Lost ship holds key to colony mystery
In the past month, the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology research vessel has surveyed 6 square miles of the ocean bottom outside the mouth of Winyah Bay, searching for the 500-year old flagship of the expedition that established America's first colony --- on the Georgia coast.
"If the Spanish had this kind of navigation gear in the 16th century, we probably wouldn't be out here looking for this ship now," grins archaeologist Jim Spirek, looking up from the computer screen in the cabin of the C-Hawk.
In August 1526, as Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon's fleet of six ships plied these waters, depths were determined by dangling a lead weight overboard at the end of a line. The method had its limitations. Ayllon's flagship ran aground --- and the first European effort to colonize the mainland of North America began to go horribly awry.
American history brims with accounts of Jamestown, Plymouth Rock and Sir Walter Raleigh's Lost Colony of Roanoke. But there isn't much said about Ayllon's effort to establish a colony of 600 people nearly a century earlier.
One reason is that the colony, San Miguel de Gualdape, was an abject failure. The other is that no trace has ever been found of Ayllon's initial landing on the Carolina coast or the short-lived colony he established later in Georgia.
Christopher Amer, South Carolina's state underwater archaeologist, hopes to change that. Other archaeologists have looked for the ephemeral remains of the failed Georgia colony, which is thought to have been located somewhere in the vicinity of Sapelo Sound, south of Savannah, and found nothing.
Amer is betting that sea floor sediments, which would have quickly buried the wreck, have preserved Ayllon's ill-fated Chorruca and its cargo.
Ayllon's "tubby little vessel," a wide-beamed class of ship that Amer says was known for "sailing like a truck," was the Mayflower of its time.
"This was the earliest known shipwreck in North America," he says. "It carried a complete toolkit for starting a colony in a strange land --- containers of food, tools, weapons, everything they needed. If the ship is buried in sediment, these things can last a long time. It won't be easy to find, but that's what makes it exciting."
Amer has no illusions of instant success. This summer's initial four weeks of surveying with the C-Hawk's torpedo-shaped magnetometer --- an instrument that detects masses of iron or steel --- have yielded five "interesting" targets.
But magnetic readings can't distinguish between a rusty refrigerator and a 16th-century Spanish anchor. They also don't reveal whether the object is lying on the seabed or buried beneath thick sediment. To find out, Amer and his team will return to the most promising targets this month, use side scan sonar to examine them and then don wet suits to investigate firsthand.
"There are lots of shipwrecks in the area, including at least three Civil War blockade runners. But we believe there weren't any other 16th-century Spanish shipwrecks, so if we find any artifacts from that period, it will be pretty interesting. If we don't find anything, we'll keep looking."
The historical accounts that Amer used to narrow his search to 45 square miles of ocean off the entrance to Winyah Bay are a frustrating blend of ambiguity, supposition and incomplete data.
History duly records that Ayllon left Hispaniola, the island now shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, in July 1526 and headed for North America with six ships carrying 600 men, women and children, including doctors, clergymen, sailors and slaves.
In addition to 100 horses and livestock, the ships carried stores of corn, bread and olive oil. Ayllon attempted his initial landing about 10 miles north of what he had, on a previous reconnaissance of the area, named "the River Jordan" on Aug. 9, 1526.
All hands survived the loss of his flagship, suggesting that it wasn't far offshore, but the colonists quickly concluded that the location was unsuitable for a colony.
Ayllon had the colonists build a vessel to replace his flagship and then sent the women, children and sick south while he led the remaining men on a grueling overland march that ended with the two groups reconvening somewhere on the Georgia coast. There, in September 1526, Spain founded the first, albeit short-lived, colony in North America.
It didn't last long. By mid-November, more than half the colonists, including Ayllon, were dead of disease, starvation and Indian attacks.
The survivors called it quits, burned the settlement and departed for Hispaniola. En route, the ships were struck by a late-season hurricane and only 150 people returned. Maps of North America would continue for some time to refer to the Southeast as "the land of Ayllon."
But the colony's location has intrigued and baffled archaeologists for years.
Until recently, historians thought the initial landing occurred somewhere near Cape Fear, N.C., about 100 miles north of where Amer is searching.
But new translations of a Spanish document called the Chaves Rutter --- a compilation of information and geographic descriptions from pilots who sailed along the Atlantic coast in the 16th century --- convinced later historians otherwise.
"The Santee River has the highest probability of being the River Jordan, and Winyah Bay is the most likely location where Ayllon's ship was lost," says Amer. "We may be looking for a needle in a haystack, but I think we are in the right haystack."
There are abundant shoals outside the entrance to Winyah Bay that could easily have snagged Ayllon's ship, which had a draft of about 15 feet.
But Amer says the search for Ayllon's ship won't be as simple as checking out every bump on the ocean floor that's 15 feet deep or less. Sea level has risen nearly 5 feet since Ayllon's time and the shoreline has undergone dramatic changes too.
North Island, the sandy finger of land guarding the northern side of the bay entrance, has advanced as much as four miles to the south in the last 500 years. South Island, across from the entrance, has advanced and retreated several times.
"With all the changes that have occurred, it's possible that the wreck is now buried under those sand dunes," Amer says. "If it's there and it's not in the water, we're going to need a whole new approach to finding it."
The project is funded by the University of South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology and the privately funded Archaeological Research Trust, but Amer is also seeking funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for future survey work in the remaining 39 square miles of the prospective search area.
How long might it take to find America's oldest shipwreck? It's a small ship. And a big ocean.
Amer, who was part of the team that discovered and raised the celebrated Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley in Charleston Harbor, isn't making any promises.
"Let's just say that I'm planning on retiring in 10 years or so," he says.
"And this project might take every one of them."
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