Sunken boat may be historic schooner

Anne Arundel wreckage could be from local ship burned during War of 1812

April 22, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

It started with little more than a scant reference in a 190-year-old letter, then progressed when sonar equipment picked up some metal wreckage under the murky waters of Bodkin Creek.

Now, historians believe that the mass under the Pasadena creek could be the remains of The Lion, a Baltimore schooner the British burned during the War of 1812.

If historians working on the project can prove that the vessel is The Lion, it would be rare evidence of a War of 1812 skirmish in Anne Arundel County, said Kim Nielsen, director of the U.S. Navy Museum in Washington. It also would probably draw more attention to Hancock's Resolution, a preserved stone farmhouse and cemetery overlooking Bodkin Creek.

"The assumption was that it was just a farm schooner or something small to take vegetables to market," Nielsen said. "But it was an actual naval engagement. It is a much bigger deal than we first thought."

Last fall, archaeologists with the Maryland Historical Trust used sonar equipment to photograph the creek's bottom. Armed with a letter from Capt. Peter Parker of the British army that described burning a schooner near Bodkin Point and residents' stories that a wreck existed, the archaeologists were able to find an approximate location to search. The equipment picked up what appeared to be the outline of a boat's bottom.

The state archaeologists shared their findings with members of Friends of Hancock's Resolution, the group that helped restore the farmhouse and runs tours there. Nielsen, a member of the group, used museum resources to delve deeper into the mysterious schooner.

He found microfilm of a 150-page diary from a British lieutenant that describes how soldiers chased after a schooner called The Lion in Bodkin Creek and burned it. That information corresponded with Parker's letter, which he wrote to Vice Adm. Sir Alexander Cochrane in August 1814, the month the British burned Washington. The Lion could have encountered a diversionary British force that came north toward Baltimore.

Armed with a name, archaeologist Steven Bilicki pored through the Lloyd's of London ship registry and found two Lion schooners - one from Baltimore and one from Salem, Mass. Both were run by privateers - independent crews the U.S. government hired to supplement the Navy and harass the British. Privateer ships that raided British vessels generally gave the government half the loot, dividing the rest of the spoils among themselves. Other evidence showed that a schooner called The Lion was successful in harassing British ships in France, though researchers aren't sure which Lion that was.

But even this much information is more than historians such as Bilicki usually have when searching for lost vessels. Often, they have only a remote hope that the vessel's name will still be on the wreckage - a difficult prospect in this case because the schooner was burned, and as little as 10 percent of it may be left.

"It's not always that you can get the name of the vessel. Rarely do I have the information up front," he said.

Bilicki, whose office is under the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, plans to dive in Bodkin Creek during the summer with magnetometers to do more research on the wreck. His office has a permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment to vacuum mud from what is left of the vessel so they can measure it and search for distinguishing features, such as cannons and armaments.

The finding could be a boon for Hancock's Resolution, which is planning to stage a re-enactment of the skirmish in August. Nielsen is also working to put Hancock's Resolution on the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail that the National Park Service is hoping to create.

"Two years ago, we had no idea that this thing had even taken place," said Jim Morrison, founder and president of the Friends of Hancock's Resolution.

Morrison is widely credited with resuscitating the crumbling farmhouse.

Five generations of Hancocks had lived in the farmhouse, with no running water or electricity, since the 1700s. When Harry Hancock died in 1962, he willed the property to the Historic Annapolis Foundation. It then gave the county a 25-year lease on the property, but budget cuts kept the county from acting on the lease. The foundation also did little with the site, largely because of the cost of repairs.

When Morrison learned about the site in 1997, he lobbied the county to help repair a leaking roof and save it from decline. Several archaeological digs revealed remnants of an old farmhouse kitchen and shipping docks. In 1999, Hancock's Resolution reopened, with Morrison's group running tours. Last year, 1,000 visitors toured the place.

The house reopened for tours this month, and Morrison hopes the recent findings will lure more people to the farmhouse.

"If people come to Hancock's Resolution, they have to want to come there," he said, "because we're not near anything else."

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