Group identifies historic ships sunk in Newport Harbor

A local nonprofit organization is working to bring history at the bottom of Rhode Island waters back to the surface.

In 1778, a number of commercial ships on lease to the British government were intentionally sunk in the waters of Newport Harbor to prevent the French, who were helping the Americans, from taking the city in the Revolutionary War.

"A lot is known about Revolutionary War and the actual Royal Navy war vessels, but it's those privately owned ships that less is known about," said Dr. Kathy Abbass of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project.

Captain Cook, who founded Australia with his British ship the Endeavour and was based in Newport in 1778, actually sunk the Endeavour in the state, the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project learned through extensive research.

"The vessel that we always thought was the Endeavour is the Resolution of his second and third voyages, and the real Endeavour became the Lord Sandwich and was sunk in Newport Harbor 15 years before the other vessel was lost. It was all misidentified 50 years after that," Abbass said.

Needless to say, the Australians are very interested in seeing this project through.

The volunteers at RIMAP, with federal grants, private contributions and persistence for decades, are at the point where retrieving the artifacts and the bones of these historic vessels is on the horizon.

"Identification of them is going to take excavation and more detailed work," Abbass said.

As the fieldwork continues, RIMAP is going to need a facility to process, preserve and showcase what they find.

Officials with the group said they think they have found the perfect spot at Butts Hill Fort in Portsmouth.

"This would put us in a very good position as far as attracting other states maritime artifacts," said RIMAP Chairman Elliott Caldwell. "It would be an economic boon for Rhode Island."

With tourism one of the top economic draws to the Ocean State, it would be a monumental achievement, and a personal payoff to bring the history back to the surface.