The story behind ‘The Swan Song of Parson Avery’

Mark Hurwitz
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In the 19th century, New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the poem titled “The Swan Song of Parson Avery.”

The Rev. Parson Avery took his wife, eight children and their cousins, the Thachers, from Ipswich to Marblehead by boat. Avery was to be installed as the rector of the new Anglican Church (Old North).

The boat he was on, The Wait and Watch, encountered a storm at sea. That storm is known today as the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635.

Isaac Allerton owned the vessel, and Moses Maverick of Marblehead later married his daughter, Sarah.

The storm threw the vessel onto Rockport’s Crackwood Ledge, smashing it into many pieces and tossing its passengers into the open sea. Of the 23 passengers aboard, 21 drowned that day, including Avery and his entire family.

Anthony Thacher and his wife were the only ones to survive. They were able to swim to a nearby island during the storm and waited there until they were rescued a few days later.

The Colonial government, hearing of the tragedy, compensated Anthony Thacher 26 British pounds and the island for the loss of their children and personal belongings.

Thacher Island National Wildlife Refuge is actively protected and managed for migratory birds. Its location within the Atlantic Flyway, means the refuge provides an important resting, feeding, and nesting habitat for many species of songbirds and shorebirds.

Anthony Thacher later moved to Yarmouth, on Cape Cod, as one of the three original land grantees in that town, where he resided until he died in 1668.

What we know of this tragedy comes from a letter Anthony Thatcher later wrote to his brother Peter Thacher back in England:

“We embarked at Ipswich, Aug. 11, 1635, with our families and substance, bound for Marblehead, we being in all 23 souls. The next morning, having commended ourselves to God, with cheerful hearts we hoisted sail.

“But the Lord suddenly turned our cheerfulness into mourning and lamentations for on the 14th day of August 1635, about ten at night, having a fresh gale of wind, our sails being old and done were split. The mariners, because that it was night, would not put to new sails but resolved to cast anchor till the morning.

“But before light it pleased the Lord to send so mighty a storm as the like was never known in New England since the English came, nor in the memory of any of the Indians. The waves came furiously and violently over us and against us.”

Of the people in Thacher’s group that were traveling to Marblehead that day, only one chose to travel by horseback instead of by boat. It was Anthony Thacher’s 15-year-old nephew, Thomas Thacher. His reasons for not traveling by boat are unknown.

Thomas Thacher later became a minister, serving first in Weymouth. He later served as the Old South Church minister in Boston in the 1670s. He died in the year 1678.

The poem

Because of Thacher’s letter, word of the tragedy spread very quickly throughout England and the American colonies. A number of 17th-century Puritan ministers even wrote about it, including both Increase and Cotton Mather.

Later, in the 18th and 19th century, it was mentioned in a number of history books about New England history.

It was perhaps because of this documentation that Whittier chose to write about it in his poem “The Swan Song of Parson Avery”

“There was wailing on the mainland, from the rocks of Marblehead,

in the stricken Church of Newbury the notes of prayer were read,

And long, by board and Hearthstone, the living mourn the dead.

And still the fishers outbound, or scudding from the squall,

With grave and reverent faces, the ancient tale recall,

when they see the white waves breaking on the rock of Avery’s fall!”

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