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Valcour Bay Research Project

Pulling the Valcour bay cannon from the water
Recovery of a cannon from Valcour Bay.

Since 1999 the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum has been engaged in an archaeological study at the site of the 1776 Battle of Valcour Island. Today, the waters around Valcour Island are frequented by recreational boaters who are drawn to the sparsely developed area for its Adirondack and Green Mountain vistas, and the sheltered waters created by the inlets around the Island. The present tranquility of Valcour Bay belies the violent naval battle that took place there in 1776.

On October 11, 1776, Commodore Benedict Arnold engaged the British Navy in perhaps the most important naval contest of the American Revolution. After an intensive five-hour battle with heavy casualties on both sides, darkness finally ended the conflict. With some 60 men killed and wounded on the American side and three-quarters of their ammunition gone, Arnold and his officers executed a daring nighttime escape past a British blockade. Two days later, on October 13, the British fleet caught up with Arnold and a second running battle ensued. Outgunned and surrounded, Arnold deprived the British of battle prizes by intentionally destroying five of his own vessels in the spot known today as Arnold’s Bay in Panton, Vermont and escaped back to Fort Ticonderoga.

This naval engagement left behind significant quantities of military related artifacts and debris. During the twentieth century many individuals have searched the underwater battlefield for the tangible remains of the conflict. The most notable, Colonel Lorenzo F. Hagglund, raised the American flagship Royal Savage and the Gunboat Philadelphia in 1934 and 1935, respectively. Since the widespread application of scuba technology many individuals have collected smaller artifacts from Valcour Bay. Only in recent times has society begun to recognize the value of "underwater cultural heritage" and discuss how it should be managed. In 1961, the Battle of Valcour Island site was awarded National Landmark status, however, the site has been a favored area for artifact collecting by sport divers. In 1999, New York State Police diver Edwin Scollon discovered a portion of a broken cannon in Valcour Bay; the catalyst for the Valcour Bay Research Project.

Map of Valcour Island and project area - click to enlarge
Project area. Click to enlarge.

The Valcour Bay Research Project (VBRP) is a cooperative effort between a dedicated team of volunteer sport divers and the Maritime Research Institute of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. The intent of the VBRP is to map the submerged Valcour Island battlefield, while providing sport divers a way to channel their interest in history and archaeology into a formally permitted project.

This archaeological fieldwork is implemented through a systematic inspection of the bottomlands of Valcour Bay using handheld metal detectors. Focusing on the area of the bay where the American lines were located, the bottomlands were divided into 50ft by 50ft areas. These "grids" were surveyed along transects spaced at 3ft intervals. Crew members used metal detectors to locate buried metallic objects. During the three seasons of fieldwork, 29 Revolutionary War-era artifacts have been located. These include six fragments of a cannon, a sword, a bayonet, a cartridge box, an anchor, a hatchet, and many cannon balls.

While the survey was progressing, the LCMM was also conducting archival research on the Battle of Valcour Island. This effort was aimed at determining the identity of the "missing gunboat" discovered during the LCMM’s 1997 Lake Survey Project. We now know that gunboat is Spitfire, but we also uncovered some new information about the battle. Historian George Quintal, while compiling information about the men who fought at Valcour Island, found a pension record for one of the American participants, Sergeant Jonas Holden.

In early 1776, Jonas volunteered to join the Northern Army and was sent to Lake Champlain. Along with his brother Sartell and his fellow townsman Lieutenant Thomas Rogers, he was assigned to the gunboat New York, one of the eight gunboats in the American fleet. Through the pension record, we learn that during the battle on October 11, one of the gunboat New York’s cannon burst while attempting to be fired, injuring Sergeant Holden in the right arm and side, and killing Lieutenant Thomas Rogers. Although Arnold reported, "the New York lost all her Officers except her Captain," the New York was the only gunboat to survive the battle.

We are now convinced that the six cannon fragments discovered in Valcour Bay were from New York. This archival research combined with the archaeological data has allowed us to make some conclusions about the events of October 11, 1776. The distribution of the cannon pieces and other artifacts suggests that the cannon fragments on the upper face of the gun were blown into the air, but others on the underside were sent into the bottom of the gunboat. The largest piece of the cannon, the muzzle, likely plunged directly into the water after the explosion. We see this pattern on the lakebed with the muzzle by itself at the center of the explosion and the fragments of the upper face of the gun 140 to 180 feet northwest of the muzzle. The pieces on the underside, which remained in the hull after the explosion, were found southeast of the muzzle. These artifacts are part of a "dump zone" in which the debris in the gunboat was cleared out as the vessel was adrift after the explosion.

The VBRP has mapped only a very small portion of the Valcour battlefield. Future years of research will undoubtedly provide us with a greater understanding of this important naval engagement. The Valcour Bay Research Project is made possible with the funding from the American Battlefield Protection Program of the National Park Service and the Department of Defense Legacy Program.

Further Information