2003 Summer Field School:
Search for the Two-Masted Schooner Star
From 4-24 June 2003, faculty and students from East Carolina University participated in an archaeological field school. Student participants included Evguenia Anichtchenko, Jake Betz, Jeff Bowdoin, Jessica Curci, Lauren Hermley, Dave Krop, Lyle Lentz, Calvin Mires, Jason Rogers, and Travis Snyder. Faculty included Dr. Larry Babits and Maritime Studies staff archaeologist Frank Cantelas, with Mark Keusenkothen as Dive Safety Officer. This field school was the culmination of a three year project initiated by Lewis Forrest of the Mattamuskeet Foundation. In 2000, Hyde County resident, Bill Smithwick, donated a 350 acre parcel of land along the north bank of the Pungo River just north of Ponzer, NC to the foundation. Forrest intends to develop the property into a heritage tourism park. Along with the donation of land came a story of a sunken blockade-runner along the adjacent river bank. Local lore named the vessel the Star.
On 20 October 1842, the schooner Star pulled from the docks at Washington, North Carolina for its maiden voyage. The Hyde County-built schooner unfurled sail and cleared Ocracoke inlet for New York. At 63’4” in length and 20’5” in breadth, the 70 ton two-masted schooner plied the coastal Atlantic trade lanes. For twenty years the workaday vessel sailed for several of Washington’s prominent merchants. Ports of call included New York, Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and on at least three occasions, the Star voyaged as far south as the West Indies. In 1852, the Star was rebuilt, extending the length from to 74’, and the breadth to 20’10”. The rebuild increased the vessel’s tonnage to 86 tons.
The story of the Star is quite ordinary in the context of merchant shipping along the eastern seaboard: its story is a familiar one among North Carolina vessels serving the same purpose. In fact, other than being listed in customs house enrollment records, the only mention of the Star is its arrival and departure schedules in local papers. As with all other vessels in the Washington area, local records of the Star disappear during the Civil War. What is interesting, however, is that the last known record of the vessel comes from a correspondence in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, dated 12 March 1862. The message, written by the United States Vice Consulate in Guadeloupe, warns the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron that the schooner Star would be embarking for Washington, North Carolina shortly thereafter, laden with coffee, sugar, molasses, and various apothecary ingredients. In the message, the Vice Consulate identifies the vessel master as David Gaskell or Gaskill, presumably of Washington, NC. Considering the date of the Vice Consulate’s message, David Gaskell would have returned to find the Pamlico Sound under the control of General Burnside’s Union forces. The return course to Washington was gauntlet compared to the flimsy blockade he slipped through on his outbound voyage.
The Star does not appear again in official records; however, the name David Gaskill does. He is listed as master of several vessels both before and after the war. Therefore, one must assume that the Star somehow made it through Ocracoke inlet and into the Pamlico. The oral history of the how the vessel came to rest along the bank is an amalgam of several distinct but similar accounts. According to one story, the Star had taken on a load of naval stores at nearby Pine Grove Landing, but while waiting to head down river, the confederates received word that Union forces were approaching so they offloaded the cargo and scuttled the vessel. Another account states that the cargo was removed and the vessel abandoned, and later, Union forces found the Star and set it afire. There the vessel remained still visible above water well into the 1920s. Area residents salvaged usable timbers from the vessel for small boat and barn building.
The intriguing story prompted Lewis Forrest to assemble an exploratory dive of the site in November 2001. The dive confirmed the presence of a wooden vessel completely submerged but partially protruding from the soft river bottom. Lewis Forrest contacted Richard Lawrence of the North Carolina Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) with the information. For two days in June 2002, the UAB accompanied by Dr. Lawrence E. Babits of East Carolina University investigated the site.
During the 2002 investigation, both ends of the vessel were found along with several groups of frames protruding from the mud. The vessel angled downstream and away from the shore. The upstream end lay in about two feet of water while the downstream end lay in about ten feet. Overburden was found to be at least 6 ft in some areas. Two test units were excavated, one along the outer edge of the vessel at a grouping of frames, and the other at the upstream end of the vessel. The goal of the latter was to determine which end was the bow and which the stern. Local tradition stated that the stern was inshore with the bow facing downstream. Field investigation began with laying a steel cable baseline along the centerline of the vessel. The baseline was stretched between large timbers protruding from the mud at either end of the vessel. The zero point was placed at the downstream end. Three test units were excavated along the river-side of the vessel: One at either end- inside the vessel and outside, and one in the midship section. Once these were completed, a trench was excavated along the keelson connecting the test pits. It quickly became apparent that the vessel had indeed burned. Charring was found in every section of the vessel. The charring, however, was not consistent, and several areas remained unscathed. The downstream end was determined to be the stern, which contradicted the local accounts of the vessel’s orientation. The sternpost was found to be mostly intact, and the rudder was still attached by two iron gudgeon straps. The rudder canted slightly to port. Inside, the stern was heavily charred, and several timbers lay disarticulated. From stem to stern the keelson was present along the entire length of the vessel. It was heavily charred in some areas, but not in others. Only two mast steps were found, and no mast remnants were present. Both bilge pumps were present. The portions above the lip of the boxes were burned, while the portions inside the boxes were preserved.
Several related artifacts were also present.Members of North Carolina’s Underwater Archaeology Branch came out for a day and documented a section consisting of the port side waterway, wale, several hull planks, frames, and two sets of chainplates. The area had fallen outboard of the vessel, and a portion was tucked underneath the turn of the bilge.
Staff from the North Carolina Underwater Archaeology Branch visiting the Star site. Approximately 75 artifacts were documented during the investigation. All were returned to the site except for 5 which were taken to the UAB for conservation. Analysis of the data from this summer’s investigation is still underway. Several research questions still linger, and new ones have been formulated. Is this vessel the Star? If not, what vessel is it? Why was no centerboard present? What does the lack of centerboard tell us about vessel construction in the area? Was the Star a blockade runner or did it complete just one voyage out and back in during the war? Research and analysis progress daily and we look forward to sharing the answers to these questions as they are revealed.
Plans of the Star Site