Brice Stump: Did the British burn this ship? Nanticoke discovery amazes

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This dead eye, recovered from the wreck of a merchant ship that sank more than 200 years ago near Vienna, is one of the few iron fittings found among the timbers of the vessel. It was used to guide sail lines.

There are secrets and mysteries in wooden bones found in the Nanticoke River.

Framing members and timbers of what is believed to be parts of an 18th-century merchant ship were found 30 feet down in the river, under the Route 50 bridge, preserved in mud for more than 200 years.

Brice Stump, a reporter at The Daily Times from 1979 until his retirment this year, has a story on the discovery of a historic ship in this week's Salisbury Independent.

Brice Stump

The wooden fender system around the base of one of the  bridge’s support pilings, which had been struck and damaged by a barge this past February, led to the discovery.

A commercial dive team was enlisted to locate and remove debris from the shipping lane in preparation for repairs.

Workers recognized that the wood being hauled to the barge was far older than the material used in the protective system and notified the State Highway Administration of their discovery.

Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the Maryland State Highway Administration and her team came to Vienna to investigate.

Within minutes the team concluded the remains were that of an early ship — based on construction techniques — and arranged to have the timbers removed from the barge. The pieces were loaded onto a tugboat, then onto a 50-foot flatbed truck and hauled without delay to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory in Calvert County.

Debris is a merchant ship

A portable above-ground swimming pool was purchased in which the timbers were submerged in fresh water.

“If they weren’t kept wet they would soon start drying out, warping and twisting making conservation impossible,” Schablitsky said.

The pieces have been scanned by a laser, she said, and will be used in computer-generated three-dimensional “rebuilding” of the vessel.

Though she believes only 20 percent of the vessel was recovered, what was found are the key elements in determining measurements of the vessel.

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“What we found were pieces of a merchant ship about 40 to 45 feet long,” she said. “We do have the keel and the keelson, the very bottom of the ship, and that helped us determine the ship’s length.”

The use of “treenails” — wooden pegs — in the construction left little doubt the vessel, made of oak, was centuries old.

Using modern sleuthing techniques, such as dendrochronology (studying  the annual growth rings in the timber used and comparing them with established dated benchmarks in other discoveries) the team came up with a date of 1743 to the late 1700s. It may also be possible to determine the region in which the trees were felled.

It is believed to be the oldest Maryland-built vessel. Whether it had one or two sails has yet to be determined, the archeologist said.

The ship, she said, was probably used to move cargo, perhaps hogsheads of tobacco, farm goods and even livestock and may have ferried cargo to and from larger ships to plantations and merchants.

Strange, curious carvings

On examining the quality of the work on the recovered pieces, Schablitsky and others believe the vessel was built on a local plantation by slaves or indentured servants.

“The workmanship isn’t that of professional builders,” she said

“At least three curious or strange carvings have been found. “We don’t know what they mean. Usually when you see carvings on a ship, they were put there during the construction process, usually Roman numbers, but these were different. There are two geometric patterns (carvings) that no one in our team of underwater archeologists and maritime historians, had ever seen before.”

Were they simply construction diagrams used when building the boat?

“They may have been put there for construction purposes. It’s a mystery, No one knows.”

They are clues in wood, crisp and clear as they day they were cut 2 centuries ago.

The timbers  may have drifted to the site or been exposed when construction of the bridge was under way in the 1990s.

“An examination of the timbers in the lab revealed evidence that they had been ‘exposed’ on the bottom, meaning they had been removed from the mud or muck for sometime,” she said. “It was so murky at the bottom,” she said, “divers could only feel for objects.”

Schablitsky feels confident that most of the timbers at the site were recovered.

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“Archaeologists used a hydro-probing pipe (forcing water under pressure through a pipe to move bottom sediment) to see if there were any more ship pieces. It’s unlikely there’s anything left of that wreck down there other than some disarticulated pieces.”

An iron deadeye, used for managing sail ropes, was found, but the lack of iron and other metal parts, Schablitsky said, suggests that the boat was not constructed by professional builders at a major boat-building site.

Also found was evidence that some of the wood was charred suggesting the vessel had been burned. It is known that Vienna was attacked several times during the late 1700s by the British.

For archaeologist and consultant Ed Otter of Fruitland, the site may have other artifacts yet to be recovered.

“I just can’t believe the remains weren’t destroyed during construction of the bridge in the ’90s. Just a few feet one way or another and they could have been destroyed when those fitting and pilings were placed.

“If the ship went down at that  site in the late 1700s, especially if burned by the British,” Otter said, “there may have been things onboard used in the daily life of the crew that may have survived, such as tools, gear, utensils, fittings, even plates.

It’s a real shame this wasn’t found by archaeologists first and recovered, but no one expected to find a ship at a site where a bridge had been built. It’s just amazing what has survived. This find is simply incredible.”

Dorchester County Commissioner Tom Bradshaw, who is also a Vienna historian, said the discovery has renewed interest in the town’s history. “This is amazing stuff, just unbelievable,” he said.

Vienna vs. the British

So, how did it happen that an 18th-century merchant ship ended up on the bottom of the Nanticoke River?

