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March 7, 2013

Discovery in U.K. Archives Reveal Key Shipwreck Documents

The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum’s Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP), Director, Chuck Meide, made some key discoveries recently in London, England.  Meide spent January 14-17, 2013 examining documents in the United Kingdom’s National Archives (formerly the Public Records Office), in an attempt to learn as much as possible about a shipwreck believed to be a British Loyalist Ship that was fleeing Charleston, South Carolina in 1782, currently referred to as Storm Wreck, which St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeologists have been excavating offshore.

“Once entrenched in the Archives, I was hard at work each day,” said Meide. “From start to close I spent the day searching through records looking for any trace of our shipwreck, including any information on the British evacuation of Charleston at the end of the Revolutionary War, and of the 71st Regiment. We believe our ship was a member of the final fleet to leave Charleston at the end of the War, and at least one soldier of the 71st Regiment (Fraser's Highlanders) was on board when she ran hard aground on the notorious sandbar at the mouth of the St. Augustine Inlet.”

One key document that Meide was able to find was a letter dated January 9, 1783 from East Florida's British Governor, Patrick Tonyn, to the British Commander in Chief Sir Guy Carleton in New York. In it Tonyn reports the loss of a naval ship called the Rattlesnake along with two supply ships and six private vessels. According to Meide, “There are still some discrepancies in our understanding of the wrecking event, as Tonyn lists nine ships lost, while the Loyalist Elizabeth Johnston writing just three days after the wrecking on January 3, 1783 mentions that 16 ships were lost on the sandbar, and another six or eight wrecked on the beach. The German military surgeon Johann Schoepf, who visited St. Augustine a year later, corroborated Johnston's account as he also mentioned sixteen ships lost on the bar.”

Another key document discovered was a list of the vessels used by the Army to evacuate Charleston. One was dated about a month before the fleet departed Charleston, detailing which squadrons were going to which destination, including Jamaica, St. Lucie, England and Halifax. “While we know eight Army transport vessels ended up going to East Florida and St. Augustine, they are not named individually on this list, unfortunately,” Meide stated. “But on the other hand, it does provide a vital new piece of information. The surviving troops of the 71st Regiment, which numbered only 189 men, were to be loaded onto the ship named Sally and bound for Jamaica. At least one of the members of the 71st never got there but was instead shipwrecked at St. Augustine, as evidenced by the 71st regimental button recovered from the wreckage.”

Meide also disclosed, “We don't know if our Storm Wreck is that of the Sally, who perhaps for some emergency tried to enter St. Augustine, or if some of the soldiers of the 71st were ordered onto other ships, perhaps to provide armed protection from predatory privateers. We know there were soldiers from a provincial unit also on board the Storm Wreck, evidenced from the Royal Provincial button also recovered from the wreckage. According to this document, the provincial troops were on other vessels, so we don't quite yet have our smoking gun, and aren't ready to say definitively if we have the shipwrecked Sally or another vessel, but we are one step closer to the truth.”

All in all, Meide recorded over 1,000 pages from more than 100 documents related to the evacuations of Savannah, Charleston, and New York, including several other lists of transport ship names, along with letters from the colonial office and commander in chief's office, records related to the 71st Regiment, and ships’ logs, including that of HMS Belisarius which was escorting the fleet to St. Augustine. Right now the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program has volunteers who are going through the documents, which have all been sorted and are safely stored on the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum’s computer server. The volunteers have begun the slow process of transcription of what Meide says “is often pretty awful handwriting.”

United KingdomSouth CarolinaJamaica
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