Tuesday, December 06, 2005


State grant to fund Historical Society of Martin County's study of shipwrecks


By Suzanne Wentley
December 03, 2005

The Historical Society of Martin County hopes to track down pieces of Jonathan Dickinson's ship the Reformation, which sank in 1696.

With a state grant stowed away, Martin County historians have begun researching the waters off the coast for historic shipwrecks like the one that brought Jonathan Dickinson, the Quaker pioneer whose journal constitutes the area's earliest written history.

This month, volunteers with the Historical Society of Martin County researched ways to identify pieces of wrecks and underwater artifacts, which someday could be part of a new exhibit at the Elliott Museum on Hutchinson Island.

Using the expertise of a nonprofit salvage operation and volunteer archaeologists, local historians said the 7-square-mile survey — which will take place early next year — will likely uncover many historically significant wrecks.

But they're most eager to track down pieces of Dickinson's Reformation, which foundered on local reefs in a 1696 storm before being burned by Ais Indians and buried by shifting sands from another storm.

"This is such an important historic ship," said Renee Booth, director of development for the historical society. "It could open a lot of doors educationally, not just for us but for everyone."

To conduct a 14-day underwater search, the society landed a $40,718 grant from the state Division of Historical Resources earlier this year and began working with state archaeologists and experts from the North Carolina-based Institute for International Maritime Research.

Roger Smith, a state underwater archaeologist, likened the survey to mowing the lawn: Experts will cover the entire coastline — focusing their search where the shoreline would have been before centuries of erosion — with equipment that uses magnetism and sonar to identify artifacts.

Anything uncovered will be the property of the state, and experts in a state laboratory in Tallahassee will preserve the artifacts, he said.

"You never know what you're going to find, but it's always interesting," Smith said. "We try to partner with a museum so artifacts that are recovered can go on display at that museum close to where they're found."

Local volunteers familiar with local history and underwater salvage also started compiling information about the Reformation and the Nantwich, which wrecked during the same storm after traveling alongside Dickinson from Jamaica.

Historian Marty Baum said he's been trying to contact Jamaican officials to learn what kind of stones were used as ballast during the time the Reformation sailed.

He's also referenced Dickinson's journal to narrow down where the ship might have foundered, one of scores that wrecked along the Treasure Coast. The region is named for a 1715 shipwreck that spilled gold along the beaches.

"I have pretty good faith we'll come up with some pretty good stuff," Baum said. "We'll have new places to look at and investigate."


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