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Mystery of the Spanish Sailors Graves

Historian authorized by stewards to take grave rubbing of Sam Haley's grave on Smuttynose Island/ Rpbinson photo

Is anyone buried in the thin Smuttynose soil or is it just a tale told by poets? Shoals history records an incident in a snowstorm on January 14, 1813. Whatever happened to the 14 Spanish sailors, they live today in two poems by local writers. Following is another mystery from Smuttynose Island.




SEE ALSO: Misty Legends of Sam Haley 

Here’s what the records say on the according to the late Shoals historian Bob Tuttle – "In the Gosport Town Records it is noted that the ship was wrecked on the night of January 14, 1813, during a snowstorm. The body of one sailor was found the next morning, six more bodies on January 17th, and five more on the 21st. On the 27th a body was grappled up from the Hog Island passage I presume this meant Malaga Gut On August 8th, another body was found in the same area; altogether, 14 bodies. They were reported buried on Smuttynose. But where are they?

READ ALSO: two poems about Spanish Sailors

Drowned at sea / SeacoastNH.comIt's time to peel the onion on the legend of the shipwrecked Spanish sailors at the Isles of Shoals. Two 19th century poems tell the story. But what about the facts? Were 14 frozen bodies buried on Smuttynose Island in 1813? Here are the few pieces of the puzzle we have.

Poet Celia Laighton Thaxter lived briefly on Smuttynose as a child. Her father Thomas Laighton bought the little rocky island from Captain Sam Haley who likely passed on the story of the Spanish shipwreck. The Laightons lived briefly in Captain Haley’s 1770s-era house, now one of just two buildings still standing on Smuttynose.

Most people confuse the Haley House with the Hontvet House, the site of the grisly March 1873 ax murder. But that house burned over a century ago. This is the story of the "other" great island mystery. Just behind the Haley House and up a small grassy rise is the Haley family cemetery. A few dozen yards further down the path is a sign marking the burial of the shipwrecked Spanish 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, the poet broadcasts the location of the dead sailors through space and time like a geo-positioning satellite. Celia channels the emotions of all the distant widows, mothers and sisters who never saw their loved ones again and never learned their fate. Here they are, the poet cries into the wind. She writes:

  Spanish women, over the far seas,
  Could I but show you where your dead repose!
  Could I send tidings on this northern breeze
  That strong and steady blows!

It's a good poem, very good. Celia once told a friend in a letter that she thought of the poem "among the pots and kettles" while doing housework. Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps she also read a recently rediscovered work about the Spanish sailors by Portsmouth poet James Kennard Jr.. His "Wreck of the Seguntum" first appeared in 1847. Poet Kennard gives a stirring eye-witness-style account of the sudden winter snowstorm, the cleaving green sea and the tragic wreck. The captain cries, the ship tacks, the foaming breakers roar.

It seems more than coincidental that the final stanza of Kennard's action-packed tragedy dovetails neatly with the opening lines of Celia's emotional response. Kennard ends his dramatic shipwreck poem noting that the Spanish sailors remain lost in a foreign land with no one to mourn them. It’s the kind of connection PhD candidates in English Literature thrive on. Two decades before Celia’s work, Kennard wrote:

  No mourners stood around their graves,
  No friends above them wept ;
  A hasty prayer was uttered there, --
  Unknown, unknelled, they slept.

Continue with SPANISH GRAVES

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