by Eric Barton | March 20, 2020

How this Shipwreck Uncovered Florida’s Forgotten Past

A find on the ocean floor near St. Augustine ends up far more significant than diamonds or gold

The St. Augustine Lighthouse and the surrounding museum campus. Photography courtesy of the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum

When Chuck Meide and his team reached the ocean floor off the coast of Northeast Florida, there was nothing but sand: an underwater desert, pitch black and utterly desolate.

Meide, who leads a group of archaeologists from the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum, jammed a 10-foot steel probe into the sand, hoping the rod would strike the wreckage of a ship. “Nothing,” Meide remembers. “It went in without resistance.”

He started again a few feet away. The pole was heavy and unwieldy, and the effort sapped his oxygen. He lined up the pole and speared the ocean floor. This time it landed with a thud.

“We sunk it down and into something, and I knew we had found it,” Meide recalls.

Since that day in 2009, they’ve pulled artifacts from the ship they discovered in the sand. The find earned fewer headlines than other wrecks full of gold and gems found off Florida’s shores. But among archaeologists and historians, it would shed light on a little-known moment from Florida’s pioneer days.

When that ship sunk in 1782, the colonists had nearly won the Revolutionary War, and anybody who had remained loyal to England was ostracized. King George offered to evacuate the loyalists. That December, 120 ships set off for England and several of its settlements, including St. Augustine.

leather pouch
A leather pouch excavated from a 1782 shipwreck off the coast of St. Augustine. Photography courtesy of the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum

The ship Meide’s team found likely held everyone from aristocrats to slaves. Among the artifacts they unearthed is a small leather pouch full of nails, likely owned by a master carpenter or apprentice, who would’ve attached it to a toolbelt. It’s uncommon for leather to survive centuries on land or in the sea, so the pouch remains an exceedingly rare glimpse of a moment in history.

With few records about the wreck, it’s hard to say what happened to the carpenter. Perhaps rescued by another ship in the flotilla, the carpenter may have had a chance to thrive in St. Augustine, where the population had burgeoned tenfold with refugees. 

But the settlement would not be a respite for long. In 1783, King George gave Florida back to Spain. Maybe our carpenter found success in Spanish Florida or boarded a ship to the Old World, a story told only in part by the leather pouch left behind on the ocean floor. 

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