Hampton’s 325th Anniversary

1638 – 1963

Treasures of the Deep

by Wayne I. Elliot

For close to a month, during the summer of 1962, two young Massachusetts skin divers cherished a well-kept secret known only to themselves and their immediate families. In the final days of July 1962, they gave their secret — the historic discovery of the remains of an old cannon and companion relics — to the world. The artifacts, believed to have been on a ship wrecked off the Hampton coast approximately 200 years ago, are now being treated and preserved as they are viewed by hundreds of historically-minded persons visiting in museums in Washington, D. C. and Rhode Island.

But even to this day, the discovery, made only a few hudred feet off the U. S. Coast Guard Station at North Beach, still remains at least a partial secret. For, although the efforts of Walter “Skip” Hird, Jr. of Methuen, Mass. and David Conrad of Lawrence, Mass., both 15 years of age, sent local, New England and national historians scurrying for the history books, the exact sosurce of the relics will probably never be known.

The prize of the booty was the iron barrel of a cannon which measured approximately eight feet in length and weighed nearly a ton. Apparently the tides and storms of time had combined to move the shifting sands just enough so that the boys were able to find the cannon resting on a worn stone and aimed directly at the Coast Guard station.

More and more with each discovery of the historic past and with each realization of the values of the old furniture and homes of “Old Hampton”, the importance of local history is brought to light. Located in an outstanding historic geographic location and steeped in early American heritage, the proud past of Hampton becomes more meaningful with the passing of the years which go to make history that which it is.

Although we shall probably never know the identity of the ship from which the cannon barrel, grind stone wheels, cannon balls, wooden pulleys and other items which Father Neptune yielded to the world during the summer of 1962, best bet is that they probably came from the mast ship St. George which was belived wrecked off the local beach in 1764 (November 30th) almost 200 years ago.

Edward Rowe Snow, New England Marine Historian, completes the
investiture service of the cannoneers by placing his sword on the shoulder
of Walter “Skip” Hird, Jr. who, with David Conrad, center, brought up two
cannons and several cannon balls from an ancient wreck off Hampton
Beach last summer (Summer 1962).

Quoting from page 211 (1733-1780) of “The History of the Town of Hampton” written by Joseph Dow and published as Volume I in 1893, we find the following: “For a long series of years til the Revolution, the sovereign of England claimed exclusive rights to every white pine tree in New Hampshire and elsewhere, fit for a mast for service of the Royal Navy. Such trees, growing outside the township granted before the 21st of September 1723 were branded with the ‘broad arrow’, and no man might dare cut them down, even on his own land, under heavy penalty. Large ships brought to our shores, goods we were forbidden to provide for ourselves and carried cargoes of our best pines. What wonder then, that as the exactions of England grew more and more rigorous, a ‘mast ship’ became a hated object.

“Such a ship, with a valuable cargo, wrecked on Hampton Beach on the night of November 30, 1764 not, it is believed, an act of rough weather, but owing to the pilot’s ignorance of the coast. The ship drove on the sands a little to the south of the present line of fish houses on the north beach, whence the crew, without difficulty, got ashore. The pilot, Captain William Branscomb, afterward settled in this town, and became the third husband of Prudence Page (nicknamed ‘Old Pru’).”

As an aftermath of the summer experience, which the two Massachusetts youths will undoubtedly carry throughout their lives, they were honored in Boston at Fort Warren when Edward Rowe Snow, New England Marine Historican invested them with the Order of the Purple Lanyard of the Cannon Hunters of America. No one is allowed to belong to the Cannoneers unless they have found cannons or cannon balls as amateur hunters and not as members of organized expeditions.

Thus, the story of “two boys and their secret” will be written in the history books of the future along side some of the great historic achievements of all time.

St. George Cannon by Skip Hird's CottageThe St. George Cannon lying beside Skip Hird’s Cottage

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