For the past thirty years, the South Wellfleet wreck of the Whydah, a pirate ship under the command of Captain Sam Bellamy, has provided a steady stream of news. In 1984, the wreck was discovered 500 feet offshore, material was brought to the surface for identification and preservation, and their concretions removed. A small museum was established in Provincetown and, in 2016, a more permanent Whydah Museum in West Yarmouth.
The story of the Whydah running aground on the night of April 26, 1717, during an intense storm, is a Wellfleet legend, often mentioned in early writings about the town. In 1794, the Reverend Levi Whitman said, “At times to this day, there are King William and Queen Mary coppers picked up and pieces of silver called cob money.” When Henry David Thoreau walked the back shore in the mid-nineteenth century, he wrote about the wreck, although the coin he picked up was a French one, dated 1741.
This article focuses on the visit of Captain Cyprian Southack to South Wellfleet, then part of Eastham, as the representative of the Massachusetts Colony’s Governor, determined to recover the wreck. This imperial representative and the rule of law ran up against stubborn Cape Codders, certain that they had rights to the remains of the wreck. Southack’s visit gives us a glimpse into the life of the area in 1717.
The Whydah (also written as Whida, Widdo, and other names) was a large 1715 London-built galley, designed to serve as a slave ship, with a compartment to hold six hundred captives. It was named for the West African slave trading port of Ouiday (pronounced WHY-dah), in today’s Benin. The early eighteenth century was the height of the ”Triangular Trade,” connecting England, the west coast of Africa, and North America. The captain of the Whydah, Lawrence Prince, had surrendered the ship near the Bahamas with the customary little resistance, as those who did so were treated well by the pirates. The slaves had already been traded and the Whydah was on its way back to England with a sizeable load of treasure, pieces of eight, pouches of gold dust, gold doubloons, and jewels. Descriptions of the captured cargo also included sugar, indigo, Jesuit’s bark (a remedy for malaria), and elephant’s teeth, or ivory. After the ship was recovered, one if its treasures was West African “Akan Gold,” the pieces local people made for the slave traders.
In 1717, Wellfleet wasn’t “Wellfleet” yet. Separation from Eastham had been discussed, as the people of Billingsgate, or the North Precinct of Eastham, considered having their own minister, but it wasn’t until the next year, 1718, that the Reverend Josiah Oakes came to Billingsgate under the patronage of John Doane. He began preaching in a small meetinghouse located at the corner of a burying ground on Chequessett Neck, where Doane had buried his son Joshua, who had drowned in 1716, and Joshua’s wife, Mary, who had died in 1715.
Meanwhile, in Eastham, the long-time Reverend Samuel Treat had just died in the midst of a heavy snowstorm in March 1717. Eastham town-fathers were working on a plan to create two new parishes, and to build two new meetinghouses, one for the south part of town called Pochet (today’s Orleans) and one “a little to the northward of Herring Pond” replacing the old meeting house near Town Cove. But it wasn’t until 1718 that they were able to attract a replacement for Reverend Treat. Furthermore, it was in that year that the inhabitants of Billingsgate petitioned the General Court to separate politically from Eastham, initiating the local battle that lasted for the next forty years, ranging from the morality of their ministers, to the fishing and shellfishing rights of the towns.
In the spring of 1717, the people of Eastham were in the first 25 years of being part of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, combining their old Plymouth Colony with the wealthier Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Province of Maine, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick into British North America’s crown colony. Plymouth Colony had never achieved the economic status of Massachusetts Bay Colony, and perhaps there was a lingering resentment as they had been joined together by King William and Queen Mary in 1692.
The Governor in 1717 was Samuel Shute who was determined to recover the Whydah’s treasure for the Crown, as the law determined. Citizens who found any wreck were supposed to report it to the Town Clerk, and then assist in getting it returned to the owner. But the locals in coastal towns everywhere considered the salvage washing ashore from a wreck as theirs to keep.
