Anthony Thacher’s Shipwreck, As Told In His Own Words

Thacher Island gets its name from Anthony Thacher, who was shipwrecked there in 1635 while sailing with his family from Ipswich to Marblehead. He and his wife survived, but the ship’s 21 other passengers, including his four children, all drowned. Two months after the shipwreck, the Massachusetts legislature gave Thacher ownership of the island. 

Soon after the shipwreck, Thacher wrote a letter to his brother recounting what happened. The letter was republished in the 1888 book, History of the Town of Rockport. Here is what happened, in Thacher’s own words:

I must turn my drowned pen and shaking hand to indite the story of such sad news as never before this happened in New England. There was a league of perpetual friendship between my cousin Avery and myself never to forsake each other to the death but to be partakers of each other’s misery or welfare, as also of habitation in the same place. Now upon our arrival in New England there was an offer made unto us. My cousin Avery was invited to Marblehead to be their pastor in due time, there being no church planted there as yet, but a town appointed to set up the trade of fishing, because many there (the most being fishermen) were something loose and remiss in their behaviour. My cousin Avery was unwilling to go there; and so refusing, we went to Newberry intending there to sit down.

But being solicited so often both by the men of the place and by the magistrates and by Mr. Cotton and most of the ministers, who alleged what a benefit we might be to the people there and also to the Country and Commonwealth, at length we embraced it and there consented to go. They of Marblehead forthwith sent a pinnace for us and our goods. We embarked at Ipswich, August 11th. 1635, with our families and substance, bound for Marblehead we being in all twenty-three souls, namely: eleven in my cousin’s family, seven in mine, and one Mr. William Elliot, sometimes of New Sarum, and four mariners. The next morning, having commended ourselves to God, with cheerful hearts we hoisted sail.

But the Lord suddenly turned our cheerfulness into mourning and lamentations for on the 14th. day of August 1635, about ten at night, having a fresh gale of wind, our sails being old and done were split. The mariners, because that it was night, would not put to new sails but resolved to cast anchor till the morning. But before light it pleased the Lord to send so mighty a storm as the like was never known in New England since the English came, nor in the memory of any of the Indians.

It was so furious that our anchors came home. Whereupon the mariners let out more cable which at last slipped away. Then our sailors knew not what to do, but we were driven before the wind and waves.

My cousin and I perceived our danger and solemnly recommended ourselves to God the Lord both of earth and seas, expecting with every wave to be swallowed up and drenched in the deep. And as my cousin, his wife, and my tender babes sat comforting and cheering each other in the Lord against ghastly death which every moment stared us in the face and sat triumphing on each one’s forehead, we were by the violence and fury of the winds, by the Lord’s permission, lifted upon a rock between two high rocks, yet all was one rock. But it raged with the stroke which came into the pinnace so as we were presently up to our middles in water as we sat. The waves came furiously and violently over us and against us, but by reason of the rock’s proportion could not lift us off but beat her all to pieces.

Now look with me upon our distress and consider of my misery who beheld the ship broken, the water in her and violently overwhelming us, my goods and provisions swimming in the seas, my friends almost drowned, and mine own poor children so untimely (if I may so term it without offence) before mine eyes drowned and ready to be swallowed up and dashed to pieces against the rocks by the merciless waves, and myself ready to accompany them. But I must go on to an end of this woful relation. In the same room whereas he sat, the master of the pinnace, not knowing what to do, our foremast was cut down, our mainmast broken in three pieces, the forepart of the pinnace beat away, our goods swimming about the seas, my children bewailing me, as not pitying themselves, and myself bemoaning them, poor souls, whom I had occasioned to such an end in their tender years, when as they could scarce be sensible of death, and so likewise my cousin, his wife and his children; and both of us bewailing each other in our Lord and only Savior, Jesus Christ, in whom only we had comfort and cheerfulness, insomuch that from the greatest to the least of us there was not one screech or outcry made, but all as silent as sheep were contentedly resolved to die together lovingly, as since our acquaintance we had lived together friendly.

Now I was sitting in the cabin room door with my body in the room, when lo! one of the sailors by a wave being washed out of the pinnace was gotten in again and coming into the cabin room over my back, cried out: “We are cast away! The Lord have mercy upon us! I have been washed over-board into the sea and am gotten in again.” His screeches made me look forth; and looking toward the sea and seeing how we were, I turned myself to my cousin and the rest and spake these words: “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.”

Whereupon the master of the pinnace looking up at the scuttle hole of the quarter-deck, went out at it; but I never saw him afterwards. Then he that had been in the sea went out again by me and leaped over-board towards the rocks, whom afterwards also I could not see. Now none were left in the barque, that I knew or saw, but my cousin, his wife and children, myself and mine and his maid servant. But my cousin thought I would have fled from him, and said unto me: “O Cousin leave us not, let us die together,” and reached forth his hand unto me.

Then I, letting go my son Peter’s hand, took him by the hand and said: “Cousin, I purpose not. Whither shall I go? I am willing and ready here to die with you and my poor children. God be merciful unto us and receive us unto Himself,” adding these words, “The Lord is able to help and deliver.”

He replied saying: “Truth, Cousin, but what His pleasure is we know not. I fear we have been too unthankful for former deliverances, but He hath promised to deliver us from sin and condemnation and to bring us safe to heaven through the all sufficient satisfaction of Jesus Christ. This therefore we may challenge of Him.”

