Strange States: Delaware's Many Shipwrecks

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If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.

Although Delaware is often called The First State because it was the first to ratify the Constitution back in 1787, it will never be accused of being a very strange state. There simply isn’t a lot of room for too many weird museums or crazy statues in 2500 square miles of land. But just off the coast is another thing: Over the years, many a ship has sunk off of Delaware. Here are the stories behind two of the wrecks.

The Story of Coin Beach

After a night of thunderstorms, it’s not unusual to find the beach near Delaware Seashore State Park invaded by people with metal detectors. This strip of sand, known as Coin Beach, has produced the occasional lucky find since an Irish ship, the Faithful Steward, sunk just offshore on September 1, 1785. 

The story goes that the Steward left Londonderry, Ireland on July 9 filled mostly with families coming to America in search of a better life. To celebrate the end of the long journey across the Atlantic, Captain Connolly McCausland and his crew threw a party.  Unfortunately, they partied a little too hard and many of them, including McCausland, passed out, leaving the ship at the mercy of the seas. The Steward ran aground less than 150 yards from shore and began to sink, forcing the passengers into the drink. Of the 249 souls on board, only 68 survived.

While the loss of human life is tragic, the Faithful Steward also lost all her cargo, including 400 barrels filled with British pennies and halfpennies. It’s these coins that have washed up ever since, giving Coin Beach its nickname. However, many local treasure hunters claim the coins are now becoming few and far between. It seems the most they find today are rusted shoe buckles and other, small personal belongings, which, while interesting, are not very lucrative finds.            

De Braak

Commander James Drew of the British Royal Navy and his ship, the 18-gun brig-sloop HMS De Braak, were having a pretty good run in May 1798. They had just captured the Don Francisco Xavier, an enemy Spanish ship, and were towing it into Delaware Bay to collect a $160,000 bounty. However, Drew’s good luck ran out as a freak storm created high winds, capsizing the boat before the crew could respond in time. Forty-seven men died as the ship sank, including Drew, his 35-man crew, and most of the Spanish prisoners that had been held in the hull. Only three prisoners survived, paddling to shore on the Commander’s wooden chest.  When they were rescued, they were reportedly carrying gold coins, which led many to speculate that the De Braak was filled with valuable treasure.

The rumors of sunken treasure persisted and more than 30 salvage operations were attempted over the years, but found little success. But luck finally struck for Sub-Sal, Inc., who used side-scan sonar to find the ship in 1984 and soon secured the rights to salvage the site. Over the course of two years, Sub-Sal recovered nearly 20,000 artifacts from the De Braak, but, because they were only interested in treasure, threw many items of historical value overboard. One of these items was a rare 18th Century Royal Navy stove, said to be one of only two known to be left in existence. There were even reports they disposed of human remains in the same manner, a clear violation of numerous state and federal laws. In the end, they only found a few gold coins that weren’t even valuable enough to justify the expense of the salvage. Worst of all, they did irreparable harm to the ship’s hull and the integrity of the archaeological site. 

The irresponsible salvage of the De Braak was the final straw for many in the underwater archaeology field. They had been fighting for more stringent federal laws to safeguard underwater historical sites after thousands of sunken ships were destroyed by treasure hunters in the 1970s. In response, the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act was passed in 1988, which made any historic or abandoned shipwrecks found in a state’s coastal waters the property of the state. The act makes public access to the shipwrecks legal, but taking any objects from the sites is against the law. This also brings the excavation of shipwrecks under the control of the state, who can hire private salvage teams to bring up artifacts if the state deems it’s in the public’s interest. 

The 20,000 “worthless” artifacts recovered from the De Braak site were sold to the State of Delaware for $300,000, and can now be seen in the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes, Delware. The ship’s hull underwent a lengthy preservation process and can now viewed at Cape Henlopen State Park.  

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state?  Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Freaky Fifty!   

See all the entries in the Strange State series here

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October 7, 2013 - 1:00pm
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