On Sunday, April 28, Shute had received a note from Colonel William Basset of Sandwich telling him that the “pyrate” ship had gone aground at the shore at Eastham, “man’d with about 130 men, 28 guns, who had not any commission from any Prince or Potentate.” Basset noted that only two men had been saved. This information had come to Basset from Justice Doane of Eastham who had arrested the pirates from the Mary Anne, the ship accompanying the Whydah that went ashore near Pochet.*
This was the atmosphere in which the Massachusetts Bay Governor attempted to rescue what was sure to be a valuable prize for the Crown. Soon, he dispatched Captain Cyprian Southack to the site to recover anything of value, and to recover from the local townsfolk anything they may have already taken. Fortunately for us, Southack left a journal of his days spent on the outer Cape, a document available today at the Massachusetts State Archives. The letters he wrote to the Governor are also there, providing us with fairly extensive documentation. Barry Clifford consulted these documents when he did his research more than 250 years later, to pinpoint the spot where he would search for the wreck.
Cyprian Southack (1662-1745), the son of a British naval lieutenant, came to Boston in 1685. In 1696, he was appointed the commander of the first Province Galley, a small vessel of ten guns built by order of the Massachusetts General Court and used against the French and Indians in skirmishes in Maine and Nova Scotia. He commanded a second and larger Province Galley until 1714. Later, he commanded ships that guarded the coast against privateers and pirates.
However, Cyprian Southack had another role in the Massachusetts Colony: he was a mapmaker, preparing more than twenty maps charting the ocean waters, and the Saint John and the St. Lawrence Rivers, to diminish navigation dangers. In 1694, he prepared The New England Coasting Pilot and traveled to London to present a copy to King William, whereupon he was awarded a sum of fifty pounds “to be paid to him for the Buying a Gold Chain and Medal, as a Mark of his Majesty’s Royal Favour.” Later the book was published, and served mariners for many years. His appointment to oversee the recovery of the Whydah showed his importance to the colony. He lived on Tremont Row, in a house once owned by Governor John Endicott. (This area became Boston’s Scollay Square in the 1920s, and today is the Government Center area.)
While the Whydah occupied Southack, there were two additional stories playing out nearby. While sailing northward, the Whydah had captured another ship, the pink Mary Anne, off Nantucket. (In the Atlantic, the word pink was used to describe any small ship with a narrow stern, having derived from the Dutch word pincke.) An Irish ship, the Mary Anne was on its way to New York with a cargo of Madeira wine. The pirates on board, as the story goes, enjoyed the wine as they ran aground off Pochet (Orleans) and managed to come ashore. Word got out that they were there, and Justice Doane arrested the six men, who were eventually brought to Boston where they were hanged after a trial—with plenty of opportunity for Reverend Cotton Mather to preach against their wicked ways. The Madeira wine not consumed ended up in a number of Eastham homes. A second story line from the wreck of the Whydah involves the much-written-about romance between a local Eastham girl, Maria “Goody” Hallett, and Captain Bellamy who, it was surmised, was headed in the direction of the Cape Cod coast to see her again.
There were two men who survived the Whydah wreck, Thomas Davis, a Welsh carpenter who had been forced to work for the pirates, and John Julian, a Moskito Indian from Nicaragua or Belize, who had served as a pilot for Bellamy. They managed to get from the beach to Samuel Harding’s house in South Wellfleet, giving Harding the first word of the wreck. At the November trial in Boston, Davis was acquitted, and Julian was sold into slavery. When Barry Clifford was researching the recovery of the wreck later, Wellfleet’s Slade Associates helped him by determining the location of Samuel Harding’s house as “A mile from Whitecrest Beach or one quarter mile southwest of Duck Pond.” Earlier writers had placed Harding’s house in “Freshbrook Village,” the small settlement south of Marconi Beach that has now disappeared.
