Out of the past

“HMS ENDEAVOUR off the coast of New Holland.” Courtesy of The National Library of Australia

With news of General Washington’s defeat in New York City, the threat of a British attack loomed over the city of Newport, Rhode Island during the summer of 1776, and by winter nearly half of the city’s population had fled. British reports from December 1776 noted that there was scarcely anyone remaining as British and Hessian forces seized Newport, allowing them to take the wealthy and strategic city without a fight.  

For those residents who stayed, their circumstances quickly worsened as the occupying forces commandeered many of their homes, ate their food, and stole their valuables. Under the command of Major-General Richard Prescott, the soldiers robbed and dismantled properties across the city and, in the three years they were there, reportedly chopped down all but one tree for firewood to survive the unsympathetic winters.  

The tide of the war had turned by the winter of 1778, though, as the French joined the American cause and sailed toward Newport to join up with the American forces. Alerted to the French Fleet’s movements, the British Navy began to scuttle ships in the outer harbor with the aim of slowing the advance of the French fleet. In the end, thirteen Navy and transport ships were deliberately sunk. 

Now, 241 years later, archeologists are exploring the wreck of one of these sunken vessels hoping to identify it as the H.M.S. Endeavour, the ship captained by the famed Captain James Cook as he circumnavigated the world from 1768 to 1770. It was on this journey Cook claimed Australia for Great Britain, and the notes and observations of the accompanying team of naturalists led to significant advances in European scientific knowledge 

It was on this journey Cook claimed Australia for Great Britain, and the notes and observations of the accompanying team of naturalists led to significant advances in European scientific knowledge 

It is strange to think that such a famed ship lies forgotten at the bottom of Narragansett Bay. After its circumnavigation, the Endeavour was sold in 1775 and renamed Lord Sandwich. The ship was then contracted back to the British Navy to transport soldiers and supplies. In December 1778 the vessel was acting as a prison ship jailing American revolutionaries in Newport as the French Fleet made their approach. 

In the summer of 2019, archeologists from the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project and the Australian National Maritime Museum mapped the wreck suspected to be H.M.S. Endeavour and confirmed it as one of the scuttled eighteenth-century ships. The excavation of the site has uncovered artifacts such as bits of leather, textiles, glass, ceramics, and gun flints, all of which further confirm the age of the wreck. 

More work will need to be done to confirm the ship’s identity, but it is exciting to learn about the efforts underway in Newport’s harbor. This summer’s excavation uncovered only a small portion of the structure. Archeologists and researchers will work to compare what we know about the Endeavour, and how it was built more than 250 years ago, to the timbers of the wreck now sitting off Newport’s shoreline. 

About Danielle Cournoyer

Prior to NEHGS, Danielle worked as an Interpretation and Programming Fellow for The Church of the Presidents, where she led guided tours of the historic church and the Adams crypt. Additionally, Danielle has worked as an Historic District Research Aid for the Arlington Historical Commission. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston with a Master of Arts degree in History in May 2016. Her interests include urban development and history, focusing on Boston and New York.

8 thoughts on “Out of the past

  1. Interesting article about the Endeavor. Sad. The British also captured the Newport town records which also ended up being sunk. See the History of Newport County, Rhode Island: From the Year 1638 to the Year 1887 page 483.

  2. Danielle, thank you for this post as it reminded me of my 4th Great Grandfather’s possible service in the Rev War at Newport; he is listed as enrolled in June 1778 at “Camp Greenwich,” and in Mar/Apr 1779 in “Providence.” Would you happen to know if those locations were part of the Rev War’s Continental Army activity involved with the defense of Newport?

  3. Danielle, you have this morning given me hope for getting through my “brick wall”….. family tradition is that some/one of our ancestors (Cummins or Brooks) were taken prisoner(s) during the Revolutionary War and put on a prison ship in New York harbor. Could it actually be Newport harbor?? Could this family story have some truth to it?? Thank you !!!

  4. Danielle, thank you so much for posting this. One of my Revolutionary War great grandfathers was a POW on the ship Lord Sandwich. I have studied that family tree branch and the story of the HMS Endeavor for quite some time and am delighted with the information that the archaeological work is ongoing. Those descendants of Thomas Dunbar in my family will also be pleased to know this I’m sure. I am also an Adams descendant and one of my most memorable family genealogical days was spent in Quincy visiting the Adams crypt, the church, and of course the city but the biggest thrill was actually being allowed to sit in the Adams pew at the church. Keep up your wonderful work!

  5. Yes- this project is really interesting! My ancestor, Thomas Richardson, was a frequent “guest” aboard that prison ship. There is a lot of great history in Newport- come for a visit!

  6. Also researching this as John Sherwood of Fairfield Conn. died on on of the “Hulks”. From 1776 to 1783 over 11,000 prisoners died, only about 1,400 survived. The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park has many names, but only officers were allowed to bury their fellows on shore. Most were just tossed overboard.

  7. Very interesting article. I grew up in Newport, but didn’t appreciate all the history as a kid.

    I used to study in the Redwood Library when I was in high school and college. “My” desk was in an alcove and had a map of the island from sometime during the British occupation. The French must have arrived by then because all the notations were in French. It was a military map with marks where they were planning to defend the island. I think it also had different marks for where the British troops were located and possibly an attack plan. Once when I was visiting Newport, I went to the Library and looked for the map over “my” desk, but they had replaced it with something else.
    That map gave me a whole different perspective on history. It was like time travel seeing original documents. Kind of get goosebumps.

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