Wednesday, July 8, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Great Colonial Hurricane, Anthony Thacher, and Yarmouth

     There are some events that shape and change people and history. Natural disasters, especially those of tremendous magnitude have a tendency to change the area they strike after the fact. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and more ravage the Earth leaving death and destruction in their wake. Along coastal areas the hurricane/typhoon is often the natural disaster that causes the most damage.

     There have been many deadly hurricanes whose names bring back horrible memories to those who lived through them. Katrina in 2005, Maria in 2017, the Galveston, Texas Hurricane in 1900, and Florida’s Okeechobee Hurricane in 1928, are among the costliest storms to ever hit America. In the New England area the list of famed storms is far less deadly due to the cooler ocean waters. The most recognizable names like Bob in 1991, Gloria in 1985, and Carol in 1954 did their share of damage yet were not as deadly as the southern storms.
      However, centuries ago, during the infancy of European colonization of America, a major hurricane struck New England. This storm changed the landscape. It changed the lives of countless colonists and Native Americans. It decimated a family and gave rise to one of Cape Cod’s original settlements. The storm was the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635. This is the story of the storm and how its effects are still felt today.

     Though the storm itself occurred in 1635 the story begins in 1589. It was in this year, in the village of Queen Camel in Somersetshire County, England that Anthony Thacher was born. After receiving a good education Thacher became curate at St. Edmunds Church in Salisbury, where his brother Peter was the minister, in 1624. By that point the first of the Pilgrims had left England for America due to the perceived religious persecution. This had not changed in the years after and eventually would cause Thacher to travel the same route as the others.

     In July 1634 Thacher’s wife Mary died after roughly 15 years of marriage. He was remarried to Elizabeth Jones in February 1635. Shortly thereafter on April 6, 1635 he boarded the 220-ton ship James with Elizabeth, her father, and four of his five children, along with his brother Peter’s son Thomas. Anthony Thacher was listed in the registry as a tailor, likely to disguise his true relationship with the church. The vessel departed England and arrived in Boston in June.

     Thacher started his time in America in Newbury working alongside his cousin John Avery. However after much pleading from its citizens Avery decided to move south to Marblehead to establish a church there. Thacher and his family decided to join him in starting the church.

     In late August 1635 the entire entourage, except for Anthony’s nephew Thomas, boarded a vessel called the Watch and Wait. Thomas, who had a bad premonition about the ship, decided to travel to Marblehead by land. In total 23 people left Ipswich on the ship which would soon collide with an historic storm.

     What would become known later as the ‘Great Colonial Hurricane’ first formed during the last week of August narrowly avoiding the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia. As the storm headed northeast it quickly gained strength until eventually topping out at what today would be a high Category 3 to low Category 4 hurricane. It is estimated by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that the storm took a path similar to Bob in August 1991.

     On August 26, 1635 the storm crossed near Providence, Rhode Island just after 6am with wind speeds hovering around 130mph. The storm surge was estimated at 14 feet there with many Natives being swept out to sea with their homes. It plowed through Boston near 7:30 as it began to lose some strength. Governor of Plymouth William Bradford noted seas as high as 20-feet above normal as the hurricane barreled through the area. It was as the storm exited to the Atlantic just north of Boston that it met up with the Watch and Wait and Anthony Thacher. With winds still topping 105mph the storm crashed into the vessel east of Gloucester driving it onto a small, rocky island. 

The likely path of the Great Colonial Hurricane. (Harvard Forest Archives/Brian R. Hall)

     The wind and waves dashed the vessel to pieces. Before his very eyes Anthony Thacher watched as his cousin John Avery and his six children drowned. For a time Thacher’s family clung to the rocks, however the crashing waves eventually pulled all of his children out to sea as well. Anthony and his wife Elizabeth managed to hold on. They were the only survivors.

     All told according to NOAA the Great Colonial Hurricane was likely the most intense storm north of the Carolinas in recorded history. The storm surge above 14-feet in Providence was topped by a surge above 20-feet at the head of Buzzards Bay. Thousands of trees were downed in its path, and many buildings were destroyed and people washed away in Providence, Plymouth, Boston, Bourne and more. It was said that the damage from the hurricane was still evident decades later.

Thacher Island in Rockport.

     Anthony and Elizabeth survived for two days on the rocky island before being rescued by a passing vessel. The island was given to them as consolation with Anthony initially naming it ‘Thacher’s Woe.’ Years late it was named Thacher Island in commemoration of the couple’s immense loss. The death of the children diminished their desire to remain on the North Shore and when an opportunity arose to leave they took it.

     On January 7, 1639 the Plymouth Court granted a large tract of land on Cape Cod to Anthony Thacher, Thomas Howes, and John Crow. Formerly referred to as ‘Mattacheeset’ it was henceforth known as Yarmouth. Technically the lands given included the future town of Dennis as well. Thacher settled in the area later that year near the marshland of present-day Yarmouth Port just north of Rt. 6A.

     Not long after arriving Thacher became Town Clerk and Town Treasurer of Yarmouth, both positions he held until his death. After the horrific loss of four children during the Great Colonial Hurricane Thacher had three children with Elizabeth. In 1664 Anthony had a home built for his son John upon his marriage. This home sat at the corner of present-day Thacher Street and Thacher Shore Road. It was moved in 1680 to its current location at the corner of Route 6A and Thacher Street across from the Yarmouth Port Post Office.

The home Anthony Thacher had built for his son John now at 240 Rt. 6A Yarmouth Port.

     Anthony Thacher remained of major importance in Yarmouth and its affairs throughout his life. His exact date of death is not known, though it is between June 30-August 22, 1667. Thacher died at the likely age of 78. He was buried on his land near the marsh in Yarmouth Port. His grave was never marked with a stone. His wife Elizabeth died only a few months later.

     In 1905 a stone tablet was erected near the site of Anthony Thacher’s homestead. Three years later in 1908 the Thacher family gave the Town of Yarmouth Thacher Shore Road which was purported to have been the old Colonial road built along and over some of Anthony’s property. Thacher Island in Rockport became a popular tourist destination with its twin lighthouses. The current lighthouses were built in 1861 and it is accessible by boat or kayak from the shore.

     Through immense suffering and sadness Anthony Thacher persevered and helped to found the town of Yarmouth. He came face to face with the strongest hurricane these parts has ever seen and did not allow it to define him. The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 did tremendous damage yet also shaped and changed New England in its aftermath. It led to the formation of a Cape Cod town and serves as a tale of destruction and redemption not only for the New England area affected but for Anthony Thacher himself as well.

For more about the story of the Great Colonial Hurricane check 

My first eBook in 10 years, In Their Footsteps, featuring the interesting stories of Cape Cod's history, is on sale at

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