Identifying the Remains of Chippewa

What Are The Clues?

Archaeologists use a number of sources to help them identify artifacts. Ships are particularly difficult, as many are constructed of oak and often only the bottom of the hull survives. In the case of Chippewa, plans developed by shipwright William Doughty (Chief Naval Constructor at the Washington Navy Yard) for it and its sister brig Saranac describe an 18-gun clipper brig with a length between perpendiculars of 108 feet; moulded beam of 29 feet, 9 inches; and a depth of hold of 13 feet, 9 inches.

Plans for US Brig Chippewa

In addition, contemporary accounts suggest Chippewa had a maximum draught of 16 feet, 6 inches, displaced between 390 and 410 tons, and was hastily constructed from green timber. This latter attribute—and the decay and subsequent repairs that very likely resulted from it—may be discerned in surviving remnants of Chippewa’s hull.

Illustration of typical carronade. This type of cannon was short and had a wide-mouth to accommodate large shot. They were used for close in fighting.

Another potentially diagnostic feature of Chippewa‘s wrecked remains is the vessel’s armament. Although most secondary historical sources describe Chippewa‘s battery consisting of 16 guns, there is some disagreement in official naval correspondence regarding its actual compliment of artillery. Originally, all of the Doughty-designed brigs were to be armed with two long 18-pounders, two long 12-pounders, and a complement of 32-pounder carronades that would comprise the remainder of each vessel’s armament. Saranac and Chippewa were both armed with fourteen carronades apiece, which would have increased their actual total complement of artillery from sixteen to eighteen guns.

In the aftermath of the wrecking event, Chippewa‘s crew tried to lighten the brig by throwing all of its shot—and possibly some of its artillery—overboard. Attempts to warp the vessel off the reef resulted in the loss of its starboard bower anchor (attached to an 11-inch stream anchor cable), which was deployed to the north of the wreck at the full extent of its cable’s length. Eventually, the brig bilged and heeled over on its starboard beam; shortly thereafter, both masts were cut away. The iron hardware from these masts and Chippewa’s rudder, which was wrenched from the hull during the wrecking event, may still remain on the reef, along with 32-, 18-, and 12-pounder iron shot, the brig’s bower anchor, and—possibly—some of its carronades and/or long guns. Because the vessel filled rapidly after it bilged, there is a good chance personal effects associated with the crew (including diagnostic items such as uniform buttons, coins, and tableware), small arms, rigging elements, and artifacts associated with food preparation (such as large cooking cauldrons) may still remain at the wreck site.

Finally, naval Court of Inquiry records reveal Chippewa came to grief on a coral reef that, according to the brig’s commander Lt. George C. Read, appeared to extend approximately 2 miles from the North West Point of Providenciales to the location of the wreck and then seaward for an additional unspecified distance. Members of Chippewa’s crew took soundings of the reef surrounding the wreck and reported water depth no greater than 13 feet for a cable’s length (approximately 720 feet) in all directions. Geographically, the section of fringe reef located between modern-day False Cut and Wheeland Cut off the North West Point most closely matches descriptions of the wreck’s location provided by Court of Inquiry deponents.

Management Issues
If the remains of one or both vessels are located, the Department of the Navy’s Naval Historical Center will need to be consulted before either shipwreck undergoes further archaeological investigation. The Department of the Navy is obligated to protect the submerged archaeological resources for which it has custodial responsibility under provisions outlined in the United States National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The NHPA directs federal agencies to manage their cultural resources in a manner that emphasizes preservation and minimizes the impact of potential adverse effects on such properties. In addition to serving the needs of historic preservation, the Navy’s management of its submerged wreck sites also addresses the issues of war graves and unexploded ordnance. The NHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch (UA), which advises the Navy in matters related to historic preservation of U.S. Navy ship and aircraft wrecks, will serve as the Navy’s liaison to the Chippewa and Onkahye survey, as well as the primary permitting authority for further investigation of these wreck sites.

Navy custody of its shipwrecks is based on the property clause of the United States Constitution and international maritime law. This is consistent with Articles 95 and 96 of the Law of the Sea Convention, which establish that right, title or ownership of federal property is not lost to the government due to the passage of time. Abandoned and stricken Navy ships remain the property of the federal government until either the Navy or Congress takes formal action to dispose of them. In addition, the sovereign immunity provisions of Admiralty Law enable the Department of the Navy to retain ownership of all of its wrecked ships and aircraft, whether lost within U.S., foreign, or international boundaries. Should the remains of Chippewa and/or Onkahye be located during this survey, UA will use data collected from each site to determine its level of preservation and create guidelines for its continued management and preservation.

Post Script
Read the 2008 Expedition Log to learn what we found and how the remains match the ship’s description and wrecking.