History of Plum Island

Excerpts from “Plum Island,” Publications of the Ipswich Historical Society, by Thomas Franklin Waters

Who was the first European, voyaging along the coast, who saw the surf-beaten shore of Plum Island, with its fringe of white sand dunes, and its pine forests in the back ground? The Sagas of the Northmen record a voyage of Bjorne from Greenland, in the year 986, in which he touched the New England coast at many points. Leif, son of Eric, the Red, bought Bjorne’s ship and skirted these shores in the following year. In the summer of 1605, Samuel de Champlain sailed along the coast of Maine and Massachusetts, and again in 1606. On the 8th of July he was at Saco River, apparently, and made most interesting mention of the Indians, who met his ship in their canoes.

“These savages shave off the hair far up on the head, and wear what remains very long, which they comb and twist behind in various ways very neatly, intertwined with feathers, which they attach to the head. They paint their faces black and red, like the other savages which we have seen. They are an agile people with well-formed bodies. Their weapons are pikes, clubs, bows and arrows, at the end of which some attach the tail of a fish or others bones, while the arrows of others are entirely of wood. They till and cultivate the soil, something which we have not hitherto observed. In the place of ploughs, they use an instrument of very hard wood, shaped like a spade. The next day Sieur de Monts and 1 landed to observe their tillage on the bank of the river. We saw their Indian corn which they raise m gardens. Planting three or four kernels in one place they then heap up about it a quantity of earth with shells…. Then three feet distant they plant as much more and thus in succession. With this corn they put in each hill three or four Brazilian beans, which are of different colours. When they grow up, they interlace with the corn, which reaches to the height of from four to six feet. They keep the ground very free from weeds. We saw there many squashes and pumpkins and tobacco, which they likewise cultivate. We saw also many grapevines, in which there was a remarkably fine berry, from which we made some very good verjuice…. Their cabins were covered with oak bark and surrounded with palisades.”

Keeping to the south, they saw to the westward a large bay, undoubtedly our Ipswich Bay, and made their anchorage near the Cape. In the morning, five or six came out in canoes and then went back and danced on the beach. Champlain landed, gave them knives and biscuits, and in response to his request, they drew the outline of the coast, with a great river, which they had passed. Beyond a doubt, this was the Merrimac, and the little ship lay at anchor in the bay under the lee of Cape Ann. The old shell heaps on Plum Island attest long generations of Indian occupancy, and the explorer’s description of the wild people a few miles north was, no doubt, a true picture of the ancient Islanders.

Captain John Smith’s map of New England

But it remained for Captain John Smith, in his “Description of New England” printed in London in 1616, to make an accurate map of the coast, and describe it with much minute detail:

“As you passe the coast still Westward, (from the Piscataqua) Angoam is the next. This place might content a right curious judgement, but there are many sands at the entrance of the harbor: and the worst is, it is inbayed too farre from the deepe Sea. Heere are many rising hilles and on their tops and descents many corne fields and delightful groves. On the East is an Isle of two or three leagues in length; the one half plaine morish grasse fit for pasture, with many faire high groves of mulberrie trees gardens; and there is also Okes, Pines and other woods to make this place an excellent habitation, beeing a good and safe harbor.”

Captain Smith gave names to headlands and islands and imaginary towns. The river Charles and Cape Anna still survive. But London and Oxford on the South Shore, and Ipswich, Cambridge, Edinburgh in the Maine wilderness were soon forgotten. The dignified name, South Hampton, was applied to the Indian village of Agawam. Under date of March 9, 1621-2, the President and Council of Plymouth granted to Capt. John Mason, “under the name of Mariana, all the land lying along the Atlantic from Naumkeag River to the Merrimacke River and extending back to the heads of these rivers together with the Great Isle or Island henceforth to be called Isle Mason lying neare or before the Bay Harbor or ye river Aggawom”

The Last of the old surveyors and map-makers is Capt. Cyprian Southack, who made a chart of the coast shortly before the year 1694, under the authority of the British and Colonial Government. He locates an island at the mouth of Ipswich River, indicates the ship channel, close to Bar Island end, and gives the name, Wenham, to Castle Neck, and Wenham Bar to the Essex River bar.

Plum Island, wholly or in part, was not definitely included in the territory granted to the Ipswich settlers. No evidence of any formal assumption of title by Ipswich appears before March, 1639. The 2nd day of the first month, 1639.

“Agreed with Robert Wallis and Thomas Manning the day and year abovesayd that they shall keep fourscore hoggs upon Plum Island from the 10th day of Aprill next untill harvest be got in and that one of them shall be constantly there night and day all the tyme and they are to carry them and bring them home provided those that own them shall send each of them a man to help catch them and they are to make troughs to water them in for all of which paynes and care they are to have twelve pence a hogg at the entrance 2s a hogg at midsummer for so many as are then living and 2s a hogg for each hogg they shall deliver at the end of harvest and they are not to be abated for any pay for any hoggs under a year old the 10th of Aprill and if any hoggs are left through their negligence they are to make them good and in case any die they have liberty to take in to make up their number and that none of them that put hoggs before them shall take them away without the consent of most of those that so put hoggs before them and if notwithstanding they will take them away they shall pay them full pay as if they went the whole time and in case any hogg die through poverty the party that own them having such information he shall bear the loss of his own hogg and pay full pay to the keepers and whosoever do not pay at the times of payment appointed or within 14 days shall pay them half as much more as the bargain”

Newbury was not disposed to allow Ipswich free rein, and on the 6th of March she petitioned the General Court for title. The General Court voted: 1639, “March 13, Plum Island is to remaine in the Court’s power for the present. Ipswich Neweberry and the new plantation (Rowley) between them may make use of it till the Court shall see cause otherwise to dispose of it.”

Ten years later another move was made, at a meeting general of the freemen (of Newbury) the sixth of March, 1649.

“There was chosen Mr. William Gerrish, John Saunders, Daniel Titcomb, Henry Shorte, Richard Knight, Robert Coker, William Titcomb, Archelaus Woodman and John Merrill to bee a committee for the towne to view the passages into Plum Island and to inform the courte by way of petition concerning the righte the towne hath to the sayd island,and to have full power with Mr. Edward Rawson to draw forth a petition and present it to the next general courte.” Mr. Edward Rawson Mr. John Spencer and Mr. Woodman was chosen by the towne to “joyne with those men of Ipswich and Rowley that was appointed to bee a committee about Plum Island.”

Apparently a joint agreement proved impossible, and rival petitions were presented to the General Court. Newbury, in its petition of May 15, 1649, asked for the whole island. The petitioners after declaring their confidence in the “Christian readiness of the Court to uphold the meanest member of this jurisdiction from sinking under any pressure” etc. proceeded:

“The substance of our desires is that if after you have heard and perused what we say, that in right Plum island belongs not to us, yet out of your just favour, it may be granted to us to relieve our pinching necessities, without which we see no way to continue or subsist. Our feares were occasioned by a petition which was preferred to the last general court for it. Our apprehensions of our right to it are, first, because for three or four miles together there is no channel betwixt us and it. Second, because at low water we can go dry to it over many places, in most with carts and horses, which we usually doe, being necessitated so to doe since our guilt to Rowley on the Court’s request and promise that we should have anything in the court’s power to grant. Thirdly, because the court’s order gives all lands to dead low water marke not exceeding one hundred rods, to towns or persons, where any lands do so border. In many places Plum island is not ten rods, at no place one hundred rods from low water marke. Fourth, because we can only improve it without damage to our neighboring plantations, which none can doe without much damage to your petitioners, if not to the ruining of both the meadow and corne of your petitioners, and so forth. The premises considered we hope (and doubt not) this honorable court will see just grounds to answer our request and confirme the island to our towne and we shall always as in duty we are bound to pray and so forth.– Thomas Parker, Percival Lowle, John Spencer, John Saunders, James Noyes, William Gerrish, Edward Woodman, Henry Short, Richard Kent in ye name of ye rest.”

