DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER
805 KIDDER BREESE SE -- WASHINGTON NAVY YARD
WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060
During the mid-1990's, Brent Phinney, owner of a sawmill and steel fabrication shop in Brewer, Maine, discovered the remains of a wooden shipwreck in shallow water just off the eastern shoreline of the Penobscot River. In June 1998, Phinney contacted Warren Riess, Research Associate Professor of History and Marine Sciences, University of Maine (Darling Marine Center), who in turn contacted representatives of the Naval Historical Center's Underwater Archaeology (UA) Branch. UA initiated the first phase of the Penobscot Expedition Archaeological Project by conducting a reconnaissance site investigation of the Phinney Site in fall 1999 and 2000. Analysis of the shipwreck and its associated artifact assemblage led NHC archaeologists to conclude that the Phinney Site represented the remains of a small eighteenth-century vessel that comprised one of the ill-fated American fleet that participated in the Penobscot Expedition of 1779.
The Penobscot Expedition
In June 1779, the British sent a contingent of soldiers to Majabagaduce, Massachusetts (present-day Castine, Maine) and established the military and political headquarters of a new colony for loyalist subjects fleeing the rebellious colonies. In addition, the new fortification (Fort George) served as a source of protection for British shipping operating in the Bay of Fundy and along the coast of Nova Scotia, and prevented a land assault against southern Canada by American forces. On 24 July 1779 a combined American naval and land force of approximately 40 ships and almost 3,000 men under the command of Commodore Dudley Saltonstall entered Penobscot Bay and laid siege to the new fort. Just as victory appeared to be within their grasp, the Americans were forced into a disorganized retreat up the Penobscot River by a British relief squadron that arrived at the entrance to the bay during the first half of August.
The British squadron was commanded by Sir George Collier and comprised of six vessels: the 64-gun line-of-battle ship Raisonable, 32-gun frigates Blonde and Virginia, 28-gun frigate Greyhound, and 20-gun frigates Galatea and Camilla. As the opposing fleet closed in on the mouth of the bay, an American lookout vessel rushed to the flagship Warren to alert the Commodore. Saltonstall, greatly unnerved by the news, hastily convened a council of war. At its conclusion, all members voted unanimously to evacuate the land forces and retreat up the Penobscot River. During the early morning hours of 14 August, the Continental Army deserted their lines and re-embarked their troops and equipment aboard transports.
|Figure 1 Destruction of the American Fleet at Penobscot Bay, 14 August 1779, oil painting by Dominic Serres (1722-1793)|
|Figure 2 Detail of a 1780 map of the Penobscot River showing the approximate location of burned American vessels below the falls at Bangor.|
The surviving American vessels managed to progress upriver, albeit slowly and with considerable effort from their crews. Unfortunately, some ships began to lag behind the others. Many, including the ordnance transport Samuel, were abandoned and torched near the present-day town of Winterport. Other vessels, including the Continental Navy vessels Warren, Providence, and Diligent; the Massachusetts State Navy ships Tyrannicide, Active, and Hazzard; a small number of privateers, and one surviving transport (the sloop Pidgeon), continued to slowly move north toward the river's head. The Warren's progress was severely hindered by its massive size, and it was soon unable to keep up with the rest of the fleet. Consequently, Saltonstall ordered his crew to heave to and anchor the flagship near Oak Point. The rest of the fleet pressed on, finally coming to anchor around midnight 14 August. The following morning, they resumed the journey, sailing as far as the falls at Bangor. Unable to proceed further upriver, the commanders of the remaining vessels in the expedition made preparations for a final stand against the British. Of the approximately 40 American ships that sailed into Penobscot Bay on 25 July, only ten survived the retreat to Bangor. The once powerful armada was now comprised of two small Continental Navy vessels, three Massachusetts State Navy brigs, four privateers, and one unarmed transport.
