Brendan Burke has been studying shipwrecks for years — dozens of them in different pieces and conditions.
But when a shipwrecked hull, the ribs of its frame almost fully intact, washed ashore south of Ponte Vedra Beach in late-March 2018, Burke had the chance to study a historical vessel in depth and from the ground floor up.
In the last year and a half, Burke and a team of researchers with the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archeological Maritime Program, along with Dr. Lee Newsom of Flagler College, have been piecing together a puzzle they believe most accurately tells the story of the boat, its origins, its path of travel and other indicators.
The local shipwreck, dubbed the “Spring Break Wreck,” seemed to capture people’s imagination from the first reports that came out about the find, with thousands flocking to see the 48-foot-by-12-foot remnant drudged up on the beach.
What made the wreck so unique was the way it seemingly came out of nowhere, with nothing seemingly special about the water currents at that time, Burke said.
“And to see the craftsmanship of our ancestors,” Burke said, “And it looked almost brand new, it was like looking into a time capsule.”
Burke will talk about his work as a maritime archeologist and the Spring Break Wreck on Thursday at the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience as part of the facility’s lecture series. The event, which is free and open to the public, begins at 7 p.m.
The process of analyzing the shell of a centuries-old ship, Burke said, is like processing a crime scene, with the more information gathered helping to form an eventual composite picture.
“Studying a shipwreck to get bits of data is like hunting clues at a crime scene,” Burke said. “And it takes a lot of clues to be able to put together a conviction.”
In the first days after the ship washed up near Ponte Vedra Beach, the LAMP team collected as much data as it could, and took measurements and photos. That helped it create a 3-D model of what the ship likely looked like before the wreck and after.
Researchers surmised first, that vessel was likely a commercial cargo ship on a route to or from the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern seaboard.
“This is one of the thousands of ships that built the backbone of our maritime industry and the rest of our economy,” Burke said.
They also believe that “based on the saw marks and how the wood was processed, it was constructed post-1880,” Burke said, adding that it didn’t appear to have been crafted at a large shipbuilding yard, but more of a mom-and-pop type operation, likely on the U.S. Atlantic Coast.
The ship contains wood samples of beech, spruce, pine and white oak and does not appear to have repaired parts or have a re-coating of copper on its bottom, leading Burke to believe it probably went down in whatever way it did not very long after it was first made.
When not in the lab, Burke can be found aboard LAMP’s research vessel, the Empire Defender, exploring Florida’s waters for historic shipwrecks. The group’s next mission will take off next week.
Ships, for people, hold a kind of universal curiosity, Burke believes.
“Just about every human has some tie to the maritime industry, so it’s a great connecting force,” he said. “You’re taking archeology and looking deeper into societies to find the voices of those who maybe didn’t have a chance to write a memoir … to tell their stories.”
What: Evenings at Whitney Lecture Series — “Wonderful Wooden Wrecks and the Mysteries Within,” a talk by Brendan Burke, part of the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archeological Maritime Program team that analyzed the “Spring Break Wreck” discovered in Ponte Vedra Beach in 2018
When: Thursday at 7 p.m.
Where: Lohman Auditorium at the University of Florida Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, 9505 Ocean Shore Blvd., Marineland
More info: The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call (904) 461-4000.
St. Augustine, FL –The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum welcomed a Cultural Heritage team from Spain on Thursday, April 25 at the nonprofit Museum.
Honored guests from Spain included Carlos Leon Amores, Independent consultant for the ministery General Subdirectorate of Historical Heritage of the Ministry of Culture for the Nation of Spain; Manuel de la Cruz from Malaga, Spain and Francisco Sanchez-Guitard of Edriel Intelligence. Sanchez-Guitard is also a member of a Spanish boatbuilding family.
The City of St. Augustine officials were present at the event, with Vice Mayor Leanna Freeman presenting gold coins with the City seal to the Spanish team. Commissioner John Valdes attended as well as City Manager, John Regan. Irving Kass of the St. George Inn kicked off the entire event as the Museum’s Board Treasurer presenting a copy of the PBS video of the story of St. Augustine from the University of Florida Historic St. Augustine.
Sanchez-Guitard has a
vision shared by the Museum – to make the St. Augustine area a maritime hub of
learning, connecting the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum to
the Fountain of Youth, the settlement
site of Pedro Menendez de Aviles, and scholars worldwide. This work is echoed
by historian Dr. Michael Francis in his La Florida project, revealing Florida
history through a digital archive of Spanish heritage in the Americas. Francis
and his students are chronicling the lives and culture of those that traveled
with Menendez. Please see www.laflorida.org for more information.
Carlos Leon Amores has
released the first inventory of Spanish shipwrecks in America (between 1492 and
1898) with more than 600 Spanish shipwrecks on the list. The catalog of Spanish
Cultural Heritage is part of the National Plan for the Protection of Underwater
Cultural Heritage developed by Spain, under the principles of the UNESCO
convention and funded in part through a partnership with NOAA. Amores’ list
does not yet include shipwrecks in the First Coast region. The St. Augustine
Lighthouse & Maritime Museum’s research arm, the St. Augustine Lighthouse
Archaeological Maritime Program, seeks to become the first archaeological
nonprofit to help with this important work and to add the nation’s oldest port
to this international database.
