J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

“Bringing up curiosities from the sunken wreck”

Yesterday I described the sinking of the Royal Navy ship Hussar in the Hell-Gate portion of New York harbor in 1780.

In August 1814, the American Weekly Messenger reported that “The gentlemen who manage the diving bell…last summer were daily bringing up curiosities from the sunken wreck of the British frigate Hussar.” However, they had moved on to another sunken warship, the Mercury. (At the time, notably, the U.S. of A. was once again at war with Britain.)

Then a rumor began to circulate that the Hussar had gone down with the British military payroll in gold and silver. The warship had certainly brought that specie to America in 1780. The ship had also carried American prisoners across the ocean for exchange, and another rumor started to circulate, saying they had gone down with the ship and that their skeletons remained at the bottom, still in chains. With New York recently agitated about the prison ship dead, that possibility brought new attention to the Hussar. Why, it was practically a patriotic duty to search for the ship and bring up those brave martyrs’ remains! (Along with whatever gold and silver one might find along the way.)

In October 1818, the New Monthly Magazine reported that a “company of adventurers” had hired the diving bell to revisit the Hussar and search for gold. An 1819 letter said that expedition succeeded in bringing up “most of the guns from her upper deck,” but no gold.

Reports of that expedition evidently prompted a letter to the Edinburgh Observer in 1827. Former petty officer Fletcher Yetts recalled helping to offload the specie to the army paymasters two days before the wreck. He mentioned the loss of seamen on the ship, but no prisoners, so those Americans had gone ashore as well.

Still, there was another expedition to find the Hussar in 1856, and a group from Worcester planned to try again in 1876. That same year the Army Corps of Engineers tamed the Hell-Gate by blowing it up with dynamite, obliterating whatever was on the bottom. Nonetheless, another man got government permission to try for the wreck in the 1890s; he called off his attempt when research in British archives indicated that there would be no treasure to be found.

Robert Apuzzo recounts this history in detail in The Endless Search for the H.M.S. Hussar: New York’s Legendary Treasure Shipwreck. Landfill has since covered the likely area of the wreck. The cannon given to Central Park in the 1860s—and the recently discovered gunpowder, ball and wadding inside—may be what little is left of the Hussar.

(The thumbnail above shows Thomas Kitchin’s 1777 map of New York harbor and Hell-Gate, courtesy of antique maps dealer Barry Lawrence Ruderman.)

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