To the mariner, Cape Cod represents both a hazard and a haven, as all shipping between Boston and New York must either pass into its sheltered bay, or ground on its treacherous shoals. Combined with the forces of countless "nor'easters" and its precarious location, the Cape has been the site of more than 3,000 shipwrecks in 300 years of recorded history.

The lonely form of Cape Cod stretches its fist-clenched forearm 25 miles into the ocean. Thoreau described it as "...boxing with northeast storms...and heaving up her Atlantic adversary from the lap of the earth."

It is the shallow sand bars several hundred yards off the beach that present the greatest danger. Here is where storm driven ships ground, break into pieces under the pressure of tons of raging water, and spill their fragile contents and occupants into the bone chilling surf.

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.

Even if the passengers and crew of these early ships couldn't be saved, the cargo often was. After a wreck, townspeople would come out with their carts and horses and haul away the spoils: wine, coffee, nutmeg, cotton, tobacco, and whatever the ship had been carrying. Sometimes owners of the wreck paid the local people to salvage their cargo; often the local people simply went on the theory that finders were keepers.

The Sparrow-Hawk

The first recorded wreck was the Sparrow-Hawk 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 Sparrow-Hawk reappeared briefly. So the ocean takes and gives back and takes again. The ribs of the ship are stored in Plymouth at Pilgrim Hall.

The Whydah

The Whydah was commissioned in 1715 in London as a slave cargo ship for the Triangular Trade. The ship was named for the slaving port on the coast of West Africa that it planned to operate out of, the "Kingdom of Whydah" (known today as Ouidah). It left England in 1716 on its maiden voyage, landing at port to collect nearly 500 human slaves and other supplies. It then sailed to the Caribbean to exchange the human slaves for precious metals, sugar, indigo, rum, logwood, pimento, ginger, and medicinal ingredients, which were to then be transported back to England.

On the Whydah's return to England, the ship was intercepted and captured by the pirate Captain Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy. After using the ship to plunder vessels throughout the Caribbean, Bellamy sailed the ship north, up the east coast of the United States, until the Whydah and her crew met their untimely fate and sank off the coast of Cape Cod in April of 1717 during a bad storm.

While many today romanticize the story of the Whydah and Bellamy as a pirate ship with a mysterious fortune, it's important to understand and acknowledge the origins of the ship and its impact on African American history.

The HMS Somerset (III)

The remains of HMS Somerset lie beneath the sands along the outer beach of Provincetown. She was a powerful third-rate line of battle British warship that helped shape the course of American history. With 64 mounted guns and a crew of 400, the Somerset brought British power to the North Atlantic and Mediterranean in the 18th century.

Her early missions included the Seven Years War (1756- 63), known as the French and Indian War in North America. She played a pivotal role in helping the British capture Louisburg and Quebec from the French. During the American Revolution, her role in the rescue of British troops after the battles of Lexington and Concord, and the bombardment during the Battle of Bunker Hill, influenced the outcomes of both battles. After sailing in later military campaigns, an intense storm drove the Somerset onto the shallow Peaked Hill Bars on November 2, 1778.

By the time the Somerset had wrecked, Cape Codders had suffered greatly from the British blockade during the American Revolution. Commercial fishing and whaling were virtually shut down. Some local people engaged in privateering and smuggling along the coast, while others turned to the land for subsistence. When the giant Somerset wrecked on the Cape, there likely was a strong emotional reaction by the local populace. According to the official account of the ship’s captain, George Ourry, only 21 men were lost during the wreck.

Captain Ourry was forced to walk under guard to Providence, RI, where he was exchanged for two American officers. The officers and crew, numbering over 400, were escorted to Boston. Towns along the route provided militia to escort and support the prisoners. A tremendous amount of scarce war material was chopped or pried away from the wreck by Cape Codders before the state put a guard over what remained. Eleven 18-pound and five 9-pound cannon and powder were entrusted to Colonel Paul Revere to be used in fortifying Castle Island in Boston Harbor. Salvage of the Somerset’s cargo was dangerous and difficult. Provisions in the lower hold were only accessible for a few hours a day at low tide. Severe winter storms in December finally broke the remains of the ship apart, moved it closer to shore, and eventually buried it under tons of sand. It took several more months of bitter court proceedings to sort out who owned what in the aftermath of salvage operations.

The remains of the Somerset, along with the timbers of thousands of other shipwrecks within the boundary of Cape Cod National Seashore, are preserved as federally protected archeological resources for future generations to research and study. Some shipwrecks have been documented by National Park Service archeologists, but most remain hidden under sand, or offshore. The Somerset is also protected under international law, and is the sovereign property of the United Kingdom. Since 1778, the Somerset’s remains have only surfaced twice: once in the winter of 1885-86, and again in 1973. The National Park Service preserves some of the large timbers from the wreck.

