Digging Into the Shipwrecked Spaniards
Did Celia steal the idea?
It's time to peel the onion on the legend of the Smuttynose shipwrecked Spanish sailors. That sounds like a tongue twister, but it's more of a brain teaser. We've got poems, prose, headstones, hearsay, town records and test pits -- but what does it add up to? Here's the story slowly. Try not to get lost.
Celia Thaxter lived a while on Smuttynose. Her father Thomas Laighton bought the little rocky island from Captain Sam Haley, whose restored house is about all that survives on the island today. You see the house on labels of Shoals Pale Ale. You see it from the high porch of the Oceanic Hotel at Star Island just a short row across Gosport Harbor. You see it from the ferry, named for Celia's father, as it circles the nine Isles of Shoals ten miles from shore. If someone's staying there at night, gas lanterns glow in the window.
Most people think they're looking at the Hontvet House, site of the brutal 1873 Smuttynose axe murder, but that house was a few lots away and burned down in the late 1800s. Now the Haley cottage, two outhouses and Rosamund Thaxter's one room shed are the only buildings standing where a tiny fishing village once thrived. Behind the house, as in Celia's time, is a low wall, the Haley family cemetery and the legendary graves of 14 shipwrecked sailors.
At least that's what Celia tells us in her poem "The Spaniard's Graves" (1865). Celia addicts know this one by heart. In it, the poet stands weeping at the abandoned mass grave and whispers comfort to the dead sailors. Focusing the accumulated sadness into herself, she tries to broadcast the story through space, channeling their distant widows who grew old and died with no word of their loved ones:
Spanish women, over the far seas,
It's a good poem, very good. Celia told a friend she thought of it "among the pots and kettles" while she did her housework. Maybe, maybe not. There is an earlier, little known version by an obscure Portsmouth poet named James Kennard Jr. called "Wreck of the Seguntum." It first appeared in 1847 and gives a stirring eye-witness-style account of the sudden winter snowstorm and the cleaving green sea. The captain cries, the ship tacks, the foaming breakers roar.
It seems a bit more than coincidence that the final stanza of Kennard's action-packed tragedy dovetails with the opening lines of Celia's emotional response. It's the stuff PhD candiates eat for breakfast. Nearly two decades before Celia's effort, Kennard wrote:
No mourners stood around their graves,
It is important to Celia that we know the facts of the wreck. She devotes six pages to the background story in "Among the Isles of Shoals," the little history book that she reluctantly wrote for all the demanding 19th century tourists. It was a runaway bestseller, drawing visitors to her family's grand hotel on the Shoals by the ferry-full. It's still in print today and the tourists are still coming.
The Spanish ship Sagunto, she explains crashed at Smuttynose in a storm on January 14, 1813. All hands on board died. Fourteen were found over the next few days, some having crawled toward the candle light in the window of Sam Haley's cottage. Haley kept a candle burning for 50 years before White Island lighthouse was built nearby.
It's a powerfully gruesome image, a band of hoary figures like Titanic victims, frozen solid, one just inches from the Haley home, his arm raised stiffly toward the cottage door.
Okay, that's probably not how it happened, if it happened at all, but poets and columnists take license with facts to hold their readers' gaze. Celia recounts the official Gosport town records of the "ship Sagunto Stranded on Smotinose Isle," but disputes the dates and body count. Sam Haley, she insists, buried the bodies, but his tombstone nearby proves he died two years earlier in 1811 at age 80. The record accounts for 12 bodies. Celia says 14. Old records can be as faulty as old spelling.
So we're forced to consult the usual gang of Isles experts for clues. John Scribner Jenness (1875) appears mute on the Spaniards' graves. Granddaughter Rosamund Thaxter says there were 15 sailors and simply reprints the poem in her Celia biography "Sandpiper" (1962 -- and reprinted last week). Celia's brother Oscar also reprints the poem in his biography "Ninety Years on the Isles of Shoals" (1929). He sticks to his sister's version, but counts 16 Spaniards, three of whom survived a short while in the night.
