The Immigrant Ship Saint John

Nineteenth century sea travel was a HOT mess.

      We all know the story of the Titanic, a ship travelling from England to New York City that sank in the Atlantic Ocean in 1912. That being said, very few people know about a shipwreck that happened sixty-three years earlier off the coast of Cohasset, Massachusetts in 1849 that led to the deaths of forty-five Irish emigrants coming to America to start a new life.

      The ship in question, the St. John, was travelling from Galway, Ireland to Boston, Massachusetts when it encountered a massive storm off of the coast of New England on October 7, 1849. The ship’s Captain tried to anchor near Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse off of the coast of Cohasset for safety. Unfortunately, the storm was too strong and the waves too powerful for the ship’s anchors, and soon the St. John and her passengers were swept up in the mighty storm. The ship was quickly filled with water and crashed into the large rocks of Grampus Ledge in Cohasset Bay. Those onboard the ship tried to save themselves, but tragically many lost their lives (Snow, 90-95).

      After the storm subsided, the bodies of the dead that could be found were brought to shore and put in a mass grave in Cohasset Central cemetery. In 1914 a large memorial of a Celtic cross was erected above the grave to honor those who lost their lives as a result of the sinking of the St. John. The text on the memorial reads as follows,

“This cross was erected and dedicated May 30, 1914 by the A.O.H [Ancient Order of Hibernians] and the L.A.A.O.H [Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians] 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 R.I.P.” (Cohasset Central Cemetery).

      The people of Cohasset made a continued effort throughout the twentieth century to continue the remembrance of the sinking of the St. John. For in October of 1999 there was a two-day commemoration for the 150th anniversary of the incident (Government in Northern Ireland).

      Interestingly however, the person who has best preserved the memory of the sinking of the St. John is neither Edward Rowe Snow nor any of the people of Cohasset, but Massachusetts native and famous American author Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s 1864 book entitled Cape Cod which entails “essays based on observations [he]…made during three walking tours of the Cape he undertook between 1849 and 1855” opens with a chapter entitled “The Shipwreck” which discusses Thoreau’s experience with the St. John (Schneider, 463). The author witnessed the aftermath of the shipwreck and upon seeing the dead asked himself,

“Why care for these dead bodies? They really have no friends but the worms or fishes. Their owners were coming to the New World, as Columbus and the Pilgrims did, --they were within a mile of its shores but, before they could reach it, they emigrated to a newer world than ever Columbus dreamed of…” (Thoreau, 14).

      This story is supremely valuable because it is a potential starting point for a discussion of the Irish in America in the middle of the nineteenth century. During the time of the shipwreck there was a great famine occurring in Ireland which led to many Irish seeking a new home elsewhere.  Many of them came to the land of opportunity, the United States. Ships like the St. John were commonly known as “Famine Ships” and between the years of 1846 and 1851 are thought to have brought over “more than one million Irish” (Schneider, 467). In fact, at the time of the shipwreck the population of the greater Boston area was seventeen percent Irish, around 35,000 people (Schneider, 466). And a sizable portion of today’s American population are descendants of Irish famine survivors.

      While the history of the Irish famine may be dark and often heartbreaking, it is an important event that greatly influenced the history of both Ireland and the United States. Every American History textbook features a line or two on the famine, but exploring the topic through the non-traditional lens of the tragic shipwreck of the St. John will only provide more depth to the subject and how it shaped the history of the United States.


"Government in Northern Ireland; A Home for Boston's Irish Culture; Cross-Atlantic Business Booming; Irish Arts Play Prominent Role; Past Tragedies Remembered." The Boston Irish Reporter, Jan 01, 2000. Proquest.

Schneider, Ryan. “Drowning the Irish: Natural Borders and Class Boundaries in Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Cape Cod.’” ATQ 22, no. 3 (September 2008): 463–76.,sso&db=hlh&AN=34757932&site=ehost-live&scope=site.\

Snow, Edward Rowe. Storms and Shipwrecks of New England. Updated by Jeremy D’Entremont. Foreword by William P. Quinn. 1943. Reprint, Carlisle, MA: Commonwealth Editions, 2003.

“The History of Cohasset Central Cemetery: 14. Celtic Cross.” Cohasset Central Cemetery.

Thoreau, Henry David. Cape Cod. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1904. HathiTrust.

Further Reading:

Morgan, Jack. "Thoreau's "The Shipwreck" (1855): Famine Narratives and the Female Embodiment of Catastrophe." New Hibernia Review 8, no. 3 (2004): 47-57. doi:10.1353/nhr.2004.0062.

Pinsky, Robert. "Comedy, Cruelty, and Tourism." The American Scholar, Summer, 2004, 79-88. Proquest.

Stevens, Peter F. "The Wreck of the St. John (Part I)." The Boston Irish Reporter, Oct 01, 1997. Proquest.