The General Court took action on October 17th 1649: “Upon the petition of Neweberry, this Corte thinketh meete to give & grant Plum Island to Ipswich, Rowly & Newberry viz. Ipswich to have two parts, Neweberry two parts & Rowly to have one fifth part.”


Now that the right of Ipswich in Plum Island was definitely settled, the Town began to make provision for its use. Orders were adopted from year to year.

  • 1651: “Order to dispose of the grass to such as have none from year to year.”
  • 1652: “Ordered that the seven men shall have power from yeare to yeare to order the cutting of the grass at Plum Island, Goodman Johnson to be considered among others for cutting grass there according to his need.”
  • 1659: “John Perkins, Moses Pengry and Searg’t Clarke apoynted a committy to treat with Newbury and Rowley about Plumb Island.
  • 1663: “The Selectmen have ordered that noe man shall cutt any grasse there before the tenth day of July. Nor any family to use above two sithes at a tyme, soe observing these rules. All shall have liberty to cutt that have right to common privileges (but noe others), provided they take their grass they cutt together and carry it quietly and peaceably without interrupting one another, upon penalty of five shillings an acre for such as shall transgress.”

In 1664, the date for beginning the cutting was changed to the twentieth of July, provided” there be liberty to Mr. William Hubbard to take his opportunity for cutting a parcel of marsh at Grape Island for one month viz. to the 20th of August, to be assigned to him by Jacob Perkins and John Layton not exceeding 6 acres.” Notwithstanding the remoteness of Plum Island from the Town, the access to it only by boat across the swift Plum Island River and its complete isolation in mid-winter, it was regarded as a valuable asset. The salt marshes and thatch banks had a good market value. There were many acres of fertile upland, too good to be used only for the pasturing of swine.

Common Shares

There was a demand for the division of this great domain among the Commoners, and the Town took action in February, 1664-5. The principle, on which the division was based, was characteristic of the spirit of the time. It was a money qualification, pure and simple, exception being made only for the magistrates, ministers, and the school master. The general Towne meeting the 14th of Feb. 1664 voted:

  1. That Plumbe Island, Hogg Hand and Castle Neck be divided to such as have the right to commons according to law according to the portion of four six and eight
  2. All that doe not exceed six shillings eight pence their person and estate in a single country rate, to be of the first division of 4th all them that exceed not sixteen shillings to be of the second sort of sixth. All those that exceed sixteen shillings in a single Country rate together with our magistrates, Elders, Mr. John Rogers and Mr. Thomas Andrews to be of the highest division of 8th.
  3. John Gage was voted and granted to be one of them of the middle number
  4. Voted that it be left to the Selectmen to have those places viewed measured and divided

The Selectmen chosen at that meeting were Mr. Samuell Symonds, Major General Denison, Mr. John Appleton, Cornett Whipple, Ensign French, John Dane, Deacon William Goodhue. FormApril 10, 1665 is the following record:

“The Selectmen, according to the town order for the division of Plum Island, Castle Neck and Hog Island, taking a survey of the Inhabitants which according to law and the said order, have right to any share of the Common Lands, and considering also the estates of the Inhabitants, as valued in the last Country rate according to the sd order; do find two hundred and three reckoned and allowed Inhabitants, that may have right to the Commons, whose names or the names of their tenants at present inhabiting their Lands or Houses are registered on a paper.

Whereof according to the order of the Towne, eight and twenty are to have a double share, and seventy to have a share and a half, and one hundred and five have a single share, so that the whole number of single shares are two hundred and sixty-six. And having caused the said Plum Island and Castle Neck and Hog Island to be surveyed and measured, they have found in the whole about eight hundred acres of marsh and upland beside beaches and galled hills, so that the single share will be three acres, the share and half, four acres and a half, the double share six acres. Which they have ordered to be laid out in this manner viz. one double share, next two divisions of a share and half, and then three single shares, and so to begin again, one double share, two divisions of a share and a half and then three single shares, and so on till all the double shares be run out and then there will remain fourteen divisions of a share and a half and twenty-one single shares, which shall be laid out in this manner, namely, one division of a share and a half and one single share, till all the share and half divisions be laid out and the seven remaining single shares to be laid out one after the other.

Which divisions being laid out as above sd, It is ordered they shall be shared by lot in this manner, there shall be eight and twenty lofts for the dividing of the double shares, and seventy lots to be putt by themselves for the dividing of the share and half divisions, and one hundred and five lots putt by themselves for the dividing the single shares. And it is agreed that the beginning of these divisions shall be at the upper end of Plum Island next Rowley and so downwards to the Barr, and if the sd share cannot be laid conveniently all the breadth of the island then the beginning shall be next the Beach, and so from the upper end next Rowley down to the Barr, and then begin at the upper end and so downward and so again if the shares shall be laid in three ranges.

The next that shall be laid out shall be at Castle Neck, beginning at the hill and so downward to Wig-warn Hill and the long marsh, and if it be convenient to lay the shares in two ranges, the first shall be next the Pines and the second to begin next the hill and so downward to the River. The last shall be at Hog Island beginning at the Westerly end and so to the East side thereof and if it be most convenient to be laid in two ranges, the first shall be the Southerly side, and then to begin again at the Westerly end and to divide the Northerly side of the sd Island. And it is further agreed that Cornet Whipple Robert Lord, John Leighton and Thomas Lovel shall take the first opportunity to lay out the sd shares in manner aforesaid, which having done and made known to the Selectmen, the Inhabitants shall forthwith be summoned to meet to take up their shares by lot as aforesaid. And then those that are above appointed to lay out the divisions shall goe upon a day appointed and share to every inhabitant, his share or division and shall deliver unto him or them the possession thereof, he or they, then paying for the laying out, so much as shall be appointed by the Selectmen. And no Inhabitant shall claim right or propriety in or to any share or division of the Land aforesaid before he has paid for the charge of dividing, but the right of such share shall be and remain in the Town to be disposed of as they shall see cause.”

A List of the Inhabitants that have shares in Plum Island, Castle Neck and Hog Island (together with their shares) is listed in the book, according to the Towne order the 14 of Feb. ’64.

The drawing of the lots was done with perfect fairness. Though superior wealth secured an 8-acre lot for the 28 wealthy gentry, and the poor man had only four, the larger and smaller lots were so alternated, and the assignment made wholly by chance, that the fine upland lots fell in the main to the humbler folk, while the wealthiest had to content themselves with a lot of salt-marsh or thatch, and the sand dunes.

In November, 1665, and in the following February, some readjustments were made in the ease of some, who had been overlooked, and some, whose lots “fell short of their due proportion.” The determination of the Selectmen to stand squarely with their duty, regardless of fear or favor is voiced in their vote of February 6, 1665-6. There were some others that moved for shares, but the Selectmen were not satisfied with their overt right and therefore conceived themselves not empowered to gratify any friends yet being moved with charity toward some and pleas of others have thought meet to commend the case of these undrawn to the consideration of the Town.

