Chatham’s Ruth Harding and The Shipwreck of 1786

Cape Cod history is thick with stories of lives lost at sea. Some of these stories have been made into books and movies; some simply exist as folklore while others were lost and rest at the bottom of the sea along with the ships no one found.  I want to share a curious story with you about a lost ship, a father and son aboard this ship, and the heartbroken widow who some say, still tries to comfort her family from the cold Cape Cod winters.

In 1784, the Treaty of Paris was ratified by Congress bringing an end to the Revolutionary War.  Battered and war-weary men returned home and began to establish themselves once again as farmers, businessmen and, here on Cape Cod, sailors and sea captains.

Paul Harding of Chatham served in the Revolutionary War under a Captain Godfrey (also of Chatham). He returned home to Cape Cod to his wife and two sons. Very little is known about Paul’s wife Ruth except that she was an Eldridge. Paul continued his work as a shipmate and joined a schooner bound from Chatham to Boston under Captain Josiah Hardy.

Solomon Godfrey was aboard the ship along with Paul Harding’s youngest son, Joshua. They left on December of 1786 on what is described as fair weather conditions, but by the time they were attempting to round the tip of Provincetown, a terrible winter storm began to batter the ship. Nothing was seen of the ship the next day. The schooner, for which there is no record of a name, never arrived in Boston. No wreckage was found and no other vessels reported finding so much as a plank or barrel from the doomed ship.

1780 Cape Cod Map, Library of Congress

January, February and March were cold and snowy that year, and it wasn’t until April 10, 1787 that a beached schooner was reported on the shore of Great Permit Hollow (near what is now Great Hollow Beach) in Truro. As the snow and ice receded, it left behind Godfrey’s ship, with all still aboard. Sadly, the entire crew had frozen to death, unable to free the ship from the grip of the wind and currents of the storm. The boat had beached in the darkness of the storm, just out of sight of land.

There is no record of Ruth Harding’s death. Her eldest son, Paul Harding Jr was also a ship captain and it is believed he may have traveled to Nova Scotia where he settled and married. Ruth, alone in her home in Chatham, hoped for the safe return of her husband and youngest son throughout the bitter cold winter of 1787.

Upon hearing the news of the discovery of the wreck and the fate of her husband and son, Ruth gathered every blanket from the house and a large bundle of kindling and loaded them into a neighbor’s carriage and rode to the place in Truro where the ship was found. Heartbroken, she remained at the beach for several days. She continued to make the trip from Chatham to Truro for many years. Until one April, after another late storm, Ruth ventured into the snow and did not return.

Perhaps you have heard this story. I have tried to keep names and dates as historically accurate as possible. Maybe, just maybe, you have seen Ruth. It has been said, when the Cape Cod winters last into April, you can see a woman leading a horse and carriage across the snowy flats of Truro looking for her family to build them a fire and wrap them in warm blankets.

Race Point Lifesaving Station

About Cat Wilson

Cat Wilson is "That Girl" on Cape Country 104 – a Cape Cod native and longtime Cape radio personality. She is a passionate supporter of Military and Veteran causes on the Cape and also hosts local music spotlight program, “The Cheap Seats” on Ocean 104.7.

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