In January 1646, the fledgling New Haven Colony staked its future on an 80-foot ship, the “Great Shippe,” which it loaded with furs, plate, wheat and other goods that colonists hoped to sell to England. The vessel was also carrying away a problem, according to historian Samuel Peters, an Anglican who wanted to establish a church in the Puritan colony.
As the ship sailed away, two founders of the colony schemed to steal the land intended for the church. Only it didn’t happen quite that way.
For decades, the story of how John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton, Puritan founders of the New Haven Colony, tried to steal land that Thomas Gregson had granted to the Anglican Church – eventually the home of New Haven’s Trinity Church – was retold and printed as fact.
The legend owes its popularity to the Rev. Samuel Peters, a Tory driven from his home in Hebron, Connecticut in 1774 before the American Revolution. Peters was an outspoken supporter of English rule and a critic of the Boston Tea Party. He was terrorized by the Sons of Liberty, who forced him to renounce his beliefs publicly.
Furious, Peters fled to England. There, he continued speaking out and defending British interests in America, publishing a defense of Benedict Arnold and a stinging criticism of the Connecticut government.
Peter’s published his best known work, General History of Connecticut, in 1781, as the Revolution was ending. In his account, Thomas Gregson was departing the colony aboard the Great Shippe in 1646 as a result of his frustration with the strict religious rule in the colony.
Gregson had tried to sell his land, Peters reported, but had been blocked by the cabal of ruling selectmen. In frustration, he willed the property for the construction of an Anglican church – a poke at the community’s Puritan leaders. However, the duplicitous Davenport and Eaton sealed the record of the gift between two pages of the colony’s records and instead sold the land to friends for far less than it was worth. The deceit was only discovered years later, he wrote.
The truth was far different. There was a Thomas Gregson in the colony, and he did sail – and perish – on the Great Shippe. However, there is no reason to believe he, as one of the leaders of the Puritan colony in New Haven, wanted anything to do with the Anglican Church.
He was aboard the ship not to flee the colony. Rather, he was going to England to petition the government for a formal charter. The New Haven colony sympathized with the forces that overthrew King Charles I, and with the king deposed and fleeing to Scotland in 1645, 1646 was a good opportunity for the colonists to gain official sanction for the New Haven colony.
The voyage of the Great Shippe seemed almost doomed from the beginning. To launch the ship the colonists had to cut through nearly three miles of ice to get the vessel to the waters of Long Island Sound. Several accounts of the ship describe it as poorly made and top heavy. In addition it was loaded improperly with light goods at the bottom of the hold and heavier items at the top, making it prone to heeling and difficult to handle.
Davenport sent the vessel off to sea with a prayer: “Lord, if it be thy pleasure to bury these our friends in the bottom of the sea, they are thine, save them.”
When the ship sailed out of sight with 70 passengers and crew, it was the last time anyone would see the vessel – almost.
The Great Shippe would later reappear in legend. The Rev. James Pierpont, in writing of the ship to Cotton Mather, reported that the citizens of New Haven were agitated when no word of the vessel reached them for more than a year. Then a vision of the ship would occur in the summer of 1647.
In June next ensuing, a great thunderstorm arose out of the northwest; after which (the hemisphere being serene) about an hour before sunset, a ship of like dimensions with the aforesaid, with her canvas and colors abroad (though the wind northerly), appeared in the town, seemingly with her sails filled under a fresh gale, holding her course north, and continuing under observation, sailing against the wind for the space of half an hour.
Many were drawn to behold this great work of God, yea, the very children cried out, 'There's a brave ship.' At length, crowding up as far as there is usually water sufficient for such a vessel, and so near some of the spectators, as that they imagined a man might hurl a stone on board her, her main-top seemed to be blown off, but left hanging in the shrouds, then her mizzen-top; then all her masting seemed blown away by the board, quickly after the bulk brought to a careen, she overset and so vanished into a smoky cloud, which in some time dissipated, leaving as everywhere else, a clear air.
Pierpont reported that Davenport declared that the vision was given by God to let the mourning citizens find comfort in knowing how their loved ones had perished. The story of the phantom ship was later turned into a popular poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
As for the Rev. Peters, aside from pandering to the Anglicans to make a better story for his book, it’s not exactly clear why he fabricated the story about Gregson in his history more than 100 years later. The actual story of how the church obtained its land in New Haven is far less scintillating, though there is a kernel of truth in Peters’ story buried in it.
After Gregson died at sea, his estate was not settled until 1715, and his property was distributed to his heirs in New Haven. The Colony itself had long been eliminated, in part because its leaders sheltered the Regicides who overthrew the king during the English Civil War.
In 1736, however, the Rev. Jonathon Arnold filed a deed with the county that claimed he had purchased a portion of Gregson’s land from his grandson William in London. Arnold, an Anglican missionary, planned to build a church and glebe.
When Arnold attempted to take possession of the land, however, he was attacked by New Haven residents and prevented from trying to prove his case by Gregson’s descendants who were then using the land.
An account of the incident was contained in a letter from several Anglican missionaries establishing the church in Connecticut, according to the History of Trinity Church by Frederick Croswell.
When he went to take possession, and make improvement of said land by ploughing the same, he was opposed by a great number of people being resolute that no church should be built there, who in a riotous and tumultuous manner, being (as we have good reason to believe) put upon it by some authority, and of the chief men in the town, beat his cattle and abused his servants, threatening both his and their lives to that degree, that he was obliged to quit the field. And though he made presentments against sundry of them for breach of the peace to the civil authority, yet they refused to take cognizance of it.
There is no more record of Arnold pursuing the claim, and Croswell notes there is an undocumented assertion that he died at sea shortly after the incident. In 1752, the church finally purchased land on which it now stands in a private transaction.
Whether Peters fabricated his account or simply misreported the story from memory isn’t clear. Far more controversial were his accounts of Connecticut Blue Laws. While the Puritans were very strict about what activities were allowed on the Sabbath, Peters took additional license in his book, claiming that the laws against violating the Sabbath were more extreme than they are.
Not surprisingly, his stories were met with outrage in Connecticut. James Hammond Trumbull published his volume: The true-blue laws of Connecticut and New Haven and the false blue-laws invented by the Rev. Samuel to rebut Peters’ telling of Connecticut history.
The remainder of Peters life was frustrating. He never obtained what he considered adequate compensation for the loss of his Connecticut estate during the Revolution.
He returned to America and pursued, in vain, an attempt to establish a state, Petersylvania, on 10,000 acres in Wisconsin that he claimed, but he never succeeded. Ironically, American government forces prevented Peters from trying to enforce the claim against Indian lands; another of Peters’ frequent criticisms of America was that the founders had stolen their land from the native people.
Late in his life, Peters’ nephew John Samuel Peters – who would go on to be governor of Connecticut – asked his poor and ailing uncle to return to Hebron in Connecticut. Peters declined, telling his nephew: I won’t go. I’ll die first.” And he did, in 1826.