  • Goodwife Pinder an old Inhabitant and poore widow for 3 acres
  • Goodman Archer an old Inhabitant and poore for 3 acres
  • Serg’t Wayte and Aaron Pengry both employed in publick office by ye towne for 3 acres apeace
  • Some others that have made motions to ye Selectmen we leave to make their own pleas and addresses to ye towne

The value of the upland lots, particularly, was greatly impaired. Nathaniel Emerson sold this house and land and his house, barn and 20 acres of land in Middle Island to his son, Stephen, April 11, 1738 (75:243). He died the same year, at the age of 81 years 1 month. Stephen Emerson’s deed from his father conveyed about 20 acres of land and marsh adjoining with the dwelling, barn and out-buildings. When he sold to Ralph Cross of Newbury, January 31, 1739-40 (96:174) he gave title to 35 acres of upland and 28 acres of marsh, including marsh and thatch, which the Commoners claimed thirty years afterward, as will be noted. A few months after Stephen Emerson sold to Ralph Cross, on May 20, 1740, (99:72) Francis Goodhue Jr. and his wife, Elizabeth, gave a quitclaim deed “to our honored parents, Nathaniel and Elizabeth Emerson,” The Emerson family seems to have completed its part in Plum Island history, and nothing remains to mark their residence but the name Emerson’s Rocks, which still attaches to the rocky point, projecting from the beach into the sea.

Grape Island


The Emersons were succeeded by four generations of the Cross family, Ralph Cross enlarged his Plum Island farm by many purchases, though he seems to have retained his residence in Newbury, where he was a ship-builder. The heirs of William Cross sold the farm, which had been owned by four successive generations, the original purchase by Ralph in 1751, then by Ralph, his son, then by William, and last by William’s heirs, to James Fowler, master mariner, and Stephen Osgood, caulker, both of Salisbury, March 25, 1833 (271:74). During the latter years of the Cross ownership, Mr. Jeremiah Spiller, and his wife, Elizabeth, were the tenants or leasees of the farm.

Grape Island, Ipswich MA
Grape Island


It has been noted that in the Petition to the General Court in 1679, it is stated that the people of Ipswich and Newbury were improving the whole of Plum Island by cutting the grass, “and some of Ipswich by planting some small parcels thereof.” As the upland of Grape Island is so nearly isolated by the two creeks, Pine Creek and Grape Island Creek, a small amount of fencing would have secured the planted fields from any invasion by roaming cattle or horses. Very naturally, therefore, the first definite trace of farming operations is found here. Jacob Perkins Sen. by grant and purchase acquired possession of several lots. On March 23d, 1685, being then sixty-one years old, he conveyed to his son, Matthew, half of two division lots, one a six acre lot that fell to Mr. William Hubbard, the other, a 4 acre lot, “that was my own division lot, adjoining the lot that fell to Thomas Hart Sen. southeast, Samuel Hunt’s marsh, northwest, the pines, northeast,” (7:147).

It will be noted that in the earlier of these deeds, the east-bound was the Pines, in the later, the Beach. At that time a very considerable growth of pines, many of which exceeded six inches in diameter,* extended down the Island between the marsh land and the Beach. Proprietorship in this woodland was a mooted question. Some deeds gave the Sea as the eastern-bound of this range of lots, others gave the Beach, and others the Pines. Matthew acquired also his brother Jacob’s holding and sold to Major Francis Wainwright, “all the Island called Grape Island, being in Plum Island, excepting what marsh lots appertain to some particular persons in Ipswich also the present year’s rent from Luke Perkins, a Tenant upon said Island, which is five pounds in money, with the dwelling house on Grape Island,” October 11:1701 (16:37). Luke Perkins, son of Quarter Master John, and his wife, Elizabeth, had been notorious disturbers of the peace of Ipswich. She was a woman of venomous tongue.

Captain John Smith died July 11, 1768. He bequeathed to his son, Cheny, his half interest in Grape Island (Pro. Rec. 345:30) The southern part of Grape Island, it has been said, was inherited by Elizabeth Treadwell, wife of Aaron, from her brother, John Appleton, about 27 acres of upland and marsh. Aaron Treadwell bequeathed it to his children, Nathaniel, Elizabeth, wife of William Sutton of Danvers, and Hannah, wife of Capt. Daniel Lord Jr., and Lucy Treadwell, daughter of Hannah by a former marriage to Nathaniel Treadwell 3d. Nathaniel Treadwell and Mrs. Sutton received each a third, Mrs. Lord and her daughter, each a sixth.

Ipswich Bluffs (Stage Island)


Richard S. Spofford Jr. of Newburyport, sold the land and building to James Small of Newbury, July 16, 1868 (752:20). Samuel S. Small bought the interest of the other heirs in the estate of the late James Small, in April and May, 1870 and April, 1871 (795:239, 797:155, 821:89). James R. Small, Charles A. Bailey and his wife, Emma J., in her own right, Samuel Kilborn and his wife, Hannah E., in her right, and Carrie S. Leet, widow, sold to Mrs. Johnson, 9 acres of marsh, inherited from their father, Samuel S. Small, and 5 acres of marsh, in two lots, Sept. 23, 1914 (2285:61).

The choicest portion of Plum Island, the large level fields, with the smooth, sandy beach on Plum Island River arid the deep tidal creek on the east side, now known as “The Bluffs,” was called Stage Island originally. The name was due without doubt to the early use of this convenient location for the drying of fish. The first mention of private ownership is the Town Record in the year 1664, when the division into lots was made. John Pengry, who had already begun his purchases of lots at Middle Island, bought six acres of upland of Dea. William Goodhue Sen. “being the eastward end of an Island commonly called Stage Island…” Feb. 17, 1692 (10:21). On March 1, 1732, he sold “a certain Island or parcel of upland, salt marsh ground and thatch bank, known by the name of Stage Island on Plum Island, about fifty acres,” bounded by the River, Stage Island Creek and marsh lately Daniel Hovey’s, with the dwelling house standing thereon, to Benjamin Wheeler of Gloucester, mariner (79:120), who sold to William Dodge, May 18, 1747 (90:142). Mr. Dodge was a wealthy merchant, who had large commercial and fishing interests. His business was probably located at Stage Island as well as the Neck.


Bar Island was divided into several lots in the apportionment of 1664. Thomas Treadwell sold 6 acres of upland to Mercy, the widow of Amos Goodye, the former tenant on the Pengry farm on Middle Island, August 1, 1717 (36:131), bounded by the Sea on the east and southeast. Nathaniel Emerson sold the same lot to Benjamin Studley, ship-wright, January 7, 1734 (69:201) He bought of Nathaniel Emerson several acres of marsh “formerly the Young lot,” adjoining the new marsh lot on the north, Sept. 5, 1737 (89:254). Benjamin Studley had married Elizabeth Dutch, daughter of Benjamin Dutch, intention Nov. 20, 1714. Their family experience was singularly sorrowful. They had thirteen children, of whom two only, Elizabeth and John, lived to mature years. Jeremiah Nelson acquired the Studley land and during his ownership apparently, a house and other buildings were built on Bar Island. We wonder who dwelt on that lonely, wind-swept headland, the roar of the surf on the Bar always in their ears, rising to tones of thunder when driven by the winter gales, shut away from the world by deep snow and the ice-bound river! Mr. Nelson sold the little farm, 30 acres of upland and marsh, with dwelling and barn, “also all fencing stuff, standing or lying on the premises,” to Benjamin Wheeler of Gloucester, the former owner of Stage Island, Sept. 30, 1754 (101:287), who sold to Abraham Choate, March 28, 1768 (125:229). T

