19 January, 2015

The Great Gale of 1635

Willem Van de Velde circa 1690

I love it when I find records where events in history intersect with the life stories of my ancestors. I am a lover of history anyway, but seeing these events through the real life experiences of those whose blood I share is definitely a thrill. I recently discovered such a story, or really two stories, that unknowingly converged... not at the time of the event, but centuries later, when my parents met.

The Great Gale of 1635, also called the Great Colonial Hurricane, was possibly the worst that the New England area has seen. According to Nicholas A Coch, who studies past hurricanes in the Northeast (associated press Nov 21, 2006), the winds increased to possibly exceed 130 mph, snapping large trees in half like toothpicks and blowing away entire households in the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies. The tidal surge was fully 21 feet, and John Winthrop, among others, reported watching helplessly as neighbors and farm animals were swept away in the churning waters.

Contemporary observers reported that the winds had begun to pick up as much as a full week prior to the storm, and at its full force it sent torrential rain in driving sheets as never before seen. The colonists were greatly affected by this, as hurricanes were something unknown in England, and they marveled at its savagery and speculated as to a Divine cause.

At sea, aboard the bark "Watch and Wait", off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts was my great-x 8-grandfather, Antony Thacher (1588-1667), when this vicious storm hit at about 10pm on the night of August 14, 1635. Antony had come from England that spring, stopping at Newbury with his cousin Avery, Avery's family and his own family; a new young wife and four children from his previous wife who had died giving birth to the fifth child. Avery and Antony were both of the reformed faith, and Avery himself was a preacher. The group was headed from the harbor at Ipswich, around Cape Ann to the south to reach Marblehead, where Avery had been offered a position with a local parish.

My family is blessed to have his preserved letter to his brother back in England, recounting the terrible event. In it he describes, almost minute by minute, how, one by one, the members of their little group were washed into the sea and drowned as the small bark broke up on a rocky shoal, including his own four children. Only Antony and his wife Elizabeth survived the wreck, washing up on a small rocky island off the coast of what is now Rockport, still named Thacher Island today.

A few years later, he and his wife and their young son left Marblehead with two other families to found the town of Yarmouth on Cape Cod. And the rest is history! I still live in the town that Antony co-founded back in 1639.

This story has been told and retold a thousand times in my family. I know it by heart, down to the names of his poor drowned children, and it is a treasured piece of history for my own immediate family as well as my large extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins.

BUT ... what I did not know until recently was that another branch of my family tree was directly affected by this same storm. In researching the Bailey family, this time a branch of my father's tree, I came across a similar story to that of Antony Thacher. It was John Bailey (1572-1651), a great-x 9-grandfather, and his young son John who were on the sea off the coast of Maine when the Great Hurrican hit. They were just arriving from England aboard the "Angel Gabriel", also a bark, when the dreadful storm began to batter the vessel to pieces.

John and his son had left John's wife Eleanor (Knight) and several more children behind in England, thinking to send for them when they had settled and built a home. They must have been foremost in John's mind as he struggled in the heaving waves for his life. But John and John Jr did survive that wreck, washing up on the shore of what is now Bristol, Maine. Sadly, having heard details of the disaster in her husband's first letter home, Eleanor was too frightened to board a ship for America. Instead, she refused to join him at all and John and Eleanor were never reunited, though several of their children apparently did come later from England.

When I discovered this second story, the whole event of that terrible storm became somehow more real to me. No longer was it just family lore, recounting the harrowing tale of Antony Thacher. Now, seen from the angle of the Baileys, many miles to the north and centuries from uniting with Antony's descendants, it seemed to come to life in 3-d. This phenomenon of bringing into focus historical events is one of the main reasons why I so enjoy genealogical research. And there are more stories where that one came from!

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