Finds and History from a 1690 Colonial American Shipwreck

1680-1691 was a turbulent period in the New York colony, with Indian attacks and political upheavals. During the war between France and England, known as King William’s War (1689-1697), New France had proposed a plan to conquer New York in order to take control of the fur trade and fishing territories in North America. The various raids undertaken around 1689-90 caused panic among the population of these colonies who decided to organize an expedition to seize New France. In August 1690, a fleet of 32 ships left Nantasket, situated at the south entrance of Boston Bay, to attack Québec. The fleet included about 2,300 New England militia and around 50 Native Americans.

The Siege of Quebec by William Phips

The attack on Quebec was a failure. Shortly after leaving, they encountered bad weather, which delayed their arrival until mid-October. However, none of the forces ever came within a kilometer of the city walls. Several ships suffered cannon damage from the city’s fortifications. They Count Frontenac, the Governor General of New France, had assembled around 2,700 defenders. The fleet suffered brutal cold weather and smallpox had broken out. Accomplishing nothing, they gave up and headed home, up the St. Lawrence and out to sea. Unfortunately, their problems continued. They encountered storms, separating the fleet and blowing some off-course as far as the West Indies. Four ships disappeared in the aftermath, along with two companies of men – one of which would never be seen again.

Fast forward 300 years. In December of 1994, sport diver Marc Tremblay spotted artifacts and a partially-exposed hull on the bottom of the St. Lawrence River, located in shallow water, about 100 meters from his cottage in Anse aux Bouleaux, Quebec. The diver contacted authorities, and shortly afterwards underwater archaeologists recovered a musket, oil lamp, a bottle and an earthenware mug. But then, the winter ice set in, and all diving stopped.

They returned in the spring and continued the scavenging. It was possible that the shipwreck was from the Phips expedition against Quebec, or it could have been from the later 1711 fleet of Admiral Sir Hovenden Walker, one of the worse naval disasters in British history, in another failed invasion of Quebec during Queen Anne’s War. None of the artifacts appeared to be definitively post 1700. Also, the miscellaneous nature of the personal possessions suggested colonial militia, rather than the standardized British regulars which would have been involved in the Walker wrecks.

English earthenware combed-slipware cup. The form of the cup and the complexity of the combed decoration both indicate a late 17th century date (photo: Andre’ Bergeron, CCQ).

Four ships disappeared after the failed invasion in 1690. So how did they identify this wreck as the “Elizabeth and Mary?”

As artifacts from the wreck were conserved, many revealed personal markings and initials on them. A musket was marked “CT”; a spoon “AW”; a belt axe handle “EL”. Most important, a porringer was marked on the handle, “ISM”. Emerson Baker and Marc-Andre’ Bernier were able to matche these and many other initials with records pertaining to the Dorchester militia (Watkins 1898). Dorchester was a small farming community near Boston, and over 50 Dorchester men were on a ship that was never heard from again.

Their researched showed that the “CT” musket probably belonged to Cornelius Tileston; the “AW” spoon to Amiel Weeks, and the “EL” belt axe to Eliab Lord. The porringer, with its three initials, provided the most convincing evidence of the Dorchester connection. In the 17th century it was common to mark tablewares with the initials of both a husband and wife. The initials would form a triangle, with the family name above and first names below. “ISM” corresponds to Increase and Sarah Moseley. Increase was among the missing Dorchester men (Torrey 1987: 522).

Identifying the ship proved a more complex task. In the haste of the retreat, no records were kept of who was on what ship. But by cross-referencing period court records, diaries, journals, etc., three of the ships were finally eliminated. Over three hundred years later, the fate of the “Elizabeth and Mary” was finally learned.

DUNNING, Phil. “THE WRECK OF THE ‘ELIZABETH AND MARY.’” Revista De Arqueología Americana, no. 23, 2004, pp. 187–213. 

Here’s a non-shipwrecked pewter porringer I found which is very, very similar.

The “Elizabeth and Mary” is constructed of white pine, suggesting a New England origin. The ship was at least three years old at the time of its wreck. It had crossed the Atlantic three times and made one voyage to Barbados and was fifteen to seventeen meters long, weighing 45 tons.

The weaponry found on the wreck was consistent with the 17th century British colonial militia requirements. The 1690 recruitment orders specified that each militiaman must supply his own musket, sword or axe, powder horn or cartridge box, and knapsack. (Myrand 1925 (1893): 137).

Over 33 long arms have been identified (Bradley et al. 2003: 151). They range from an early-17th century matchlock fowler that had been converted to flint, to shorter, lighter carbines that were probably new in 1690 and acquired for the expedition. Fowlers were popular and versatile arms in New England. They could be used for hunting water birds or larger animals. Carbines were practical in dense New England forests.

Pistols were intended for personal protection. As such, they were not as practical or necessary for a rural farmer or villager, and possibly indicate some degree of discretionary spending and status. Those recovered vary from older, larger and heavier examples to a small, expensive pistol that was fairly new in 1690.

