A nearly 160-year-old mystery just got closer to being solved. The remains of a centuries-old shipwreck stowed at a museum in Massachusetts, may be the remains of a vessel that ran aground nearly 400 years ago, researchers recently reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
Precise details about the ship, its name and the circumstances of its demise remain difficult to determine. But the study offers the strongest evidence thus far connecting the shipwreck to the Puritan settlement at Plymouth Colony, one of the earliest English colonial ventures in New England, reports Mark Pratt for the Associated Press (AP).
Experts have wondered about the origins of the shipwreck since its discovery. Two men, Solomon Linnell II and Alfred Rogers, first stumbled across the ship’s crumbling remains on Nauset Beach on Cape Cod in May 1863. A storm had revealed the small boat’s wooden ribs, which had been warped by sand, seawater and time.
Because the weathered wood bore no trace of a name, the residents of nearby Orleans dubbed it the Sparrow-Hawk. They also rushed to identify the vessel as a 1626 Pilgrim-era wreck—written about in the records of William Bradford, then-governor of Plymouth colony—though experts today argue that this identification is still tentative at best.
According to Bradford’s writings, a small, 40-foot ship bound for Jamestown, Virginia, crashed into the shore near modern-day Orleans in 1626. The vessel carried “many passengers in her and sundrie goods,” as Bradford wrote in his diary. He added that the vessel had endured a stormy six weeks at sea.
Onboard were two English merchants, John Fells and John Sibsey, and several Irish indentured servants. English-speaking members of the Nauset tribe rescued the 25 surviving travelers and sent word to Bradford, who eventually ordered a rescue mission to bring the stranded settlers to the English settlement. The event is considered the oldest known English shipwreck in New England.
After its discovery, the shipwreck’s remains—109 timbers in total—were exhibited around the country and, in 1889, donated to the Pilgrim Hall Museum for safekeeping and display. Researchers have periodically examined the objects, but the timbers were never subjected to rigorous scientific study until now.
In 2018, Calvin Mires, a museum trustee, maritime archaeologist and researcher with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, teamed with Aoife Daly, a dendrochronologist (tree ring researcher), and Fred Hocker, an expert on 17th-century ship construction, to conduct an in-depth study of the wreck.
The international team took core samples from the aged planks, examined tree ring patterns on the wood and conducted wiggle-match dating, a form of radiocarbon analysis. When they checked their carbon-dating evidence against databases of other historic woods, they found that the elm and oak wood used to make the boat was likely harvested between 1556 and 1646 in England.
“Tree rings can tell you a lot about how the trees grew and what the weather conditions were like at the time,” Daly explains to the Washington Post’s Dave Kindy. “They show the impact of drought, floods, bugs, fires and more. Each one is like a fingerprint of what happened.”
Their 19th-century counterparts were eager to link the Sparrow-Hawk remains to the 1626 shipwreck. Mires, Daly and Hocker, on the other hand, are cautious in their assessments and only assert that the vessel could be the same one that wrecked on Cape Cod.
An exhibition about the wreck commemorating its 400th anniversary is planned for 2026 at Pilgrim Hall Museum. According to its director, Donna Curtin, Sparrow-Hawk’s remains will feature prominently in the display.