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Cohasset’s Pirate Ship

David Wadsworth

Reprinted with permission from the Cohasset Historical Society, Cohasset, MA (Town of Cohasset, Mass.,, 2005), pp.50-52.

An unusual tale of an early Cohasset-owned merchant sailing vessel engaged in activities bordering on seafaring piracy recently [late 1980s] came to light in the maritime archives of the Cohasset Historical Society. An old hand-written paper was found, telling of an eighteenth-century sea voyage that led to stolen Spanish silver and then to a Caribbean island prison. The writer of the paper was Benjamin Pratt, Sr.; the vessel was his great-grandfather Aaron Pratt's Three Sisters, an early Cohasset sloop; its shipmaster of piratical nature was Captain Zebulon Wade, and the year was 1750. According to the writer . . . , the Three Sisters actually was owned by Cohasseters Aaron Pratt (born in 1690), Stephen Stoddard (born in 1674), and Israel Whitcomb (born in 1700), and an otherwise unidentified Mrs. Binney "of Nantastick."

The seventy-five-ton sloop, locally built and on its maiden voyage, left local waters in late spring of 1750, presumably bound on a trading voyage to southern ports. Three Sisters soon was in sight of the dreaded shoals of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. There, the ship's crew spotted a vessel in distress, shipwrecked on the treacherous sands near the Cape. The wrecked vessel was found to be Spanish, and its crew was still on board. Captain Wade and Three Sisters "fell in" with the Spanish ship and found her to be carrying a cargo of silver bars, coined. Her voyage had originated in Spain's American colonies, called New Spaine, and her destination had been "Old Spaine" in Europe. The ship was carrying part of the Spanish treasure famed in both the Old and New Worlds.

A second vessel soon arrived on the scene of the wreck, and both captains struck a bargain with the doomed vessel's master, each agreeing to take aboard part of the silver treasure and to transport it to the original destination in Old Spaine. Captain Wade's Three Sisters took on board seventy tons of silver bars, and the remainder was placed aboard the other vessel, whose identity is not given. Unknown to the Spanish captain, the masters of both ships had already reached an agreement not to take the silver to Spain, but to take it to a West Indies island and bury it for their own future use. Thus it was that Three Sisters and its captain, Zebulon Wade, soon arrived at “Statia” (St. Eustacius, today an island of the Netherlands Antilles), and part of the silver was buried. The piratical venture soon was discovered by the authorities, however, when the second vessel became stranded on a sand bar and was boarded. Before he could bury all of the silver, Captain Wade was “found, taken, and put into Jail.”

Benjamin Pratt’s story continues, “Wade, by having so much silver, managed to get out of Jail and came home, but the vessel was detained and became a total loss to her owners.” It then appeared that the two like-minded ship’s captains, by now apparently experienced in the ways of pirates, “became adventurers all over the world . . . The buried silver was recovered by the Spanyards.” Pratt reported that a second vessel was sent to Statia by Mrs. Binney, one of the owners of Three Sisters. Aboard was Stephen Stoddard’s “Negro man” named Mingo, who had been on [the ship] and had helped Captain Wade bury the silver originally. Mingo and the second ship returned home empty handed. “It was reported,” wrote Pratt, “that the Spanyards had ploughed and dug the island near all over and had found probably the most of it.”

The Cohasset owners of Three Sisters, Aaron Pratt, Stephen Stoddard, and Israel Whitcomb, were neighbors residing on Beechwood Street. The story of Captain Zebulon Wade and the sloop . . . had been passed down through several generations of Aaron Pratt’s descendants before Benjamin wrote it down . . . Aaron’s son Thomas had recalled having helped his father “haul the timber to build the vessel, and she was builded over in Briggs’ building yard, being on the Scituate side of the Gulf Stream [River] on Turner’s pasture.”

As for Three Sisters, her first voyage for her owners also was her last, for she never returned to her original home port. Of Captain Zebulon Wade, he was known to have moved from his native Scituate to “Carolina,” where his son later was found to be a ship’s pilot on the North Carolina Rivers . . .

This story, written perhaps a century and a half ago, was recently found among papers in the account book of Marshall Pratt’s store, Beechwood Street. The tale of Captain Wade and the sloop Three Sisters is unusual, for it dates from the earliest years of Cohasset’s maritime era, a time from which few records have survived and of which little is known.

From David Wadsworth, “History of Seafaring Piracy Found in Archives,” Cohasset Mariner, January 7, 1988. Reprinted with permission of the author.