Cape Cod Shipwrecks

So many ships have piled up on the hidden sand bars off the coast between Chatham and Provincetown that those fifty miles of sea have been called an “ocean graveyard.” Indeed, between Truro and Wellfleet alone, there have been more than 1,000 wrecks.

When a storm struck the Cape in the early days, no one was surprised to hear the alarm: “Ship ashore! All hands perishing!” The townspeople would turn out on the beach, but usually the surf was too high for them to attempt a rescue. And by the time the storm was over, there was usually no one to rescue.

The first recorded wreck was the Sparrowhawk which ran aground at Orleans in 1626. The people aboard were able to get ashore safely, and the ship was repaired. But, before it could set sail, the ship was sunk by another storm and wasn’t seen for over two hundred years. In 1863, after storms had shifted the sands again, the skeleton of the Sparrowhawk reappeared briefly. So the ocean takes and gives back and takes again. (The ribs of the ship are now on display in Plymouth at Pilgrim Hall.)

From the Head of the Meadow Beach at North Truro, the wreck of the Frances, which was sunk in a December gale in 1872, may still be seen at low tide.

In the early 1800s, there was an average of two wrecks every month during the winter. The loss of life seemed especially sad when a sailor managed to get ashore on a winter night only to freeze to death after he got there. In 1797, the Massachusetts Humane Society started putting up huts along the most dangerous sections of the Massachusetts coast in the hope that stranded sailors would find them and take shelter. It was not, however, until 1872, that a really efficient lifesaving service was put into operation by the United States government.

Excerpts from http://home1.nps.gov/caco/historyculture/shipwrecks.htmshipwrecks_01
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