Edged weapons include at least 18 belt axes or handles for them, the remains of nine swords, and a partial handle from a plug bayonet…. Swords may have been less useful for the type of fighting expected, but the ownership of one conveyed a statement of status in the community. A number of the sword hilts recovered were of the small-sword and hanger types, and were of very fine quality workmanship.

DUNNING, Phil. “THE WRECK OF THE ‘ELIZABETH AND MARY.’” Revista De Arqueología Americana, no. 23, 2004, pp. 187–213. 
Stocks from four pistols. The top example shows the weight and handle angle of an early horse pistol. Third from the top is a small, later pistol that had fine and expensive furniture (photo: Michel Elie, CCQ). DUNNING, Phil. “THE WRECK OF THE ‘ELIZABETH AND MARY.’” Revista De Arqueología Americana, no. 23, 2004, pp. 187–213. 

Here’s a non-shipwrecked version of the third pistol; similar in lines, size and style:

I’ve read varying accounts of the number, but there were some native warriors on board. This musket with embedded wampum beads no doubt belonged to one of them:

From a July 2000 National Geographic article, a musket personalized with wampum beads embedded into the butt stock, forming two crosses.

Some of the other finds divers pulled up:

Lead plate on the butt of a rifle (DiDt-14N2-2), bearing the initials C.T (Cornelius Tileston) which determined that the wreck was that of the Elizabeth & Mary, sunk in 1690. https://www.archeolab.quebec/familles-d-objets/epave-du-elizabeth-and-mary
The belt ax, dating from the French Regime (1534-1760), is an object linked to war. Its wooden handle, fractured and cracked, bears the inscription “E L”. The ax head is made of iron and has a rounded blade edge. The object measures 25.7 cm in length, 11.0 cm in width and the length of its edge is 5.3 cm.
The pistol, manufactured before 1690, is part of the firearms. The incomplete object measures 21.0 cm in length, 3.3 cm in width and 5.5 cm in height. It includes the butt and barrel over its entire length as well as part of the rod under the barrel. Part of the guard appears with its trigger guard. Parts of the pistol have been sculpted to insert gaskets.
The pistol, manufactured before 1690, is part of the firearms. The wooden and iron object measures 39.0 cm in length, 3.5 cm in width and 9.0 cm in height. It includes the butt and barrel over its entire length as well as part of the rod under the barrel. The barrel and the firing mechanism appear in a few corroded fragments.
The fragment of a sword, dating from the French Regime (1534-1760), is an object linked to war. It has a handle made of a wooden rocket covered with a leather thong and twisted copper wire. Also present are part of the iron shell and guard as well as a rectangular iron blade section. The object measures 20.6 cm in length, 9.1 cm in width and 6.0 cm in height.
The fork is a food-related utensil made before 1690. The object is made of three tinned and twisted brass threads and a silver thread forming silk, curved at the end to form a clover. Teeth, floss and tip are hammered. The object measures 15.32 cm long by 2.10 cm wide. The floss is 0.40 cm thick and the teeth 4.95 cm long.
The powder horn fragments, dating from the French Regime (1534-1760), are associated with an object linked to war. The object measures 6.2 cm in length and the diameter of its opening is 2.4 cm. It is shaped with the pointed end of a bovid horn and has a hole at its base.
Fragments of a sword mount and scabbard, dating from the French Regime (1534-1760), are war-related objects. The brass court sword mount includes the fuze, a fragment of the “8” shaped shell and part of the wooden sword scabbard covered in leather. The set measures 20.7cm in length and 6.3cm in width.
The belt ax, dating from the French Regime (1534-1760), is an object linked to war. It has a very short flat wooden handle that fits into the eye of the ax iron. The upper and lower angles of the blade are almost at right angles. The edge of the blade is slightly rounded. The object measures 19.2 cm in length and 15.1 cm in width.
The belt ax handle, dating from the French Regime (1534-1760), is an object linked to war. Made of wood, it measures 43.00 cm in length, 3.10 cm in width and its diameter is 1.99 cm. It is rectangular and consists of two contiguous fragments.
The belt ax, dating from the French Regime (1534-1760), is an object linked to war. Its hardwood handle, ovoid in shape, bears traces of tar in its upper part. The object measures 53.0 cm in length and 16.6 cm in width. The edge of the blade is chipped and 7.7 cm long. The ax head is incomplete and the handle consists of two glued sections.
The adze, made before 1690, is a tool used in woodworking. Its wooden handle is attached to the eye of a piece of wrought iron. The only end of this piece that remains forms a square hammer socket. The adze measures 57.7 cm long by 12.0 cm wide. The handle consists of two glued parts.
The belt ax, dating from the French Regime (1534-1760), is an object linked to war. It consists of a wooden handle in two sections and a head attached to the handle by means of a wooden wedge. The ax is 31.0 cm in length and 16.3 cm in width. The upper part of the handle bears traces of tar. The edge of the blade is incomplete.

