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The Florida Navy Legacy Shipwreck Project

by Bruce Macmillan

(Material contained herein is made available for the purpose of peer review and discussion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.)

In the Fall of 1994, the Florida Bureau of Archeological Research (BAR), an agency within the Division of Historical Resources in the Florida Department of State, began an historical and archeological study of U.S. Navy and Confederate Navy shipwrecks in Florida waters, including those offshore and in Florida's rivers and waterways. Responsible for administrating the Florida Historical Resources Act which includes responsibility for archeological resources on public lands (including Florida's submerged Sovereignty Lands), BAR began the Florida Navy Legacy Shipwreck Project as part of the state's ongoing inventory of terrestrial and submerged cultural resources. The project is being carried out in conjunction with the Naval Historical Center (NHC) and is funded through the Department of Defense's Legacy Resource Management Program. Legal title to most sunken U.S. naval vessels throughout the world rests with the NHC. The NHC is responsible for assembling information on all naval shipwrecks and for developing protective management strategies for all of them. The NHC is developing cooperative agreements with the other states and jurisdictions to help them study and manage naval shipwrecks.

The Florida Navy Legacy Shipwreck Project is divided into two phases: the first involves assembling basic primary and secondary historical information on Navy and Confederate shipwrecks: the second will involve further historical study on a smaller number of sites and possibly some archeological reconnaissance and fieldwork in conjunction with the Navy, National Park Service and other agencies. Historical research has been conducted at BAR, the Florida Bureau of Historic Preservation, the State Library of Florida, the Florida State Archives, the Strozier Library at Florida State University. The principal researcher also conducted research at the University of Florida Gainesville, which has a major collection of microfilmed Florida newspapers.

Phase One of BAR's Florida Navy Legacy Shipwreck Project has thus far resulted in the accumulation of more than 300 individual shipwreck records. Researchers add each new record to a computerized database and prepare a hard copy portfolio, containing the primary and secondary sources pertaining to the site. Two of the earliest American military vessels in the inventory were privateers captured by the Royal Navy during the American Revolution which later sank while in the service of the Royal Navy. Approximately one-third of the records accumulated thus far are for blockade runners or vessels in the service of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Many ships sunk in the post-World War II era also appear in this register. Beginning in the 1960s, the Navy sank a number of decommissioned ships as targets for air-sea exercises or for explosive training. During the period 1969-1982, at least 25 decommissioned destroyers, destroyer escorts, and one cruiser were sunk off Florida's northeast Atlantic coast, the Florida Keys and in the Gulf of Mexico. Since the 1970s, a large number of vessels formerly in Naval service and later sold to private concerns or transferred to other agencies have been sunk to create artificial reefs in Florida waters.

One particular site of interest for the project is the USS Alligator, which was wrecked near Islamorada, Florida in 1822. The Alligator was the first of a number of ships assigned by the Navy to suppress piracy in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean, after the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1821. The site of the USS Alligator now lies within the Florida Keys Maritime Sanctuary, established in 1990 and administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NHC, the state of Florida, NOAA and other agencies, organizations, and individuals are seeking to have the Alligator site placed on the National Register of Historic Places or Register of National Historic Landmarks, and to develop a management plan for the Alligator site which will afford it long-term protection.

The Project has also assembled historical information on other interesting sites such as the USS Narcissus, a tug lost in service near Tampa, Florida, in 1866 with the loss of all hands. At the time, this was one of the single worst disasters in U.S. naval history. BAR's Pensacola Shipwreck Survey (PSS) has also conducted a systematic study of shipwrecks in the Pensacola area that include several Navy and confederate ships. One example is the USS Massachusetts, which was decommissioned and sunk as a target for the Army's coastal guns in 1921.

Florida's Navy Legacy Shipwreck Project is revealing that Florida has a broad and exciting sunken naval and military heritage that should be studied and preserved for future generations. The Project is showing the value of historical and archeological research working together toward a common goal.

Bruce MacMillan was the principal researcher for Phase One: Historical and Archival Compilation, Volume One: "The Florida Navy Legacy Report". Further information on The Florida Bureau of Archaeology's Florida Navy Legacy Shipwreck Project is available online: (http://dhr.dos.state.fl.us/archaeology/projects/shipwrecks/legacy/), (www.flheritage.com/facts/reports/navy/). Mr. MacMillan holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Anthropology from Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, and a Masters of Museum Studies (M.M.St.) Degree from The University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is experienced in the field of Cultural Resource Management studies and helped develop a Management Plan for Submerged Cultural Resources for the State of Florida."

05 May 2009