This thesis attempted to analyze and interpret the hull remains and propulsion system of the Maple Leaf in the context of mid-nineteenth century steamboat construction. Site investigations took place over three summers, between 1992 and 1994, recording the starboard main deck from bow to stern. The data recovered has verified known construction techniques and arrangements on steam vessels. It has also revealed little known or understood construction elements such as the longitudinal reinforcing system to relieve hogging problems. In addition, decorative window glass found on the deck provides insight on aesthetics tastes of nineteenth century ship designers.

The hypotheses guiding this thesis relied on both historical and archaeological data to refute or support their validity. Often the availability of historical data outweighed the archaeological data. This was primarily due to limitations imposed on the field investigation by environmental conditions and time available to conduct excavations. Most of the lower hull remained inaccessible due to the depth of river sediment covering the site and a reluctance to disturb cargo spaces. Therefore, past investigations focused on the main deck and small areas inside the forward and aft cargo hold.

The Maple Leaf site contains two types of cultural information, only one of which is the subject of this thesis. The cargo holds contain the largest Civil War artifact assemblage ever found in an undisturbed archaeological context. It relates to specific Union soldiers and their material culture. The cargo’s historical significance prompted the United States Department of Interior to declare the Maple Leaf a National Historic Landmark in October, 1994.

The second type of information is the vessel; the remaining hull and propulsion system investigated by this thesis. The hull is a well preserved example of a ship type commonly built on the Great Lakes in Canada and the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. It represents a vessel type that carried a major share of passenger traffic and package freight on the Great Lakes between 1820 and 1860. Construction elements are indicative of the era and, judging from the popularity of the Maple Leaf, the embodiment of speed and comfort.

The Maple Leaf is intact from the main deck to the keel. Parts of the bulwark, windlass, and paddle shaft are located on, or just above, the main deck. The superstructure, including cabins, paddle boxes and large engineering components, has succumbed to natural deterioration and demolition. Structurally, the hull was severely damaged by natural deterioration and nineteenth century demolition. The wood used in construction is generally sound but not strong enough to support the massive weight of the hull. The extent of structural weakness is demonstrated by the sagging paddle guards. Demolition in 1883 destroyed the transverse reinforcing system that helped to hold the guards up. As a result, supporting deck and paddle beams broke at the side of the hull because the beams alone could no longer hold the weight of the overhanging guards when covered with river silt overburden. In addition, iron fasteners used throughout the ship are weakened by corrosion.

Field investigation concentrated on documenting diagnostic features and determining the extent of the wreckage while recording the starboard main deck. Figure 40 is a reconstruction of the main deck plan. Three hatchways located forward of amidships provide entry into the forecastle cabin, forward cargo hold, and engineering space. The engineering space is the largest area below main deck and included the boilers, engine and fuel bunkers. The boilers were placed under the paddle shaft making the engine room arrangements very compact and space efficient. The aft cargo hatch is located behind the boilers at the forward end of the aft hold. Cargo loaded into the hold was taken aboard through the gangway opening located behind the starboard paddlewheel. An identical opening was probably located on the port side. The hatch location left the aft deck unobstructed and better suited for passenger cabins than the forward deck which is penetrated by three hatches. The arrangement of the aft cabins could not be reconstructed from data gathered during the field investigation.

Ships are extremely complex artifacts that represent an enormous investment in resources by societies that exploit water transportation. The scale of investment in a ship such as the Maple Leaf is revealed by the cultural importance conferred on the vessel by society itself. The ship was important to many people for many different reasons including passengers, shippers, investors, bankers, and the Union army. Lewis Binford (1962) proposed three spheres of cultural importance in which artifacts such as the Maple Leaf function. These are the technomic or functional aspect, socio-technic or social aspect, and ideo-technic or symbolic aspect. Examining the Maple Leaf within Binford’s fig 40 framework provides insights about the steamboat’s important role in society.