The trade axe head above is no doubt of French manufacture, probably intended for the North American fur trade. Here’s a similar example with a different punch mark:

Sword hilts. On the upper right is a cutlass of the type used on ships. The others are all from good to fine quality smallswords and hangers (photo: Michele Elie, CCQ.) DUNNING, Phil. “THE WRECK OF THE ‘ELIZABETH AND MARY.’” Revista De Arqueología Americana, no. 23, 2004, pp. 187–213. 
Woodworking tools at center. From top to bottom, a cooper’s adze, a hammer, a pole adze. On both sides and at bottom are belt axe handles and heads (photo: Michel Elie, CCQ). DUNNING, Phil. “THE WRECK OF THE ‘ELIZABETH AND MARY.’” Revista De Arqueología Americana, no. 23, 2004, pp. 187–213. 

The English Revolution of 1688 also played out in New York, where people of a wide variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds divided into two well-defined factions. In general, the small shopkeepers, small farmers, sailors, poor traders and artisans allied against the patroons (landholders), rich fur-traders, merchants, lawyers and crown officers.

Jacob Leisler (ca. 1640 – May 16, 1691) was a German-born colonist in the Province of New York. He gained wealth in New Amsterdam (later New York City) in the fur trade and tobacco business. In what became known as Leisler’s Rebellion following the English Revolution of 1688, he took control of the city, and ultimately the entire province, from appointees of deposed King James II, in the name of the Protestant accession of William III and Mary II.

Nineteenth-century engraving depicting Nicholson’s councilors attempting to quiet the rebellion

Beginning in 1689, Leisler led an insurrection and seized control of the city by taking over Fort James at the lower end of Manhattan. He took over control of the entire province, appointing himself as acting Lieutenant Governor of the Province of New York, which he retained until March 1691, refusing to yield power until the newly appointed governor himself finally arrived. The newly appointed governor of New York arrested Leisler in March 1691. He was condemned and executed in New York City for treason against the English monarchs William III and Mary II and his estate was forfeited to the Crown.

A 19th-century interpretation showing the arrest of Governor Andros during Boston’s brief revolt

This powder horn belonged to John Snyder from the Snyder family of New York. He carved his name, as well as the year 1691 into this horn, and scratched numerous designs and cross-hatching. It’s difficult to see in the photos, and much of it is too worn to determine what it says or represents. The year is most likely a reference to involvement in the Jacob Leisler revolt and execution in 1691.

Some of the survivor accounts which later surfaced following the failed 1690 expedition to Quebec are quite fascinating. The April 25, 1691 deposition of Phillip Nelson and David Benet of Rowley, Massachusetts described ending up in Barbados:

The deposition of Phillip Nelson and of David Benet of Rowly who testifie and say that they bieng in the Briganteen called by the name of the Adventure whereof William Bedlow was commander upon our return from Cannida, beinge beaten of from our coasts about the sixteenth day of December last and so were forced to make for the Barbados.

L’épave du Elizabeth and Mary (1690), Fouilles archéologiques : Rapport d’activités 1997, Février 2008:https://www.ccq.gouv.qc.ca/phips/pdf/57M-1997-report-with-cover-2.pdf

On May 9, 1690, three survivors of the Mary arrived in Boston aboard a makeshift boat:

On the twenty-fifth of March, five of the company resolved to venture out to sea in their skiff, which they lenghtened out so far as to make a sort of cabin for two or three men, and having procured a sail, they shipped their share of provisions on board, and steered away for Boston. It was on the ninth of May before these poor wretches arrived there, through a thousand dangers form the Sea and Ice, and almost starved with hunger and cold; upon their arrival, a vessel was immediately dispatched away to the Island and brought off the few unfortunates wretches that had been left behind.

L’épave du Elizabeth and Mary (1690), Fouilles archéologiques : Rapport d’activités 1997, Février 2008:https://www.ccq.gouv.qc.ca/phips/pdf/57M-1997-report-with-cover-2.pdf

A few years later, in June 1695, Samuell Newell of Roxbury returned to Boston after surviving a shipwreck and captivity among the Indians and the French:

June 6, 1695
The Petition of Samuell Newell of Roxbury; Humbly Showeth That whereas in ye Country Service against Cannida he with the Company Suffered Ship Wrack and more hardship than well can be Expresst being six weex in ye desert fee- ding sometimes on Rotten wood and sometimes on such vermin as they could find, in which hard ship some perished, and then we that were alive fell into the hands of the heathen whose Mercies we found to be Cruelties one of us they killed and other Dyed, and your Petitioner after one year of Indian Slavery got to the french which was some what better but still slavery and harship was his portion with him.

L’épave du Elizabeth and Mary (1690), Fouilles archéologiques : Rapport d’activités 1997, Février 2008:https://www.ccq.gouv.qc.ca/phips/pdf/57M-1997-report-with-cover-2.pdf

As it turns out, putting together the statements of survivors, along with reimbursement requests, reveals that of the four lost ships, the fates of three of them were known at the time. Only one of the four ships remained a complete mystery for 300 years, with none surviving to tell the tale. This was the lost company of men from Dorchester, Massachusetts. The Dorchester Militia – who’s items were found on the bottom of the St. Lawrence, many with their initials still embedded in them.

These finds give us a snapshot of life in the New England colonies as of 1690, and of the men who left their families on compulsory militia service against a target which would long-elude British capture, never to return.

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