Research

RESEARCH – by Robert F. Marx

The key to success in locating shipwrecks or any other underwater site is to do a thorough job of research first. The most comprehensive general book on ship losses throughout the world is The Treasure Divers Guide by John S. Potter. For shipwrecks in this hemisphere, my own book, Shipwrecks in the Americas, is a must. My book only covers shipwrecks up to 1825. It is currently published by the Ram Publishing Company under the title New World Shipwrecks: 1492 to 1625. For information on the best shipwrecks around the world, Ram just published my latest book THE WORLD’S RICHEST WRECKS. It contains the information on the 5,000 richest treasure shipwrecks around the world, which were lost from the time of the Vikings up to 1850.

For shipwrecks after this date there are two other excellent books: the Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks by Bruce D. Berman and A Guide to Sunken Ships in American Waters by Adrian L. Lonsdale and H.R. Kaplan. Both of these last two books also cover many ship losses in rivers and on the Great Lakes. One that specializes in only the lakes is Shipwrecks of the Lakes by Dana Thomas Bowen. There are also many books listing shipwrecks for specific areas and among the best are Wrecks of Nantucket by Arthus H. Gardner; Shipwrecks of Cape Cod by Isaac M. Small for the New England area; my own book, Shipwrecks in Florida Waters for the Florida coast; and Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast by James A. Gibbs, Jr. The best book for river losses is Steamboat Disasters and Railroad Accidents by S.A. Howland. For information on almost every military and merchant ship lost during the Civil War there is a 31 volume work entitled Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, which can be obtained from the U.S. Government Printing Office.

In addition to the dozens of books available there are a number of pamphlets published by various government agencies that contain wreck information dating after 1825. The best source is the Treasury Section of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The Public Information Division of the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Naval Hydrographic Office, NOAA and the U.S. Maritime Commission—all in Washington, D.C.—can also be helpful.

Old newspaper accounts are also valuable sources of information on ship losses after the middle of the 17th century. On more than one occasion I have been able to identify or learn more about a shipwreck through newspapers. To determine which newspapers were published nearest the site you found, or wish to explore, it is helpful to consult the following sources: History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, two volumes by Clarence S. Brigham; and the Dictionary of Newspapers and Periodicals by N.W. Ayer and Sons, which covers the period up to 1880. The New York Times, founded in 1851, is a comprehensive source of information on ship losses of the later periods. Most libraries have indexes to all the years of the Times and microfilms of particular issues or pages are easy to obtain.

Although original research undertaken in archives and libraries is by far the most rewarding, as well as the most challenging method of learning about ship losses, few amateur divers have the time or finances to pursue it. However, with a little patience and a small amount of money a diver can write to a particular archive—in the U.S. or elsewhere—and enlist the services of a professional researcher.

Old maps and charts are often valuable sources for locating shipwrecks. In the course of many years of research I have come upon hundreds of maps showing—with astonishing accuracy in some cases and equally astonishing inaccuracy in others—shipwreck locations. The most accurate maps or charts pinpointing shipwrecks were generally those drawn by contemporary salvors—however, keep in mind that no shipwreck was ever completely salvaged and there is always something left for the modern day salvor. The best sources for old charts and maps in the United States are the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the New York Public Library in NYC, the Newberry Library in Chicago, and the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. Many place names on both old and new charts denote where ships were lost.

Another approach to gathering information is to talk with anyone who may have accidentally found a shipwreck. Local fishermen usually know the surrounding bottom as well as the palms of their hands and have often snagged objects from wrecks in their nets. Fishermen know that fish abound around wrecks and many of them record the positions so they can either return to choice fishing spots or avoid dangerous areas. Some years ago I took my nine year old daughter Hilary for a diving vacation at Chubb Island in the Bahamas. As we were waiting for the resort boat to pick us up, I noticed a small local fishing boat and when I saw the fisherman was using Spanish ballast rock for his own ballast, which they call river pebbles, I got excited and decided to forsake the tourist diving to check out where the fisherman had found the ballast. While I was putting on my scuba gear Hilary jumped in with just mask and fins and seconds later surfaced with a fantastic British gold bosun’s whistle attached to a four foot gold chain. She exclaimed,”Dad is this what we are after?” It was dated 1743 and had the ship’s name – the HMS BRISTOL on it. Just a few months before, on her birthday, I had taken her diving on one of the 1715 wrecks, which are close to our home. One of my regular divers said to her, ”Honey don’t expect to find anything as we have been working for two months and have only found a small number of silver coins and pottery shards. Ten minutes later Hilary surfaced with seven eight escudo gold coins and a silver pocket watch with an inscription and owner’s name on it; and this without even using a metal detector. I was one proud father.