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Uncovering Chippewa

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carronadeuw1By Dr. Toni L. Carrell, Ships of Discovery

The surge was particularly strong along the fringing reef off Northwest Point, Providenciales, as James Hunter, Joe Lamontagne and I dropped over the side of our inflatable boat. We were there to look for the remains of the U.S. Navy brig Chippewa. It was the second attempt of the day. Hurricane Bertha was well out in the Atlantic, but its huge swells still raced across the open

ocean, wrapping around the point and creating 12-foot waves on the reef. This meant that the remote sensing team, which had been out surveying earlier, could not get as close to the reef line as they needed to for fear of becoming its newest victim. The fact that they had not yet found any noteworthy targets in the deeper water outside the reef, and could not get inside until the seas calmed, meant it was up to us swimmers to see what we could find.

We’d already given up using small boats to tow us because of the many shallow coral outcrops, so we were reduced to free swimming. As snorkelers we had a few things going for us, even in the rough surf. We could float on top of the surge or dive down under the waves. In spite of the conditions the visibility was pretty good, and the large staghorn and huge pillar corals — with a good dose of fire coral mixed in — were relatively easy to avoid if you were quick and paying attention.

We had just finished our third sweep inside the reef and joined the other snorkeling team when I heard someone shout, “Cannon! Cannon!” It took a couple of seconds for me to realize that it was Jack Crowe, a member of the Turks & Caicos Explorer II crew, shouting, waving his arms, and nearly jumping out of the water with excitement. I had a muffled chuckle to myself remembering that only a few minutes before he had asked me, “How will I know when we’ve found something?” “You’ll know, Jack, you’ll know!” In less than a minute we were all looking at the first of what would turn out to be a string of ten cannons on the sea floor.
We’d found the proverbial “smoking gun” — the clue every archaeologist hopes to find that will positively identify a site. It was the culmination of more than a year of planning and hard work. The snorkeling team was like a group of children on an Easter egg hunt, shouting and giving a high-five as each additional cannon was found in a line running from southwest to northeast — out to those enormous breakers.
But why were these discoveries so important? To understand that we have to look back nearly 200 years to a little-known episode in U.S. Naval history, and an event in the history of the Turks & Caicos Islands that has been entirely forgotten. Until now.

The U.S. Navy and the anti-piracy patrol
“At 10 minutes past 7 whilst steering the latter course heard the Noise of breakers on the larboard beam, when the helm was ordered up but Scarcely had the order been issued when She Struck with much violence upon a rocky bottom.”

Thus did Master Commandant George C. Read describe the fate of the US Navy brig Chippewa which, while attempting to enter the Caicos Pass, slammed into an uncharted reef off the northwest point of “Providence or Blue Caycos” and became a total loss. The date was two weeks before Christmas, 1816. Having departed Boston on November 27 for the Gulf of Mexico with orders to rendezvous with the United States Navy frigate Congress and participate in anti-piracy patrols in the Caribbean Sea, Read’s mission was what we would today call a “policing action” in a lawless region. An incident reported on January 15, 1806 in The London Times conveys the magnitude of the problem:

New York Dec. 10
Captain Luckett, arrived at Alexandria from Cap Francois, says, “that three days before he saw a boat belonging to one of the British frigates cruising off there, came in, and the Purser informed him, that a brig, of 14 guns, from Gonaives, supposed to be the Owen, of Baltimore, had fallen in with two French privateers in the Caicos passage, and, after a desperate engagement, had been captured, and every person on board massacred.”

