Artifacts from the Penobscot Expedition of 1779 – the largest Revolutionary War naval expedition and worst naval defeat in United States history until Pearl Harbor – offer a peek into the country’s beginnings.
The battle, which ended with the loss of between 30 and 40 commissioned naval ships and sloops of war by the hands of their own crews, left everything from smoking pipes and shoe buckles to swivel guns and cannons along the bottom of the Penobscot River between Castine and Bangor.
Although findings are generally few and far between, some items that are possibly from the Penobscot Expedition emerged as recently as two months ago.
Relics from the naval disaster remain embedded in the river’s thick mud and are sometimes visible at low tide but often go unnoticed by unsuspecting residents. Others sit on the bottom of the river just feet from the surface but are hidden from view by the thick, murky and fast-flowing tidal waters of the state’s largest river.
A handful of men have pursued these hidden treasures over the last 228 years, including Robert Neyland, head of the underwater archaeology branch of the Naval Historical Center, but for the most part remnants of the vessels lost in the historic battle have never been found.
Even so, “none of it is abandoned property,” Neyland said. Federal laws “provide civil penalties for unauthorized taking of materials from federally recognized wrecks.”
The property clause of the U.S. Constitution establishes ownership of all U.S. military craft, sunken or otherwise, as indefinite no matter where they are located, and more recent laws provide severe punishments, he said.
The river was listed as a national historic district in 1972 to protect the archaeological integrity of any Penobscot Expedition site from development and opportunistic relic hunters.
Nearly three years after the Continental Congress declared independence from England, U.S. leaders got word that 800 or more British troops had begun constructing Fort George in Castine, known in 1779 as the peninsula of Maja-Bagaduce or Bagaduce.
The area was part of Massachusetts, so that state’s General Assembly sent a fleet of 19 armed vessels, including the Continental Navy frigate Warren, the brigs Diligent and Providence and a dozen privateers, and more than 20 transports to retake Castine.
The armada arrived on July 25, 1779, at the mouth of the Penobscot River. After a two-week stalemate and just as Continental naval forces under the command of Commodore Dudley Saltonstall planned to attack, British reinforcements arrived. Saltonstall, who later was tried by court martial for cowardice and was dismissed from the Navy, decided not to fight and instead fled up the Penobscot River.
The British warships overtook a dozen ships as the rest of the armed Continental ships headed farther up the river, with nine or 10 making it as far as Bangor where “the falls” stopped their progress.
The ships were burned or run ashore Aug. 13 and 14, 1779, to keep them and their cargo from falling into enemy hands.
When the Department of the Navy was asked by local historians in the late 1990s for assistance in locating some of the scuttled expedition ships, the agency wrote back:
“[Saltonstall’s ship] the Warren lies … near Winterport. We understood that the Providence, which had been John Paul Jones’ first command, with three Massachusetts Navy ships and five privateers lies near Bangor. The Active may be near the mouth of the Kenduskeag Stream. The Diligent is believed to be near the Chamberlain Bridge. I believe the transports being slower than the war ships would tend to lie near Sandy Point below Bangor and Brewer.”
Former state Rep. Richard Campbell of Holden read the letter to the Maine Legislature in May 1999 just before a law protecting the historic artifacts passed.
The 1962 book “Brewer, Orrington, Holden, Eddington: History and Families” also says both Josiah Brewer and John Brewer, the founding fathers of the city of Brewer, played roles in the expedition.
“Colonel [John] Brewer witnessed the destruction of a large part of the fleet. The ships … were all blown up or set on fire by their crews,” the book states. “There was no role of honor but without a doubt, men from New Worcester [Brewer] took part in the action at that time.”
According to the journal of Lt. Col. Paul Revere, who also was tried by court martial and acquitted, he left his boat, Spring Bird, somewhere near Frankfort. The Defence ran into an inlet at Stockton Springs, and the Samuel and the Warren made it as far as Winterport, historians believe.
Anything of value was thrown overboard to prevent capture by the English and the boats were burned, many exploding when their gunpowder kegs were ignited. The smoke could be seen for miles.
American Gen. Solomon Lovell wrote that the scene had “as much confusion as can possibly be conceived.”
The Massachusetts Navy was basically annihilated, nearly 500 Continental soldiers were dead and the Americans had suffered a defeat that was heard worldwide.
The day after the ships were burned, British “Maj. George Ulmer, then having a command of Camden, was up the river, at my house, with a large boat and a party of soldiers, getting what remained from the destruction of the vessels,” John Brewer’s firsthand accounts stated as printed Aug. 13, 1846, in a Bangor Whig and Courier article.
According to the Department of Defence Legacy Resource Program, the English recovered 50 to 60 cannons and American Gen. Peleg Wadsworth was able to recover eight cannons.
In summer 1809, Ebenezer Clifford of Exeter, N.H., arrived in Bangor and recovered approximately 30 cannons and a few tons of cannonballs.
It also is recorded that numerous objects were found in August 1876 during dredging in Bangor harbor. Few historic documents remain of the dredging, but cannons pulled from the water are on display around Bangor and Brewer.
Some cannons, cannonballs and shot remain with the Bangor Museum and Center for History.
In 1953, a crane removed four cannons, but lost a fifth, during the building of the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge.
John Cayford, a local welder and later author, became interested in the expedition after seeing the cannons emerge from the river in 1953 and delved into maps, records and journals of the battle.
Over the next 20 years, he searched most of the river and claims to have located timbers from the Providence in the waters near Castine and the charred hull and a cannon from the Warren in Winterport.
