Shipwreck on the Beach
By Carrie Sowden
Swivel Gun with English Broadarrow.
A great storm in 1842 caused shifting sand on Lake Erie beaches near the town of Rocky River, Ohio, and artifacts were washed ashore, including gun flints, musket barrels, and bayonets. There were continued reports through the 19th century of many items being found in this area, including a silver spoon and an intricate sword. But where did these weapons and other metal pieces come from?
Left: The capture of French Fort Frontenac by the British in 1758, by John Henry Walker, Library and Archives Canada. Center: The Siege of the Fort at Detroit in1763, by Frederic Remington. Right: General John Bradstreet, by Thomas McIlworth, c. 1764.
The story goes back more than 250 years. At the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, many Native Americans, who had previously been trading partners and allies with the French, found themselves under British control. The British implemented terms and conditions that were odious, stopped the tradition of gifts, and treated the tribes with disdain. British settlers also began moving west of the Appalachian Mountains, the agreed upon “boundary” for their settlement.
In the spring of 1763, eight British forts were captured by Native American tribes in what became known as Pontiac’s War. By 1764 the raids on settlements ranged from the Illinois Country to Virginia and western Maryland, and the British began their fight back.
After negotiating a peace treaty at Fort Niagara, Sir William Johnson sent Colonel John Bradstreet and a large contingent of soldiers across Lake Erie to reinforce and resupply the British controlling Fort Detroit. About six weeks later, Bradstreet and his flotilla stopped near the entrance of a river on the south side of Lake Erie, about 10 miles west of what is now Cleveland. The group landed on shore in the area now known as the town of Rocky River.
During the evening, a horrific storm hit the area and the wind and waves destroyed about one-third of the small boat fleet, and six cannons, ammunition, provisions, and personal belongings were lost. Colonel Bradstreet did not come out of this campaign well. He had made several peace treaties that were not authorized and then lost a lot of vessels and supplies during the return trip. While he remained in his post until his death, Bradstreet’s desire to move up in the military was hampered by this disastrous 1764 Lake Erie campaign.
The fighting ceased in 1766 in what is now considered by many to be a “stalemate.” The Native Americans did not drive out the British, and the British did not conquer the Indians.
In the years since 1764, remnants from Bradstreet’s Disaster have appeared on the beaches near the town of Rocky River. The National Museum of the Great Lakes has recently been gifted with two donations of artifacts from Lake Erie beachcombers. The swivel gun was found by divers slightly offshore. The small finds were discovered by Peter Zwick over the course of several years of hunting.
The swivel gun (top) was found slightly off shore in 1968 by Paul and Sandy Reynolds in Rocky River. Paul kept this small cannon in his dive shop south of Cleveland for a number of years. Upon his death, his family donated this important relic to the National Museum of the Great Lakes. The gun was discovered near Bradstreet’s Landing and the characteristics of the gun are congruent with the time period, though it hasn’t been definitively confirmed to have been part of Bradstreet’s Disaster.
Cannon pieces: A – Possible Bar Shot. B – Linstock. C – Cannon Vent Cover. D – Possible Vent Cleaner.
In the photo above, the bar shot (A) denotes naval use, something that would have been used in close range to rip through sails and render vessels immobile. A linstock (B) is the last of five tools used in the process of loading and firing a cannon. This device is a composite of wood, rope and iron ranging between three to four feet in length. On one end of the wooden rod is a piece of iron with rope wrapping around the iron trailing down the wooden handle. Once the cannon was fully prepped and ready to fire, the rope would be burned to mimic the use of a match and gently pressed to the open fuse of the cannon. The vent of the cannon would be covered when not in use to ensure that it didn’t accidentally fire; lead vent covers were used (C). After firing, the vent would be cleaned out using the vent cleaner (D).
Shot: A – Stone Shot. B – Iron Shot. C – Iron Shot with Incendiary Slit.
A variety of types of shot have been discovered at the Bradstreet site (above). There are stone balls (A), which were created to fragment upon impact. There are the traditional iron shots (B). One iron shot discovered has a small slit to hold incendiary materials (C). Once a shot like this hits its target, it is designed to start a fire, creating great destruction, especially to wooden ships.
Gun Parts: A – Gun Barrels. B – Flash Pan. C – Side Plates. D – Hammer Lock.
One of the largest collections that has been found is that of gun or rifle pieces (above). The flash pan (B) was used in muzzle-loaded guns. It was to put the priming powder, just next to the touch hole. The hammer lock (D) is also part of the firing system of the gun. This was the piece that would have come down and ignited the primer powder in the flash pan. There would have been a piece of flint and as it scrapped across the lock, the spark would create the “flash” needed to set off the charge to fire the bullet in the barrel (A). Also shown here are some rifle side plates (C).
A – Tool Head. B – Trunk Latch.
Outside of weaponry, there were certainly other losses in the Bradstreet disaster. A previous find of a silver spoon has been documented. Above is the iron head of a tool (A); this would have been attached to a wooden handle. Also here is a trunk latch (B). Most of the finds at Bradstreet are of metal or stone. Anything organic, like a wooden handle or a leather-covered wooden truck, would have rotted away in the intervening 240 years, leaving only the metal pieces to be discovered.
Mystery piece discovered near Bradstreet’s Disaster.
One of the artifacts is a bit of a mystery piece (above). It was recovered from the beach near Bradstreet’s Landing and was initially identified as a hammerlock from a musket or pistol. However, the piece is highly decorated on both sides, which would make that use impossible. Find out about who solved the mystery and what the mystery piece was.
Reminders of this tragedy from long ago continue to be discovered on the south coast of Lake Erie. More recent explorers do not wait for shifting sands to reveal the artifacts but use handheld metal detectors. The area has been thoroughly searched and the finds continue to tell us more about this era in Great Lakes history. Today, the location is now Bradstreet’s Landing, a city park where everyone can enjoy the water, the shoreline, and the history.
If you are lucky enough to discover something on your own beach that you suspect might be of historical significance, please contact a local history museum or organization to find out more about your find. And, consider making a gift of anything particularly interesting to an organization that accepts donations. It’s a great way to have your artifact appreciated by a broader audience, contribute to historical research…and clear out space for more beachcombing finds.
More about shipwrecks
Learn more about the National Museum of the Great Lakes at nmgl.org.
All photos courtesy of the National Museum of the Great Lakes except as noted.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2022 issue.