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Mystery of the Spanish Sailors Graves


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 this is again drama, not fact.

Smuttynose steward J Dennis Robinson points out the marker at the supposed burial site of the 14 Spanish sailors on Smuttynose Island / Photo by Rodman Philbrick. SeacoastNH.comThere's more. Kicking around in the archives on Star Island, the late 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:

"my sons & what other men I Hired picked up 14 of the Dead men & buried them in my Buring [sic] field; but I Did not get my pay from any man."

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. Although historian Ruttledge suggested it would be sacrilegious to excavate the remains, he had not imagined ground-penetrating radar. The sceintific search found no proof of the burials. 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.

Maybe, maybe not. 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. Although the written record suggests that Captain Haley found nothing valuable to salvage, just seven years later Haley built a costly stone breakwater connecting Smuttynose with nearby Malaga Island. Legend says he paid for the work in 1820 with bars of silver. Haley died in 1839 at age 76 when Celia was just five years old.

The mystery remains. And so does the light from Haley’s cottage. Smuttynose Island has never had the luxury of electricity. On summer nights, when visitors are in the cottage, the glow of a flicker oil lamp is still visible for miles at sea.

Copyright © 2006 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson owns and edits the regional web site with fresh content posted every day since 1997.

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