Scientists examine the bones of Sparrow-Hawk, the wrecked ship that is believed to have brought Irish servants to Plymouth


The ship’s 109 wooden pieces have been assembled into a skeletal hull, “repeatedly disassembled, measured, drawn and displayed,” said Pilgrim Hall executive director Donna Curtin, “but have never been fully examined. archaeologically or forensically so far”.

“A big question haunted this assemblage of salt-worn woods,” Curtin said. “Are they, in fact, from the same ship described by William Bradford that brought the first documented Irish settlers to New England?”

The results of the study published in a March 11 article in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, titled “Dating from the Woods of the Sparrow Hawk, a Cape Cod Shipwreck, USA,” confirm that the remains are the oldest known shipwreck from English Colonial America.

The new effort to confirm an ancient find will help the museum flesh out an intriguing episode in the Pilgrim story, in which a group of mostly Irish servant girls lived in the small English settlement for nine months.

Curtain said the study gives the Pilgrim Hall Museum a scientific basis for displaying the woods in future exhibitions and continuing its efforts to develop a nuanced portrait of the ship’s passengers and the effect their time in Plymouth might have had on the colony and on their own future. .

“We hope to move beyond assumptions into the realm of probability,” she said.

Buried by the tides until a 19th-century storm exposed them, the antlers were long believed to belong to the ship bound for Virginia in 1626, but scientists using newly developed dendrological and other techniques were able to” lower the window of improbability” of this identification, Curtin said.

The sinking and transfer of its passengers to Plymouth is one of the most dramatic stories of early 17th-century New England. “There was a ship, with many passengers on board, and various cargoes, bound for Virginia,” Bradford wrote at the start of a detailed account of the incident in his Colony History Journal. .

The ship’s passengers included two English merchants as well as farmers and indentured servants. The arrival of large numbers of newcomers with no intention of being part of a religion-based colony – and not all of them English – may have had a significant impact on the daily life of the colony.

They were housed with different families and stayed in the colony long enough for bonds to develop. One of the ship’s male passengers impregnated one of the maids, and the two fled to Boston, apparently “to escape punishment,” Bradford wrote.

The following year the servants were sent by ship to Virginia, because their contracts bound them to serve there.

The story spread after a storm raised a salt marsh in 1863, revealing the site of an ancient port in Orleans and Chatham and exposing the timbers of a shipwreck. A local landowner gave it the name Sparrow-Hawk, according to the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The hull was removed from the sand and largely exposed. The find was “a huge curiosity,” Curtin said. The antlers were put on public display on Boston Common because of their alleged connection to the Pilgrims.

Acquired by Pilgrim Hall in 1889, the antlers were displayed in the museum, loaned to a Cape Cod museum for display, and returned in 2011 to Pilgrim Hall for storage.

Four years ago, they caught the attention of Calvin Mires, associate researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and professor at Bridgewater State University, who was familiar with the new techniques being developed in Europe for analyzing fossil woods, dating them and determining their origins.

A research team to carry out an analysis of the wood and compare it to a previously established database was led by Frederick Hocker, director of research at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, who had led a dendrological analysis of a ship that had sunk in 1628. Similar techniques, specialists extracted samples from the Sparrow-Hawk and sought to identify the date range and provenance of the ship’s timbers.

Curtin said that while the study cannot prove with certainty that the recovered antlers belong to the ship Bradford described, the likelihood is high. The study eliminates some alternative explanations of their origin by showing that the antlers originated in England and date to the early 17th or late 16th century. It gives the image of an older ship, about 40 feet long, small for an ocean crossing.

This image, Curtin said, suggests how “desperate” some members of Europe’s vast underclass might have been to improve their situation, even if it meant risking a dangerous journey and embracing a life of supportive service on a new continent.

She said the study gives the museum, which opened to the public in 1824 and is the nation’s oldest continuously operating public museum, the confidence to exhibit the woodcuts in the future and pursue a nuanced historical portrait. of the ship’s passengers and the impact of their time in Plymouth.

After a winter closure due to the pandemic, the museum will open for the year on April 1 and will follow a Wednesday-Sunday schedule from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information on tickets, go to

Robert Knox can be reached at [email protected].


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