Possible Revolutionary War ship found in York River

Quinton Sheppard - Posted on Aug 25, 2010 - 04:18 PM

Another ship that may have been part of the British fleet during the 1781 Battle of Yorktown was found in the York River just off Yorktown beach.

Archaeologists, in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR), through its Threatened Sites Program, began a survey last week to map and try to identify the wreck.

DHR archaeologist Dave Hazzard said the notion that something else may be down there came about in 2008 when Marine Sonic Technology, Ltd. of Gloucester was testing some of its remote-sensing equipment. This sonar equipment, he said, essentially shows shadows of objects deep underwater.

Photo: Divers were anchored last week over the newly-discovered shipwreck in the York River believed to be part of the British fleet during the 1781 Battle of Yorktown. Shown, from left, are Ron Grayson, underwater archaeologist; Josh Daniel and Gordon Watts from Tidewater Atlantic Research (TAR), and John Broadwater of Spritsail. Photo courtesy Dave Hazzard

Divers were anchored last week over the newly-discovered shipwreck in the York River believed to be part of the British fleet during the 1781 Battle of Yorktown. Shown, from left, are Ron Grayson, underwater archaeologist; Josh Daniel and Gordon Watts from Tidewater Atlantic Research (TAR), and John Broadwater of Spritsail. Photo courtesy Dave Hazzard

Hazzard said one of the pieces of sensing equipment got hung up underwater in the area of the latest find. That was when the company contacted John Broadwater, an archaeologist very familiar with the Yorktown site.

Broadwater directed the decade-long archaeological study in the 1970s and ’80s where other shipwrecks were explored. That study resulted in a permanent exhibit at the Yorktown Victory Center and a feature article on the project in the June 1988 National Geographic magazine.

If this latest find rings true, it will make 10 shipwrecks found in the York River from the Revolutionary War area, Hazzard said. The area is currently listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

"This month’s survey has the potential to rekindle interest in the shipwrecks and in DHR’s efforts to protect Virginia’s underwater historic resources," said Randy Jones, public information officer for DHR.

Hazzard said DHR received money and contracted Tidewater Atlantic Research to go down and further test the site. He said Broadwater, Hazzard and Gordon Watts, another archaeologist with over 30 years of experience, used equipment last Wednesday and Thursday to assess the site.

What they found was 40 feet of vessel, which is believed to be the bow end of the ship. However, Hazzard said the wood disappears after about 40 feet.

Next, the archaeologists took metal probes, which were stuck into the mud, to find a consistent alignment of wood in the mud below the surface.Using this method, the men discovered an additional 27 feet of the vessel, making for a total length of 67 feet.

Hazzard said the orientation of the find brings it within the same alignment of other shipwrecks along the Yorktown waterfront. It is just 11 feet from another documented wreck.

"With the orientation, location and configuration of this ship, we are 97 percent sure this is a Revolutionary War shipwreck," he said.

With last week’s work just being a preliminary study, Hazzard said archaeologists have not yet named the ship.

From here, with additional funding, he said work should be done to bring up specific artifacts from the ship that will be able to point to a specific time frame of when it may have sunk.

Hazzard said many of the ships found were part of British Gen. Charles Cornwallis’s fleet.

Providing a brief history, Hazzard said Cornwallis was concerned about a possible French amphibious assault on Yorktown Beach. As a protective maneuver, he said Cornwallis ordered the ships to be sunk with the intent of raising them later, after the threat had subsided.