The following inscription on a monument in a north corner of the Old Churchyard Burial Grounds, of East Hampton (known as South End Cemetery) reads, “This stone was erected by individual subscription from various places to mark the spot where with peculiar solemnity were deposited the mortal remains of the three mates and eighteen of the crew of the ship John Milton of New Bedford.” This was just one of the ship wrecks off the beaches of Long Island!
The 1,444-ton, three-masted, 203-ft. ship John Milton gave her port of registry as New Bedford, MA. She was one of the two (2) vessels built by Reuben Fish, of Fairhaven, MA, the other was the 1,215-ton Sea Nymph (1853).
The clipper ship Sea Nymph was built for Edgar Mott Robinson, Esq., of New Bedford. She took a short maiden voyage to New Orleans (LA) in 1853. Sailing there she leaked badly due to a hole bored in her bottom. After repairs, the same year the Sea Nymph made her first long voyage to California arriving after 145-days. In route, she had to stop for repairs at Valparaiso, a major seaport in Chile.
Her return voyage took 113-days with a cargo of highly effective fertilizer guano, the excrement of seabirds and bats. In 1861, the Sea Nymph would sail her final voyage, departing New York for San Francisco, but went ashore near Point Reyes, approximately 30 miles west by northwest of San Francisco on May 4. One crew member was lost, while abandoning the ship. The 8-year old wrecked ship Sea Nymph, and her cargo were sold for salvage rights!
George Hussey, of New Bedford was the principal owner of the ship John Milton, launching her in 1854. With freight, she was partially insured in the cities of New Bedford, New York, and Boston for a total of $165,000, according to the Barnstable Patriot newspaper (Massachusetts), March 2, 1858.
Her master was Captain Ephraim Harding (c1815 -1858), of Martha’s Vineyard, who had his young son Francis, a greenhand as part of the crew. Captain Harding, an experienced seaman had been master of the ships: Condor (1831 & 1839), Arab (1842), Eliza Adams (1846), Saratoga (1849 & 1852), and finally the John Milton.
The ship’s logbook states, the vessel John Milton left the port of New York City on December 6, 1856 for San Francisco by the way of Cape Horn. This was her maiden voyage, it took 136-days to reach California, since sailing around Cape Horn, she encountering “heavy weather.” Five (5) months later in May, 1857, the ship John Milton was at anchor in the harbor of San Francisco. Later, the ship John Milton returned to the east coast to deliver guano to the Norfolk merchants.
The crew might have though, they were going north to their home port; instead the ship John Milton headed south again to sail around Cape Horn on her second California voyage. This voyage was longer 149-days!
Upon arriving in San Francisco, (CA), thirteen (13) crew members were released for “mutinous behavior.” The seaman’s names were not given to the newspapers!
After spending time in port, and recruiting new crew members preparation was made to sail south to Callao, and the Chincha Islands to obtain cargo.
Finally, she left San Francisco arriving at Callao for a brief stop on August 10th. Two (2) weeks later, the ship traveled further south arriving at the Chincha Islands, off the coast of Peru in the Pacific Ocean. It is believed, the ship John Milton was short crew members; but the cargo of guano was loaded!
Originally, Captain Harding’s ship had sailed with thirty-three (33) seaman including the master. It seems she was sailing home with 26-crew members, seven (7) less than on the outbound voyage.
After sailing the hazardous waters with its large waves, strong currents, and icebergs the ship John Milton rounded Cape Horn and headed north in the Atlantic Ocean. The ship made the scheduled stop to off-load cargo at the port of Norfolk (VA) on Sunday, February 14, 1858.
Her logbook does not tell what the captain and crew did on Monday, February 15th, but the crew must have been eager to get home after 14-month!
Spending just two (2) days in the Hampton Roads area, she set sail north on Tuesday, Feb. 16th. But, the ship sailed northeast into a snowstorm with severe cold of 8-degree temperature!
Because of the strong sustained winds, the ship John Milton had to sail under double reefed topsails, the logbook stated, on Wednesday, Feb. 17. Later in the day, a note was added regarding, “Strong gales and thick snow storm.”
