Sunken Treasure from the Revolutionary War

In 1781, five years before Lynchburg became a town along the banks of the James River, this bottle came to rest at the bottom of the York River as a kind of sunken treasure from the American Revolution. The original ledger of the Lynchburg Historical Society (predecessor of today’s Lynchburg Museum System) offers us these clues to create a kind of map for following the story of our 18th century treasure: identified as a rum bottle taken from a British ship sunk at Yorktown, raised after 154 years by the government, and credited to the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, VA. With these clues, we began to try to track this bottle’s course from a British vessel in the Yorktown harbor to our collection in Lynchburg.

Cornwallis’ Doomed Fleet: The British Situation at Yorktown (1781)

Lord Cornwallis, commander of British forces in the South, had hopes of decisively crushing the rebel war effort in Virginia, a significant colony in terms of size, economics, and influence. In August 1781, Cornwallis occupied Yorktown, having his troops fortify on land while he anchored his fleet of 5 warships, approximately 50 transports and armed merchantmen, as well as numerous captured vessels and other small craft in the harbor. Marching his troops south to confront Cornwallis at Yorktown, General Washington requested aid from French Admiral de Grasse, who sailed his fleet of nearly 30 warships to the Chesapeake Bay in late August. Although Yorktown had seemed to offer strategic promise for the British, this Virginia port ultimately became a trap that would compel the greatly outmatched Cornwallis to send many of his vessels to the river bottom (1).

Throughout September and into October, Sir Henry Clinton kept assuring Cornwallis that he would receive reinforcements, but the situation at Yorktown became increasingly more desperate. Cornwallis scuttled about 12 of his ships to obstruct a French landing and employed other vessels as fire ships, trying to repel the French. On October 9, the American and French forces began their siege on Yorktown, which opened with heavy assaults on British vessels in the harbor. As the Americans and French made gains on land and sea, the British began destroying their equipment and ships rather than allow them to aid the advancing enemy. On October 19, 1781, Lord Cornwallis surrendered his forces, which constituted one third of all British troops in North America. When he surrendered, almost his entire fleet of more than 55 vessels lay sunken in the York River (2).

Buried Treasure from the Revolution: Underwater Recovery Efforts

After the British surrender at Yorktown, the French recovered some of the sunken material. However, most of Cornwallis’ fleet remained largely untouched until the 20th century. First, in 1934-1935, the Mariners' Museum and Colonial National Historical Park recovered many objects, including ship timber, cannon, tools, and bottles. According to our ledger, this bottle spent over 150 years in the York River before being pulled from the wreckage during this first salvage effort. See several images of the 1930s recovery effort in the Mariners' Museum Image Collection. Many years spent in the river water account for how a green bottle could acquire this marbled appearance. To see other glass bottles recovered in 1934, check out this image of 18th century bottles in the Mariners' Museum collection. This early recovery effort predated the development of modern scuba technology, and unfortunately, it did not yield precise information the location of each shipwreck and where artifacts were recovered. Nearly 40 years would pass before researchers revisited the York River to carefully document the sunken fleet and its contents (3).

In the 1970s, renewed interest in the sunken British fleet helped the area between Yorktown and Gloucester Point to become Virginia’s first underwater historic site and to be recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. Utilizing remote-sensing investigations and bottom searches, the Yorktown Shipwreck Archaeological Project located nine shipwrecks from the Battle of Yorktown within the National Register boundaries (4). Among these vessels was the British brig Betsy, which helped transport provisions and men and served as a “floating factory” on which the British could begin to build fortifications before delivering them to land (5).

As a kind of cross between tales of Indiana Jones archaeology and of sunken treasure from a high seas adventure, the story of Cornwallis’ sunken fleet told by this small glass bottle offers us fascinating insight into America’s past and the efforts made to study and preserve it.

  1. John D. Broadwater, “Naval Battlefields as Cultural Landscapes: The Siege of Yorktown,” in The Historical Archaeology of Military Sites: Method and Topic, ed. Clarence R. Geier, Lawrence E. Babits, and Douglas D. Scott (College Station: Texas A&M, 2010), 181; Jim Eccleston, "Events Leading to the Siege of Yorktown," National Parks Service: Yorktown Battlefield (1993), (accessed 9 August 2013).
  2. Broadwater, 181-2; Jim Eccleston, "Chronology of the Siege of Yorktown," National Parks Service: Yorktown Battlefield (1993), (accessed 9 August 2013).
  3. John F. Blair, Jamestown, Williamsburg, Yorktown: The Official Guide to America’s Historic Triangle (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2007), 192; Broadwater, 183; "The Mariners' Museum Opens Sea Glass: Pieces from the Collection, (accessed 9 August 2013).
  4. Broadwater, 183.
  5. Broadwater, 185.   

--Author: Brandi Marchant, Museum Guide