Friday, March 11, 2005


Wreck found in Canada may be 1813 warship


The Plain Dealer
By Bill Sloat
February 19, 2005

Aritish man-of-war, the HMS General Hunter, that was captured by Commo dore Oliver Hazard Perry's American fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 may have been found buried and largely preserved under a sandy beach in Canada.

The shipwreck lies on the shore of Lake Huron at Southampton, Ontario, slightly tilted to its starboard side.

There is some damage to the port bow and severe shattering of timbers about midship along the hull.

Researchers have found hundreds of ceramic pieces from bowls and plates, clay pipes, eating utensils, 36 buttons from U.S. and British military uniforms, four cannon balls, a musket bayonet, gunflints and parts of what appear to be pistols. The artifacts, which were recovered last summer, are at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, where they are being cleaned and preserved.

The ship was reburied last autumn to protect it. Researchers from the conservation institute will continue working with artifacts over the next several months.

If the sunken vessel proves to be the General Hunter, it could be the oldest shipwreck ever located on the Great Lakes.
Canadian researchers and officials said in interviews this week that they are 99 percent certain the shipwreck was a fighting ship built in the age of sail.

And the only currently known warship on Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior that closely matches the wreck's dimensions - about 70 feet long and 20 feet wide - was the two-masted brig that carried 45 sailors when it fought the fledgling U.S. Navy for control of the Great Lakes.

"We're not 100 percent sure, but the circumstantial evidence is pretty compelling we've got the General Hunter. You Americans captured it in 1813, but we've probably got it back as a wreck," said Pat Folkes, a Canadian marine historian studying the ship.

"There are two or three other possibilities, but the construction of the hull is for a naval, not a merchant, vessel. The timbers are very substantial," Folkes said. "And we've found a lot of military artifacts, including a cannon."
Some scholars on the U.S. side are using words like "priceless" and "treasure" to describe the find.

When it sailed into combat on Lake Erie, the 180-ton square-rigger brandished eight cannons and was festooned with a huge flag and pennants symbolizing the might of the British Empire.

At the time, Britain was the world's greatest sea power. America was an upstart republic trying to protect its Northwest frontier and Ohio from invasion.

There is a strong possibility that the General Hunter was one of two British men-of-war that shelled Cleveland during the War of 1812. Most historians agree the ship did fire salvoes and ferry redcoats into Ohio when the British attacked Fort Meigs near Toledo.

On July 3, 1812, the General Hunter captured the U.S.S. Cayahoga, according to the Canadian National Park Service. Cayahoga is an early spelling for Cuyahoga.

Built in 1806 in Amherstburg at the mouth of the Detroit River, the General Hunter was one of a handful of fighting vessels built for service on the lakes.

Researchers have not found a nameplate or ship's registry with the hull to conclusively identify the vessel.

But Folkes said he has seen old reports that the General Hunter was wrecked about 100 miles north of the St. Clair River on eastern Lake Huron, which is near where the vessel was found.

After its capture by the United States, the ship was a transport for troops and supplies. It was abandoned in a storm on Lake Huron in 1816.

While the Canadians search for clues, the Americans still have some relics the Navy won in battle.

Perry removed the General Hunter's red ensign, a 13-foot-by-7½-foot flag with a Union Jack in the upper corner, along with a 13-foot-long pennant, and sent them to Washington as trophies of war after defeating the British near Put-in-Bay.

Both flags are at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The pennant is on display in an auditorium, said Jim Cheevers, curator at the academy's museum.

In a report about the salvage project, Canadian marine archaeologist Ken Cassavoy describes portions of the hull "as tight and solid today as they were approximately 200 years ago when the vessel was first built."

Cassavoy, who is heading the salvage team, could not be reached for comment. He is in Texas studying how U.S. researchers excavated the Belle, a French ship from the late 1600s that LaSalle used to explore the Gulf Coast.

In his report, he said the Southampton shipwreck was reburied on the shoreline last autumn to protect it over this winter.

He said 3,000 sandbags placed around the wreck during warm weather salvage operations were removed "and Lake Huron was allowed to break through and bury the site again in its own nondestructive but most effective way."

Steve Harold, president of the Association for Great Lakes Maritime History, said the Canadians seem to be working painstakingly to make a solid identification of the ship because unfounded rumors about discoveries crop up all too frequently around the lakes.

One reason for the caution: There have been at least 38 claims over the years that LaSalle's Griffon - the first ship to sail the Great Lakes - was located, Harold said.

"In this case, the only way to know for sure is to get a name or some other personal identification. Other than that, you have to match dimensions and look for original plans, things like that, which the Canadians, I hear, are doing," Harold said.

The official British account of the battle with Perry says the General Hunter "displayed the greatest intrepidity" as the cannons thundered on Lake Erie but was outgunned by Perry's force and had to surrender.

It may take years to fill in all the gaps. Canadian researchers are searching for documents and records from Washington to Ottawa and London.

"This would be a major discovery, if that's what they have," said Gerald T. Altoff, an expert on the Battle of Lake Erie and retired chief ranger at the Perry Victory and International Peace Memorial, a U.S. national monument dedicated to the naval showdown off South Bass Island. "This is better than finding a buried treasure. This is literally priceless."

Duncan McCallum, a Southampton town counselor, spotted some timbers sticking up from the beach while on a stroll in April 2001. McCallum said in a telephone interview that ice buildup over a harsh winter had "gouged out" a depression on the beach.

"Everybody out here jokes that I stubbed my toe over it."

At first, the Canadians suspected it was the Kaloohah, a sidewheel steamer that sank in the 1860s.

Then, they focused on the Weazell, a small merchant vessel built around 1798. Last summer, they became convinced it was not the Weazell because the ship's construction was far superior to that of a merchant vessel.

Ron Brown, chief administrative officer for the Canadian community, said the research team "will not officially suggest any name" and plans to hunt for more artifacts offshore this summer.

"They say it is a military ship. They now have to prove which ship it was," Brown said.


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