Monday, October 27, 2008

John BAILEY and the 1635 Hurricane

Staff and wire reports Daily News of Newburyport

NEWBURYPORT - The winds whipped up to 130 mph, snapping pine trees like toothpicks and blowing houses into oblivion. A surge of water, 21 feet high at its crest, shipwrecked an Amesbury man and his family on the rocky coast of Maine.

The merciless storm, pounding the coast for hours with torrential sheets of rain, was like nothing ever seen before.

This was New England in August 1635, battered by what was later dubbed "The Great Colonial Hurricane" - the first major storm suffered by the first North American settlers, just 14 years after the initial Thanksgiving celebration in Plymouth Colony.

Even today, its frightening characteristics are drawing the attention of hurricane experts. After exhaustive research, they believe the storm of 371 years ago holds some insight - and warning - for the area.

At the time, the only English settlement in Greater Newburyport was a small village at Newbury's lower green, and it was only two months old. A decaying cellar hole stood in what is now downtown Newburyport's waterfront, the remains of a trading or fishing post built by Walter "Great Watt" Bagnall, who had been killed by Indians four years earlier.

Amesbury was still unsettled by the English, but the storm would play a major role in the fate of its first settlers and one of Greater Newburyport's founding families, the Baileys.

John Winthrop, head of the Massachusetts Bay colony, recalled in his Aug. 16, 1635, entry that the winds were kicking up a full week before the hurricane.

Once it did arrive, the hurricane "blew with such violence, with abundance of rain, that it blew down many hundreds of trees, overthrew some houses, and drove the ships from their anchors," Winthrop wrote. He detailed the deaths of eight American Indians sucked under the rising water while "flying from their wigwams."
Once the weather cleared and the sun rose again, the few thousand residents of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies were left to rebuild and recover from a hurricane as powerful as 1938's killer Long Island Express. The 20th century hurricane killed 700 people, including 600 in New England, and left 63,000 homeless.

"The settlers easily could have packed up and gone home," said Nicholas K. Coch, a professor of geology at Queens College and one of the nation's foremost hurricane experts. "It was an extraordinary event, a major hurricane, and nearly knocked out British culture in America."

Coch has used information that he collected from detailed colonial journals to reconstruct the great hurricane. The 371-year-old data was brought to Brian Jarvinen at the National Hurricane Center, where it was interpreted using the SLOSH (Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes) computer model.

The result: The hurricane likely tracked farther west than was long thought, passing over uninhabited easternmost Long Island before moving north into New England. Once clear of the colonies, it veered off into the Atlantic.

Coch said the pioneers from across the Atlantic likely endured a Category 3 hurricane, moving faster than 30 mph, with maximum winds of 130 mph and a very high storm surge - 21 feet at Buzzards Bay and 14 feet at Providence. Reports at the time said 17 American Indians were drowned, while others scaled trees to find refuge.

The storm was moving about three times as fast as the typical southern hurricane, and arrived in full bluster. Although it struck nearly four centuries ago, very specific details about the first recorded hurricane in North America were provided by the local leaders' writings.

"The documentation was better than any hurricane until the mid-1800s," Coch said. "That's a story in itself."

As the hurricane approached, John Bailey was heading to America with his son, John, and perhaps his daughter, Johanna, on board the ship Angel Gabriel. When the storm struck, the ship was anchored in Pemaquid, Maine, where it was utterly destroyed. Bailey and other passengers - among them the Blaisdells, one of Salisbury's founding families - lost almost everything. Bailey and his children moved from place to place for two years, before finally settling down in what is now Amesbury. They built their house where the Powow River drains into the Merrimack River, in the vicinity of the intersection of Merrimac and Main streets. Bailey had planned to establish a home before sending for his wife [Eleanor KNIGHT] to come over, but she was so traumatized by his account of the hurricane that she refused to come. He would never see her again, despite the fact that Town Meeting voters ordered him in 1650 to force her to join him in America.

So brutal was the storm that 50 years later, Increase Mather wrote simply, "I have not heard of any storm more dismal than the great hurricane which was in August 1635." His father, the Rev. Richard Mather, was aboard one of the ships nearly sunk at sea by the ferocious weather - but he survived, along with about 100 other passengers.

Coch said the most interesting news about the hurricane is that storms can often follow the same track. And just a minuscule shift of a storm's movement in the area of North Carolina - "a fraction of a degree" - could send a hurricane up through Providence and right into Boston, the professor said.

"We could have a catastrophic situation with national repercussions," Coch said. "If the track of a future moves 25 miles to the west of the 'Colonial Hurricane,' the dangerous right side could pass right over Boston and Providence. That's why we study old hurricanes in the Northeast."


Talyn said...

I got a little chuckle out of the fact that the town hall meeting voters voted to make the wife come.

Lark said...

But she never came. Both John and his wife Eleanor were afraid to ever cross the sea again. Separated for life by fear and the Atlantic ocean your 12th great grandparents never saw each other again. They had been married 23 years at the time of the Hurricane. John lived 16 years without his wife. 348 years after their 1612 marriage they were sealed in SLAKE.

J Scott Bailey said...

I am a descendant of John Bailey.