In early September 2022, Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) collaborated on a project to locate and study one of the U.S. Navy’s historic wrecks from the early 19th century, the schooner Alligator. The two week project, which took place in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, involved underwater archaeologists and cultural resource experts from the two agencies to search shallow reefs in the vicinity of where the schooner was reportedly lost.
Constructed in 1820, the U.S. naval schooner Alligator
was one of five vessels built for anti-slavery and anti-piracy patrol at a time when American naval forces were beginning to extend the nation’s reach beyond its coastal waters. These schooners were swift, powerfully armed, and versatile. Alligator was 86 ft. in length, carried 13 guns - a combination of an 18-pounder pivoting cannon and 6-pounder carronades - and had fine lines and a coppered hull to facilitate operations in the open sea.
Under the command of its first captain, Lt. Robert F. Stockton, Alligator sailed to West Africa where its crew captured several slaving vessels. On the same cruise, Alligator carried Dr. Eli Ayers, a representative of the American Colonization Society to Cape Mesurado, where he and Stockton negotiated for land to found a colony for the resettlement of enslaved Africans. The colony later became the Republic of Liberia. On its second cruise, Alligator returned to the West African coast and again captured vessels engaged in the slave trade.
Dispatched to the Caribbean Sea on its third cruise under captain Lt. William Allen, the schooner’s crew seized several pirate vessels off Cuba. During one engagement, eight sailors were killed or wounded including Lt. Allen who succumbed to his injuries. Lt. John Dale took command after Allen’s death and turned the schooner towards the U.S. with a convoy of merchant vessels . Heading north for Boston in November 1822, Alligator struck an uncharted reef off of the Florida Keys, resulting in a total loss of the hull. Heavy items were jettisoned or transferred to other vessels in attempts to free the schooner, but it was too embedded in the reef and could not be saved. After removing most valuable items, the crew burned the ship to prevent salvage by pirates.
While the reef upon which Alligator was supposedly wrecked was named after the ship, and a lighthouse with the same name was later installed in the vicinity, little to no mention of its precise resting place survives in available records. Neither are there records of the vessel’s subsequent salvage, though this undoubtedly occurred to some degree as local and Bahamian wreckers were prevalent in the area.
In the mid-1990s, an effort was made to document a shipwreck believed by many to be the remains of Alligator near the Alligator Reef Lighthouse
. Navy and NOAA archaeologists participated in this study and recorded hull construction features to compare with known records of Alligator’s design. No iron ballast or military artifacts were documented on that site fueling skepticism on the identity of the wreck near the lighthouse. In 2004, Navy and ONMS researchers conducted remote sensing operations along parts of the same reef to determine if there were other Alligator wreck candidates nearby – concluding that none meeting the naval vessel’s characteristics were present within the planned survey area.
Now, 200 years after the sinking of the schooner, Navy and ONMS archaeologists once again set out to find the remains of the elusive Alligator. During the September 2022 project, NHHC and ONMS researchers surveyed additional areas considered part of “Alligator Reef” or adjoining reefs using marine magnetometer, side scan sonar, and multibeam echosounder instruments to map the seafloor and search for wreck remains. A joint Navy-ONMS archaeological dive team investigated shipwreck sites discovered during the survey as well as sites that were reported to ONMS by local fisherman and divers but not yet verified. The team visited six wrecks and an 18th century anchor not previously documented. Instead of intact hull remains, the located wrecks mostly consisted of scattered concreted materials strewn across reefs and partly buried in sandy and grassy bottoms. Some of the concretions represented ship’s fasteners, hardware, and other material probably from later in the 19th century. One site contained hull planking and other wooden structure, but was built later than Alligator. Another scattered site contained what appeared to be sections of steel hull remains. Divers found a few pieces of what may be iron ballast , but not in the concentrations expected from the schooner – which was known from naval records to have carried over 19 tons of pig iron ballast.
The team stayed at the Boy Scouts of America Sea Base in Islamorada, Florida, which also provided dock space for the NHHC research vessel. After the initial two-week survey, ONMS continued surveying in the area with research partners from East Carolina University, Florida Public Archaeology Network, and Task Force Dagger Foundation, a veteran’s group trained in locating submerged cultural resources. Although a proposed candidate for the wrecked Alligator has not yet been identified, the Navy and ONMS team is narrowing down the possible wreck locations along the reef. Archaeologists have already found several target areas to examine during a follow up survey and plan to continue searching for the remains of this unique vestige of America’s naval and maritime history.