By Chris Sabick, Director of Archaeology & Research
In mid-August, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum conducted a multibeam sonar survey of the wreck site of the Revolutionary War Gunboat Spitfire. This project continues the Museum’s efforts to work with regional and national partners in determining the best path forward for the long-term preservation of this amazing piece of American history. The Museum worked with Middlebury College’s research team and their vessel the RV Folger, under a permit from the US Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, to provide a detailed look at the wreck site and the surrounding lake bottom to determine the vessel’s current condition and whether any items related to the sinking are located near the wreck site. The information gathered will be used for further planning of more detailed examinations of the Spitfire site during the summer of 2022. Next summer’s field efforts will include the production of a 3-dimensional model of the intact vessel generated from detailed photography gathered by a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV).
The Gunboat Spitfire was one of a small fleet of American vessels that fought at the Battle of Valcour Bay on October 11, 1776, to delay the invasion planned by British forces through Lake Champlain to the head waters of the Hudson River and on to New York City. While the American fleet suffered a tactical defeat at Valcour, the badly damaged vessels were able to escape southward past a British blockade during the night of October 11-12. However, during the escape of the American fleet from Valcour Bay it was determined that Spitfire was too badly damaged to continue, and it was allowed to sink into deep water while the exhausted crew members escaped in small boats.
The Spitfire was preserved by the cold dark waters of Lake Champlain for more than two centuries and not rediscovered until 1997. During the Lake Champlain Cultural Resources Survey, a multi-year effort to map the entire bottom of Lake Champlain, Spitfire was discovered sitting upright on the lake bottom in deep water with its mast still standing and its bow gun still in place. This remarkable discovery has led to two decades of discussions about the long-term preservation of the historic vessel and the many personal stories contained within the wreck’s hull and its associated artifact collection waiting to be told through archaeological excavation.
The continued examination and possible future excavation of the Spitfire site will improve our understanding of one of the most formative periods in early American history. The documentation of the construction and outfitting of the vessel will be compared against contemporary examples like the Spitfire’s sister ship Philadelphia, which was raised from Lake Champlain in 1935 and is currently displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. This comparison will shed light on the massive shipbuilding effort that was undertaken by the Continental forces during the summer of 1776. Future excavation of the artifacts left in the vessel’s hull by the crew that served aboard it will reveal the stories of the everyday soldiers that fought under the command of Benedict Arnold in 1776 on Lake Champlain.
As the country prepares for the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the events of 1776, the archaeological examination of the gunboat Spitfire as it rests on the bottom of Lake Champlain offers the rare opportunity to gain a better understanding of the vessels and soldiers that participated in these formative events. The Museum looks forward to continuing this work with our partners and sharing it with the public as we move forward.
Support for this project comes from the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership and was carried out in partnership with Middlebury College’s research vessel RV Folger, the New York State Office of Historic Preservation, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, and the US Navy Naval History and Heritage Command.