When three full-rigged ships from Salem set out on the sunny morning of Feb. 21, 1802, none of the men aboard these vessels knew that, within 24 hours, they would all be wrapped up in a week-long storm that ranked among the worst in New England maritime history.
By the next morning, the ships Ulysses, Brutus and Volusia, under the command of Captains James Cook, William Brown and Samuel Cook, all met with tragedy on the outer beach of Truro, with many of the men meeting horrible deaths. Fortunately for the Ulysses and Volusia, their crews were able to reach the shore after striking the outer sandbars near Highland Light later that night.
The Brutus was the hardest hit of the trio of ships, losing crew members both at sea and on land. As the storm increased in intensity the previous evening, one crew man was blown overboard while adjusting the foresail. When the Brutus finally hit the sandbar at around 8 p.m., the crew took to dumping cargo overboard to lighten the load. This allowed the waves to push the ship toward shore.
Unfortunately for the crew, the ship was beginning to break apart, but the mast fell toward shore, allowing the men to crawl on it to the beach. One man perished as he was pulled under the waves.
Unlike the other two vessels, who were greeted on shore by local residents, the men from the Brutus found themselves alone on a dark beach. Opting to stay together, they moved inland in search of shelter, battling the driving snow and subzero temperatures. Unfortunately for them, when leaving the beach, they turned away from Truro and Provincetown.
The captain, who lost his heavy coat while coming ashore, succumbed to the cold by midnight. Soon after, several other members of the crew also dropped and froze to death.
By the predawn hours of Feb. 22, only five men were still standing, and wandered aimlessly through the snow, even passing within a few yards of a house, but unable to see it due to the low visibility. Finally, at about 4 a.m., after wandering nearly 20 miles, they spotted a house, and knocked on the door.
The inhabitants took in the distressed men, and shortly afterward, a search was on for those who were lost in the snow.
One of them, Benjamin Ober, was found alive in the snow. He had been there for 36 hours, and only his raised hand out of the snow alerted the rescuers. However, Ober didn’t last long. He died shortly after he was brought indoors.
The captain of the Brutus was buried in Provincetown, while the other four members of the crew were laid to rest in Truro.
The Volusia and Ulysses were far more fortunate, even though there was a sense of doom aboard both vessels.
“They thought of Salem, of their homes, their wives and children, that they would probably never see again, and they seemed to love them all then with an affection that was a thousand-fold stronger than they had ever felt before,” according to the publication Colonial Sense. “Kindred thoughts filled their minds during the 10 minutes that elapsed before the ship struck the bar.”
Years later, part of the Brutus made its way back to Provincetown, according to the March 25, 1880 edition of The Provincetown Advocate.
“An interesting relic may be seen at H.S. Cook & Company’s store, in the shape of an arch board, belonging to the ship Brutus,” the paper noted. “The story is an interesting one, and no one but Captain Henry Cook can do it justice. The old arch board was found by him on one of the wharves in Salem a short time ago.”
Originally published in the Feb. 21, 2021 edition of the Cape Codder.