Capt. Jabez Treadwell and Elizabeth, in her own right, sold the Island property, 123 acres, to Ebenezer Sutton, yeoman, April 1, 1793 (165:50). He made his home here and died on the Island of old age, Sept. 6, 1811 at the age of eighty-three. During his occupancy Enoch Dole, it is said, built a dwelling for Beamsley Perkins, now known as “Willow Cottage.” Capt. Ebenezer Sutton, mariner and pilot, who brought the good ship “Ten Brothers,” owned by William Dodge and others, safely up the Ipswich River in October, 1817, inherited Stage Island from his father. During his ownership, the most exciting episode of the War of 1812 took place. A boat’s crew from a British man-of-war, cruising off the coast, landed at the Island and killed a cow. While they were preparing to dress it and carry it to their boat, Robert Pitman, a half daft lad in Capt. Sutton’s employ, bristled up to them and warned them that Capt. Sutton would soon be after them “with a passel of trainers.” The officer in command annoyed by his persistence ordered his men to fire at him, but he escaped without a wound. The opportune appearance of some men on Jeffrey’s Neck gave color to the lad’s threat, and the invaders beat a hasty retreat, leaving their booty to the rightful owner.

Capt. Sutton sold a half interest in the Island farm to Samuel Huse of Ipswich, yeoman, “reserving to Beamsley Perkins the use of the land under his dwelling house…. during his natural life and liberty to his heirs to take of the house from said land after his decease,” May 1, 1815 (210:224). There was a prospect of a salt manufacturing scheme materializing here. Francis J. Oliver Esq. of Boston, a prominent merchant, bought 9 acres in the Bar Island marshes from the executors of the will of Col. Timothy Pickering of Salem, at the regular price of $12 an acre, March 20, 1829 (252:26), and on April 14th Capt. Lord and Mr. Lummus sold him their large holding, nominally 300 acres, “the farm known as the Sutton farm, with marshes, sand beaches, flats, shores, buildings.” The shrewd Ipswich men paid a little over $1600, they sold for $2500.


The manufacture of salt by the evaporation of sea water is an ancient industry, which is still in vogue. In the year 1652, Deacon Moses Pengry received a grant from the Town of a parcel of land by the ware house, below Obadiah Woods fence to set up his salt pans and works and fence in his wood also liberty to fell wood out of the swamp near the Town for his use. Fires were kept burning under large boilers day and night, and the water was gradually evaporated, leaving a residuum of pure salt. These primitive salt works were by the river side, near the Town landing now used by the motor boats.

Map of the Plum Island Salt Company at the tip of Plum Island

Captain James Hudson of Newbury established salt works in that town, and the industry was of such importance that Ipswich voted £8 in 1769 to assist him in carrying on the works he had lately erected. In 1777, Rev. Nathaniel Whitaker of Salem petitioned for a grant of a large section of sunken marsh near Jeffrey’s Neck,”that he might erect and carry on large salt works, which all must see is most necessary for the Publick Safety in the Present crisis.” Favorable action was taken but the scheme lapsed.

The old sundial, left by the Plum Island salt works. Photo by George Dexter

It remained for a Frenchman, Gilshenon by name, to work out his scheme on Plum Island. The story of his venture was told in interesting fashion by Mr. Philip D. Adams in an Historical Address delivered in Newburyport in October, 1900.7 Mr. Gilshenon had made examination of many localities along the coast. Coming at last to Plum Island, he went to Bar Island, and looking down on the great salt marsh, surrounded by sand knolls and high uplands, he exclaimed, “This is the best place I have seen for making salt from sea-water.” He succeeded in organizing a company, of which Mr. Francis J. Oliver was apparently}’ the chief financial backer. Mr. George W. Heard of Ipswich and other Ipswich men presumably were interested as well. A canal was dug, eight feet wide and ten feet deep, connecting with the large creek, which emptied into a smaller canal, which passed near the vats. The sea water was pumped up by six old-fashioned windmills to a height of twenty or thirty feet, and then was allowed to fall upon a heap of brush, through which it trickled to the vats, securing thus a large evaporating surface. Being exposed to the heat of the mid-summer sun, the water gradually dried away and crystals of salt appeared in the shallow vats. The windmills were supplemented, when there was no wind, by a great overshot wheel, fifteen feet in diameter and live or six feet wide, suspended in an upright position from a heavy wooden frame. It was made to revolve in a very original way. A large bull was confined within the wheel, like a squirrel in his revolving cage, and his walking, tread-mill fashion, turned the wheel. Shallow buckets on the outer rim lifted the water from the canal. A blacksmith shop and several shanties were built on Bar Island, and several teams were kept there, which were employed, among other tasks, in hauling gravel from Bar Island to build up a protection for the vats, in case of unusually high tides. Speedy misfortune overtook the ambitious venture. Unusually heavy rains diluted the water in the open vats. Salt in paying quantities was not produced. During the summer of 1830, operations ceased.


Mr. Dole made his home for a time in Willow Cottage, and one of his children, Nathaniel, was born there, December 1st, 1841. Mr. Nathaniel Dole resides in Newburyport but spends the greater portion of the summer at his cottage on “Sutton’s Point.” An issue now arose between Mr. Dole and the Town regarding his title to the beaches, sand knolls, and flats, that adjoined his holdings on Plum Island. He made this claim by virtue of the deed from Francis J. Oliver, which conveyed the Sutton farm and Pickering lot, “together with all the marshes, sand banks, flats, shores and landings belonging to the same, extending over the sands to the beach, southerly by the Sea to Ipswich River.”

Willow Cottage Plum Island
Willow Cottage, from Nancy Weare’s book, “Plum Island, the Way it Was”

This unequivocal statement of three of the men officially engaged in the lot-laying would seem to have been a final settlement of the vexed question. Captain Whipple, Ensign in 1605, one of the original lot-layers, survived until 1722. Robert Lord Sen. died in 1683, but Robert Lord, the marshal, son of the elder Robert, was living in 1692, but died in 1696.

An interesting side light on this question of ownership is found in the Records of the Commoners of Ipswich, to whom this intervening strip of pines, uplands, sand-dunes and beach belonged, if it were not the property of the individual abutters. Apparently the Commoners were not disposed to press any claim. Feb. 26, 1721-2. The question was put Whether the Commoners would refer the Consideration of their Interest at Plumb Island till this day three weeks and It passed in the Negative On April 25, 1727, the Commoners voted to sell their right to “wood that now is or shall be hereafter standing, lying or growing in any part of Castle Neck so-called, beyond Wigwam Hill to the said Symonds Epes Esq.,” but they never took action regarding the Plum Island pines.

Grape Island. Photo by George Dexter

In July, 1738, the Commoners, assuming ownership of Grape Island Flats, voted to lease the west part, about 60 acres, to Col. Thos. Berry and John Choate Esq. for a year, and authorized Aaron Potter and others to sell the east end of their flats, “being about an acre and a half of thatch bank, and also of all the Commoners Estate, Eight, Title & Interest they have to the Thatch Bank called Michael’s Garden and Small Nobbs of Thatch of the Commoners adjoining thereto.” A committee, appointed on July 24, 1767, to investigate the interest of Commoners in undivided lands, reported, “We find at plum Island in y e possession of Mr. Ralph Cross a considerable body of flats & thatch Nubs which appears by his deeds and by our Viewing of it to be our property.” The Commoners voted on Jan. 5, 1769, “That a quit claim deed be given to Mr. Ralph Cross of all that Marsh or Thatch ground on Plumb Island which is included in his deed, he paying the Consideration agreed upon by the Committee, and that Major John Baker is hereby empowered to make & execute a good and lawful deed of quittance.”

