“No telegraph, no telephone, no mails even, to the Chincha Islands.” — An East Hampton Childhood
Mary Esther Mulford Miller was referring to three islands off Peru so richly populated with seabirds that their dung was packed as deep as 200 feet. Guano is highly valued as a fertilizer, which is why the clipper John Milton was filled with it when it shipwrecked on February 20, 1858 in the middle of a blinding snowstorm.
Captain Ephraim Harding could not have known, as he returned to New York from the Chincha Islands after an absence of more than a year, that the Montauk Light had been changed six weeks earlier from a steady beam to a flash, or that a steady beam had been placed at the new Ponquogue Light to the west. It’s believed that he turned north into what he thought was open water northeast of Montauk Point, but instead crashed into the rocky shore about five miles to the west, killing all 33 on board and leaving what Jeannette Edwards Rattray described in Ship Ashore as a “hideous confusion” of “men, spars, sails and cargo … sheathed in ice.”
With Montauk scantly populated, it was left to men from Amagansett and East Hampton to discover and then recover what they could — the frozen bodies of 24 strangers that washed ashore over the ensuing days. They also found the ship’s log and personal effects like sailors’ letters from their mothers and a daguerreotype of one’s mother and sister. The ship’s bell was eventually placed in the session house of the Presbyterian Church of East Hampton.
“Even as a child I felt the pall of sadness that hung over our village for days and days and for long days afterward when anguished inquiries from other loved ones came asking for confirmation of the sad news or for some faint hope that the news might not be true,” Miller wrote in 1938 in An East Hampton Childhood.
“Probably every woman in our village knew at first hand the grief those absent mothers had yet to bear, for many of our boys in the 50’s and 60’s sailed on clipper ships or whaling vessels to the ends of the earth.”
The bodies of the crew of the John Milton were badly bruised and battered, so the Ladies of East Hampton prepared them for burial at the South End Burying Ground, where an obelisk memorializes the sailors to this time.
“It was a cold February day when the funeral was held in the old church just opposite Clinton Academy,” Miller recalled. “People came from far and near to pay honor to those who though far from home had been as gently cared for as if they had been our own.”
“These are cast on the shore of a stranger, but a shore where there are those who feel all men are kindred,” Reverend Stephen Mershon said in his sermon for the strangers whose lives had been lost.
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