From 1798 to 1819 the fledgling U.S. Navy was battling piracy and slavery in its own territory, in the Caribbean, and on the high seas. In terms of design, speed and firepower, the brigs and schooners used by pirates and smugglers rivaled the best American privateers then in service. In an effort to neutralize this advantage, Chippewa was one of only three fast, well-armed clipper brigs specially designed and built to break the British blockade of American ports during the War of 1812. The construction and outfitting of the ship was done under the direction of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who led American forces in a decisive naval victory at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. His battle report is now famous: “We have met the enemy and they are ours . . .” During the Napoleonic Wars, the American Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812, the Caribbean was virtually unpoliced. Privateering, encouraged by the warring nations, gradually descended into outright piracy. As a result, small, well-armed enclaves in Cuba and other Spanish and French colonies routinely preyed on American merchantmen. Regular visits by American merchant ships with their precious cargos of food, lumber, clothing, and other goods were vital to the survival of the Turks & Caicos Islands and the economy of the fledgling Republic. The U.S. Navy’s presence in the Caribbean and the island chains that run in a long arc from Florida south toward Brazil began in earnest in 1816 in response to the necessity of maintaining order, protecting legal commerce, and interdicting illegal trade. Such action did not come without cost. Provo’s northwest reef claimed not only Chippewa, but 32 years later the U.S. Navy schooner Onkahye went down nearby, having made virtually the same mistake in navigation (see sidebar).

The wrecking of Chippewa
Our knowledge of where and how Chippewa was lost comes mainly from the sworn testimony of several witnesses appearing in the minutes of the proceedings of the Naval Court of Inquiry convened to determine the reason for the loss of the vessel and whether the officers were to blame. It is quite detailed, including accounts of the wrecking event and even references to a local planter, Wade Stubbs, who seems to have served as the official “Receiver of Wreck.” As soon as it struck the reef the crew tried to lighten the brig by jettisoning its shot, and possibly some of its artillery. In the rough seas and pitch dark they struggled to carry one of the ship’s massive anchors into deep water in the hope that the stricken vessel could be hauled off the rocks, but the cable parted and water filled the hold.

“The getting off now would have been useless even though it had been practicable, I therefore turned the attention of the officers to getting as many of the crew into the Boats as they would carry and send them to find the Shore. And shortly after their departure the Brig being in the Act of turning over on her Starbd. Bilge, I was under the necessity of cutting away the Masts, the preservation of those left on the wreck had now become some what precarious, the wind and Sea had increased considerably from the period of her first taking the ground and there were no Boats to take them off.”

Amazingly, all members of the crew were eventually saved, but the ship itself was a total loss and the crew was unable to “get any thing of any consequence owing to the Roughness of the Sea.”

Identifying the remains
Ships of Discovery and the Turks & Caicos National Museum included the U.S. Navy vessels Chippewa and Onkahye in its plan of work for the 2008 Search for Trouvadore expedition, which took place July 5–26, 2008.
Two lines of research led us to believe we already knew where to look for them: archival records and local knowledge. The archival records tell us what to look for and how to make a positive I.D. from artifacts that are found. Information from local divers tells us where artifacts that might have come from those vessels have been found in the past.
Existing archival sources describe Chippewa in detail. In addition to the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry proceedings these include a facsimile of its construction drawings, and its sail plan. Plans developed by shipwright William Doughty for Chippewa and its sister brig Saranac describe an 18-gun clipper brig with a length between perpendiculars of 108 feet; an outside beam of 29 feet, 9 inches; and a depth of hold of 13 feet, 9 inches. Contemporary accounts suggest Chippewa’s maximum draft was 16 feet, 6 inches, and that it displaced between 390 and 410 tons. But given the circumstances of how and where Chippewa wrecked, we knew it was unlikely that we would find much in the way of articulated hull structure. A more important potentially diagnostic feature would be the vessel’s cannons and anchors.

Although most secondary historical sources describe its battery as 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-pounder cannons, two long 12-pounder cannons, and twelve 32-pounder carronades (also called cannonades). Interestingly it seems that, Saranac and Chippewa were armed with 14 carronades apiece, which would have increased their actual total complement of artillery from 16 to 18 guns. Regardless of exactly how many guns Chippewa carried, the 14 carronades alone would constitute sufficient evidence to make a positive identification because of their very distinctive shape and brief time period during which they were used.