Major Baker’s deed quitclaimed thatch and flats, “bounded as set forth in Emerson’s deed, reference thereto being had.” Emerson’s deed gave the east bound, the Sea, but Cross’s title to the Pines and beach was not questioned. In 1757, the sand banks came into notice. The Warrant for the Commoners Meeting contained the article: “To let out the Sand Banks to the highest bidder for two years to come and also to Prosecute any Persons that have taken Sand from the Sand Bank without leave from the Commoners.” On April 22, 1757, the Commoners voted that “Capt. Jonathan Fellows of Cape Ann have the Liberty of all the Sands Lying in the Town of Ipswich for the space of one year for the sum of £2. 13s 4d. in money.” The sand banks were leased to the highest bidder in June, 1759, and Capt. Fellows was obliged to pay £6. 2s. 8d., and in 1760 Abijah Wheeler secured the privilege. The sand banks in the Chebacco River were leased out to Mr. John Fair Senior for seven years in 1769, “he not to Debarr any of said Propr 3 or any Person of the town of Ipswich from taking Sand for their own use.” “Voted that “Mr. Jeremiah Chapman have all the Sand at the Foot of Chapman’s lid so-called as the fence now stands and that he have a deed of the same.”

As the clams were being dug wastefully, and often by persons from other towns, the Commoners took action on July 4, 1763, when a Clam Committee was chosen. The administration of the clam flats was discussed at each annual meeting and provision made for the punishment of offenders, with allowance to poor men of Ipswich.

salt marsh hay. Photo by George Dexter


In a careful study of the Sea-Coast Swamps of the Eastern United States,9 Prof. N. S. Shaler remarks that “the Plum Island system of marshes is perhaps the largest of any of the swamps of this description which exist north of Long Island Sound. The first settlers attached great value to the short but succulent grass, which grows naturally on the marsh, and this vast area was cut carefully by the mowers with their hand scythes every year. On the shore marshes, the salt hay was usually made on the marsh and stacked on “staddles,” rows of circular posts about two feet high, upon which platforms were built, Duringt the winter, it was removed on sleds or wagons. Until within a few years, from Town Hill hundreds of these hay stacks could be seen scattered over the miles of level marsh. The Plum Island marshes involved a more difficult problem. They could not be reached by wagons from the mainland, even in mid-winter. So the green salt grass had to be lugged on poles to the nearest creek, where it was loaded upon: great gundalows. At full high tide, these ponderous and heavy-laden craft were rowed with huge sweeps across the Plum Island River to Green’s Point Landing, where they were unloaded and the salty freight loaded again upon the waiting ox-carts, to be hauled home not only to the Ipswich farms, but to Topsfield, Boxford and beyond.

Photo courtesy: Randall, Peter Evans. “Hampton: a century of town and beach, 1888-1988,”

All the salt-marsh ground was owned by individuals, but there were great islands of thatch in Ipswich and Plum Island Rivers, which had never been granted. In the earliest years of the settlement, this course sedgy grass which grows on the low flats, where the roots are bared at low tides, was used for a roof covering for the rude log houses and hay stacks, and the use thus made of it gave the name, which is still in vogue. Though shingles and tiles in some cases soon supplanted the thatch, it continued to be prized for banking up the farm cellars on the outside, for bedding for cattle, to some small extent for fodder, and for a variety of other uses on the farms. To secure an equitable distribution, the various thatch banks were sold or let out at auction each year at a meeting of the Commoners, none but Commoners being eligible to make a bid.

Old thatch banks were worn away by heavy fields of ice and swift tides and new banks sprang up in other places. When a favorable course of tides was in progress, the oozy, slippery banks were invaded at low water by an army of mowers in long boots, who cut the grass with their heavy scythes and loaded it upon the gundalows before the tide returned. By a happy chance, the account books of several generations of Shatswells have been preserved and they throw light in most interesting fashion on the volume of business that was created by all this marshing and thatching. Mr. Shatswell owned the wharf at Green’s Point Landing and the adjacent land, he owned the gundalows, which were in great demand by the farmers. He had a regular tariff of charges for landing salt hay and thatch at his wharf, another charge for drying it upon his land, a further charge for his ox-team to haul the hay, and a pasturage fee for the draft animals he kept while their owners went to the Island. There was much miscellaneous freighting to and from the wharf as well. So these ancient account books afford a vivid picture of the busy life in the long Past, when the Autumn days brought the hard but romantic toil on the gundalows and the distant salt meadows and thatch banks, a welcome change no doubt from the routine of labor upon the farm.

During this period, the Shatswell accounts show that the wharf at Green’s Point was a busy place, apart from the thatch and salt hay traffic, and that many craft made their discharges there, and took on their cargoes. or three tons or more. Richard Russell’s two gundalows, the “Choate Boat” and the “Clark Boat,” did the river freighting for many years in the mid century. A regular fee of a dollar a day was paid, and they were in frequent use, from 1844 to 1876; 28 days in 1855, 29 in 1857, 25 in 1872, 23 in 1876. Nathan Jewett had a fleet of these clumsy craft, including the “Ranger,” “Gen. Burnside,” “Gen. Butler,” and “the Little Boat.” Mr. Eben Lord recalls one summer’s work, when he made twenty-eight trips and one huge load of salt hay, rowed slowly across to Green’s Point Landing, contained sixteen tons. “Big Bill Lord’s” record freight was fourteen tons. Two of the Topsfield farmers, from the Middleton line, hauled the dry salt hay from the Point on huge wagons, drawn by two yoke of oxen and a horse, four tons and more at a load. The great Plum Island marshes and the larger tract on the mainland in the “Hundreds,” and the labyrinth of thatch islands, with the network of creeks and grindles are now counted of little or no value.

Today some of the thatch is never cut and remains until the heavy ice cakes break it down, and the Spring tides cast it up in thick windrows upon the shores. Some of this, with its admixture of seaweed, is carted off by the farmers for compost. The salt marshes suffer almost equal neglect, as the decline of stock raising and dairying and modern ideas regarding feeding have reduced the demand for the salt-hay to a minimum. Where the marsh is firm and easily accessible, the cutting is done by the mowing-machine. Clumsy wooden “shoes” are fastened to the feet of the horses, to which they soon become accustomed, and travel over the peaty surface with surprising comfort and safety.

Green’s Point Landing is rarely or never used. The old wharf and warehouse have left no trace and the old road, over which the ox-teams rumbled in the still hours of the night, is only a rut. “Marshing,” especially on Plum Island, exists only in remembrance. The men and boys were up and at work by midnight, milking the bewildered cows, turning them out to pasture, doing the “chores,” and getting the teams ready for the long journey to the Point. The good wives had been hard at work cooking and preparing the ample lunches, and the food was stowed in the big boxes, with a hot brick sometimes to keep it warm, with cans of coffee and sometimes a black jug with a snatch of stronger drink. It was a good day’s work already when the heavy gundalow had been rowed with huge and heavy oars across the swift river and then slowly up the Creek to the shore of the marsh.