On the night of 15 August, American General Solomon Lovell appeared aboard Providence and informed the naval officers that Saltonstall needed assistance to tow the Warren upriver. News that the flagship had not yet been destroyed invigorated the men, and numerous boats were promptly manned and sent down to Oak Point. Despite such good tidings, the privateer crews began scuttling their vessels during the early morning hours of August 16. The first vessel to be destroyed was the transport Pigeon, followed shortly thereafter by Hector and Black Prince. Monmouth exploded as flames from Black Prince reached its deck guns and powder stores. A few hours later, a messenger arrived from Oak Point with news that the Warren had been set ablaze on Saltonstall's orders and was already consumed. The same fate befell the privateers downriver. With no other option left to them, the officers and crew of the remaining ships abandoned their craft and set them on fire. Since most were "half a pistol shot" or less apart, the flames rapidly spread from one vessel to another. By late afternoon 16 August, the river near Bangor was filled with the smoldering hulks of ships that had either exploded or burned to the waterline and slipped beneath the water. Only forty-eight hours after Collier's British squadron arrived at the mouth of Penobscot Bay, most of the American fleet lay in ruins along the course of the river.
Archaeological Investigations at the Phinney Site
Presently, the remains of approximately 30 watercraft associated with the Penobscot Expedition are believed to be in the Penobscot Bay and River system, all of which are potentially significant cultural and historical resources. Because the majority of these sites are near populated areas, they risk the detrimental impacts of natural forces (erosion, decomposition, etc.), land and water development, and the depredations of opportunistic relic hunters. Consequently, submerged archaeological resources associated with the Penobscot Expedition are the focus of a number of research projects, including one developed by the Naval Historical Center.
|Figure 3 A mid-eighteenth century brass shoe buckle discovered at the wreck site in 1999. It was likely worn by one of the vessel's junior officers.|
|Figure 4 An archaeological illustration of the silver coin: top, obverse view; bottom, reverse view|
During the 2000 field season, a small silver coin was located at the base of the vessel's mainmast step mortise. Conservation and analysis of the coin revealed that it is a Spanish 2-reales produced at the Royal Mint Mill in Segovia, Spain in 1708 (during the reign of Philip V). The specimen was the result of a method of production called roller-mill (or roller-struck) coining. The 2-Reale coin, also known in the English colonies as a pistareen, enjoyed wide circulation in the English colonies of North America prior to, during, and after the American Revolution. In fact, it is estimated that half of the coins in colonial America were various denominations of Spanish reales. While most of the coins used in the English colonies were minted in the New World, some Spanish coins minted in Spain circulated as well. The coins minted in Spain were referred to as "new plate" since they were 20-percent lighter than Spanish colonial coins. The pistareen was one of these coins. Since most coinage in the American colonies remained in circulation years after being issued, the presence of a low-denomination 1708 coin aboard a suspected Revolutionary War-era vessel is not at all surprising.
The vessel's surviving hull structure is remarkably well preserved, and consists of a variety of components including the keel, keelson, apron, stem, sternpost, floors, and cant frames. The ship's architecture compares favorably to previously-investigated eighteenth-century shipwrecks, including the privateer Defence (scuttled during the Penobscot Expedition), British collier Betsey (scuttled at Yorktown, Virginia in the closing days of the American Revolution), the Devereaux Cove Wreck (believed to be a scuttled transport from the Penobscot Expedition), the Terrence Bay Wreck (a mid-eighteenth century fishing schooner wrecked near Halifax, Nova Scotia), and the Reader's Point sloop (a middle-to-late eighteenth century vessel abandoned in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica). The Phinney Site likely was rigged as either a brig or schooner, based on its preserved keel length (approximately 80 feet), the relative positions of the main and foremast steps, its scantlings, projected tonnage (244.2 tons) and other attributes. All of the aforementioned compare favorably with characteristics of mid-eighteenth century brigs and schooners observed in both the archaeological and historical records. Wood samples recovered from a variety of hull components indicate that the ship was manufactured predominantly from white and red oak, while sediment samples obtained from the bilge revealed the presence of pollen from a variety of plants native to the northeastern United States. When taken together, both the wood and pollen samples point to a vessel that was likely constructed and outfitted in an American shipyard, and that operated primarily in North American waters.
|Figure 5 The overall Phinney Site plan, showing the extent of wreck remains exposed and recorded at the end of the 2000 field season.|