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Guest Contributors...           Edwin R. Scollon

Diving Lake Champlain...
The Valcour Bay Research Project

Other Artifacts discovered...
-1999-

"It was then that I began to have a much clearer appreciation of where we actually were.  We werenít just on a centuries-old, submerged battlefield; we were potentially among the submerged graves of the very first American seamen, killed in the service of their young country..."

 


LCMM collections.  Drawn and inked by Adam Loven
IMPORTANT NOTE: Artifacts on the bottom of the lake are the property of the People of the States of New York and/or Vermont by law. It is illegal to remove or damage them under State Law(s) without the appropriate clearances and permits. Removing them and transferring them across state lines violates Federal law & makes one liable to Federal prosecution.

In late August of 1999, VBRPís initial group of volunteer divers began to implement their proposed grid system.  If the cannon did explode, the team believed the cannonís muzzle most likely marked the epicenter of that event.  With this is mind; the grid system was constructed using the cannonís muzzle as its center point.  Under this arrangement and in the event that additional fragments or debris were located, their distance from the epicenter could be quickly calculated.  The siteís center grid post was placed at an arbitrary location near the muzzle, but at a distance where the post wouldnít interfere with any further excavations.  From there, the team laid an east-to-west baseline and continued with their construction of the grid system.

Grid posts are slowly and carefully embedded into the sediment to prevent accidentally damaging any artifact that may lie underneath.  Metal detection checks of grid post sites offer an additional precaution.  It was under this circumstance and before the team placed its second grid post, that they discovered a second artifact.  The head of an ax was found fifty feet east of the cannonís muzzle and under a few inches of silt.  Its handle had been broken, but what remained was still securely attached to its head.  We brought it up to the boat, made some sketches, took some photos and returned it to its original location.

      
The Ax Head

Artifact details. Drawn and inked by Adam Loven- LCMM collections.
(click on the thumbnails to see a larger image)

Once the baseline was set up, the team could begin constructing and surveying the grids.  The first grids surveyed were the four that surrounded the cannonís muzzle.  We started in the southwest grid but found nothing from the Revolutionary battle.  We did find ďAtlantisĒ but it wasnít the lost, ancient continent; it was only the inscription on the bottom of a lost Zippo lighter.  It was the first of many modern objects of debris that we would encounter.

The southeast grid was next.  We located a six-pound cannon ball approximately twenty feet from the cannon.  Nothing else of significance was in the grid.  We had expected to find shot - after an intense five-hour battle, there should be plenty.  Although I was still very excited and intent on continuing with the survey, I was beginning to become somewhat puzzled and disappointed.  If the cannon exploded, shouldnít we be finding debris or some evidence of a blast? 

The six-pound cannon ball

Things soon changed in the northwest grid.  On the 16th of September, we found two small iron fragments.  Each was less than two inches in length and weighed only ounces.  Could they be small fragments of the cannon and our first real indications of the blast? 

We pressed on with the survey.  Further into the northwest grid, I received a strong audio signal from the metal detector.  Could it be a larger cannon fragment?  I decided Iíd mark it with an anomaly post, continue with the survey, and try to determine what it was later.  As I began to embed the post, it hit something solid and only a few inches into the sediment.  I reached down, traced the outline of a rectangular object, and carefully lifted it out of the muck.  It appeared to be a solid block of wood and not very old. Why would that set off the metal detector?  I got my answer as I began to turn it over and several pieces of round shot began to rain out of it Ė I had discovered a soldierís cartridge box!


Contents of the cartridge box


Above: two views of the cartridge box


The cartridge box cover
Cartridge Box and Cover details. Drawn and inked by Adam Loven- LCMM collections. 

     The Cartridge Box
(click on the thumbnails to see a full-size image)

Out of all the artifacts that weíve encountered, the cartridge box was probably the most exciting for me.  But mixed with my excitement was a profound feeling of reverence.  Up until this point, most of the items we had found were impersonal articles of warfare; cannon and shot were designed to engage an enemy at great distance.  This was different; this was an item that a soldier would have carried upon his person and counted on in the heat of battle.  From a first navy that was in dire need of ammunition, it would have been a treasured piece of equipment and supply.  It was not an item that would have been discarded, regardless of its ownerís fate.  It was then that I began to have a much clearer appreciation of where we actually were.  We werenít just on a centuries-old, submerged battlefield; we were potentially among the submerged graves of the very first American seamen, killed in the service of their young country.  An exploding cannon wouldnít only have serious ramifications for the ship that carried it; it would also have ultimate consequences for many of her crew.


We were finding ourselves among the evidence of a catastrophic event that undoubtedly held lethal consequences for a vessel and her crew; both of which were already imperiled in one of the most violent confrontations to take place in the American Revolutionís northern theatre.  

I continued to excavate the site.  I retrieved the pieces of shot out of the silt and placed them into a mesh bag.  Once the silt cleared away from the bag, I could see that several pieces of flint were also among the shot.  I still received an audio signal from the metal detector when I ran it back over the excavation.  Instead of more shot, I felt a large flat piece of material and slowly worked it up to where I could see it.  It was the cartridge boxes leather cover!  It was completely intact and three impressed initials, ďGMBĒ, were visible upon its face.  I also began to uncover and collect several pieces of the cartridge boxes leather satchel.  I then discovered the source of the continued metal detector hits: a shiny, brass buckle!