No craft that ever sailed the broad and deep river is of more interest than the shallop, that bore Rev. Thomas Parker and his twenty-two friends, with their wives, children and servants, on a Spring day in 1635, from the town of Ipswich, where they had passed the winter of 1634-5, by the shore of Plum Island and up the water, called then by its Indian name, Quascacunquen River to a landing on the north bank, near the bridge which now spans’ the stream. Here they built their log cabins, about the Lower Green, where a beautiful bronze ship surmounts the slab which bears their names. So the new settlement of Newbury began. Soon these early settlers began to build ships or shallops on the banks of the river, which was named later, Parker River, after their leader and minister, and their maiden voyage was always down the Parker and Plum Island Rivers.

Landing place of the first settlers of Newbury. Photo courtesy of Wayne Chase

After a few years, the Newbury men established a sturgeon fishery on the Merrimac. William Woods, in “New England’s Prospect,” indulges his extravagant fancy in narrating that these great fish attained a size sometimes of twelve and eighteen feet. No doubt they abounded in the Plum Island waters as well, and it was a fine sight, when in pursuit of their prey, their huge scaly bodies leaped their full length into the air and fell back with a resounding splash. They were counted choice food when boiled in oil, and there was a considerable trade in exporting the kegs, in which the fish was packed, to Europe. Fifty years ago they were still seen leaping from the water in Ipswich River.

Whales were taken occasionally by the shore fishermen. John Higginson of Salem wrote to Symonds Epes of the Castle Hill farm, in December, 1706, “I hear a rumor of several whales,” and again in September, 1707, regarding whale-boats and oars at Ipswich, “We should be in readiness for the noble sport.” Five Ipswich whaleboats were impressed in 1707 for the expedition against Nova Scotia. The dwellers on Plum Island, scanning the Ocean as they went about their daily tasks, had unrivalled opportunity to catch sight of the spouting, and no more convenient and safe harbor for the boats could be found, than the River beach and the sheltered creek. Seals, then as now, but more plentifully no doubt, poked their dog-like muzzles from the rivers and basked in the sun in herds on the Bar at low tide.

The finest food fishes abounded in the early days, salmon and shad, alewives and mackerel, smelt, tom-cod, eels and flounders in the shore waters, tautog, the lordly cod and all deep-sea fishes in the open Ocean, not far from the Beach. Oysters were plentiful, as the shells in the Indian shell-heaps bear evidence, and a great shell, eight or ten inches long, is still dredged up occasionally in Parker River. Lobsters remained plentiful until a generation ago. The clam flats yielded their riches in endless abundance. The Plum Island dwellers could always find employment and feast to a surfeit In due time, the Rowley folk began their ship-building. Duncan Stewart came from Newbury to Rowley with his sons as early as 1680, it is said, and began to build shallops and ships at Rowley Landing, which sailed down the River and over the Bar. Edward Saunders came from Scituate to Rowley, married a Rowley woman, and reared up six stout sons, most of whom worked with their father in his ship-yard. The business at the water-side declined, but the Rowley carpenters or ship-builders adopted a very novel method. They built in their door-yards or neighboring fields fishing craft, from thirty to fifty tons burden, which were drawn by oxen down to the launching place. But Captain Nathaniel Perley eclipsed them all. He built on Rowley Common, near his dwelling, a schooner of ninety tons, and when it was finished, more than a hundred yoke of oxen, gathered from all the country-side, drew it a mile and a half to the Landing. It was well named “The Country’s Wonder,” and it was a brave sight for the Plum Island folk, when she sailed down the River on her maiden voyage with colors flying-.

There were sloops and schooners at the Green’s Point wharf, Richard Shatswell’s “Hannah” and many others, Emerson’s “Sea Flower” and “Hope,” the fleet of ships and brigs, schooners and sloops, sailing in from Sea from fishing trips or West India voyages or far foreign voyages, and the stately East Indiamen, built in the Cove ship-yard, the “Arab,” the “Hebrus,” and many another, coming down the Ipswich River and making sail as they crossed the Bar.

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

But the most extraordinary and fearful voyage of which record remains was that of two Rowley men, Samuel Pulsifer and Samuel Elwell, who went clamming on the flats between Plum Island and Hog Island up the River, in Rowley bounds, on Monday, December 4, 1786. They came to their hut on Hog Island, planning to spend the night, but a snow storm came on, and they attempted to leave the Island at low water. They soon were lost and after wandering a while, took refuge in a stack of salt hay, in which they dug a hole and camped for the night. In the morning, the tide had risen so high that it drove them to the top of the stack, and to their horror a floating field of ice struck the stack, drove it off the staddle and set it afloat. The fury of the storm was at its height. The stack was driven this way and that, and at last, just as another floated by, they felt their own separating under their feet. By rare good fortune, they were able to leap upon the other stack, upon which they remained about two hours, suffering so much from the cold and wet that they began to feel sleepy. The friendly stack was driven at length into (Smith’s Cove, so-called, at Smith’s or Fish Island, as it has since been called, near Mr. Hudgen’s farm. Here the ice prevented their approach to the shore about four rods away. After a while, they perceived that the wind and tide were driving them farther from the land. Pulsifer immediately leaped upon the ice and called to his companion to follow. Half stupefied, Elwell rallied his powers, got upon a floating cake and reached the shore. Pulcifer was obliged to wade from the ice. His legs were so benumbed that they were powerless, and it was only by moving them forward with his hands that he reached the shore. Their spirits rose and with fresh determination they ran about, hoping to find some shelter near at hand. To their dismay, they found themselves on an island. To venture into the water meant death, to remain where they were would be fatal. Fortunately there was a stack of dry hay, into which they crawled and began to cry for help. A man passed, probably on the Neck road, but he did not hear their shouts.

About an hour later, Major Charles Smith, the owner of the neighboring farm, with his two sons, came within eight of the island, in search for his strayed sheep. One of the sons saw a man on top of the stack, swinging his hat and crying* for help. The Major, knowing the ground, went at once to the, island, over a causeway covered by the tide about three feet deep, and brought off the distressed men. He took them to his house and cared for them until Thursday, when they were able to return to their homes. This account was taken from the mouths of the two men, by Rev. Ebenezer Bradford, minister of the Rowley Church, and published in the Massachusetts Gazette in Dec, 1786. The storm, which so nearly caused their death, was of great severity. The tide rose to a height scarcely equalled before or since. All the salt hay on staddles on the Rowley marsh was floated off and driven on the Ipswich shore. Rowley River was frozen over soon after, and the farmers set out with their ox-teams to secure their lost hay. But it was so frozen and wedged in by the ice floes that very little was recovered and hundreds of tons were completely lost.

Later day memories are of the sand schooners, which were allowed to ground upon Sandy Point. Working briskly, the crew were able to run the sand aboard in wheel-barrows and complete the loading before the schooner floated on the high tide. Charles Wade, the Grape Island recluse, had a flat-bottomed boat, which he had built and equipped with a lee-board, and a unique tender, which was fitted with wheel and handles, and served equally well as a boat in the water and a wheel-barrow on the flats. No weather was too heavy for the veteran boatman and his strange craft.

The Carlotta

The good steamer, Carlotta, after many years of useful service on Ipswich and Plum Island Rivers has been sold to Salem parties. Her place is supplied by a multitude of motor boats. On the extreme northern end of the Island the Newburyport people built a fort in 1775-6, and again in the War of 1812, a battery was located there and on the Turnpike and garrisoned by the Coast Guard. The turnpike and bridge were built in 1806 and a small hotel was opened in 1807. A Horse-Railroad to the Island began to be operated from Newburyport in 1887, which was supplanted by the Electric Trolley line in 1894.


