Vision_PhantomShip_1647.jpg

Vision of the Phantom Ship, painted by Jesse Talbot in 1850, recalls the "Great Shippe," a New Haven vessel lost at sea in 1647.

The “great shippe” would save them.

That’s what the early English colonists of New Haven believed. The religious settlers began arriving in the late 1630s. Carving partially underground cellar dwellings into hillsides, they hoped to establish a colony that would be well suited to trade furs and other goods gathered farther up the Connecticut River with Boston and New Amsterdam (Manhattan). But by 1646 those hopes for a community built on trade hadn’t materialized and the settlement was floundering, with early ship-building efforts and other endeavors leading nowhere.

In desperation and “with almost all the strength that was left ’em, they built one ship more.” This ship, built in Rhode Island, was designed to carry the best supplies the colony had to England in return for goods that would help save the settlers.

In January 1647, the ship was ready to leave New Haven but had to cut its way slowly through the ice to get out of the harbor. Eventually, “with many fears, as well as prayers and tears, they set sail.”

The Rev. John Davenport, founder of New Haven, said, “Lord, if it be thy pleasure to bury these our Friends in the bottom of the Sea, they are thine, save them!” And with this prayer hanging in the cold winter air, the ship left New Haven never to return. Not exactly, anyhow.

As spring arrived, so did ships from England, but they brought no tidings of the vessel that had left in January, and the people of New Haven began to worry. As they worried, they prayed “that the Lord would (if it was his pleasure) let them hear what he had done with their dear friends, and prepare them with a suitable Submission to his Holy Will.”

In June 1647, a full six months since the ship had departed, a great thunderstorm struck New Haven. In the storm’s aftermath, about an hour before sunset, many of those who looked to the harbor’s mouth saw something extraordinary. There, moving against the wind, was a specter-like vessel with her sails full, taken by some unseen wind. It looked from a distance like the vessel which had left in January and “many were drawn to behold this great Work of God; yea, the very children cry’d out, There’s a Brave Ship!”

For a half-hour they watched the ship approach, some getting close enough that they estimated they could reach it with a stone. Then the ship began to fall apart as though battered by some invisible storm. Its mighty mast fell, then its sails were torn and ripped away and the ship seemed to careen and sink, vanishing into a smoky cloud.

Those who witnessed the otherworldly scene took it as a recreation of the past. “This was the mould of their ship,” they said, “and thus was her tragic end.”

Davenport spoke publicly again. “God had condescended,” a later observer paraphrased him as saying, “for the quieting of their afflicted spirits, this extraordinary account of his sovereign disposal of those for whom so many fervent prayers were made continually.”

* * *

This account of the “Ghost Ship of New Haven” is based on the version of events found in the Rev. Cotton Mather’s book Magnalia Christi Americana, which was published in 1702, just over a half-century after the alleged ghost ship sighting. Mather’s report is among the oldest accounts of the ghost ship. His version comes from a letter he received from a New Haven pastor who had not personally witnessed the events but spoke with several people who had.

Of course, the tale would change and grow over the years. In some accounts, the phantom ship appeared in the sky more than a year later, in others it was taken as a sign that the New Haven colonists had put too much stock in commerce and cared too much about earnings.

While ghost tales are not uncommon in Connecticut or elsewhere, this tale carries with it an air of authenticity many lack. It’s plausible that those living in New Haven in the mid-16th century did indeed see something unusual in the sunset-tinged skies of New Haven following a storm. What exactly they saw, however, is unclear.

Some UFO enthusiasts point to this and other early sightings of strange vessels in the sky as proof that such sightings are real and aliens have long visited Earth. Skeptics say that it’s proof of the way that humans have always interpreted strange phenomena within the confines of their culture and understanding. In 1647, a strange weather phenomenon was a divine vision of a lost ship sent from God in answer to prayers, while in the paranoid, science fiction-fueled era following World War II, such a sight would have been explained as an alien craft, they say.

Regardless of what you believe, it is clear from this story and other more recent UFO sightings in Connecticut, that as long as people have looked at the skies above our state, they’ve seen strange, terrible and wonderful things therein.

This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.