Samuel Harding shared the news of the wreck with his brother, Abiah, and his neighbors Edward Knowles and Jonathan Cole. Others included by Southack in his reports were Joseph Collins and Samuel Horton. The Harding family had come to Plymouth from England; Samuel and Abiah’s father was a “ward” of Deacon Doane. An older brother, Amaziah Harding, gained some fame when he murdered his wife of many years, Hannah, in 1734.
On May 2, 1717, Captain Southack arrived from Boston aboard the sloop Nathaniel at “Cape Cod Harbor” as Provincetown was then called. He had hoped to round the tip of the Cape and find the wreck, but the weather was still rough, so he stayed in the harbor. He quickly learned that the wreck was well known and that many of the local Cape Codders had already been to the site. The ability of the locals to strip a ship was well known, and Southack knew that he had to get to the site as soon as possible. He dispatched two men, Cutler and Little, to the site to protect it from further looting. They went to Truro, hired a horse and wagon, and went to the site.
Another horse was not made available to Southack, perhaps intentionally, causing great irritation. Instead, he hired a whaleboat and a crew, and decided to cross the Cape at a “canal” that he knew from his mapmaking—the passage called “Jeremiah’s Gutter”—that runs along today’s Eastham/Orleans border, from Boatmeadow Creek to Nauset Harbor/Town Cove. Luckily for him, the high spring tides allowed him to pass, and he duly noted the passage on his now-famous map.
After fourteen hours of rowing, Southack and his crew reached the wreck and found that, while there were bodies (“54 white men and 5 negroes”) on the beach and some wreckage, the ship itself was still breaking up in the heavy surf offshore, impossible to reach. He reported (his spelling shown here) to the Governor:
“May 2 at 2 After noon I sent Mr. Little and Mr. Cuttler to the Rack. They got their that night and Capt watch till I came the next morning. At my coming their I found the Rack all to Pices, north and South, Distance from one a Nother 4 miles. Sir, whear shee strock forst I se one anchor at low water, sea being so Great Ever sence I have ben here, Can not come to se what maye be their for Riches, nor aney of her Guns. She is a ship about Three hundred tuns, she was a very fine ship.”
The crew of the whaleboat picked up what little was left, and took it by cart to Billingsgate where it would be taken later to Boston; the whaleboat returned to Provincetown, carrying Southack’s letters to the Governor.
It appears that Captain Southack stayed at Justice Doane’s home during his stay, as he wrote about Doane’s wife giving him a “plum Posset” to soothe his “soar throte,” and the Justice loaned him an “Indie-kachoo bandanie” (West Indian bandana) for his sneezing. The raw wet Spring weather kept him from the work he had hoped to do to bring the treasure in from the wreck.
“All that I Can find saved Out of her is her cables and som of her sailes, Cut all to Pices by the Inhabitants here. Their has been at this Rack Two hundred men at least Plundering of her, sum saye they got Riches out of the sand but I can not find them as yet.
The Governor and Captain Southack had the Crown law behind them as they not only took over what was left of the Whydah wreck on the beach, but could also demand that anyone who had removed material must turn it over. Southack issued the following “advertisement” on May 4 which was posted all around the area:
“Whereas there is lately Stranded on the back of Cape Cod a Pirate Ship & His Excellency the Governor hath Authorized and impower’d me the Subscriber, to discover & take care of s. wreck & to Impress men & whatsoever Else necessary to discover & Secure what may be part of her, …with orders to go into any house, Shop, Cellar, Warehouse, room or other place, & in case of resistance to break open any doors, chests, trunks& other package there to Seize & from thence to bring away any of the goods. … And all of his Mjoesty’s officers and other his loving Subjects are Hereby Commanded to be aiding and assisting me, my Deputy or Deputys In the Due Execution of S. warrant or they will answer if Contrary at their utmost peril. These are therefore to notify all persons that have found or taken up any thing of S. Wreck on what was belonging to or taken out of S. Wreck vessel that they make discovery thereof & bring in the same to me at Mr. William Browns In Eastham or where else I shal order Or they will answer the Same at their Utmost peril, and then all officers and other persons will give information of any thing of S. Wreck taken up by any persons of Suspicion thereof, that they may be proceeded with and a Discovery made pursuant to my powers & Instructions. Eastham, May 4th 1717. Cyprian Southack
On May 6, Governor Shute published a similar notice in The Boston News-Letter that citizens who took items from the wreck of the Whydah did so at their own peril. The Cape Codders who kept and hid their Whydah wreckage were demonstrating quite a strong independence in an era of authoritarian rule.