The Maple Leaf functioned as a day to day transportation vehicle. As a technomic artifact, people relied on the vessel for safe and comfortable transportation, and as a dependable freight carrier. It operated for eleven years between numerous ports on the Great Lakes and then served as an army transport during the Civil War. During her career, the Maple Leaf carried travelers, immigrants, businessmen, soldiers, farm produce, livestock, dry goods, and military cargo. However, the real reason for the Maple Leaf‘s existence was to secure financial income for her crew and owners. The vessel’s builder, Donald Bethune, and later owners, operated the ship to enrich themselves. These people did not have daily interaction with the ship but relied on the vessel to earn money to enhance their personal prosperity. The captain and company agent used the Maple Leaf as a tool, employing their best skills to draw customers away from competitors.

Steamboats such as the Maple Leaf played a social, or socio-technic, role among individuals and within a larger community level. As a vehicle of mass transportation, the Maple Leaf concentrated large groups of people in close proximity on a daily basis. Travelers from different economic levels, social backgrounds, and nationalities gathered and conversed, exchanged ideas and conducted business. Special excursion trips on the vessel were public affairs designed for entertainment and mingling and often became major social events.

During the 1850's, isolated lakeshore communities relied on marine transportation as a link to the outside world until railroads reached the area later in the decade. Vessels, including the Maple Leaf, also linked communities on both sides of the lake in interdependent social and economic networks. As the key element of transportation, watercraft were responsible for much of the financial, industrial, business, cultural, and social growth experienced by these communities. The Maple Leaf had an important socio-technic impact on towns like Kingston, Toronto, Cobourg, Colborne, and especially Rochester, her home port.

Ideo-technically, or symbolically, the Maple Leaf represented many traits influencing western society in general and particularly North America. These traits include wealth, industrial power, inventiveness, and artistic taste. At mid-nineteenth century, the economic industrial base of North America concentrated in the northeast would literally explode during the American Civil War. An expanding population carried manufacturing industries west to newly settled regions including the Great Lakes. Industrial centers developed at several locations on Lake Ontario including Rochester, Kingston, and Toronto.

One great achievement of these early industrial centers was the construction of the complex machinery and massive hulls used in sidewheel steamers. Steamboats represent huge commitments of time, money, building materials, and inventive skill which symbolize the complexity and organization of the society that created them. The Maple Leaf carried the perception of industrial power throughout the largely undeveloped region exposing isolated people to technology and aesthetics normally unavailable outside large cities or to people with limited economic means.

Aesthetic elements incorporated in the Maple Leaf to attract customers reflect artistic tastes of the nineteenth century. The artistic remains found on the wreck are mostly enameled and etched glass with designs taken from the natural environment. Most prevalent are floral patterns of vines, leaves, and flowers used in borders and fill, although other decorative features undoubtably remain on the wreck. During the nineteenth century many artists and designers incorporated stylized decorative motifs from nature and the most popular were botanical designs (Durant 1986:25-29; Jones 1972[1856]:2)

The designs used on the Maple Leaf‘s glass symbolize an awareness of the natural environment. The Great Lakes region experienced tremendous growth following the War of 1812 and the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Settlers procured their sustenance from the natural environment in an economy based on farm production and the exploitation of natural resources. By the middle of the nineteenth century nearly everyone living in the region was directly or indirectly impacted by timbering, mining, fishing, trapping, farming, or related industries. People were acutely aware of the natural environment because of their reliance upon it, whether economic or aesthetic in nature. Decorative elements on the Maple Leaf reflect this awareness and symbolize nature’s important role in the developing region.


These recommendations address three broad of areas of interest to future investigators; ship construction, the cargo of Civil War material objects, and the impact field investigations have on the long term stability of the Maple Leaf site. To date, only a small portion of the vessel and cargo have been documented, leaving a great deal more to be discovered. Working on the ship will certainly impact the site’s environment and affect preservation conditions. These three areas of concern will be addressed in order.