While searching in Frankfort for Revere’s boat, Cayford met an elderly Bangor woman who pointed out the Winterport site, which is where he reportedly hit his jackpot in 1958.
“At last … our long search paid off with the discovery of a bronze six-pound cannon, still shiny after two centuries underwater,” Cayford said in a 1974 American Heritage article.
It was identified as a rare Revere cannon by its Massachusetts seal emblem. Cayford gave it to Fort Edgecomb in Wiscasset, where it is on permanent display.
In summer 1972, students from Maine Maritime Academy and Massachusetts Institute of Technology located the Defence in Devereaux Cove in Stockton Springs.
Warren Riess, research associate professor of history and marine sciences at the University of Maine in Orono, was a student when the ship’s location was first pinpointed. The remains sit about 50 feet below the high-tide mark and are totally visible at low tide.
During a five-year recovery project, divers brought hundreds of artifacts to the surface including “cannonballs, barrel staves, sections of planking, shoes, spoons, pottery pieces, buttons, beef bones and numerous other bits and pieces,” according to a July 1976 Bangor Daily News article.
“We found the medicine chest for the ship,” Riess said recently. “That was the coolest thing ever.”
Riess, who spent his summers working the site until 1981, added, “two of the vials still had medicine in them. One was for headaches and one was for stomachaches.”
Everything recovered from the Defence is at the Maine State Museum. Even though the researchers reburied the ship’s hull when they had finished, a visit in 1996 determined that the once-exposed areas had degraded extensively.
In 1975, a three-week remote sensing survey at Oak Point in Winterport identified a six-foot admiralty-type anchor and several ship timbers, according to a U.S. Navy report. The report also says another Riess survey of the river produced site assessments and management plans for the two other Winterport finds and a coal barge found in Hampden not associated with the expedition.
“We’ve narrowed it down to 27 [sites] in the Penobscot River” that can be tied to the Penobscot Expedition, said Lee Cranmer, historical archaeologist for the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. The water between Bangor and Brewer is “the site of at least nine ships involved in the Penobscot Expedition.”
Brewer resident Brent Phinney was searching for sunken logs when he discovered a wrecked ship near the Brewer side of the Penobscot River in the mid-1990s, near where the Muddy Rudder restaurant is today.
In 1998, Phinney called Reiss, who contacted the Naval Historical Center.
A partnership was created between the Navy, the university and the Maine Historical Preservation Commission, and a reconnaissance of that site and another discovered near the Bangor docks was conducted. The group recovered numerous cannons, several different types of shot — round, grape, case, bar and half-bar — a shoe buckle, a pocketknife, shards of pottery and a Revolutionary War era swivel gun with the nickname “the murderer.”
“It was found still loaded,” said Neyland, the project’s lead archaeologist. “It’s kind of amazing anything survived there.”
The Brewer area is named the Phinney Site and the Bangor area is the Shoreline Site.
The analysis also indicated the Phinney Site’s boat was burned extensively. In its mast, a well-preserved 1708 silver coin was recovered that bears the crest of a Spanish king. Placement of coins in ships during construction is a good-luck ritual continued to this day. All the information obtained thus far has led experts to believe the wreck is likely the Continental brig Diligent.
“It’s a very significant Revolutionary War find,” Neyland said. “It’s a repository of the ships and the crews that served on them. It [has provided] a wealth of knowledge that doesn’t exist in the historical records.”
When the supports were built for the Veterans Memorial Bridge in 1986, the Navy, which continues to study the river, reportedly found a broken cannon and cannon balls.
The Naval Historical Center’s final archaeological report on their field studies was issued in the fall 2003. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also was involved in the research.
All of the items recently recovered are scientifically preserved and stored at the Washington Naval Yard.
Without proper preservation, which can take years, waterlogged items can deteriorate. One local example is the 1953 cannon that sits in Brewer, covered with a layer of black paint.
The paint is holding the rust in place,” Neyland said. “The iron has salts in it. You have to soak the salt out properly. It may look pretty good under water … [but out of the water] the cells collapse, shrink and warp and it falls apart.”
In July, what may be the remnants of a transport hull from the Penobscot Expedition was discovered sunk in mud at the mouth of the Sedgeunkedunk Stream in South Brewer.
Plans are to preserve and study the site, city officials say.
“We’d love to eventually bring these ships up and put them on display,” said D’arcy Main-Boyington, Brewer’s economic development director, a sentiment echoed by Mayor Michael Celli. “Obviously, it would take a lot of money, but we’re certainly looking into ways to accomplish that. The Navy actually owns the relics.”
A museum for artifacts from the river was one item Brewer residents requested while working on a 2000 waterfront redevelopment plan.
“I think it would be such a huge draw to the area,” Celli said. “It’s something that could go on year-round, and it would preserve the heritage of the area.”
Dana Lippitt, Bangor Museum and Center for History curator, said most residents “aren’t aware that this is a national historic site,” but said the museum makes a point to present the information during tours. She hopes the new museum will have a permanent site for the collected objects.
Gerry Ledwith, the harbormaster for Bangor and Brewer, said most people do not realize the historic importance of the 1779 cannons displayed at the waterfront.
“A lot of folks think they’re just something to sit on,” he said. “We’re sitting on our history.”
In addition to historic preservation efforts around the Queen City, there also is a permanent exhibit of artifacts at the Castine Historical Society and caches in other communities along the river.
“This is not just local history, it’s national history, it’s world history and it’s sitting 20 feet under us,” Celli said.
A copyright story from the Bangor Daily News, Saturday, October 6, 2007.