To which I replying said: “That is all the deliverance I now desire and expect.” Which words I had no sooner spoken but by a mighty wave I was with the piece of the barque washed out upon part of the rock, where the waves left me almost drowned. But recovering my feet I saw above me on the rock my daughter Mary, to whom I had no sooner gotten but my cousin Avery and his eldest son came to us, being all four of us washed out by one and the same wave. We went all into a small hole on the top of the rock, whence we called to those in the pinnace to come unto us, supposing we had been in more safety than they were in. My wife, seeing us there, crept up into the scuttle of the quarter-deck to come unto us. But presently came another wave and dashing the pinnace all to pieces carried my wife away in the scuttle as she was, with the greater part of the quarter-deck, unto the shore, where she was cast safely, but her legs were something bruised, and much timber of the vessel was there also cast. She was some time before she could get away, being washed by the waves. All the rest that were in the barque were drowned in the merciless seas. We four by that wave were clean swept away from off the rock, also into the sea, the Lord in one instant of time disposing of fifteen souls of us according to His good pleasure and will.

This pleasure and wonderful great mercy to me was thus: standing on the rock as before you heard, with my eldest daughter, my cousin and eldest son, looking upon and talking to them in the barque, whereas we were by that merciless wave washed off the rock as before you heard, God in His mercy caused me to fall by the stroke of the waves flat on my face, for my face was towards the sea. Insomuch that as I was sliding off the rock into the sea the Lord directed my toes into a joint in the rock’s side as also the tops of some of my fingers with my right hand, by the means whereof, the wave leaving me, I remained so hanging on the rock only my head above the water, when on the left hand I espied a board or plank of the pinnace, and as I was reaching out my left hand to lay hold on it, by another wave coming over the top of the rock I was washed away from the rock and by the violence of the wave was driven hither and thither in the sea a great while, and had many dashes against the rocks.

At length past hope of life and wearied in body and spirits, I even gave over to nature and being ready to receive in the waters of death, I lifted up both my heart and hands to the God of heaven (for note I had my senses remaining perfect with me all the time that I was under and in the water) who at that instant lifted my head above the top of the water, that so I might breathe without any hindrance by the waters. I stood bolt upright as if I had stood upon my feet but I felt no bottom nor had any footing to stand upon but the waters. While I was thus above the water I saw by me a piece of the mast as I suppose about three feet long, which I labored to catch in my arms, but suddenly I was overwhelmed with water and driven to and fro again, and at last I felt the ground with my right foot, when immediately whilst I was thus groveling on my face I presently recovering my feet was in the water up to my breast and through God’s great mercy had my face unto the shore and not to the sea. I made haste to get out, but was thrown down on my hands with the waves and so with safety crept to the dry shore, where blessing God, I turned about to look for my children and friends but saw neither nor any part of the pinnace, where I left them as I supposed, but I saw my wife about a butt length from me, getting herself forth from amongst the timbers of the broken barque; but before I could get unto her she was gotten to the shore. I was in the water after I was washed from the rock, before I came to the shore, a quarter of an hour at least.

When we were come each to the other we went and sat under the bank, but fear of the seas roaring and our coldness would not suffer us there to remain. But we went up into the land and sat us down under a cedar tree which the wind had thrown down, where we sat about an hour, almost dead with cold. But now the storm was broken up and the wind was calm. But the sea remained rough and fearful to us.

My legs were much bruised and so was my head, other hurts I had none, neither had I taken in much quantity of water, but my heart would not let me sit still any longer but I would go to see if any more were gotten to the land in safety, especially hoping to have met with some of my poor children, but I could find none, neither dead nor yet living. You condole with me my miseries, who now begun to consider of my losses.

Now came to my remembrance the time and manner, how and when, I last saw and left my children and friends. One was severed from me sitting on the rock at my feet, the other three in the pinnace, my little babe (All, poor Peter!) sitting in his sister Edith’s arms, who to the uttermost of her power sheltered him from the waters, my poor William standing close unto them, all three of them looking ruefully on me on the rock, their very countenances calling unto me to help them, whom I could not go unto neither could they come at me, neither would the merciless waves afford me space or time to use any means at all either to help them or myself. Oh I yet see their cheeks, poor silent lambs pleading pity and help at my hands. Then on the other side to consider the loss of my dear friends, with the spoiling and loss of all our goods and provisions, myself cast upon an unknown land, in a wilderness, I know not where, nor how to get thence. Then it came to my mind how I had occasioned the death of my children, who caused them to leave their native land, who might have left them there, yea and might have sent some of them back again and cost me nothing. Those and such like thoughts do press down my heavy heart very much. But I must let this pass, and will proceed on in the relation of God’s goodness unto me in that desolate island on which I was cast.

I and my wife were almost naked, both of us, and wet and cold even unto death. I found a knapsack cast upon the shore, in which I had a steel and flint and powder horn; going further I found a drowned goat; then I found a hat and my son William’s coat, both of which I put on. My wife found one of her petticoats, which she put on. I found also two cheeses and some butter driven ashore. Thus the Lord sent us some clothes to put on and food to sustain our new lives which we had lately given unto us, and means also to make a fire, for in a horn I had some gunpowder which, to my own and since to other men’s admiration, was dry. So taking a piece of my wife’s neckcloth which I dried in the sun, I struck fire and so dried and warmed our wet bodies; and then skinned the goat and having found a small brass pot we boiled some of her. Our drink was brackish water. Bread we had none. There we remained till the Monday following; when about three of the clock in the afternoon, in a boat that came that way, we went off that desolate island, which I named after my name — Thacher’s Woe — and the rock Avery his fall, to the end that their fall and loss and mine own might be had in perpetual remembrance. In the isle lieth buried the body of my cousin’s eldest daughter, whom I found dead on the shore. On the Tuesday following, in the afternoon, we arrived at Marblehead.

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2 Responses to Anthony Thacher’s Shipwreck, As Told In His Own Words

  1. Pingback: More on Dylan’s Tempest |

  2. Pingback: The Northern Lighthouse on Thatcher’s Island, Rockport, Mass., circa 1920 | Vintage Rockport

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