By Seth Rolbein
Make a list of 57 people you have known since childhood, from your hometown.
Make them all men, mostly young men, some teenagers.
Think about what they mean to you, the experiences you’ve shared.
Then try to imagine all of them dead, lost without warning, never to be seen again.
So it was for Truro on October 3, 1841. Fifty-seven fishermen from the town, in seven boats, vanished around George’s Banks. According to accounts of the time, they left behind 23 widows and 51 fatherless children.
Truro never truly recovered from what became known as “the October Gale of 1841.”
It was mackerel they were going after at the beginning of the 1841 season. Just a decade earlier, most Cape Cod fishermen still worked in-shore and near-shore, taking advantage of a teeming catch nearby. But by the 1840s, fishing pressure, population growth, and the arrival of better transportation (like the railroad) had driven fishermen toward deeper water and bigger catches.
Truro’s mackerel fleet dared approach George’s Bank, with its fertile waters but dangerous tides, shoals, and weather. To do so, they used a schooner they called a “heel tapper,” named because the vessel looked like an old shoe with a broad bow and raised quarterdeck – and because the schooners would rock back and forth like dancers from heel to toe. “Heel tappers” had two masts, built for work, not speed. To keep to the dancer metaphor, they waltzed, they didn’t jitterbug.
In Truro there was the Dalmatia, the Cincinnatus, the Pomona, the Altair, the Prince Albert, the General Harrison, the Arrival, and the Water Witch. They set sail together on a Monday morning, September 27.
Only the Water Witch returned, and of the vessels lost in the October gale, only one was seen again; the Pomona bottom-up in Nauset Harbor, with the bodies of three young men drowned in her cabin.
The full brutality of the storm can only be imagined, but our imaginations do have some help.
The Water Witch’s captain, Matthias Rich, not only was a brilliant seafarer, he was smart, lucky, brave – and a fine writer. His account is a remarkable first-person document, probably the most harrowing “close call” in Cape Cod history.
What follows is an excerpt from his memoirs:
I was at that time 21 years old, and was in command of the Schooner “Water Witch” of Provincetown. The vessel was about 53 tons burthen and was one of the ablest seaboats I have ever sailed in.
The Sunday previous to the event, the fishermen were all at home. It was a most lovely day … The masters and other fishermen met together in the Meeting House Yard and talked over the prospects of the fall catch. It could easily be seen that all the fishermen were thinking about Georges Banks, and that would be the first place they would try their luck at during the succeeding week. Accordingly, on Monday morning when the fleet of fishing vessels got underway, they all seemingly with one mind sailed out around Race Point down the Highland Light, and so down towards Chatham.
(The mackerel fleet reached George’s Bank, and fished well for several days. Rich took 35 barrels “all of which were No. 1 mackerel and were worth 14 dollars a barrel.” But by Friday night the weather started to change. On Saturday the wind was blowing “about half a wholesale breeze” from the northwest. He spent the night “under foresail to the east, carrying jib.”)
All the other vessels lay to the northwest under foresail only. At 4 o’clock Sunday morning I was called, weather bad, a smart wholesale breeze northeast. Wore ship and started for the Cape, which I calculated distant 120 miles northwest by west … Sun rose clear, but looked wild and immediately went into black clouds … Between 7 and 8 passed the fleet still lying very comfortable under foresail, two or three with bob jib.
We passed so near the Dalmatia and Gen. Harrison of Truro, [we] could have spoken to them. We thought they had each 20 or 30 barrels of mackerel salted on deck. About 10:30, 25 miles northwest of the fleet, we passed the Pomona, Captain Sol. [Solomon] Dyer, laying under double reefed foresail. Seeing us running in for the land, they immediately kept off and followed …
About 11 o’clock my crew urged to tack ship. I said it was too late and that we must now make a harbor or run ashore, as I clearly saw there was no chance for us to fall to the leeward. I had made up my mind if we could not weather the Highlands, to run on where the shore was bold and take our chances for being saved …
Then judged myself nearly up to the lands and was about to make some observations, when a squall struck, driving the sea completely over our vessel. Hauled down the jib and mainsail, and lay under double-reefed foresail, [two other nearby] vessels doing the same. When we came up to the wind, Captain Dyer was just off our weather bow, and the other vessel nearly in our wake …
At 1 o’clock the force of the squall passed by, at the same time clearing slightly to leeward. I was then standing in the gangway, all the crew below, as could not remain on deck; when I saw land under our lea and well along to the windward – our desperate condition at first a terrible shock, but quickly recovering, I sprang on deck, called up the crew, ordered the jib set.
Under the first pressure of the jib, she fell off so far that the land was windward of the bowsprit. I knew we had a good sea-boat; I had tried her in a hard scratch, and knew our race was life or death. The mainsail had been balanced reefed before laying to; this I ordered hoisted; the sail was small, but before half-way up, our vessel lay so much on her broadside, that the halliards were lost, the sail came down by the run, and blew to pieces, the main boom and gaff going over the lee rail. We first tried to cut them away, but fearing the main top-in-liff would carry away the mainmast, got on a tackle and pulled the boom and part of the mainsail out of the water. Then righted and came up to the wind, making good headway and gaining to the windward under the only sail we could bear; double reefed foresail and reefed jib, the sea making a breach fore and aft.
Soon as the slight hope dawned, I looked around for our neighbors, but not to be seen. I questioned each of the crew, but all like myself had been so engaged and absorbed with our own danger had not thought of them. The Pomona was much smaller and less able than our boat, and I have good reason to believe that she was disabled in the squall …
We hung on sharp as possible by the wind, our little craft proving herself not only able but seemingly endowed with life. In this way at 3:30 we weathered the Highlands with no room to spare. When off Peaked Hill Bars the jib blew away, and we just cleared the breakers; but we had weathered! The lee shore was astern, and Race Point under our lee, which we rounded and let go our anchor in the Herring Cove at 6:30 – just at dark. I left the helm, where I had been lashed since 6:30 in the morning …
When morning dawned ours was the only vessel in the Cove.
A newspaper account of the time, reported by Shebnah Rich in his great history of Truro, added a heart-wrenching scene:
“We saw a father, who had two sons among the missing, for days and weeks, go morning and evening to the hilltop which overlooked the ocean, and there seating himself, would watch for hours, scanning the distant horizons with his glass, hoping every moment to discover some speck on which to build a hope.”
None ever came.
In the cemetery beside the Congregational Church on a high hill in Truro, an obelisk was erected. On it are the names of every man and boy lost at sea on October 3, 1841. The names still ring with familiarity; Snow, Paine, Atwood, Mayo, Cook, Rich, Hopkins, Dyer, White, Smith.
The inscription on the stone is unusual for its raw power and lack of rhyme — as if the event was far beyond any normal convention to describe:
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return to God who gave it.
Man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets.