Sailing Canal Boat General Butler Collection

Caption: General Butler Sinking, Ernest Haas. Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Collection.

Collection Summary

  • Dates: 1862-1895
  • Size: 4 boxes; several flat file drawers
  • Media: paper; photographs; video; archaeologically recovered material (wood; iron; ceramic)
  • Language: English
  • Subjects: Canal Era
  • Related Publications: The Lake Champlain Sailing Canal Boat (Cozzi, Texas A&M Dissertation, 2000). The Archaeological Reconstruction of the Lake Champlain Canal Schooner General Butler (VT-CH-590) Burlington, Chittenden County, Vermont (Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 1996). The Wreck of the General Butler and the Mystery of Lake Champlain’s Sailing Canal Boats (Cohn and True, 1992).
  • Access and Use: Some materials in the Sailing Canal Boat General Butler Collection are extremely fragile and should be handled with care.

Scope and Content

The Sailing Canal Boat General Butler Collection consists of the assembled archaeological research files and artifacts recovered during the various archaeological investigations of the site of General Butler, an 1862-class sailing canal boat and its immediate surroundings resting in 35 feet of water in Burlington Bay. Documentation of the site includes records from visits by the Champlain Maritime Society (precursor to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum), Joseph Robert Cozzi’s review of the site for his 1995 dissertation at Texas A&M University, and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s 1996 technical report, The Archaeological Reconstruction of the Lake Champlain Canal Schooner General Butler (VT-CH-590). Additionally, the collection includes dive logs and field notes from the archaeological divers who excavated the vessel and mitigated risk for opening the General Butler site as an underwater historic preserve.

The General Butler Collection contains over 200 items of various media, as well as thousands of field notes, drawings, inkings, photographs, and video recordings of the site and artifacts recovered. Artifacts of note include representative pieces of the stone cargo on board when the vessel sank; a modified coconut possibly reshaped for use as a cup; a cast iron stove leg; fragments from a woman’s skirt; a leather man’s boot; several complete pieces of ceramic dishware; a 2 gallon jug found filled with turpentine or pitch; and a small medicine bottle, cork intact, and partially filled with clear liquid. Recovered archaeological artifacts were conserved in-house at the Museum. Several large artifacts, including some of the cargo, a windlass, and several pieces of the vessel’s masts, remain on the site, and the public is reminded that it is illegal to move or remove artifacts from any archaeological site.

Fortunately, much is known about the General Butler (named for the Union general Benjamin Butler, known for his victory at New Orleans during the Civil War), including records of its changes in ownership (three during its short fourteen year career) and the daring rescue of its crew by James Wakefield during the winter gales of December 9, 1876. Like the OJ Walker, General Butler was uncommon as it was a sailing canal boat that continued in use as a sailing vessel after most similar vessels had been converted to towed boats due to the use of newly prominent steam tugs introduced to the canal systems.

The General Butler’s last captain, William Montgomery, made the hard choice to attempt delivery of a late-season load of stone across the lake in early December. Sudden heavy winds brought the vessel against the Burlington breakwater, and its sinking quickly became inevitable. Thanks to the quick action of mariner, James Wakefield and his son Jack, who rowed out to save the crew and family onboard, no lives were lost. The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum honors this daring act at the annual James Wakefield Rescue Row, a competition for local youth rowers in Burlington Harbor.

The extensive archaeological documentation of the General Butler and access to the extant remains as an underwater historic preserve has led to some common characteristics in our understanding of sailing canal boat construction, and improved researchers’ ability to interpret and understand the development of sailing canal boats on Lake Champlain.

The archaeological examinations of this site, as well as those of the OJ Walker were used as references in the construction of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s sailing canal boat replica, Lois McClure.

Citation Recommendation

Sailing Canal Boat General Butler Collection, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Vergennes, VT.

There are no known copyright restrictions related to this material.


Canal; canal boat; Burlington Bay; stone; Canal Era; shipwreck; archaeology; canal families; James Wakefield; William Montgomery; General Benjamin Butler; General Butler; OJ Walker; Lois McClure; Museum-generated research; Museum-conserved artifacts

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