The box must have come to rest cover side down.  Its leather cover was immediately pushed into the silt by the weight of its shot.  The buckle was most likely attached to a linen shoulder strap that had since disintegrated.  After two centuries of being sandwiched between the shot and the sediment, the buckle had left a scar of its outline upon the cover.  The back of the pouch remained exposed to the water and the movements of its currents.  It fragmented as a result its exposure.  Eventually, all that remained would become entirely encapsulated and sheltered by accumulating silt.

The sediment had already demonstrated its ability to protect iron from oxidation and degradation.  The discovery of the leather cartridge box was evidence that the sediment could sustain organic objects as well. 

The teamís excitement grew with the prospects of recovering a wide range of material from the battle.  However, the next dayís arrival of Hurricane Floyd would have serious implications for the teamís survey season.  As remnant storm systems entered the Champlain Valley, they literally turned the lake upside down.  The water temperature at the site dropped to a chilly, 52ļ.  It was a sixteen-degree drop in just two days!  It would be difficult for wetsuit divers to work comfortably in those conditions for any length of time.  

A wetsuit allows a thin layer of water to rest between the suit and the diverís body.  His body soon warms the water. Together, the water layer and the suit insulate him from the outside cold.  A dry suit, as the term suggests, keeps the diverís body dry.  With the exception of his head and hands, the suit totally encapsulates him from the surrounding water. This allows him to wear insulating undergarments as added protection from the cold.  Dry suits are more expensive than wetsuits and more commonly used in commercial or professional settings.  Most of the VBRP volunteers are recreational divers, equipped with wetsuits.  After the storm, temperatures were approaching the limits that their suits would adequately insulate them.  Only the few divers with dry suits would be able to comfortably continue with the survey season.

The storm also deposited of massive amounts of seaweed on the site.  The heaviest concentrations were left in the northwest grid.  Being under active survey, the gridís transect posts were still standing.  As the stormís currents ripped through the bay, the posts acted like a 50í rake.  We spent the better part of a dive clearing the seaweed from the grid.

After we cleared the transect posts, I noticed that the anomaly posts were also entangled in seaweed.  The anomaly post over the cartridge box was the last post to be cleared.  I looked to the east and was puzzled by a remaining clump of seaweed.  We hadnít surveyed that far into the grid and there shouldnít be any posts in that area.  As I cleared the seaweed away, an iron fluke came into view; it was one of four that belong to a grapnel anchor. To date, itís the only artifact that weíve discovered visibly protruding above the lakebed.  Its existence and placement also had important implications for our understanding of the site; they suggested that a ship was at anchor at the time of the cannonís explosion.

The Grapnel Anchor

Three more artifacts were located in the northwest grid.  They formed a cluster and consisted of a wooden fragment, an iron bracket and a jagged piece of lead.  The wood appears to be a small fragment of the cannonís carriage and rest appears to be the hardware upon which one of the cannonís trunnions was mounted.

   
The Iron Bracket and Lead Piece


Artifact details. Drawn and inked by Adam Loven- LCMM collections.
(click on the thumbnails to see a larger image)

A bayonet was discovered in the northeast grid, approximately seventeen feet north of the cannon muzzle.  It appears to have suffered a crease across the middle of its blade.  Over the years the bayonet corroded along this crease.  It separated into two halves when I attempted to lift it from the silt.

     
The Bayonet
 

A bayonet was discovered approximately 17' north of the cannon muzzle.
Detail drawn and inked by Adam Loven. LCMM collections.
(click on the thumbnails to see a larger image)

Before the end of the season, two additional grids were set up north of the original four.  They were surveyed and found to contain only a single piece of grape shot.  Grape shot consisted of several small rounds of iron shot.  They were clustered together, in iron canisters or burlap bags, and fired from a cannon in mass.  While the larger round shot was designed to damage a shipís hull, grape shot was designed to eliminate her personnel.   

Our late start and the effects of Hurricane Floyd limited our 1999 survey. But we still managed to complete six grids of survey and locate twelve artifacts.  Late in the season we were also finally able to view and film a portion of the cannonís muzzle.  Although our efforts were modest, we were able to determine that the muzzle was not an isolated artifact, but a piece of a much larger puzzle. 

The first pieces of this puzzle were beginning to come together and reveal a dramatic scene from an epic, early-American struggle.  From the cannonís heavy muzzle and the shipís anchor we were able to see that a ship once held a station above our present worksite.  While there, a cannon failed and burst upon her decks.  The artifact scatter to the northwest indicated that the blast ejected debris, accoutrements and possibly some of the crew into the bay.  We were finding ourselves among the evidence of a catastrophic event that undoubtedly held lethal consequences for a vessel and her crew; both of which were already imperiled in one of the most violent confrontations to take place in the American Revolutionís northern theatre.     

 

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IMPORTANT NOTE: Artifacts on the bottom of the lake are the property of the People of the States of New York and/or Vermont by law. It is illegal to remove or damage them under State Law(s) without the appropriate clearances and permits. Removing them and transferring them across state lines violates Federal law & makes one liable to Federal prosecution.

Continued here: Dive Operations 2000

Back to the VBRP HOME PAGE

Other links about Valcour Island and the Battle of Valcour within The Lake Champlain and Lake George Historical Site

The Battle of Lake Champlain:
The American Revolution on Lake Champlain

Download a copy of The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum's Official VBRP Cannon Raising Commemoration Program- Click HERE.

Also of interest: LCMM's Valcour Island Battlefield Preservation

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