Phase I Underwater Archaeology Survey: The British Incursion into the Upper Elk River

steam to stearnReprinted from Stem to Stern the Newsletter of the newsletter of East Carolina University’s program in marine studies. Vol. 16, Winter 2001

by Mike Hughes

On April 28, 1813, British forces under Rear-Admiral George Cockburn ascended northern Maryland’s Elk River attempting to disrupt maritime commerce in the Chesapeake during the War of 1812. The British had instituted a blockade of the Chesapeake and hoped to force the United States out of the war and divert attention from the Great Lakes. During the incursion, Cockburn’s forces met with some resistance from local militia and were involved in minor skirmishes. For the people of Cecil County, these actions were dire. The British burned several vessels and destroyed buildings because of the resistance.

ECU Martime students Mike Plako and Michael Hughes on the Upper Elk River.  Photo Courtesy of Stem to Stern

ECU Maritime students Mike Plako and Michael Hughes on the Upper Elk River. Photo Courtesy of Stem to Stern

In August 2000, East Carolina University Maritime Studies Program student Michael Hughes, in conjunction with the Maryland Historical Trust and the National Park Service, conducted a Phase I survey of the Upper Elk River, Elkton, Maryland. The survey was part of a statewide initiative regarding the War of 1812. This initiative targeted the discovery and documentation of material culture related to the War of 1812 in Maryland, both on land and water. Another aspect of the initiative was to involve the public in the archaeological process by explaining the benefits of protecting their cultural resources.

While researching primary source documents, the crew uncovered references to potential material remains from the War of 1812. These items included a chain boom, wrecks of two packet ships, and cannon  shot from Fort Defiance, Fort Hollingsworth, and Frenchtown, all located on the shores of the Elk River. The goal was to locate these artifacts, as well as any other relevant material because they would help (1) identify fort locations, (2) confirm the documentary evidence we had uncovered, and (3) add to the cultural history of Cecil County.

Working to get the public involved, Hughes, Maryland Historical Trust underwater archaeologist Steven Bilicki, and Tim Wallace from Macalester College in Minnesota, invited members of the local community to assist in the fieldwork. The volunteers were split into two groups, one to assist with the river survey, the other to assist with a land survey. The turnout was impressive and provided invaluable assistance to the archaeologists.

Hughes and the volunteers conducted the Phase I survey using a magnetometer to detect anomalies on the river bottom. Certain signatures from the magnetometer indicated possible locations for relevant material culture. The river geography proved both a boon and a curse, however. The Upper Elk River was narrow at some very key points, facilitating the magnetometer survey, yet the tidal flow left some areas un-navigable except at extreme high tides, and sometimes not even then.

The survey yielded mixed results.  There were a number of anomalies that looked promising, but when dived, were only junk thrown in the river, as with an old car engine. The process was to buoy possible hits, bounce dive on them, and conduct circle searches to find the detected anomaly. There were a few problems with a search of this type because the water was extremely murky and visibility was practically zero. Many times objects were buried due to the shifting of the sediment. There were many objects that set off the magnetometer – pipelines, metal refuse, etc.

Some artifacts of note were discovered, including concreted chain shot, used in its day to disable ships rigging. This was located in front of the possible Fort Defiance site. Some wrought iron chain was located, but it was not large enough to be considered as a chain boom. As for the vessels burned by the British, one had been located the previous October. This work is the subject of a thesis by ECU Maritime Studies student Michael Plakos. The other vessel is believed to be buried by sediment.Though on the last day of fieldwork, the team discovered some debris that may have been connected to the second vessel. Time prohibited confirmation, but more fieldwork will be conducted in the future.


We would like to thank all the volunteers who showed up, the American Battlefield Protection Program, the Maryland Tourism Development Board, the Maryland Historical Trust, State Underwater Archaeologist Susan Langley, the Susquehanna Museum of Havre de Grace, and Michael Dixon from the Cecil County Historical Society, who all gave us assistance during this project.

 – Mike Hughes

frenchtown 013

Historical marker for Frenchtown. Source: Window on Cecil County’s Past.


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