On Thursday, February 18, according to the logbook, the ship, captain and crew were still experiencing strong (northeast) gales, and thick snow blizzard conditions.
The last entry was written, “…more moderate, and they turned the reefs out, and were able to make an observation and find their latitude.” It is believe, the ship John Milton was probably sailing pass Cape May (NJ) about 36 degrees, 56 minutes. There was no entry in the logbook for Friday, Feb. 19.
Approaching Long Island, many of the local mariners believed, the Captain might have confused the Shinnecock lighthouse at Panquogue Point with the Montauk Lighthouse.
About 10:00 AM, Saturday, February 20, the ship John Milton had all sails set, when she struck the snowy beach, and icy rocks on the south shore about 5-nautical miles west of the Montauk Point Lighthouse at a place known as “Ditch Plains.” Early evening, blocks of 24 frozen-seaman bodies began washing ashore!
For years after, locals and the Corrector newspaper remembered, “thirty years ago this week, on Saturday morning, February 20, 1858, the ship John Milton was wrecked…,” the February 23, 1889 issue stated.
One witness wrote, “It was a sad, sad sight that our eyes were called to witness as all those stark and frozen bodies were brought and laid side by side in ghastly rows awaiting, some, the recognition of friends who came to claim them, but most, for the rite of simple sepulture at the hands of kind strangers in that quiet village by the sea.”
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 26, 1889 published a small article titled, Recalling A Great Disaster. It mentioned, “Thirty years ago last Saturday the ship John Milton, commanded by Captain Ephraim Harding was wrecked on Montauk and every person on board, thirty in all, was lost. A violent snow storm prevailed at the time and the ship struck sometime between 8 and 11 o’clock in the morning.” Wood from the ship John Milton was used for a number of years after the wreck.
The Corrector, October 9, 1897 announced that, Francis E. Grimshaw, the owner of the old Sea Spray Hotel in East Hampton was building a new piazza (porch). The floor beams came from the ship John Milton wreck of forty years ago!
Three years later, an account of the morning of February 21st was published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 21, 1900, reflected back on the events of the day. Jefferson Mulford, wreck master and agent of the local Life Saving Station, “…stood at his gate and talked with Captain Nathaniel Edwards, across the main street of Amagansett, lifting his voice above a shrieking south east gale and snow storm which had been raging since the morning of the previous day.” Captain Edwards shouted, “We ought to patrol the beach.”
The account continued, “Half by words, half by gestures, Mulford indicated the obstacles in the way; the drifts, the howling gale, the piercing cold. But Edwards was insistent; he had had a presentiment of disaster, and at last the two strong men – old whalers and surf men – set out along the beach toward Montauk.
It was all they could do to breast the storm, which blew directly in their faces, while the breakers, rolling in milk-white suds to the base of the dunes, forced them to take to the latter.
At last, when nearly half way over, they saw wreckage coming ashore, mingled with casks of whale oil, and cakes of spermaceti, a white waxy substance produced by sperm whales, used in candles and ointments. They also saw a human body, frozen stiff! “With this they hurried back to the village and sounded the alarm quite out to East Hampton.”
East End islanders hurrying across the snow covered beach, focusing on rescue! Instead, the local seaman encountered twenty-one (21) frozen bodies in the surf, as well as the cargo: barrels of whale oil freight sent home by the whalers, and spermaceti. The New Bedford vessels engaged in Pacific whaling would leave cargo to be shipped as freight to their home port at Chincha Island.
The masts, and spars with the sails still spread like a full-rigged ship sailing sat deserted on the snowy, icy beach. The frozen bodies of the crew members were brought to the East Hampton coroner’s office. Part II continues the story of the 4-year old ship John Milton!
Sandi Brewster-walker is an independent historian, genealogist, freelance writer and business owner. She is the chair of the Board of Trustees and acting executive director of the Indigenous People Museum & Research Institute. She has served in President Bill Clinton’s Administration as deputy director of the Office of Communications at USDA. Winner of the Press Club of Long Island’s 2017 Media Award – 3rd Place for Narrative: Column. Readers can reach her in c/o the firstname.lastname@example.org.