The long miles of Sandy beach, facing the open Ocean, terminating in dangerous Bars at the north and south ends, have been the scene of many a shipwreck and the loss of many lives. The tale begins with the mystic misdeed of Capt. Henry Main, an Isle of Shoals fisherman, who had a house by the river side in Ipswich. The Court Records make no mention of any offence, besmirching his good name. But the old wives persisted in affirming that he was a wicked man, and that for some black crime he was chained to Ipswich Bar and doomed to shovel the shifting sands forever, and when the angry surf seemed to shake the very earth with its mighty roar, they used to say, “Harry Main growls at his work today.” Traditions of Captain Kidd and his pirate crew linger as well, and some old coins that have been found have been regarded by the credulous as part of his ill-gotten booty.

Shiprecks map of Plum Island MA
Map provided in Nancy Weare’s book, “Plum Island The Way it Was

The authentic records of shipwrecks and loss of life upon the Beach and Bar on the Ipswich end of Plum Island and on Castle Hill Beach begin in 1723. In that year, on May 10th, a solitary; fisherman presumably, Amos Morris, was drowned while coming over the Bar. On March 10, 1755, Lieut. John Boardman and Mr. John Rogers, son of Richard Rogers, were “cast on Shore on Castle Hill Beach and Perish’d with the Cold & Snow.” Richard Farrin, a gunsmith and an especially valuable man to the community, was drowned on the Bar on May 4, 1761, in the midst of the French and Indian War. Daniel Ringe and Robert Spiller were cast on the Bar in a two-masted boat, in the winter of 1775-6 and lost their lives. Captain John Calef, son of Dr. Calef, on his return voyage from the West Indies, was driven upon Plum Island Beach, and drowned while attempting to reach the shore on February 19,’ 1782. Three Ipswich men, Isaac Galloway, Philip Lord Jr. and Thomas Lord, were “Drowned Crossing Plumb Island River in a wherry been on a clamming voyage” Sept 12, 1785.

Gravestone of Joseph Melcher at the Old North Burying Ground

A vessel belonging in Brunswick, Maine, was cast away on the Bar on November 7, 1802 and all on board perished. The body of the young Captain was recovered and buried in the old High Street Burying Ground. The stone that marks his grave bears the inscription: “Sacred to the memory of Capt. Joseph Melcher, youngest son of Mr. Joseph and Mrs. Mary Melcher of Brunswick, who perished in a storm, Nov. 7th, 1802 on Ipswich Bar in the 21st year of his age. Amidst the raging billows drove, My life to save in vain I strove, And soon my strength began to flee. I perished in the Cruel sea. My weeping friends your silence keep When to my Grave you come to weep. Prepare to follow me you must And mingle with your native dust.”

The Town Records made simple mention of two wrecks, in 1804, with no clue to the names of the men or their vessels: “Five men taken out of a Vessel cast ashore on Plum Island drowned in a Violent storm the Vessel and people belonged to Kittery Oct. 9 and Oct. 13, 1804. One other Vessel belonging to Kittery cast away on Ipswich Bar in the same Storm People all perished, 7 in number, Oct 1804.”

Mr. Nathaniel Dole recalls some old graves marked with a simple stone on Bar Island Head, which may have been the burial-place of some of these unknown castaways. A more pathetic remembrance is that of some poor sailor, whose body was buried deep In the shifting sands. The wind exposed his remains at last. Mr. Dole spied one day a pair of stout boots standing erect, soles upward, In the sand. Yielding to his touch, they were found to contain the remains of felt stockings and the bones of leg and foot.

Tombstone at the Old North Burying Ground in Ipswich from the wreck of the Falconer in Ipswich Bay
The common grave of 12 crew members who perished in the Falconer

More than forty years passed without any such disaster, and then came the wreck of the “Falconer,” the greatest maritime disaster in Ipswich annals. The ill-fated brig, about 300 tons burden, commanded by Capt. Joseph Rowlinson, was making a passage from St. John to Boston, laden with coal and carrying passengers, her crew and passenger list numbering fifty-three persons. The Captain made Squam Light in thick weather on Thursday night, December 15th, 1847, and tacked ship, standing to the northward. He beat about in a vain endeavor to make the open sea, until Friday morning at ten o’clock, when he dropped both anchors. One soon parted, and the other dragged slowly ashore. One mast was cut away but on Saturday morning, December 17th, she struck on the southern spit of Ipswich Bar, about three-quarters of a mile from the Beach. The sea made a complete breach over her and she leaked so badly that the water soon rose above the cabin floor and drove the passengers and crew to the deck, where they lashed themselves to the rigging, exposed to the full fury of the storm. At seven o’clock all were living. The Captain’s wife and son, Charles, died in about an hour. The boat was launched and seven put off, but she was swamped and four perished. The alarm was given in Town and many hurried to the Beach to render assistance, if possible. There was no life-boat and small boats were dragged over the sands to the shore. No attempt at rescue could be made until about noon, when the storm abated a little. William Chapman, a young sailor, then put off alone in a leaky boat and reached the brig, though his boat was filled in coming alongside. His coming gave hope and new courage to the survivors. Four boats soon arrived and all the living and the bodies of the dead were brought to the Beach. A little boy, nine years old, had been washed overboard and his body was never found. The people on the shore stripped off their clothing and put it upon the sufferers, who were carried at once to the house of Captain Humphrey Lakeman. Several died while being carried there. The Captain lived less than an hour after reaching it. Six cabin passengers and eight steerage, beside the Captain and his wife and son, seventeen persons, including four of the five women on board, were lost.

Thirty-six survived the terrible hardships of those Winter days, and were received hospitably in the homes of the Town’s people. The sixteen bodies were brought to the Town Hall, where funeral services were held on Monday and a long procession followed to the old Burying Ground on High Street. The bodies of the Captain and his wife and son were afterwards sent to Belfast. 14 All the rest were buried in a common grave in the corner of the cemetery, near the street. A slate slab, bearing their names, was erected a few years ago to mark the almost forgotten place of burial.

The schooner “Nancy” from Wiscasset, laden with bricks, was driven on Plum Island Beach, December 3, 1849, and five persons, the whole crew, perished. On December 24, 1850, the schooner “Argus” of Frankfort, Maine, laden with hammered stone, was wrecked near Emerson’s Rocks. Captain Allard Crockett was saved, all the rest of the crew were lost. Two men had reached shore, and wandered nearly a mile in a vain search for shelter. Their foot prints led to a thicket, where their bodies were found.

In the great storm of April 16, 1851, in which Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse was carried away, the brig “Primrose” from Pictou for Boston was driven ashore. Happily all on board were rescued and the vessel was eventually pulled off. The tide rose to an unexampled height, and flowed entirely across the Island in some places. The schooners “Ornament,” “Teazer” and “Votary” and an Augusta schooner, moored at the Ipswich wharves, broke away. One dashed into a warehouse, owned by William Pulsifer, and demolished it entirely. Three of the vessels were driven ashore, high and dry, and Thomas Harris was forced from his house by the flood tide.

