In 1992 the East Carolina University Program in Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology (ECU) executed a Memorandum of Agreement with St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc. (SJAEI) to conduct archaeological, historical and conservation research on the Maple Leaf site (8DU8032) (Figure 1). Under this agreement ECU will develop a site management plan, direct research and conduct field investigations over a three year period. Funding for this project is provided by The Jacksonville Historical Society through a Special Category Grant from the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources. ECU developed a research design to guide the three year investigation. The field work will assess the extent and condition of the remaining vessel structure and document diagnostic features. Limited excavations will be made into the forward and aft cargo holds to examine the type and condition of artifact material. This will also provide an opportunity to examine the interior integrity of the vessel. Efforts will also be made to study the site environment and examine the site formation processes operating on the vessel.
The 1992 season proved very successful at meeting the first year goals of documenting the bow and conducting a test excavation in the forward hold. Students from ECU documented the forward deck of the ship from the bow to the forward cargo hatch. During this endeavor several innovative techniques were developed to deal with the difficult riverine environment of low visibility and silty conditions. SJAEI volunteers made the first penetration into the forward cargo space and found evidence of extensive damage. This damage was caused by the torpedo that sank the Maple Leaf, possible salvage attempts and natural site formation processes. Finally, a site map was made with data gathered throughout the summer of 1992. The map will help in planning fieldwork for the following two years.
The Maple Leaf Project represents one of the most unique archaeological projects now underway in the United States. She played a significant role in the history of Canada and the United States. The Maple Leaf was built in Kingston, Ontario in 1851, for trade on Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River. She is a typical example of a mid-19th century Great Lakes steamer. Figure 2 presents an artistic rendition using available historical and archaeological evidence to recreate the vessel's appearance. The side wheel paddle steamer measured 173.2 ft. between perpendiculars, 24.7 ft. in beam, 10.6 ft. depth of hold, and 398 tons (Certificate of Ownership 1851). Throughout the decade of the 1850's the ship played a major economic role on both shores of the lake, carrying freight and passengers to Canadian and American ports.
By 1860 railroad competition and the economic panic of 1857 caused a major decline in lake commerce, leaving many vessel owners with idle ships. The American Civil War provided many ship owners with an opportunity to lease or sell surplus vessels to the U.S. government. Union naval strategy calling for a blockade of Confederate ports, forced the U.S. to expand its fleet exponentially. The resulting demand for private vessels was a boom to many ship owners.
A group of Boston investors bought the Maple Leaf in 1862 for lease to the United States Army as a transport. She operated on the southeast coast until the early morning of April 1, 1864. While steaming down the St. Johns River in northern Florida, a Confederate torpedo exploded near her bow. She sank quickly with her holds filled with the personal effects and camp equipment of three Union regiments. This material belonged to Federal troops transferred from Folly Island, South Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida a month earlier.
Following the loss, a Board of Survey was held in Jacksonville to determine the cause of the sinking. Crew and passengers testimony taken at the Board is the best source of information concerning the circumstances of the event, damage caused by the explosion and the disposition of the cargo on board. This testimony is an extremely valuable tool for interpreting the remains of the ship and in guiding excavation strategy inside the hull.
Following the torpedo explosion, the only major destructive impact on the site occurred during the 1880's (with the possible exception of minor salvage attempts by Union forces during the Civil War (OR,I, XXV, II:47,123)). After the war the vessel became a navigation hazard for river traffic. In 1882 and 1888 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracted Roderick G. Ross, a marine contractor, to clear the wreckage from the river channel to provide safe navigation. Ross's efforts removed the Maple Leaf's superstructure and most of the machinery standing above the main deck, leaving 18 ft. of open water over the site at low tide (U.S. Army Engineers 1882, 1888). A river navigation chart issued in 1884 shows the site marked with a beacon (Figure 3). By 1911 the beacon is gone and the site area is shaded (Figure 4). During the century following Ross's work the baggage packed inside and the lower hull remained undisturbed.
The systematic archaeological investigation of the Maple Leaf site must focus on two research areas that are quite distinct from each other: documenting the ship and cargo recovery. Documenting the remaining vessel structure will provide data on ship construction and technology for Canadian built vessels on the Great Lakes. It will also reveal evidence of modifications made after it was hired as a Union transport. The Maple Leaf cargo represents an unprecedented resource of cultural material directly linked to the Civil War. Boxes, barrels and other containers are packed with the individual belongings of hundreds of soldiers. The collection holds a wealth of information that can answer questions concerning historical, sociological, anthropological, technological and economic aspects of the Civil War.
The two research areas require different excavation strategies to recover the maximum amount of data. Recording ship construction details involves removing the silt overburden and mapping the vessel remains. Generally, no artifacts are removed and the interior of the wreck will not be penetrated. This research will have minimal impact on the site while providing an enormous amount of information on ship construction.
Artifact recovery, on the other hand, involves penetrating the interior cargo space and ultimately destroying part of the site's archaeological record by removing artifacts. Every time work takes place inside the vessel there is a tremendous impact on the stability of the site environment and the integrity of material remaining in the hold. To date, artifact recovery has been minimal compared to the amount of material contained in the ship and the adverse impact is considered small.
The current research design considers the needs of both research areas and strives to minimize adverse impacts in the future. SJAEI's past experience on the Maple Leaf provided many of the basic working procedures now used on the wreck. These procedures were augmented and expanded to complete the 1992 investigation.