“Vienna had conflicts with the British at least three times,” Bradshaw said. “During the Revolution they came up the river and attacked the town. Levin Dorsey was the only casually of the war in Dorchester County. He lived in Vienna and was killed here during a skirmish with the British in the late 1700s,” he said.

“Yes, there are records of ships being burned here at that time. I think it was between the Revolution and 1800 that this boat could have been set on fire and sunk.”

Bradshaw has a theory as to the owner of the boat and where it was built. He said the location of an 18th century plantation about six miles south of town, along the Nanticoke River,  is a prime site.

It was the home of Maryland Gov. John Henry, who served 1797-1798.

Artifacts found at his home site, and account inventories, suggest a sizable warehouse was once located here, not far from Wappremander or Peach Orchard Creek.

Because Henry, and his business partner and relative by marriage, Henry Steele, were heavily engaged in the buying and selling of merchandise, it is probable they had their own boats for moving goods. These vessels, suitable for inland waterway use may have been built at Wappremander Creek.

The schooner, William J. Layton was built on or near the the Henry plantation about 1875. In 1872 a Joseph W. Brooks of Madison, near Cambridge, was brought to the site along the Wappermander Creek to supervise construction.

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Dorchester County Commisioner Tom Bradshaw stands in front of the Customs House in Vienna. Built in the late 1700s, imported and exported shipped merchandise was cleared through this office. The documentation of goods handled by the merchant ship, the remains of which have been found nearby, would also have been inventoried here.

This suggests to Bradshaw  that the existing shipyard on the creek had been an established operation decades prior to the construction of the Layton and may have been where Henry had his vessels constructed with his own slave labor.

Historical accounts note that Brooks brought with him skilled ship carpenters and also hired local men to build the schooner.

These local men, like their forefathers, may have been skilled carpenters but lacked professional boat-building expertise. Like the shipwreck found in the Nanticoke, the Layton was built of oak. The oak used in the Layton was known to have been cut from local forests.

“Gov. Henry and his wealthy business partner, Henry Steele, had house lots here in town that extended to the riverfront. They had warehouses and store and there was a lot of trade going on here.

“Several years ago, when work was being done on the bulk heading on the waterfront, a lot of 18th-century artifacts were uncovered. People were coming down here taking whatever they could find.

“It was a free for all. And all that stuff was found at the site of where Henry and Steele had their operations. This was the commercial center of town in the 18th century,” he said.

Henry was no stranger to the pillaging British. As a member of the Maryland House of Delegates  and Senate in the last quarter of the 1700s, Henry was also a member of the Continental Congress and became governor of Maryland in 1797. His plantation home south of Vienna, was sacked and burned by the British. His business operations on the shore of the Nanticoke, in Vienna, was probably a key target for shelling and looting.

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Traffic moves over the Route 50 bridge crossing the Nanticoke River where remains of an 18-century shipwreck have been found. Timbers were recovered just to the right of the protective wooden fender system at the base of the piling.

If the British had also identified his merchant ships, they would likely have been singled out for destruction.

“I think it’s a very good possibility that the ship they found was burned during the Revolutionary War years,” Bradshaw said, “especially if they knew it was Henry’s boat.”

Within yards of the site of the Henry and Steele store and warehouses is the former Customs House, erected after 1768 in which merchandise was inventoried and recorded entering and leaving Vienna.

Whatever imported or exported goods were on the merchant ship recently recovered, the captain came to this building to handle shipping business.

Just to the south of the Customs House is a gut, off the Nanticoke River, where legend says boats were built centuries ago. Decades ago there were reports of skeletons of wooden boats partially visible in the mud. How old and how many boats are covered by mud is unknown, but it has been speculated for decades that this was a boat-building site in the 18th century.

“This is just unbelievable,” said Vienna Mayor Russell Brinsfield. “The remains of the merchant ship were found close to the Capt. John Smith Welcome and Discovery Center here, and I think It would be wonderful if the ship remains could stay in Vienna and be housed at the center. It’s all very preliminary, but we are already trying to see if we can obtain the artifacts and parts of the ship and have a facility built here to house them.

“We want to bring tourists to Vienna, and having the remains of the oldest 18th-century ship in Maryland would certainly help.”

Brinsfield has asked Bradshaw to join him and others to develop plans for acquiring all the remains of the shipwreck from the state, after conservation, and have them permanently displayed at a facility built exclusively for the merchant ship at the center.

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“It’s just great that the oldest ship found in Maryland was found here in Vienna and that it might always remain here, just hundreds of feet from where it was found,” Brinsfield said.

Schablitsy said the state, working with the Maryland Historic Trust, would work with concerned parties to determine the use of the artifacts.

“These artifacts belong to the people of Maryland and we would like to hear and consider their opinions. A representative will meet with those who want to have the artifacts in display in Vienna, but we need to determine that they will be conserved and displayed properly,” the archaeologist said.

“I’m amazed about the outpouring of interest in this shipwreck, not just in the state, but nationally. I never expected this. It’s great,” she said.

Contact Brice Stump at

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