cape’s storied maritime past. The Sparrow-Hawk, however, is the centerpiece exhibit. The museum’s interpretation focuses on the vessel and its loss in 1626. It’s a fascinating, very “teachable” tale as most shipwreck stories are. But the exhibit ignores this wreck’s real story–what happened 237 years after  the Sparrow-Hawk ran aground.

In May 1863, a gale uncovered the remains of the Sparrow-Hawk on Nauset Beach, near Orleans on the outer Cape. A local lawyer, Leander Crosby, visited the wreck days later and collected “a lot of beef and mutton bones, several soles of shoes, probably made for sandals, a smoking pipe, of the kind used by smokers of opium, and a metallic box.” Crosby was only the most voracious of the hundreds who trekked to the wreck; “each one,” by one account, “took a fragment as a memento of his visit.” The entire hull, which measured almost forty feet, was eventually removed from the beach and put on display in a number of cities, gathering large crowds wherever it went. The Sparrow-Hawk even made its way to Boston–here is a great photograph of it on Boston Common. In 1889, the wreck was presented to the Pilgrim Society and put on display at the Pilgrim Hall Museum. There it stayed for more than a hundred years until it was loaned to the Cape Cod Maritime Museum.

Today, the wreck bears the marks of almost 150 years of public exhibition. The wooden frames are not the six-inch-square timbers Crosby salvaged in 1863. The wreckage looks delicate, even brittle. But these timbers have worked hard introducing untold thousands to our shared maritime heritage. It was the first historic shipwreck to capture the nation’s imagination. It is “America’s first shipwreck.” There’s no silver or gold, but do as generations before have done–go check out the Sparrow-Hawk!


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