“Our Museum’s shared objective with scholars from all over the world is not so much to raise these ships from the ocean floor, but to preserve the information that they hold and to protect them from looting and pillaging, said Kathy Fleming, Executive Director of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum.
“Instead we seek to tell their hidden stories, and reveal our worldwide connections to each other.”
For more details about the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, visit staugustinelighthouse.org or call 904-829-0745. Stay updated on social media at facebook.com/staugustinelighthouse, Instagram.com/stauglighthouse, and twitter.com/firstlighthouse
Guests to the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum can now learn even more about the maritime history of our area. New Nation’s Oldest Port® Demos reveal stories about daily life of a St. Augustine Lighthouse Keeper, how sailors navigated the seas before GPS, and how our Lighthouse Archaeologists discover artifacts underwater on shipwrecks – along with other maritime topics during these interactive and fun experiences.
“Guests can now customize their visit to the Museum through a wide variety of location, theme and time options, making their experience more meaningful to them,” said Brenda Swann, Director of the Interpretive Division at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum.
“These fun demos create memories and a connection to the historic site and the region’s maritime heritage that will last a lifetime. We love this new opportunity to engage with our visitors!”
also can take a walk with one of our Lighthouse Keepers (Rick Cain and Jason
Smith) and learn about Lighthouse history on a behind the scenes tour. New
Keepers’ Tours are held at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; and at 10
a.m. Wednesdays. The one-hour tours are $19.95 for adults, $17.95 for seniors
and children under 12. Reservations can be made by calling 904-829-0745 or ask
in the gift shop.
Nation’s Oldest Port® Demos are included with the cost of admission to the nonprofit Museum. The educational and interactive programs run each half hour from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on the grounds. See the list of demos below.
Regular admission fees to the Museum are $12.95
for adults; $10.95 for seniors and children under 12; and free for children
less than 44 inches (unable to climb the tower). St. Johns County residents
with ID can pay for one day and receive a pass for a complete calendar year.
Membership packages also are available. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
through Memorial Day, then 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week during summer.
For more details about the St. Augustine
Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, visit staugustinelighthouse.org or call
904-829-0745. Stay updated on social media at facebook.com/staugustinelighthouse,
Instagram.com/stauglighthouse, and twitter.com/firstlighthouse
Dead Reckoning: Learn how sailors navigated the high seas and inland waters before GPS,
radar and accurate maps.
Tools of the
Trade: Discover how early boatwrights
bent and shaped wooden beams and made waterproof craft.
and Superstitions: Hear common and
not-so-common phrases and words that were a matter of life and death aboard
Challenge: Find out if you could
handle being the keeper of the St. Augustine Lighthouse in the late 1800s at
this fun program that demonstrates and discusses daily life of the keepers.
Improv at the
St. Augustine Lighthouse: Help your
docent decide what stories to tell from Lighthouse past and be surprised by
what you hear!
Way: See how lighthouses throw light
19-25 miles out to sea and learn the importance of lighthouses to early
shipping and navigation.
Shipwrecks and Why They Matter: Learn
how archaeologists search for and find shipwrecks buried under the ocean floor
and discover why these nonrenewable resources are important.
Beneath the Waves: Working underwater
in low visibility offshore of St. Augustine, archaeologists often document
shipwrecks using only their sense of touch. Try your hand at this and “see” how
knowing the artifacts and their location on the shipwreck reveal stories not
Artifact? Uncover more stories in the
lab and find out how artifacts unlock the secrets of shipwrecks and the people
“After the surrender of Charleston in 1782, within two days no less than 16 vessels, bearing refugiés and their effects, went to pieces here and many persons lost their lives.”
– Johann David Schoepf, 1788
While the identity and exact date of the Storm Wreck remains unknown, the evidence uncovered to date suggests that this vessel was shipwrecked at the mouth of the St. Augustine Inlet in the late 18th century, possibly in the years immediately after 1780 when the American Revolution was coming to a close. This period was one of dramatic demographic and sociocultural change in St. Augustine, as the capital and primary port of East Florida would switch hands from British to Spanish control as a result of the war. Perhaps the most striking of these changes was a population explosion in St. Augustine due primarily to the influx of British Loyalists seeking refuge from the thirteen rebelling colonies. Archaeologists believe there is a distinct possibility that the Storm Wreck may indeed represent one of many ships full of Loyalist refugees that ran aground and came to pieces while trying to enter St. Augustine.
After the fall of Yorktown in 1781, decisive battles gave way to backcountry skirmishes as peace negotiations influenced the remainder of the war years. The lives of British Loyalists were dominated by the question of evacuation. The British army still occupied New York City when the Treaty of Paris was initially signed in November 1782, but Savannah and Charleston were either fully evacuated or in the process. North American port cities formerly under British control emptied their inhabitants into the waters of the Atlantic, while the inland Loyalists clogged the back roads and trails near the borders of Canada and East Florida. Nova Scotia, Quebec, England, the Bahamas, the British West Indies, and Central America became ports of call for countless loyal emigrants. But many southern Loyalists looked closer to home.
