By Shannon O’Neil
Special to Historic City News
Three years after finding a shipwrecked cannon from 1782, conservators at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum hope the restoration process will yield new clues to this shipwreck mystery.
On New Year’s Eve, 1782, sixteen British Loyalist ships carrying evacuees from Charleston, S.C., ran aground while trying to enter the St. Augustine Inlet. More than 200 years later, archaeologists from the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum are carefully conserving artifacts recovered from one of those sixteen ships in hopes that they will reveal clues about these ill-fated vessels.
“Based on the artifacts we’ve recovered so far, we know this ship was part of a huge fleet that evacuated British Loyalists from the colonies near the end of the American Revolution,” said Chuck Meide, Director of the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP). “Our ship sailed from Charleston and was probably carrying both civilians and soldiers who were seeking refuge in St. Augustine. At that time in history, Florida was the closest British-held colony where evacuees could take shelter and try to start their lives again.”
On Wednesday, August 6th, lighthouse archaeologists will begin the next phase of conservation on a five-foot-long cannon, the biggest artifact recovered from the shipwreck to date. The team will lift the heavy gun from a vat in the lighthouse courtyard where it has been undergoing electrolysis in a bath of soda ash since it was raised from the ocean floor in 2011.
“This cannon is special for us because it was the first one we discovered on the wreck site back in 2010,” said Dr. Sam Turner, Director of Archaeology at the museum. “Initially, the cannon seemed anonymous, but as we’ve removed some of the concretions we think there might be some writing that could be a big clue.”
The research team is hoping to find evidence that would lead them to the vessel’s name, a fact that is still unknown more than five years into excavation. Thus far, other artifacts in conservation, including the ship’s bell and carronade, have yielded some traceable information, but nothing to lead researchers to the ship’s name. Finding a name would help archaeologists search for official records of passengers and cargo aboard the ship.
This project has been financed in part with historic preservation grant assistance provided by the Bureau of Historic Preservation, Division of Historical Resources, and Florida Department of State, assisted by the Florida Historical Commission.
Grants and appropriations awarded by the State of Florida for the 2014-15 fiscal year, along with private contributions from donors and members, have allowed the nonprofit museum to expand its conservation efforts with additional staff and resources. The museum plans to have all of the artifacts restored and curated for a new exhibit in 2016.
“This is a side of the American Revolution that is not often told,” said museum Executive Director Kathy A. Fleming. “To have such a unique and interesting piece of our national history found right here in St. Augustine and then conserved, researched and eventually exhibited in St. Augustine is a wonderful contribution to our community.”
Visitors can view the cannon and other artifacts from this shipwreck up close at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum, open seven days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Guided tours of the museum’s conservation areas are also available. Call (904) 829-0745 for times and tickets or visit www.staugustinelighthouse.org for more information.
ABOUT THE ST. AUGUSTINE LIGHTHOUSE & MUSEUM:
A pivotal navigation tool and unique landmark of St. Augustine for over 140 years, the St. Augustine Light Station is host to centuries of history in the Nation’s Oldest Port. Through interactive exhibits, guided tours and maritime research, the 501(c) 3 non-profit St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum is on a mission to preserve, present and keep alive the story of the Nation’s Oldest Port SM as symbolized by our working lighthouse. We are the parent organization to the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP) and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.