03-10-2005, 03:29 PM #1
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For You Historical Buffs Out There
Lake Huron wreck could be famed 1812 brig
Experts believe well-preserved hull found buried beneath Ontario beach is a 'national treasure'
Randy Boswell CanWest News Service March 10, 2005
OTTAWA -- Experts studying the remains of a wooden ship wrecked on the eastern shore of Lake Huron are all but convinced they've found a new "national treasure" -- a famous brig from the War of 1812 that was linked to several key battles and heroic figures in the last military conflict between Canada and the U.S.
The well-preserved hull of the ship, discovered buried on a beach at Southampton, Ont., in 2001, was originally thought to be an 18th-century fur-trading vessel called the Weazall. That would have made it the oldest known wreck in the Great Lakes, but new research points to a different and even more important relic of North American naval history: HMS General Hunter.
The dramatic career of the ship would make its remains a major prize for any museum in Canada or the U.S. Gerald Altoff, an American expert on the Battle of Lake Erie, has described the wreck as "literally priceless" and "better than finding a buried treasure."
That ship, under the command of a colourful French-Canadian captain named Frederick Rolette, was involved in the war's first major clash in July 1812, when its crew captured the USS Cuyahoga, seized the enemy's battle plans from the luggage of U.S. Gen. William Hull and gave Britain a huge advantage at the outset of hostilities.
The Cuyahoga coup made possible Sir Isaac Brock's capture of Detroit, which General Hunter supported by bombarding the key fort city. The ship is also believed to have shelled Cleveland, taken part in attacks on Fort Meigs near Toledo, Ohio, and seized several American vessels over the course of the war.
But the General Hunter also became a symbol of American naval power. It was captured, along with five other British ships, in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813.
Nearly 200 years later, the ship is apparently yielding new prizes. A cannon was retrieved from the wreck site soon after its discovery.
Further searches last summer produced military buttons and other clues that ruled out the Weazall and made clear the ship had been used by both British and American sailors in the early 19th century.
Since then, says lead archeologist Ken Cassavoy, "all of the pieces have been falling into place" to confirm the ship's identity as the General Hunter.
"I'm 99 per cent sure," adds Pat Folkes, the marine historian who's been gathering documents to pin down the identification. "I believe it's the remains of the Hunter. And there's such incredible stories attached to this ship. It's a national treasure."
Among the evidence assembled by the team is a 19th-century record giving details of the last known location of the ship, which was sold to a Pennsylvania merchant after the war and was wrecked during a delivery of goods to the northern tip of Michigan in August 1816.
"On the 17th, the vessel encountered a heavy wind," noted the Cleveland Marine Record of June 1885. "And on the 19th, about midnight, she went ashore and was wrecked on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, about one hundred miles from St. Clair Rapids."
That would place the wreck almost exactly at present-day Southampton. Other documents indicate the ship had a length of about 61 feet; the wreck measures 62 feet.
"It's almost been a process of elimination," says Folkes.
There were about 30 comparable ships active on the Great Lakes in that era, he notes, "and pretty well all are accounted for, or they were too small or too big. General Hunter is absolutely the main candidate."
Wrecks connected to the War of 1812 are extremely rare and highly coveted by maritime historians.
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2005
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