So many Cape Cod fishermen perished in the Great October Gale of 1841 that the peninsula’s young women refused to court men who went to sea.
The ocean roared as though with an unbridled madness, and its waves ran mountain high, throwing their spray far into the sky, and forming a majestic yet fearful sight.
The wind kicked up on Saturday, October 2, and by midnight it blew a gale, with rain in Massachusetts and snow in New Hampshire. The sun rose to a clear sky on Sunday morning, but immediately disappeared behind black clouds. The sky took on a wild look. By 11 a.m., heavy seas were throwing vessels onto rocks and beaches.
The gale reached its fiercest at 2 a.m. Monday, October 4, and continued to blow hard until that afternoon.
The Green Mountains of Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire were covered with snow the next day. A foot and a half of snow fell in Middletown, Conn. The trees, in full leaf, 'broke the forest and shade trees in an extraordinary manner.' The oldest residents of the town couldn't remember seeing any snow so early and so destructive.
A vessel named Maine broke loose of her moorings in Portsmouth, N.H., and wrecked on Scituate Beach, killing the captain, his daughter, five passengers and one crewman.
On the North Shore of Massachusetts, as many as 40 vessels, mostly fishing schooners, were lost in the October gale. Only two of the 16 fishing vessels in Rockport, Mass., survived the storm. The wreck of the Forest, in which the entire crew perished, left 31 children fatherless in Gloucester, Mass.
The October gale flooded Nantucket streets, demolished its ropewalks and threw its barns into the sea.
Cape Cod suffered the most. The beach from Chatham to the highlands was strewn with the parts of 50 wrecks. In one day after the October gale, 100 bodies were taken up and buried. The Truro Insurance Company failed for a lack of men to take charge of its vessels.
The Town of Dennis lost 26 men, 18 of which had been schoolmates. Eighteen vessels from West Harwich were destroyed.
Wreck of The Garnet
On Saturday night, October 2, most of the Truro fishing fleet on the Georges Banks left off fishing and made for home. Only two of the nine ships that set out made it.
Capt. Joshua Knowles in the Garnet and Matthias Rich in Water Witch just barely survived the storm.
Knowles left a detailed record of the perilous voyage. The Garnet sailed out of Provincetown Harbor on October 2 and headed out to Georges Bank under full sail. As the wind grew stronger, Knowles took in sail until morning, when only the foresail was set. The wind blew the foresail to ribbons by nightfall, and Knowles set the mainsail. Soon the wind shredded that too, leaving only the jib.
Titanic waves pushed the vessel toward deadly shoals. Joshua Knowles ordered all crew members below deck except for his brother Zack.
Joshua lashed himself to the helm, and the brother tried to bring the Garnet about. But a huge wave struck the vessel, putting her on her beam ends and washing Zack overboard. He managed to hang on to the mainsheet and survived.
The foremast broke, the mainmast came down. As the storm raged, the brothers chopped furiously at the rigging while the crew moved the ballast to the windward side to right the vessel.
They survived. When the storm finally abated, they jury-rigged a mast and found some potatoes floating around, which they cooked for their first meal in two days. At dusk, a Liverpool packet called the Roscius picked them up. The ship captain turned out to be from Truro.
Truro’s Worst Tragedy
The 57 men and boys in the seven other fishing vessels out of Truro were not so lucky. All died at sea, and only a few of their bodies recovered.
All 57 lived within two miles of each other. They were related to nearly everyone in town. Eight were Snows and eight were Paines. Three were boys not yet 13 years old.
During one of his trips to Cape Cod, Henry David Thoreau recalled asking a man in Truro, "Who lives in that house?" The reply: "Three widows." The town, with a population around 2,000, had 105 widows. Young women became reluctant to marry fishermen.
An obelisk in the Congregational Church yard commemorates the 57 October gale victims:
Then shall the dust return to the
earth as it was and the spirit shall
return unto God who gave it.
Man goeth to his long home and the
mourners go about the street.
Image: First Congregational Parish of Truro By Judy Moehle - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35518277.
This story about the Great October Gale was updated in 2019.