Captain Southack had the power to conduct house-to-house searches, and commanded all those upright Puritans of the outer Cape to reveal their fellow wreckers. The records of the event show that a few people did in fact bring their “treasure” to the Captain or to Mr. William Brown. (We know from earlier research that Mr. Brown had received 16 acres of land in 1672 near Silver Spring in what became South Wellfleet.) In general, though, the locals pretended that they had not heard of the wreck and must have worked hard to cover-up.
Samuel Harding had a special excuse. He told Southack that he taken items from the wreck, but had promised to hold it for Thomas Davis until after his trial in Boston, and could not renege on his promise. Southack was furious, and wrote to Governor Shute “I find the said Harding is as Gilty (sic) as the Pirate Saved.”
All that week, the cold, windy weather kept Southack from getting off shore to the Whydah to see if he could attempt a dive to bring up the treasure. The bodies continued to come ashore, and part of this legendary tale is that the local citizens would have stripped them of their clothing and anything in their pockets while they still had access to the beach. During this week, Southack reported that there were 79 bodies. The overall number of men on board was 102, plus the two who were alive, so bodies must have continued to wash ashore for some time, a phenomenon that is reported in other accounts of shipwrecks.
Samuel Freeman was the local coroner. He had a pit dug (we do not know where) to bury the many pirate bodies, and billed the Southack for eighty-three pounds. What Southack had gathered was worth about eighty-two pounds, so Freeman had the “Coroners Jury” put a stop upon it for the expenses of the burial. This only increased Southack’s frustration and anger at the locals. He wanted to arrest the entire population, but realized that was impossible.
By May 13, Captain Southack gave up his search and returned to Boston. Stories circulated later that he had made a secret fortune, taken a Creole mistress, and returned to England, but historians have never found any evidence that he did. Shortly after he returned to Boston, he ran an advertisement in the Boston News-Letter describing “two Anchors, two Great Guns and some Jonk that came from the Wreck Whido” that would be sold at Public Auction by the Admiralty Marshal. The rest would wait more than 250 years to be recovered.
*In researching this article I was happy to find the definition of an area near Pochet called Slut’s Bush, a place-name I’d wondered about. This for a swampy area off Nauset had been named in 1626 when the Sparrow Hawk ran aground. One of the passengers, a Mr. Fells, had brought a woman with him to the New World, described as his maid or housekeeper. But when it became obvious she was pregnant, the couple was ostracized and forced to camp out in this section of Nauset, forever called Slut’s Bush.
Martha J. Ehrlich: “Early Akan Gold from the Wreck of the Whydah”
African Arts, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Aug., 1989), pp. 52-57+87-88
Southack’s biography in http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/southack_cyprian_3E.html
Reynaud, Elizabeth. This Narrow Land Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962
Clifford, Barry with Peter Turchi. Discovering the Priceless Treasures of the Sunken Ship Whydah New York: Simon & Schuster 1993
Clifford, Barry with Paul Perry. Expedition Whydah New York: Harper Collins 1999
Vanderbilt II, Arthur T. The Fortunes and Fate of the Pirate Ship Whydah Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1986
Levi Whitman quote from “A Topographical Description of Wellfleet in the County of Barnstable” in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society for the Year 1794, Volume 13, page 117
Echevierra, Durand. A History of Billingsgate, Wellfleet: Wellfleet Historical Society 1991.