No other serious casualty happened until 1883. On Saturday morning, May 26th, at half past three, the side-wheel steamer, “City Point,” Capt. O. Ludlow, struck on Emerson’s Rocks in a thick fog. She was bound from Annapolis, Nova Scotia, for Boston, with a crew of twenty-four and forty-one passengers, including women and children. All were brought safely to the land, though one boat was upset, and as the weather was warm, no especial hardship was suffered. The Carlotta arrived at the wreck about 10 o’clock, but was unable to render any assistance, as the steamer was already breaking up under the violence of the surf, on a rising tide, and her cargo of potatoes, halibut and eggs was being scattered on sea and beach. The walking-beam remained upright after the hull of the vessel was destroyed, but in a few days every vestige of the wreck disappeared.

The schooner “Lucy M. Collins,” from New York for Ipswich with coal, struck on the Bar on August 19, 1891 and became a total loss. On May 4, 1893, the schooner “Brave” from Deer Isle was driven on the shore near Knobb’s Beach and the Captain and three men were drowned. Many minor mishaps have occurred since that time, but happily no serious marine disaster has happened.

The Merrimack Humane Society of Newburyport, organized in 1802, erected three small houses on the Beach for the shelter of ship-wrecked seamen. In the summer of 1852, a new relief hut was built about three-quarters of a mile northwest of Emerson’s Rocks and supplied with dry fuel, straw bedding, matches and lanterns. It was placed in charge of Capt. J. Small, who resided on Grape Island, nearly opposite the beach, where the “Primrose” grounded.

Plum Island Life Saving Station by George Dexter

The first United States Life Saving Station on Plum Island was built at Sandy Beach in 1874, and removed in 1881 to the northerly end of the Island. In 1890, a station was established near the southern end, and a house was erected at Knobb’s Beach. The beach was patrolled every night during the season of storms by the coast guard, down to the telephone hut on Bar Island bluff. These brave men made their rounds in the face of bitter winter winds and flying sand and snow and sleet, ready to warn of danger or give promise of relief with their signal torch, and then to hasten to the rescue of the men on the stranded vessel with the life boat or the breeches buoy, when the wreck can be reached by a life line from the shore.

Sources and Further Reading: 

More stories about Plum Island

Plum Island - The General Court on October 17, 1649 divided Plum Island among three towns, granted to Ipswich 2/5, Newbury 2/5, and Rowley 1/5. The salt marsh hay, sand, and wildlife were valuable assets to the towns.… Continue reading Plum Island
Plum Island the Way it Was Plum Island the Way it Was - Published in 1993, this 100-page book is copied with permission from the estate of the late Nancy Weare. Read by scrolling this page, or click on any image to read as a slideshow.… Continue reading Plum Island the Way it Was
History of Plum Island - The General Court took action on October 17th 1649: "Upon the petition of Newbury, this Court thinketh meete to give & grant Plum Island to Ipswich two parts, Newbury two parts & Rowley to have one fifth part."… Continue reading History of Plum Island
Boats and houses in an early 20th Century photo of Plum Island, near Newburyport MA The Northern End of Plum Island - Nancy Virginia Weare spent 33 years at her family’s summer camp at Plum Island. After the Parker River Wildlife Refuge was established, she moved to a home on Great Neck in Ipswich overlooking the island. In 1993, after Nancy retired, she wrote “Plum Island: The Way It Was.” … Continue reading The Northern End of Plum Island
Plum Island, the Way it Was, by nancy V. Weare The Early History of Plum Island - Nancy Virginia Weare spent 33 years at her family's summer camp at Plum Island. In 1993 she wrote "Plum Island: The Way It Was," which is reprinted on this site with permission.… Continue reading The Early History of Plum Island

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Adrift on a Haystack legend Rowley Adrift on a Haystack, December 1786 - In a northeasterly storm in December, 1786 Samuel Pulsifer and Samuel Elwell of Rowley were digging clams on Plum Island, got caught in the storm, and took refuge in a stack of salt hay for the night. In the morning they found they had been set afloat.… Continue reading Adrift on a Haystack, December 1786
Grape Island Hotel, circa 1900, Ipswich MA 300 years on Grape Island - Grape Island was once a small but thriving community, and briefly a popular summer resort. In 1941, 3000 acres of Plum Island including Grape Island were purchased by the U.S. government to establish the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.… Continue reading 300 years on Grape Island
Plum Island the Way it Was Nancy Weare - Nancy Virginia Weare spent 33 years at her family's summer camp at Plum Island. In 1993, after Nancy retired, she wrote "Plum Island: The Way It Was." … Continue reading Nancy Weare
Battle of clammers over the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge Clam Battle! - Life Magazine, July 16, 1945: The government had taken over the lands for a Wildlife Refuge, and the clam battle was on. Ipswich hunters were afraid of losing their private hunting reserves. Ipswich farmers were afraid of losing their land.… Continue reading Clam Battle!
Harry Maine's house on Water Street in Ipswich The ghost of Harry Maine - Harry Maine — you have heard the tale; He lived there in Ipswich Town; He blasphemed God, so they put him down with an iron shovel, at Ipswich Bar; They chained him there for a thousand years, As the sea rolls up to shovel it back; So when the sea cries, the goodwives say "Harry Maine growls at his work today."… Continue reading The ghost of Harry Maine
The Ipswich steamship Carlotta The steamship “Carlotta” - The excursion boat Carlotta was built in 1878 at Rogers Point boat yard, and sailed from Town Wharf to the Neck and Plum Island for 35 years. The small hotels at Little Neck, Ipswich Bluff and Grape Island were favorite destinations for tourists and locals.… Continue reading The steamship “Carlotta”
Gathering salt marsh hay - Salt marsh hay is still gathered on the North Shore today. The grass was stacked on staddles to raise it above the high tides, and was hauled away on sleds over the frozen marsh in mid-winter.… Continue reading Gathering salt marsh hay
The shipwrecks at Ipswich Bar - The Ipswich Bar has a long history of tragic shipwrecks. Its swift currents and shallow waters are especially dangerous during storms, and many ships have gone aground. The hull of the Ada K. Damon sits on Steep Hill Beach.… Continue reading The shipwrecks at Ipswich Bar
Ipswich Bluffs Hotel Ipswich Bluffs - The hotel at Ipswich Bluff on the southern tip of Plum Island was a favorite destination of locals in the late 19th Century, who took the steamer Carlotta from the Ipswich wharf with Capt. Nat Burnham.… Continue reading Ipswich Bluffs
Proposed Ipswich MA Nuclear Power Generating Plant Nuclear Ipswich, 1967-1970 - In 1967, Ipswich was proposed as a site for an anti-ballistic missile base, and in 1970 opponents prevented construction of a nuclear power plant on Town Farm Road that eventually was built in Seabrook.… Continue reading Nuclear Ipswich, 1967-1970
Sundial on Plum Island, Massachusetts The Plum Island Salt Company - In the 1820's a Frenchman named Gilshenan organized an unsuccessful salt harvesting company on Plum Island with a 10' deep canal and a bull turning an overshot wheel like a hamster. A large sundial survived for a few decades, but no trace remains today.… Continue reading The Plum Island Salt Company
The Commons - When the Town of Ipswich was established, ownership of a house and land within the town bounds carried with it the right of pasturage beyond the Common Fence. In 1788, the commoners resigned all their land interests to pay the heavy town debt incurred during the Revolution.… Continue reading The Commons
The last cottage on Plum Island - (This article was written by Beverly Perna before the cottage was torn down, and has been updated.) An iconic Ipswich landmark, the last privately owned cottage on the Ipswich end of Plum Island, was turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service  and was taken down in 2016. Boaters and Great Neck residents were most familiar with… Continue reading The last cottage on Plum Island

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