Reprinted from: DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum
THERE ARE HUNDREDS, BUT FEW HAVE BEEN EXPLORED
By PETER DURANTINE FENWICK ISLAND — It was a three-mast vessel with 249 immigrants aboard, bound for Philadelphia from Ireland. Just off the Delaware coast on a stormy September night in 1785, its captain lost navigational bearing, and the Faithful Steward ran aground on the shoals just north of the Indian River Inlet. There, the raging surf pounded its timbers into wreckage and took all but 68 lives. At morning’s light, survivors found they had been only 100 yards from shore.
The Faithful Steward is among thousands of ships over the centuries that sailed to their fate along Delaware’s coast. Hundreds of shipwreck sites are known, few have been explored, and far fewer have been examined and researched by archaeologists.
“It takes a mandate and it takes staff and it takes resources,” said Brent Rudmann, former director of the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes and now an educator for the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration in Norfolk, Va. For the 200 known shipwrecks off its coast, Delaware has no program dedicated to archaeology and preservation. The state has stepped in only twice to excavate, collect artifacts and preserve sites — in 1985, when treasure hunters began to plunder the HM Brig DeBraak, and in 2004, when the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers’ dredging project in the Delaware Bay’s Roosevelt Inlet accidentally smashed into a shipwreck dating to 1774.
It’s not clear why coastal Delaware has no maritime archaeology program, though it needs one, said state archaeologist Charles Fithian. He noted that neighboring Maryland has an underwater program that works well. Creating a program would require “carefully crafted legislation and legislative backing,” Fithian said.
“A good program would certainly be a valuable asset for preservation,” he said.
Archaeologists, historians and divers agree shipwrecks and the artifacts they give up are critical to our understanding of the past. In maritime circles, “time capsule” is the often-used analogy to describe what a shipwreck is to history.
“They give you a window to the time period of when they sank,” said J. Lee Cox, an underwater archaeologist with Dolan Research Inc., based in Newtown Square, Pa.
At the Roosevelt Inlet shipwreck, where researchers believe the name of the vessel is the Severn, uncovered artifacts are revealing much about the period of 1774, said Dan Griffith, state director of the Lewes Maritime Archaeological Project.
“The ship itself is an artifact,” he said “It reflects the maritime technologies of that period.”
He said the wreck’s cargo has told them about the geopolitics of the age, when the American Colonies were starting to fight for independence from England. The pipe stems, earthenware, woolen blankets and other artifacts are from three towns in Holland.
“We’re seeing maybe an avoidance of British commodities,” Griffith said. In an archaeological sense, shipwrecks offer the truest picture of the past because unlike on land, where several different time periods and cultures are often mixed on one site, a shipwreck stands alone in its watery grave.
“Whenever a ship wrecks, it’s sealed from the moment it goes down and not open until it’s explored,” said Dale Clifton, director of DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum in Fenwick Island. “We can look at a moment in time instead of a cross section of time.”
On rare occasions, a ship sinks atop an existing wreck, as happened with the coal-carrying Thomas Tracy. It sank in a storm in 1944 off Rehoboth Beach and landed on top of the 640-ton steamer Merrimac, which sank in 1918.
The DeBraak, a Royal Navy, two-masted, 16-cannon brig-sloop with a crew of 85, is considered the most significant shipwreck in archaeological terms. It wrecked on May 30, 1798, about one mile north of Cape Henlopen when a violent squall struck. Sixty sailors including the captain lost their lives. “The DeBraak has given us an unparalleled look into seafaring by the Royal Navy in the 1700s,” Fithian said.
Another significant site is the China Wreck, so called for 10,000 pieces of stoneware and pottery divers recovered over the decades (it was discovered in 1972) from its muddy, coral-encrusted holds. It was the Principessa Margherita di Piemonte of Naples, Italy, sailing from England to Philadelphia when a storm sunk it on the Hen and Chicken shoals off the Cape March 12, 1891. Archaeologists and historians believe thousands of ships are wrecked off the coast of Delaware. In its namesake bay and river, the shallow waters, strong currents and exposure to high winds made sailing perilous. Commercial ships seeking trade and warships protecting trade in the 1700s and 1800s are some of the most common found.
“People tend to forget one of the largest ports of call was Philadelphia,” Clifton said.
Not just Philadelphia, but at one time, Lewes, New Castle and Wilmington, when America — until the country began its own manufacturing — would send raw materials to Europe’s factories.
“One could say the story of our country’s history could be told by maritime trade,” Rudmann said. “Each wreck is a reporting of stories about the country as well as world commerce.”