But beloved historian Lyman Ruttledge waxes eloquent in "The Isles of Shoals in Legend and Lore" (1965). Celia is confused, he writes, because there were two Sam Haleys. It was the son, Captain Haley, who discovered the bodies.
Then Ruttledge lobs a curve ball. Cap't Haley, he says, told a Massachusetts court that the ship was not the Sagunto, but the "Concepcion from Cadiz". A Spanish ship named Sagunto did arrive in Newport from Cadiz two days earlier, Ruttledge says. Haley recounted finding bodies strewn around the island and in the water, 14 in all.
In his "Visual History" (1989) of the Shoals, the late John Bardwell reverted to the Sagunto story. Two men struggled toward the cottage and got as close as the stone wall, he says. They were found like a dozen others, coated in fresh snow. Another was found in the bushes six months later. Ferryboat Captain Robert Whittaker has told the story hundreds, maybe thousands of times to passengers on the ship Thomas Laighton. Like lost poet James Kennard, Whittaker's version in "Land of Lost Content" (1994) reads like a Howard Cosell blow-by-blow account. The snow dances, the surf roars, the mast cracks as each man embraces his Mistress Death.
But there's more. Kicking around in the archives on Star Island, Shoals historian Bob Tuttle found an annotated copy of the Jenness history. Now this gets complicated, so hold tight. The book was annotated by a doctor named Joseph Warren. Warren had copied a paper written by a Shoaler named E.L. Ham. Ham had been given the copy by Celia's brother Oscar, who said it came from the Haley family bible. Still with us?
Assuming it is authentic, the paper tells of various shipwrecks on the Shoals. On the list we find -- "the Spanish ship from Cades (Cadiz) Bound to New York was Castaway on this island of Smuttinose." The dates match the Sagunto report and the Haley report goes on to say that no one survived and there was not much worth salvaging. The next passage reads:
So maybe, Tuttle concludes, just maybe there was a shipwreck with Spanish sailors. But think about it. The topsoil on rocky Smuttynose is about a foot deep. It was January. The graves were marked by a line of rocks, we're told.
Enter Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, another doctor who spent 10 days on the Shoals in 1858. Not far from the Haley family cemetery at Smuttynose he saw what could have been the identifying stones. Bowditch was speculating when he noted in his journal that "they were buried close together, evidently in one trench, with their feet to the East & their heads to the Setting Sun."
Bowditch saw 28 stones lined up, stones he identifies as the 14 headstones and 14 footstones. Twelve, he wrote, were clustered practically on top of each other, while two sets are paired a couple of feet away. Were these the officers of the ship, he wonders, segregated in death as in life from the "rude seaman"?
Bowditch guessed. Archeologist Faith Harrington tested. In 1991 while an assistant professor at a Maine university, her crew dug discreet systematic test pits across the burial area where the soil is about a foot deep. They found no graves, no evidence of any human remains, no trenches -- just rocks. There was no proof that the ground had ever been disrupted.
"All the archeology is inconclusive," Harrington says today. Historian Ruttledge feared it was almost sacrilegious to excavate the fundamental facts of Celia Thaxter's classic poem. Harrington chooses her words respectfully.
"We did not find evidence for the graves in the research that we did," she says. Pushed, the existence of 14 Spanish sailors buried in a foot of soil on Smuttynose Island "seems unlikely," Harrington admits. But there may be more clues in a study of maritime history; an equally scientific survey of ships from that era may turn up something.
Uh-huh, maybe. So for now we're left with a sinking ship of facts, a conflicting sea of words, some piles of rocks, a storm of misplaced emotions. Then some nights, through all the confusion, you'll see the clearest possible light coming from the Haley cottage window.
Photos by Peter Randall from "Out on the Shoals"
© Peter E. Randall
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For more on this topic see:
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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