Cape Cod and the Somerset's demise
During the American Revolution, one of the great adversaries of New England colonists was the fearsome presence of the British man-of-war HMS Somerset.
But when the Somerset ran aground on the Peaked Hill Bars off Provincetown’s back shore on Nov. 2 and 3, 1778, a great sense of relief was felt across Cape Cod and the rest of the region.
Twenty-one of the Somerset’s crew of 480 perished in the stranding, while the survivors, including Captain George Aurey, were taken prisoner by the townspeople of Truro and Provincetown and marched to Boston.
The Somerset’s roles in the Battle of Bunker Hill, Paul Revere’s ride, and other Boston area conflicts and events during the American Revolution are well-documented. For the next couple of years, the Somerset remained “about Cape Cod and the adjacent shores, capturing and burning much of the American commerce, and being generally a terror to the unprotected coast,” according to the 1886 article, “The Wreck of the Somerset,” by Boston Post editor and publisher E.A. Grozier (The story was reprinted in booklet form by Howard F. Hopkins’ Advocate Press in Provincetown in the very early 20th century).
The Somerset was often anchored in Provincetown Harbor, and her “boats frequently landed, and the officers helped themselves to water, provisions, and anything else that they wanted,” Grozier wrote. “In return for the unwilling assistance thus given him, Captain Aurey sometimes sent the chaplain ashore to preach to the people and tell them how wicked and unchristian it was to cherish any rebellious feelings against King George.”
The presence of the Somerset was so scary to the locals, parents used it to keep their children in line. “Cape Cod mothers were wont to frighten their children by saying that the black whiskered pirated Captain George Aurey was coming after them in his big ship,” Grozier wrote.
Despite the hostilities between the locals and the British soldiers, it didn’t stop several romantic relationships from developing. “The surgeon of one of the British ships is said to have been so infatuated with the winsome face of a Truro maiden that he left the serve of his Majesty, the King, and settled permanently on the Cape, where descendants bearing his name are living to this day,” Grozier noted.
On the fateful day, word had spread of that the British frigate was in hot pursuit of a French vessel along the Cape’s back shore, drawing a large crowd to High Pole Hill in Provincetown. With a storm moving in and the northeast gales increasing, “the Somerset found herself on a lee-shore, in more danger than she had ever been from the guns of her enemies,” Grozier wrote.
The crew began dropping its weapons overboard, in hopes of lightening its load, but the disabled ship struck on the Peaked Hill Bars, and washed on to the beach the next morning by the high tide. When she did, the locals, who had crowded the beach, were waiting.
“A detachment of militia marched down from from Truro, took possession of the wreck and made prisoners of the captain and crew in the name of the Commonwealth,” Grozier noted. “Colonel Doane of Wellfleet was put in charge of the frigate. The prisoners were marched to Barnstable and then Boston. Captain Aurey was fortunate enough to secure an exchange as prisoner of war.”
The remains of the wreck were eventually covered by the shifting sands. In 1886, the remains were exposed for the first time. One of the cannons and the cathead, which was an ornamental fitting in the bow used to secure the anchor, were among the items recovered. Remains were also uncovered in 1973 and 2012, although quickly buried again by the sands.
However, nothing may match the jubilation felt by the people on High Pole Hill on that November day 239 years ago.
“A shout went up from the watchers on the hill,” Grozier wrote. “They knew they would suffer no more from the depredations of the Somerset.”
Don Wilding is a lecturer, tour guide, and author of two books: "Henry Beston's Cape Cod: How 'The Outermost House' Inspired a National Seashore," and "A Brief History of Eastham: On the Outer Beach of Cape Cod." His "Shore Lore" column appears weekly in the Cape Codder.