Adrift on a Haystack legend Rowley

Adrift on a Haystack, December 1786

Clamming in the winter
Clamming in the winter

A remarkable northeasterly storm on the 4th of December, 1786 caused most of the salt hay along the North Shore to be set afloat and lost in the tide. Samuel Pulsifer and Samuel Elwell, both of Rowley were digging clams on the flats in Plum Island Sound and got caught in the storm.

The Rev. Ebenezer Bradford of Rowley told his congregation an amazing story about the singular preservation of the two men:

“They left the clam ground and came to their hut on Hog Island, expecting to spend the night, but a snowstorm, coming on very rapidly, caused them to change their purpose and endeavor at low water to get themselves off the island. They soon got lost in going over the marshes and creeks. After wandering about some time, they found a stack of salt marsh hay in which they dug a hole and encamped for the night.

“In the morning to their utter astonishment they found the tide had risen so high that they were obliged to leave their hole and repair to the top of the stack. They were deprived of all hope, save a faint expectation that their weight would keep the stack from moving off the staddle, but a cake of ice soon struck the stack and set it afloat. The winds blew and the sea raged around them, while the heavens were darkened with the falling snow. The land disappeared, they knew not their course, and could discern nothing but the world of waters, agitated by a tremendous storm. Their stack at times went directly forward, and at others whirled around like a top, threatening every moment to break in pieces.

Illustration by Alec Gillman in Sam Sherman's book, Ipswich: Stories from the River's Mouth
Illustration by Alec Gillman in Sam Sherman’s book, Ipswich: Stories from the River’s Mouth

“All of a sudden they felt the stack on which they had thus far been preserved separating under them. At this instant another stack of hay, large and unshattered, came along side of them, on which they had sufficient strength to leap. In this dangerous situation they passed about two hours, exposed to the cold, snow, and water, which continually dashed upon them, by which time they became almost stupefied and began to feel sleepy. They were driven into Smith’s Cove in Ipswich, between three and four miles from the spot where the tide first set them adrift. Here, hoping and despairing by turns, they lay some time, the stack being prevented from gaining the land by cakes of ice.

“After a while they perceived that the wind and the tide were again carrying them out to sea. Pulsifer immediately threw himself upon the ice, and bid the other follow him. Elwell was much stupefied with the cold, but after some delay got on to a cake of floating ice and succeeded in reaching the shore. Pulsifer got so near the land that he could touch the bottom with his feet, but his legs were so benumbed with cold that he could not put one before the other. For a while he thought he must perish within a rod of the shore, but at last he bethought himself of putting his legs forward one after the other with his hands and gained the shore in safety. The thought of being on land once more reinvigorated their almost exhausted faculties, and they ran a few rods, when to their dismay they found they were on an uninhabited island, instead of the main, as they had supposed. To venture into the water to gain the main, would be immediate death, and to tarry on the island was wholly impracticable.

Smith Island causeway
Smith Island causeway

“At last they found a stack of dry hay, in which they secured themselves as well as they could and hallooed for help. Pulsifer espied a man on the main and they called more vigorously, but the man soon passed out of sight. Despair settled into their very hearts and death seemed to be their inevitable portion. About three-quarters of an hour after this, Major Charles Smith, whose Argilla Rd. home was nearby, with his two sons came within sight of the island in search of some strayed sheep. One of the sons saw a man on top of a stack, swinging his hat and crying for help. The major, knowing the ground, went immediately on to the island over a causeway, covered with about three feet of water and brought off the distressed men, whom he took to his house and provided with everything necessary, and on Thursday following they returned to their homes.”

The lost, cold clammers drifted atop haystacks from their camp on Hog Island in Rowley to Smith Island in Ipswich.

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