Thank you for joining the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum this morning [April 9, 2020] for Mission Accomplished: Discovering a Revolutionary War Shipwreck. This is the first of a four-part series showcasing the Museum mission to discover, preserve, present, and keep alive the stories of the nation’s oldest port as symbolized by our working St. Augustine Lighthouse.
First, a little background. Archaeologists are scientist that study materials, such as pottery and jewelry, that people left behind either intentionally, like in a burial, or by accident, like a shipwreck. Archaeologists with the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum study shipwrecks to discover stories of our nation’s oldest port and learn about our shared maritime past. Historical records tell of hundreds of ships that wrecked off the coast of St. Augustine in its 450-year history.
To find shipwrecks underwater, archaeologists use a large metal detector called a magnetometer to locate iron objects that are often found on shipwrecks, such as anchors, cannons, nails and cooking pots. They also use a side scan sonar that sends sound waves down to create a picture of the ocean floor.
The equipment is pulled by the boat, which goes back and forth in lines and records data. Archaeologists analyze the data and determine where to dive for shipwrecks.
Once underwater, archaeologists will use a metal tube with a point on it to probe beneath the sand. If they hit a hard object, they will remove the sand by hand to see what they found.
While doing this one day in the summer of 2009, archaeologists found two objects that looked like lumps of rock. Called concretions, they are the result of iron objects corroding in the ocean water for hundreds of years. They knew they had found a shipwreck. But, finding a shipwreck is just the beginning of the discovery!
Archaeologists at the Museum wanted to discover how old the shipwreck was, which of the three colonial powers may have built the ship, what its purpose was, and why it sank. They began a 5-year excavation in 2010 to look for answers to these questions.
To get as much information as possible, archaeologists are methodical in their approach to recovering artifacts. They place a grid over the area where they plan to remove sand.
They draw underwater on mylar with a pencil to map everything that they find.
They use their drawings to recreate the entire site on paper.
To remove the sand, they use a dredge, which is like a shop vac with a really long hose.
It sucks the sand away.
As the sand is sucked through the dredge hose, a mesh bag tied to the end of the hose catches the smaller artifacts and shells, and the sand goes through.
Labeled with the grid coordinates where the sand was removed, volunteers and conservators sort through the bags to find smaller artifacts.
A combination of ropes, pulleys, and bags filled with air lifts large artifacts such as the ship’s bell and two cannons out of the water. You can see video footage on our YouTube channel of the team lifting the cannon from the ocean floor to the land. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xz-huDf9JDM
Back at the lab, Museum conservators began to conserve the cannon. It was a messy job that had to be done outside.
Removing the concretion materials from the cannon revealed a date of 1780 on the smaller cannon, much to the delight of conservators and onlookers at the Museum.
Now it was clear that the ship was from sometime after 1780. The cannon held additional clues.
The smaller cannon was called a carronade. Like this example pictured, they were made in a foundry in Scotland and were used on naval vessels between 1778 and 1850.
Historical records show that 41 vessels sank off St. Augustine between 1782 and 1817. Given the date on the carronade, the most compelling of these is the wrecking of 16 loyalist ships arriving as part of an evacuation fleet from Charleston at the end of the American Revolutionary War. They were coming to St. Augustine, in the loyal British colony of East Florida, to escape the rebelling Carolinas. Could it be one of these ships?
A Queen Anne pistol recovered from the site certainly fit the time period, but like the carronade, its date range was long. This pistol suggested that regardless of when the ship sank, there were people with money and status aboard. This was a high-class pistol!
Remember the bags at the end of the dredge hose? Sometime after the carronade was cleaned, the team found a small button etched with the number 71. Research revealed that it was from a uniform of the 71st British regiment, which was a part of the evacuation fleet from Charleston.
Between this small find, the date on the carronade, and several other artifacts dating to the period such as the Queen Anne’s pistol, little doubt was left that this indeed was one of the loyalist ships that wrecked off the shore of St. Augustine at the end of the Revolutionary War.
In an effort to dig deeper, Museum researchers travelled to the British National Archives to see if they could find the ship’s name.
Tough the archives didn’t reveal the ship’s name, the did provide details about the soldiers and sailors on board, include how much they were paid and where they were born.
And that’s how the Museum discovered important and a previously untold story from the Nation’s Oldest Port! Mission Accomplished!
Visit the Museum blog and YouTube channel for more on this discovery. Thanks for joining and hope to see you soon. In the meantime, don’t forget to #LoveYourLighthouse