In 2005, the park superintendent presented a few pieces of the Somerset to the commander and crew of the British navy’s modern HMS Somerset (IV). She is a Type 23 Frigate based in Plymouth, England. Ironically, she has spent most of her career fighting alongside the U.S. Navy in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. From the American Revolution to present day conflicts, the story of the Somerset offers a moving lesson in cooperation between old naval foes who now work together as allies.

The Frances

At 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. United States Life Saving Service men dragged a whaleboat from the bay across the Cape to the outer beach and rescued all aboard. The captain, who died several days later from the effects of exposure, is buried in Truro.

Aerial view black and white drawing of the oil factory and wharf with the Whittaker
J Cook’s Oil Factory and the Whittaker in the Bird’s Eye View of the Town of Provincetown, Barnstable County, Mass 1882.

The Whittaker

On the night of November 20, 1872, Captain Cotton in Whittaker, with a cargo of coal, was headed from Hoboken, NJ, to Boston, MA, and went ashore on Hedgefence. The captain got off the next day, having ordered the vessel lightened in which the crew disposed of 20 tons of cargo along with some coal. Within five years, on December 9, 1876, Whittaker “coal laden, for Boston, struck and became a total loss. The crew was saved and entertained…” by Woods End Lighthouse Keeper Thomas Lowe (November 29, 1895, Boston Globe). In fact, Whittaker’s wrecking was so memorable that Lowe used maritime casualty as evidence when advocating for a new lighthouse station on Wood’s End to the United States Lighthouse Establishment.

In late December 1876, Jonathan Cook bought the wrecked Whittaker and got the brig off. Cook saw the Whittaker towed to the Cape Cod Oil Works, and on December 27, 1876, the Provincetown Advocate reported the brig was “now alongside the wharf.”

In 1818, John Atwood built the first house on Long Point, and others soon followed, finding the place perfect for hauling their catches of bass, shad, and mackerel. The first Long Point Lighthouse was built in 1827 (the current lighthouse was the second built in this location in 1875).

The Long Point community continued to grow throughout the 1830s and 1840s until soon families needed a schoolhouse built in 1846. In the years that followed, the Long Point community reached its peak with 200 people, a post office, a general store, bakery salt works, six windmills, and a wharf.The Long Point population plummeted in the 1850s as cheaper salt deposits were located in Syracuse, New York, and the fish stocks diminished. Along with the community’s remoteness, members of the Long Point Community packed their belongings and moved to Provincetown. “Floaters” were what locals called the homes people from Long Point shipped across the harbor on scows and fit into town. Today, some of these homes remain, one of which –the former post office—rests on Bradford Street.

By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, only the original lighthouse and two homes remained on Long Point. With the growing conflict, the federal government concerned itself with defending its coastlines. Resultingly, Long Point was revitalized as a Civil War Battery. During this period, soldiers were stationed at Long Point and resided in barracks. One of the remaining two houses from the original Long Point community was renovated for use as the officer’s headquarters.

In 1875, the same year the second lighthouse was built on Long Point, Jonathan Cook established the Cape Cod Oil Works. For this purpose, he revitalized the wharf built initially by John Atwood in the early 19th century. The purpose of the Cape Cod Oil Works was to extract all functional aspects of fish and whale carcasses, and in December of 1876, Cook bought the wrecked and re-floated Whittaker to use as a hulk in this service at the repurposed Atwood Wharf.

In 1882, Whittaker is depicted in the Bird’s Eye View of the Town of Provincetown with a white structure with an angled roof built on the deck. The illustration shows Whittaker alongside the wharf with its bow facing land. In 1891, four years before the Long Point Lighthouse Keeper, Thomas Lowe advocates for another lighthouse station on Woods End, Whittaker is imaged again alongside the wharf. This image (Figure 9) is a photograph of the beached Whittaker and its three-windowed white building, which dominates the abandoned brig’s deck. This photograph is likely from 1891, as two pieces of information are written on the picture. The first says, “Cape Cod Oil Works opposite Provincetown Mass. Old hulk used as a Fertilizer Screening House – Worth 1891.” From the first bit of writing on the top right-hand corner of this photo, we get a date and what Whittaker was used for at the Oil Work during the 1890s, screening fertilizer. The second piece of information written on the photograph lends a date to when the vessel was condemned, “Comdenmned by Dr. Moore 2/6/[19]19.”

Last updated: January 9, 2023

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