In January 1646, the fledgling New Haven Colony staked its future on an 80-foot ship, the “Great Shippe.” Colonists loaded it with furs, plate, wheat and other goods, which they hoped to sell to England. The vessel also carried 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, people retold the story of how John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton, Puritan founders of the New Haven Colony, tried to steal land granted to the Anglican Church. They believed it as fact that the land under New Haven’s Trinity Church had [almost] been stolen.
The legend owes its popularity to the Rev. Samuel Peters, a Tory driven from his home in Hebron, Conn., just before the American Revolution. Peters, an outspoken supporter of English rule, criticized the Boston Tea Party. The Sons of Liberty terrorized him, forcing him to renounce his beliefs publicly.
Furious, Peters fled to England. There, he continued speaking out and defending British interests in America. He published a defense of Benedict Arnold and a stinging criticism of the Connecticut government.
Peters published his best known work, General History of Connecticut, in 1781, as the Revolution wound down. In his account, Thomas Gregson left 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 the cabal of New Haven’s selectmen blocked the sale. 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. Then they sold the land to friends for far less than it was worth. The deceit was only discovered years later, wrote Peters.
The Great Shippe
The truth was far different. A Thomas Gregson did live in the colony, and he did sail – and perish – on the Great Shippe. However, there is no reason to believe he wanted anything to do with the Anglican Church. Gregson served as a leader of the Puritan colony in New Haven,
He boarded the ship not to flee the colony. Rather, he went to England to petition the government for a formal charter. The New Haven colony sympathized with the Parliamentarians 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 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. That made 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 they received no word of the vessel 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 Davenport declared God gave him the vision to let the mourning citizens find comfort in knowing how their loved ones 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 got its land in New Haven is far less scintillating. However, Peters buried a kernel of truth in his story.
After Gregson died at sea, his estate didn’t get settled until 1715. His property went 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 tried to take possession of the land, however, New Haven residents attacked him. They prevented him from proving his case by Gregson’s descendants, then using the land.
The Real Story?
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,” wrote Croswell.
The missionaries believed “some authority” and the “chief men of the town” goaded the rioters. They “beat his cattle and abused his servants, threatening both his and their lives to that degree, that he was obliged to quit the field.”
Croswell further wrote that Arnold had gone to the civil authorities against some of the rioters, “they refused to take cognizance of it.”
There is no more record of Arnold pursuing the claim. Croswell also notes 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. His accounts of the Connecticut Blue Laws created far more controversy. While the Puritans had strict rules about Sabbath activities, Peters took additional license in his book. He claimed the laws against violating the Sabbath were more extreme than they really were.
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 Peters.
Peters spent the rest of his life in frustration. He never obtained what he considered adequate compensation for the loss of his Connecticut estate during the Revolution.
He returned to America and tried in vain to establish a state, Petersylvania, on 10,000 acres he claimed in Wisconsin. But he never succeeded. Ironically, the American government 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 – subsequently governor of Connecticut – asked his poor and ailing uncle to return to Hebron. Peters declined, telling his nephew: I won’t go. I’ll die first.” And he did, in 1826.
This story updated in 2022.