The carronade was a type of short, light, chambered ordnance of high caliber characterized by the presence of a central pivot loop cast on its underside, rather than trunnions (the cylindrical pivots on either side of a “normal” cannons barrel) and an elevating screw behind the breech instead of a cascabel (the round button behind the breech). Carronades came into being around 1770, were most popular around 1800 and declined in popularity afterward. A 32-pounder carronade fired a 32-pound solid iron ball or shot, which would have had a diameter of about 6.3 inches.

The Caicos connection
More than a year before our expedition began, Mr. Gale Anspach told Dr. Donald H. Keith, expedition director and Museum trustee, he had seen a carronade and an anchor on Northwest Reef many years ago and, after some prodding, put an “X” on our chart where he remembered seeing them. A few months later, Mr. Bengt Soderqvist recalled a time in the early 1970s when cannons and anchors were not only sighted on the reef, but even salvaged and incorporated into the landscaping around people’s homes — and he produced the photographs to prove it. We immediately recognized that at least some of these artifacts could have come from the U.S. Navy ships, and entered into negotiations with the current owners to arrange their donation to the Turks & Caicos National Museum.

So even before the expedition began, we knew there was an excellent chance we would be able to locate at least one of the Navy ships . . . if the weather cooperated! Conditions in the area we wanted to search were too rough for the Turks & Caicos Explorer II, but not for our dauntless magnetometer team from Southeastern Archaeological Research aboard volunteer Robert Krieble’s 27 ft. whaler, Cheesecake Marine. When no promising targets were found after two days searching the accessible parts of the survey area with their instrument, which can detect the presence of iron objects even when completely covered by sand or coral, it was apparent that it was time to get wet.

On to the reef
The snorkeling teams quickly discovered that although the top of Northwest Reef is shallow, flat, and swept clean by a strong current and constant wave action, corals flourish along the reef’s margin where it drops into deeper water. Our first discovery was a small mound of ballast stones garnished with a few concreted iron objects…not very exciting, but definite evidence of a shipwreck in the vicinity. Not long after, Jack sighted the first of the carronades. Over the next several days we swam much of the northern end of Northwest Reef, finding more carronades and other artifacts, including an anchor lodged in water so shallow one arm is visible in the surf. Jean-Francois Chabot, captain of the Turks & Caicos Explorer II, shot underwater stills while James Hunter, our underwater draughtsman, measured and drew each of the guns. The bores of every carronade we measured (some bores were filled with coral or buried in the sand) were 6.4 inches, confirming that they were 32-pounders. This also confirmed we had identified the final resting place of the long forgotten U.S. brig Chippewa.

What’s so special about Chippewa?
In 1820, shortly after its loss, slavery and piracy were equated and punishable by death under U.S. law. It was clear that many of the perpetrators of one were also guilty of the other. The efforts of the U.S. Navy in the Caribbean, as illustrated by Chippewa, sheds light on this largely unstudied period in the history of slavery and piracy and demonstrates the resolve of the nascent Republic to act in unison with Britain to abolish piracy and slavery.
The fast, sleek, well-armed Chippewa is one of only a handful of U.S. Navy anti-piracy patrol ships whose wreck location is now known. The U.S. Navy never decommissions its ships, even when they are lost in battle or shipwrecked. Knowing that, even before we applied to the Turks & Caicos Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR) for a license to look for the Navy ships we contacted the U.S. Navy Historical Center to tell them of our intentions. With their blessing for our successful search, we were also given a permit to collect diagnostic or fragile artifacts from the site should it be necessary to help with its identification.
And what about the other Navy vessel, the schooner Onkahye? We ran out of time before we could investigate a suspicious target detected by the magnetometer team a mile or two away from the Chippewa site, but we have every intention of returning next summer to continue the search. At some point in the not too distant future, after the National Museum establishes itself on Provo and with the approval of the U.S. Navy and the DECR, it may prove worthwhile to raise and conserve artifacts from Chippewa and Onkahye and put them on display along with those from the slave ship Trouvadore to help tell the story of the part the Turks & Caicos Islands played in the international struggle to stamp out piracy and slavery and restore peace on the high seas.



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