Perry's Revenge -- A Continued Look at the Wreck of an Early 19th-Century Naval Schooner off the Coast of Rhode Island

June 11, 2021 | By George Schwarz, Underwater Archaeologist, Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) archaeologists collaborated with Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) engineers during the second half of May 2021 to continue documenting the remains of Oliver Hazard Perry's schooner Revenge, which wrecked off of Watch Hill, Rhode Island in 1811. The team, along with local site discoverers Charles Buffum and Craig Harger, spent the first week collecting magnetic data over the reef where the wreck's remains are strewn, often hidden between craggy boulders. This was accomplished by towing a marine magnetometer in a tightly spaced pattern over the wreck site to measure variations in the earth's magnetic field, in turn helping archaeologists locate iron artifacts associated with the wreck. Such materials from an early 19th naval schooner could include cannon (such as the two previously recovered by Navy), pig iron ballast, iron shot, anchors, rigging elements, and ship fittings and hardware. Metal artifacts like these had the strongest chance of surviving in the shallow and high energy reef environment, but they are obscured by sea growth and appear to blend into the surrounding reef and aquatic life. The first week was a success and dozens of magnetic anomalies (targets with sizable variations in the earth's magnetic field) were identified for diver survey. As a shallow and dangerous reef, however, there exists scores of wrecks from centuries of coastal navigation in the region, so the team's previous research on shipwrecks off Watch Hill was crucial in understanding the range of cargos, hull materials, and other ship-related artifacts expected to be in vicinity of the reef, such as two 20th-century steel-hulled vessels nearby.

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Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 210624-N-ZV259-9839
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Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 210624-N-ZV259-9591

Even with today's navigation technology, the reef is treacherous for boaters, with some of the rocks exposed during low tide. There is typically strong current and surge around the reef, and, as in Perry's time, the rocks can be difficult to avoid unless familiar with the area. Using the narrow slack tide windows available for divers to work on site each day, the NHHC and NUWC Engineering and Diving Support Unit (EDSU) team completed the underwater mission objectives during the second week. Using metal detectors to pinpoint the location of the previous week's magnetometer targets, along with knowledge and experience of Buffum and Harger who originally found the site in 2005, Navy divers encountered several concretions (metal objects encapsulated in marine encrustations formed by chemical reactions between iron and seawater) that likely belong to Revenge, and documented their locations to be included in archaeological site drawings. Among these concretions, which often look like reef rocks, the team located iron ballast probably belonging to Revenge. Weighing hundreds of pounds each, these bars (or pigs) of iron were originally placed low in the schooner's hull to lower the center of gravity and increase stability for sailing and coping with the ship's armament. It is known from existing records that some, but not all, of the schooner's ballast was recovered soon after the wreck event. Two smaller, broken ballast samples were documented and recovered for conservation at NHHC's Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory.

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Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 210624-N-ZV259-9735
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Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 210624-N-ZV259-9784

The 2021 survey laid the groundwork for continued recording of the wreck, potentially off the reef and into deeper water, as well as possible artifact recovery for study and exhibit in local and national museums. Although a considerable loss for the U.S. Navy at the time, the wrecking of Revenge ultimately resulted in Perry's assignment to oversee the construction of a flotilla on Lake Erie and lead a successful and famous naval battle against British forces during the War of 1812. More than 200 years later, the wreck is offering archaeologists and historians an opportunity to study the remains of a rare naval schooner from the early years of the U.S. Navy.