Future ship documentation should concentrate on the ship’s interior and exterior below main deck level. The interior investigation can take place only after cargo is excavated from the holds. Several elements of the vessel’s construction need further investigation. First, the longitudinal reinforcing system should be examined below deck to determine if ceiling arches exist and the role played by keelsons and deadwood. Unseen components of the hogging system may exist below deck and are important for reconstructing and interpreting the longitudinal reinforcing structure. Second, determine the arrangement and utilization of space inside the hull. The general location of the holds, forecastle, and engine room are known but not their specific layout and construction. Third, complete a detailed examination of the engine room to determine the layout of the steam engine, boilers, fuel bunkers, paddle shaft, and gallows frame. This will also provide diagnostic information about missing engine components. Most of the deck covering the engine room is missing so future work will only have to remove debris and mud filling this space. This excavation will have minimum impact on site integrity. Finally, additional hull construction features can be examined internally from deck level to the bilge after more space is opened inside the hull. Investigation should focus on framing, the use of keelsons, and bow and stern construction.

Fewer structural components and debris will hinder examination of the exterior hull. Although little artifact material is expected outside the hull, a large amount of sediment will have to be removed for the proposed work. First, the investigation should examine the construction of the paddle guards more thoroughly and try to determine if factors other than the guard’s weight caused them to rupture. Second, completely document the bow and stern including the rudder assembly and steering mechanism. This work should also determine the extent of hull sheathing. The third recommendation is to take the lines off the hull. This data can be used to analyze the development of hull design and efficiency on the Great Lakes. The Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston, Ontario completed a study of the historical development of Great Lakes hull design using sailing vessels, side wheelers, and propellers (Wilson 1989). The Maple Leaf would make a valuable comparison and add to a growing body of knowledge. The final proposal involves trenching under the hull to examine damage caused by the Confederate torpedo.

The second area of concern is the cargo of Civil War material. Although not the subject of this thesis, interest in the cargo will be the chief reason for any future work on the site. Analysis of the spatial arrangement of cargo recovered from the aft hold between 1988 and 1993 suggests it was packed according to regiment (Cantelas 1994). Ideally, the location of each regiment’s belongings can be found and excavation can proceed using this as a guide. In reality, although concentrations of regimental belongings have been found, a number of factors have displaced and mixed the cargo making it impossible to use regiments as a reliable guide to excavation. Displacement and mixing occurred during sinking and later site formation processes. Containers holding artifacts moved when the hold filled with water. Buoyant containers floated while heavier containers settled to the bottom. Over the years, many other containers have deteriorated, spilling their contents. Therefore, concentrations of regimental material can be expected but not relied upon. However, accurate locational recording may offset these problems and help reconstruct the original packing order.

Future work in the aft hold is also dependent on access. Currently, the only way to enter the hold is through a hole in the deck cut by SJAEI or through the original hatch near the boilers. Both entrances are near the front end of the hold. Unless an additional hole is cut through the deck further back, interior excavation must continue laterally. Moving laterally requires complete excavation but working on an unstable, invisible wall sacrifices control and flexibility. Also, this method does not allow test excavation or sampling which would help predict the type and identity of cargo stowed throughout the hold. One alternative, randomly cutting more holes in the deck, is simply a hit or miss chance of finding something new while jeopardizing the integrity of the deck. Another alternative, removing a large area of deck to expose the hold for sampling and test excavation, is even worse and should be avoided at all costs. The physical action of removing the deck structure would dislocate undisturbed artifacts and introduce contaminants into a stable environment. Total artifact removal to avoid destruction and contamination, would sacrifice excavation control and escalate conservation costs. This method also introduces the detrimental effects of erosion, scour and marine organisms.

Excavating inside the forward hold is less problematic. The damaged deck and cargo hatch afford access to the hold for a distance of seventeen feet along the centerline. This open space provides an area large enough to excavate a test trench in the middle of the hold. The excavation conducted through the hatch in 1992 found the hold in general disarray with many artifacts broken and strewn throughout the sediment filling the upper levels of the interior. A packing arrangement became more defined deeper in the hold, suggesting damage is concentrated in the upper levels (Cantelas 1993).

Three things may have caused the damage. First, the Confederate torpedo exploded in this area and would have caused tremendous damage. However, this damage would extend upward from the bottom not downward from the top. Second, local people may have tried to salvage the cargo, but without commercial salvage equipment, their effort probably had limited success. The resulting incomplete salvage probably damaged more material than it recovered. Regardless of how the deck was removed, it allowed water to freely flow in and out of the hold with the tides. Dynamic water movement eroded wooden surfaces, weakened iron fasteners holding boxes together, and actually caused most damage observed. Water movement was adequate enough to allow barnacles to survive and grow to a large size on surfaces inside the hold.