In St. Augustine an unparalleled event took place during the post-Yorktown evacuation procedures. For most southern Loyalists the Canadian climate was presumed utterly unsuitable for planter society and the slave ownership that made them prosperous. Southern Tories saw East Florida as a sanctuary where they could rebuild their lives without leaving the warmer regions of the continent to which they were accustomed. In spite of this, a general pattern of evacuation after the war quickly developed as slave owning Loyalists sought the warmer climates of the Caribbean while those with few or no slaves went to Europe or Nova Scotia (Troxler 1981:21).
However, this was not the first time that Charleston and Savannah changed hands during the war. Even after Yorktown, most American Loyalists firmly believed that it was simply a matter of time before the United States became crippled economically and/or militarily. For a nation to successfully erect itself from colonial status was unprecedented in 1782. Therefore, southern Loyalists chose to remain close to their former land holdings in order to reclaim their property as quickly as possible, just as they had after previous evacuations during the war (Wright 1971:377). Most of these people had already experienced one forced evacuation—two, for those from Savannah who went first to Charleston in July 1782. The injustice that the war wreaked upon their lives took a heavy toll.
The increased flow of refugees from southern back-country fighting swelled the white civilian population of the colony to approximately 4,500 by late June 1782. The majority of this group came first to St. Augustine to register their presence with Governor Tonyn and receive their 500 acre homesteads. The Menorcans now living in St. Augustine (presuming no natural increase from 1777 to June 1782, for the purpose of erring on the side of caution) tallied at approximately 600. The majority of the black population of East Florida—approximately 4,000 total—were on the plantations, but many free blacks were living in St. Augustine (del Campo 1783). These numbers, though relatively small in appearance, were the measure for overcrowding mentioned up to this point. The dam was about to burst.
From July 12–25, a deluge of over 7,000 Loyalists from Savannah and Charleston sailed into St. Augustine (Siebert 1929:7). Another 3,826 Loyalists came from Charleston by sea in late December (Siebert 1929:7). The overwhelming crush of humanity that befell the tiny capital of St. Augustine in short bursts is staggering, and yet the numbers listed here consist only of those refugees who arrived by ship. There is no means of knowing the number of refugees who drifted into the province on foot after June 1782, or the number of black refugees who sought shelter with the Seminoles and were never counted. This does not include the military or Indians who frequented the town.
With the entrance to St. Augustine impeded by a notorious sandbar, which gave the port its reputation as the most dangerous of all Britain’s Atlantic colonies, it is no surprise that a significant number of these incoming refugee vessels were wrecked. Indeed, in one incident in December 1782, sixteen ships loaded with Loyalists from Charleston came to grief while trying to enter St. Augustine (Schoepf 1911: 227-228). In another example that same month, Rattlesnake, the military escort for a fleet of at least 8 ships bringing Loyalists to St. Augustine, also ran aground and wrecked with four lives lost (Singer 1992:169). It seems quite likely that the Storm Wreck, which appears to date to this period, could represent one of the many refugee ships lost in conjunction with St. Augustine’s Loyalist influx at the end of the Revolution.
del Campo, Bernardo
1783 Observations on East Florida. Inclosure No. 1 in letter to Conde de Floridablanca, 8 June. Archivo Historico Nacional, Madrid. Estado, leg. 4246 Ap 1. In East Florida, 1783-1785, A File of Documents Assembled and Many of Them Translated, Joseph Byrne Lockey and John Walton Caughy, editors, 1949, pp. 117-127. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Schoepf, Johann David
1911  Travels in the Confederation (1783-1784). William J. Campbell, Philadelphia.
Siebert, Wilbur H. (editor)
1929 Loyalists in East Florida: The Narrative, vol. 1. Publications of the Florida State Historical Society No. 9, Deland, Florida.
Smith, Roger C.
2011 The Fourteenth Colony: Florida and the American Revolution in the South. Doctoral dissertation, Department of History, University of Florida, Gainesville.
Singer, Steven D.
1992 Shipwrecks of Florida: A Comprehensive Listing. 1st ed. Pineapple Press, Sarasota, Florida.
1981 Loyalist Refugees and the British Evacuation of East Florida, 1783-1785. Florida Historical Quarterly 60(1):1-28.
Wright, J. Leitch
1971 Lord Dunmore’s Loyalist Asylum in the Floridas. Florida Historical Quarterly 49(4):370-379.
This essay was written by Dr. Roger Clark Smith and Chuck Meide in 2012. Other than the introductory and closing paragraphs, written by Meide, it is largely based on Dr. Smith’s doctoral dissertation (2011:271-280). Dr. Smith is a professional historian and LAMP Research Associate, whose research interest focuses on the history of East Florida during and immediately after the Revolutionary period.
All text and images, unless otherwise noted, are copyright Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, Inc. We extend permission to scholars, students, and other interested members of the public to use images and to quote from text for non-commercial educational or research purposes, provided LAMP is acknowledged and credited. If there are any questions regarding the use of LAMP’s work, please inquire at LAMP@staugustinelighthouse.org.