Sunday, January 6, 2013
COHASSET CENTRAL CEMETERY:THE ST. JOHN'S CROSS
((As I said in the last post, there's a story behind the large Celtic Cross
at the crest of the hill in the Cohasset Central Cemetery. I originally
wrote about this last March for a St. Patrick's Day post at my genealogy
blog, West in New England))
I've written before about the way some work of chance leads me to
encounters with places related to my family's history. Last month
I took some pictures in a local cemetery that I thought might make a
good St Patrick's Day post, a reminder of the perils our Irish ancestors
braved to come to America. But when I researched the story behind
a stone monument, I didn't realize that while I was not related to the
deadf it commemorated, I was connected to it in another way.
A tall Celtic cross sits atop a small hill in the midst of the Central Cemetery in
Cohasset, Ma, overlooking a tidal pond. On the landward side is the
This Cross Was Erected And Dedicated
May 30th 1914 By The A.O.H. And The L.A.A.O.H.
Of Massachusetts To Mark The Final
Resting Place Of About Forty Five
Irish Emigrants From A Total Company
Of Ninety Nine Who Lost Their Lives
On Grampus Ledge Off Cohasset
October 7, 1849 In The Wreck Of The
Brig St.John From Galway Ireland
Edwin Victor Bigelow gives the details of the wreck of the St.John in
his A Narrative History of the Town of Cohasset, Massachusetts, published
by the Cohasset Town Historical Commission in 1898:
On Sunday morning at seven o'clock, October 7, 1849, under a heavy northeast
storm, the British brig St. John, loaded with immigrants brought from Galway,
Ireland, was driven upon Grampus Ledge near Minot, and ninetynine lives
were lost. Another brig, the Kathleen, had managed to creep into the mouth
of our harbor and to anchor; but the St. John was farther out where the gale
struck furiously and made her drag anchors.
The masts were cut away, but still she dragged on. After the first heavy thump
on the Grampus Rock the old hulk rapidly tumbled to bits. Previous to the
breaking up, the jolly-boat was hanging by the tackles alongside when the
stern ringbolt broke and she fell into the waves. Captain Oliver, the second
mate, and two boys jumped into her to clear her, when about twenty-five
passengers poured into her and swamped her so that all perished but the
captain. The first mate hauled in the captain, who caught the end of a rope.
Then the longboat was loosed and the captain with the first mate and eight
of the crew and two passengers scrambled into her, reaching shore at the
Glades. Many more passengers were drowned in their desperate endeavors
to get into the longboat which saved the captain and crew. Ten others, upon
a piece of the deck which was wrenched off by the waves, were floated
safely to shore, seven men and three women.
The St. John was only an hour in tumbling to pieces under the incessant banging
of the waves upon her. Ninety-nine lives were lost and twenty-two were saved.
One of the survivors was a young woman who afterwards settled in Cohasset,
marrying a man whose name was by strange coincidence St. John. (pp463-464)
You can also read about the aftermath of the wreck by no less an author than
Henry David Thoreau who happened upon the scene the day after the storm
as bodies were being recovered and buried by the townspeople of
Cohasset. His account of the incident can be found in his book On Cape Cod.
Now we come to the coincidence:
The wreck of the St John took place while construction was being completed
of a lighthouse at nearby Minot Rock. On page 463 of Bigelow's book, just
before his recounting of the tragedy, there is this on the lighthouse:
"It was finished in the fall of 1849, and Isaac A. Dunham took charge of it,
lighting the lamp for the first time on December 13, 1849."
Isaac Dunham was the first Keeper of Minot Light. Even though it was not
in service at the time of the storm that sank the St John, he was present in
Cohasset and part of the group dealing with the aftermath. He stayed
at Minot Light only ten months, resigning in 1850 because he felt the
structure was unsafe. A year later the first Minot Lighthouse was destroyed
by a terrible storm, taking the lives of two men stationed there.
My great great grandmother was Florilla Dunham, and while I haven't figured
out how we're related just yet, in all probability Isaac Dunham is my distant
And I wouldn't have known about him except for taking these pictures in
the cemetery in Cohasset, and then using two of them for a St Patrick's