First Mate Charles Farnham stated that the forward hold contained tents and sutler stores (1864). Large numbers of tent poles confirm the presence of tents but sutler stores were not found. Significantly, store related equipment, including scales and tobacco cutters found in an intact shipping box, imply the stores might be present. This would be the first intact Civil War sutler store ever found. Such a collection would have tremendous value for interpreting the Union soldier’s daily life, what luxury items were available in the store, and how the store affected the Union soldier’s standard of living. Future investigators working inside the forward hold should excavate a trench along the centerline by extending the 1992 excavation towards the bow. This strategy allows determination of cause and extent of damage in the hold, type of cargo, and the cargo’s vertical distribution. Space created by the excavation will provide a work area to expand laterally into less disturbed areas.

The techniques developed to excavate the interior of the Maple Leaf have proven more than adequate to accomplish accurate work. Although lateral excavation inside the aft hold is not preferred, the nature of the site will not accommodate any other means without severe impact. With current technology, lateral excavation can proceed safely and efficiently using available access to the aft hold. Excavating the forward hold is less restrained with a large opening over the central area. Past experience has shown that excavation strategies must be flexible to manage unexpected situations that arise almost daily. The St Johns River is a dynamic underwater environment and while structures such as the silt barrier provide some control over environmental conditions, not all variables can be regulated.

The third major concern regarding future site investigations is their impact on the long term stability of the Maple Leaf site. Investigation of the site’s environment will provide a baseline from which to base future research. Two separate studies have examined sediment deposition around the site and the environment inside the ship (Duncan 1994; Cantelas 1993). Sediment deposition analysis reveals the Maple Leaf sank on soft organic sediment and slowly settled lower into fine, highly consolidated sand. The vessel sank across current, acting as a barrier much like a sand bar. Deposition occurred faster on the down stream port side while the predominate out-flowing river current slowed accumulation on the starboard side. In combination, these factors scoured a horizontal erosional trough on the vessel’s portside (Duncan 1994:143-144). During field investigations, scouring often undermined the silt barrier used to block the current. Scouring must be considered in future work to minimize potential damage.

In April 1992, SJAEI conducted tests inside the aft cargo hold to determine how the water’s physical and chemical properties affect preservation conditions inside the wreck. The study also established a baseline to measure future changes in site environment. Rick Speckler, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey, Water Resources Division in Altamonte Springs, Florida, provided the expertise and sampling equipment (Speckler 1992).

Specific conductance, dissolved oxygen, temperature and pH were measured from the river’s surface to below the lower cargo deck inside the aft hold. Results of the water tests are presented in Table 3. Unfortunately, two sets of data taken inside the hold show variations in measurements caused by a problem in sampling technique. A diver took the measurements but his actions suspended sediment in the water column. This skewed the data, especially specific conductance which is used to determine chloride levels in water. Chlorides speed metal corrosion and directly impact metal preservation. The variations in specific conductance make the data inaccurate and unreliable.

The pH measured at deck level and below the lower cargo deck was 7.18 and 6.58 respectively. This indicates a change from a slightly alkaline environment outside the vessel to slightly acidic inside the hold. The pH of sediment filling the interior is a major factor in determining what material types are preserved. Many organic materials such as cotton and paper have a low tolerance to acidity and may not survive well on the site.

Depth Specific
Dissolved Oxygen
TemperatureºC pH
Surface 3000 9.20 17.9  
Increasing depth 3100 8.80 17.6  
"      " 3320 8.71 17.3  
"      " 3360 8.30 17.2  
River bottom at
22 feet
3320 7.44    
Main deck at 27.4 feet 3000 and 4170 .83 17.9 and 17.7 7.18
2 feet below main deck 3000 End of testing umbilical 17.9  
Descending inside hold 3020   20.2  
Lower cargo deck at 33.5 feet 3610 and 3920   22.0 and 21.7  
Below cargo deck 4540   22.1 6.58
Table 3. Water testing results from the aft cargo hold (Speckler 1992)

The amount of dissolved oxygen in the water column slowly declines from the surface to the river bottom. Between the river bottom and the main deck, there is a dramatic and sudden drop in dissolved oxygen, from 7.44 mg/l to .83 mg/l. This drop demonstrates the site’s general anaerobic condition. The sensor cable linked to the surface monitor did not reach below deck level and interior measurements were not taken. Low dissolved oxygen levels generally account for the excellent preservation conditions found on the site.

