Famous Cape Cod Shipwrecks

The 50 miles of water from Provincetown to Chatham is known as the ocean graveyard – a swath of water where more than 1,000 shipwrecks are buried, according to the Cape Cod National Seashore.

The wrecks include the HMS Somerset, the Sparrow-Hawk and the Whydah. Some of the vessels were involved in wars and other major historical events during their time on the high seas. A number of the ships originated in other countries, but their final resting place became the treacherous waters off the coast of the Cape. While there are thousands of wrecks off our coast, here are seven of the most famous ships resting in our very own ocean graveyard.

The Sparrow-Hawk

Remains of the Sparrow-Hawk (Pilgrim Hall Museum)

Remains of the Sparrow-Hawk (Pilgrim Hall Museum)

According to the National Park Service, the first recorded wreck off the coast of Cape Cod was the Sparrow-Hawk, which ran aground at Orleans in 1626. Originally from London, England, the Sparrow-Hawk was making a six-week voyage to the English Colonies when it was wrecked. The skeleton of the ship was recovered in 1863 and has been reconstructed for various exhibitions. The reconstructed hull currently belongs to the Pilgrim Society, the reconstructed hull has been featured at the Cape Cod Maritime Museum in Hyannis.

The Whydah Galley

A recreation of pirate treasure aboard the Whydah Galley. (Whydah Pirate Museum)

A recreation of pirate treasure aboard the Whydah Galley. (Whydah Pirate Museum)

Originally a slave ship that launched in 1716, the Whydah Galley was captured by pirate Captain Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy. The Whydah became Bellamy’s flagship and enabled the pirate captain to capture multiple ships, including the Mary Anne, which was carrying a large cargo of wine. During its service as a pirate ship, The Whyday it had to undergo numerous repairs to keep it serviceable. The Whydah eventually met its end off the coast of Wellfleet at Marconi Beach, when a vicous nor’easter struck and caused the ship to capsize. It’s entire crew and all of its contents – including silver and gold – were lost to the ocean. In 1984 treasure hunter Barry Clifford discovered the wreck spread over a span of four miles along the Cape’s coast.

USS Merrimack

Two ships do battle in the Quasi-War.

Two ships do battle in the Quasi-War.

The USS Merrimack, originally launched in 1798, did battle in the Quasi-War, an undeclared war fought almost entirely at sea between the United States and the French Republic from 1798 to 1800. During its service, the ship captured a number of French vessels and exchanged fire with French troops. After her service in the Navy, the ship was sold and became a merchant vessel known as Monticello. It wrecked off the coast of Cape Cod at an unknown date.

USS Bancroft

USS Bancroft

USS Bancroft

The USS Bancroft, which launched in 1919, was the second ship to carry the name. The ship stayed in reserve until the start of World War II. In 1940 the Clemson-class destroyer was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy and served under the name HMCS St. Francis. During the war she served as an escort for convoys in the Battle of the Atlantic. Once the war was over she was declared surplus and was sent to be scrapped. On its way to Baltimore the ship sunk due to a collision off the coast of Cape Cod.

Paul Palmer

Paul Palmer (NOAA SBMNS)

Paul Palmer (NOAA SBMNS)

The Paul Palmer was a schooner built and launched in Maine in 1902 and was used for in the New England coal trade. During one of its voyages to pick up a load of coal, the Paul Palmer caught fire for an unknown reason, forcing its small crew to abandon ship. The entire crew was saved by a fishing schooner soon after. The wreck of the Paul Palmer lies off the coast of Provincetown and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

HMS Somerset

HMS Somerset in the Attack on Bunker's Hill with the Burning of Charlestown. (American Antiquarian Society)

HMS Somerset in the Attack on Bunker’s Hill with the Burning of Charlestown. (American Antiquarian Society)

The British Royal Navy’s HMS Somerset launched in 1748. The ship participated in two wars, the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution. In 1778 the ship ran aground during a storm off of Provincetown. The National Park Service currently preserves some of the remaining large timbers from the wreck.

SS James Longstreet

SS James Longstreet

SS James Longstreet (National Maritime Museum London)

The SS James Longstreet was built in the US during World War II and was named after the Confederate General James Longstreet. The ship was launched in 1942, but ran aground in 1943. In 1944 the Navy decided to use the ship for target practice for experimental missiles. Until 1971 the ship was continually bombarded, serving as a target Naval jets from Otis Air Force Base. The Navy eventually stopped the bombing in 1970s under pressure from former congressman Gerry Studds and the remains of the Longstreet currently rests off the coast of Eastham.

— By James Bone

Comments

  1. Donald Gfroerer says:

    Several of the Palmer fleet sank off the coast of Cape Cod! The Paul Palmer was named after my Great Uncle from Taunton, Ma. and later Miami, Fl.. The family donated many of the fleet ships plans, models and memorabilia to the Maritime Museum in Newport News, Virginia! The fleet was famous for their trademark white hulls!

  2. Bill Quinn Jr says:

    I know there are earlier photos, even on Wikipedia. Noted author William P Quinn, my dad, had several in his files. We even took some photos in the 70s while on the Longstreet, yes we had to watch our step. Although Shipwrecks around Cape Cod is out of print at the moment, Dad did document many of the noteworthy wreck that happened on the backside of Cape Cod.

    • I have his autographed book. Shipwrecks of Cape Cod. Funny, I was just trying to remember his name, and here you are! I love any and every story about the Cape, including your dad’s.

  3. Donna Riggs says:

    Good day,
    Very interesting history.
    I would like some help in locating information on a Spice Company ship that sunk in a squall of the Cape, with a Captain Hawkins, any help would be greatly appreciated. Trying to find for a elderly friend.

    Much love and blessings!

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