Mystery Shipwreck Discovered in Connecticut River

Archaeologist John Pfeiffer (left) records measurements of a recently discovered ship's knee with the help of Connecticut River Museum Executive Director Jerry Roberts and Connecticut State Archaeologist Nick Bellantoni (right). The historic knee, which may be a part of a possible shipwreck, was found by a research team at the mouth of the Connecticut River.

On June 20, while dragging nets for sturgeon research on the Connecticut River just south of Essex, Tom Savoy and his team from the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) caught more than a big fish. In their nets, along with a snagged log and other debris, was what appeared to be a very old ship's knee, a large wooden L-bracket used to fasten deck beams to the ribs of wooden ships.

Recognizing the potential significance of the discovery, they brought it to the Connecticut River Museum, where museum officials quickly took steps to identify and properly preserve it. A team of experts including Connecticut State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Director of Conservation Christopher Sabick, and archaeologist John Pfeiffer were called in to help determine the history of the wooden piece.

Pfeiffer, who was the primary investigator of the shipwreck discovered at the mouth of the river in Old Saybrook, has tentatively identified the knee as being made in America prior to the 1820s, due to its hand-carved wooden trunnels (pegs) and lack of metal fasteners.

"This is really something special," marveled Pfeiffer. "This could be an important find."

Based on the age and location of the artifact, as well as the presence of faint charring, it is possible that the knee is from one of the two American privateers the British attempted to take down river after their raid on Essex, in 1814 in which 27 ships were destroyed. The British burned the Young Anaconda and the Eagle after running them aground in shallow waters.

The knee is now in a tank undergoing a two-year conservation process and can be seen at the Connecticut River Museum located at 67 Main Street in Essex. The museum is also home to a permanent Burning of the Fleet exhibit, which includes other 1814 British raid artifacts, a 14-foot long mural, paintings, dioramas, and audio clips. Recently the museum received a $20,000 grant from Connecticut's State Historic Preservation Office to conduct further research into the battle as a prelude to attaining National Park Service battle site designation.

A second piece of wood was found in the same location last week, leading museum officials to believe there is more to be found.

"It is probably the heavy spring freshet that has uncovered parts of the wreck, which has been buried in the river bottom for nearly 200 years," said the museum's executive director, Jerry Roberts. "It just shows that history is not dead; the books have not all been written. Last year we were given a British sword that was found in the river, and now this. We are planning to see what else is down there. It's kind of amazing that we are finding these things now, as we approach the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the 1814 British Raid."

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