Water temperature remained stable from the surface to the main deck, varying only .70C. A striking rise of 4.40C was noted between the main deck and the area below the wooden platform at the bottom of the hold where it reached a maximum of 22.10C. This temperature is very close to ground water temperature of 22.70C recorded in the Duval County surficial sand aquifer. Ground water temperature remains stable throughout the year, regardless of river temperature (Leve and Goolsby 1969:7-8). Temperature alone seems to indicate the Maple Leaf rests inside the freshwater surficial sand aquifer and is not exposed to brackish river water.

Tests conducted in 1992 provide coarse baseline data to compare against data recovered through future site monitoring. The presence of freshwater directly affects the physical condition of the site and the conservation needs of recovered artifacts. Most of the wreck is buried well below the river bottom, possibly in the surficial ground water table, effectively isolating it from the brackish river water. These conditions lower chloride concentrations in the site and simplify conservation needs. Other factors, such as dissolved oxygen and pH, affect preservation conditions and would help explain differential preservation among various material types. A remotely monitored testing station would avoid obvious problems caused by using a diver. Minimizing environmental impact detrimental to site preservation is paramount for the Maple Leaf’s long term management.

In the future, the stability of the main deck will be a primary concern for excavators working inside the hull. Up to nine feet of sediment covering the main deck places an enormous load on the structure. Unfortunately, every supporting deck beam was found to be broken in one or more places, jeopardizing the structural integrity of the deck. Creating large open areas under the deck by excavating material from the holds makes the possibility of collapse very real due to the overlying weight. A system to shore up the deck should be considered using piers placed under the deck beams. As excavation proceeds, the deck should be monitored for sagging and potential collapse. Other remedies to this problem may arise as excavation continues and conditions change.

The historical significance of the Maple Leaf site cannot be unstated. The shipwreck contains valuable information on Great Lakes steamboat construction and the material culture of the Union Civil War soldier. However, the complexity of underwater archaeology, costly artifact conservation, and long term curation make any wreck expensive to excavate and difficult to administer. Future site management and field investigations must have the support of an institutional sponsor. A long term commitment by a university, museum, federal or state agency, or other institution with substantial resources is the most obvious way to administer the project. Future field investigations should address specific research questions since the site’s spatial arrangement and contents are fairly well known. This will minimize time spent on costly field operations and decrease impact on the site. A conservation laboratory staffed with conservators knowledgeable in specialized treatment must be ready to conserve the wide range of artifacts present in the cargo. Once treated, long term artifact curation is necessary. Most importantly, artifacts, information, and the experience of working on the site should be shared with the public in various forms including museum exhibits, books, monographs, brochures, videos, and computer media.

Any continued work on the Maple Leaf must be conducted in agreement with at least three agencies. SJAEI holds exclusive legal right to recover material from the shipwreck in accordance with the 1987 Admiralty Court settlement. This group is comprised of volunteers dedicated to preserving the site who are responsible for the success of East Carolina University’s field investigations. The Department of the Army, Center for Military History (CMH) represents the United States Government as owner of the Maple Leaf. CMH has worked closely with SJAEI and East Carolina University, providing expert advice on military history and military artifact interpretation. Finally, the State of Florida has a vested interest in the shipwreck for several reasons. Although owned by the federal government, the Maple Leaf rests on state bottom lands. Also, the state Division of Historical Resources has recently accepted the Maple Leaf artifact collection and archives for curation in Tallahassee, Florida. By housing the collection in Tallahassee, in close proximity to Florida State University and the Florida State Library and Archives, future investigators will have access to their outstanding research facilities.