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Unravelling the Mystery of a Great Lakes Shipwreck

Painting of the General HunterA Trent University research associate has unravelled the mystery surrounding a 19th Century, Lake Huron shipwreck.

Ken Cassavoy, marine archaeologist and the shipwreck project director, says the wreck has been identified as the British naval brig General Hunter, which fought in the War of 1812.

The wreck, found buried on a popular stretch of Southampton Beach in Ontario, was originally thought to be the merchant schooner Weazell, which was lost near Southampton in 1798.

However the ship's hull and artifacts from the site – uncovered in a major excavation of the wreck in 2004 – indicate it was a naval vessel.

Mr. Cassavoy says a document found at the United States National Archives in Washington confirmed the General Hunter's identity.

"We have been sure it was the General Hunter for quite a while now but it is very good to have it confirmed with this new document. The story of a shipwreck becomes much more interesting on every level once you are certain of the identity," he said. "The General Hunter has a great story associated with it – from its War of 1812 period to its dramatic wrecking at present-day Southampton."

The General Hunter, built in 1806, was captured by the Americans in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. Following the war, in 1815, the ship was sold to a private buyer in the United States. It was then purchased by the U.S. Army as a transport vessel. It was believed to be lost near Southampton in 1816.

The U.S. archive document includes a letter from a U.S. Army Major General to the U.S. Secretary of War detailing the General Hunter's wrecking. In the letter, he writes that two boats have been dispatched to collect the rigging, anchors and cables. The crew were instructed to burn the wreck to salvage the iron of the hull.

Attached to the letter was a declaration before a Notary Public by the ship's captain and two seamen. The crew members outline the details of two days of running before a series of storms before wrecking on the Canadian shore on August 19, 1816.

The shipwreck coincides with the crew's estimates of where the ship went ashore. During excavation, the project team noted that the wreck had been salvaged and the hull burned in accordance with the Major General's instructions in the letter.

Mr. Cassavoy says all of this leaves little room for doubt about the ship's identity.

The project team is hopeful that additional research at the U.S. Archives will provide further details on the boats which were ordered to burn and salvage the wreck.

Low Lake Huron water levels and a spring ice scour in April 2001 uncovered about a dozen ship frames pushing up through the sand of Southampton Beach, located about 35 kilometres west of Owen Sound.

The wreck is still under the sands of Southampton Beach. It was reburied after the 2004 excavation. Mr. Cassavoy says it would cost an estimated $3 million to go to the next steps – re-excavation, recovery, conservation and display.

The research work on this project is being funded by the Trent University Symons Trust Fund.

Photo: Painting of the General Hunter courtesy of Peter Rindlisbacher.

Posted September 30, 2005


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