The discovery was made in August 2005 during a controlled archaeological survey of Newport Harbor by URI Professor Rod Mather and graduate student Jamin Wells.
“We identified a series of eight targets using side-scan sonar, and four of them turned out to be shipwrecks,” said Mather, a URI associate professor of maritime history and underwater archaeology who has wide experience studying shipwrecks on the Eastern Seaboard. “While the archaeological significance of the sites, both individually and as a collection, is considerable, the historical implications of this discovery are even more compelling.”
Divers from the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, led by Kerry Lynch, conducted numerous reconnaissance dives and confirmed that three of the four targets in a crescent shape on the harbor floor were 18th century shipwrecks and two targets closer to the Newport Bridge represented another shipwreck and a large anchor.
“As is the case with many eighteenth century shipwrecks, the newly discovered vessels were pinned to the bottom of Newport Harbor with their own ballast stones,” Mather said. “Over time, a complex series of biological, chemical and physical processes broke down the shipwrecks, leaving ballast piles onto which artifacts including cannons fell and below which there is almost certainly well—preserved sections of the ships’ lower hulls.”
According to the historical detective work conducted by Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project Director Kathy Abbass, the British sunk the transports to protect their stronghold in Newport against a French fleet that sailed into Narragansett Bay in July and August of 1778. The ships were sunk so they would act as a barrier against a French bombardment and amphibious landing in Newport.
Abbass said that one of the sunken ships was the Lord Sandwich, which had originally been called Endeavour and which was the ship that the famous explorer Capt. James Cook used on his first voyage of discovery to the South Pacific in 1768.
Previous to this discovery, the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project had found two other shipwrecks in Newport Harbor. The six ships together means that Rhode Island can now boast that it is home to the largest fleet of Revolutionary War shipwrecks in the world.
The URI team has worked cooperatively with the Marine Archaeology Project for seven years on this and related projects, including surveys and investigations of at least three other British warships lost at the same time as the transports.
Funding for the harbor survey was provided by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean Exploration and from Rhode Island Sea Grant.
The discovery was announced at a meeting with Governor Donald Carcieri at the Colony House in Newport on Tuesday, May 16 at 1 p.m.. The state, the Rhode Island Marine Archaeological Project, URI, R.I. Sea Grant, the R.I. Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission and other agencies will work together to develop a protocol for protecting the sites while also sharing them with the public.