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Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre​

33 Victoria Street North (in the town of Saugeen Shores)
Southampton, ON Canada N0H 2L0

Toll Free: 1-866-318-8889 | Phone: 519-797-2080 | Fax 519-797-2191

museum@brucecounty.on.ca

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The Wreck of HMS General Hunter

Home | Stories & Artefacts | The Wreck of HMS General Hunter

If you wish to use or purchase any of these images, please contact archives@brucecounty.on.ca

History sometimes appears in the oddest of places – especially when we are not actively searching for it.

 

This was the case for one Southampton resident who happened to stumble across the wreck of an unknown ship buried beneath the town’s sandy beach in April 2001. What would follow would be a story of intrigue and mystery as many helped excavate the mystery vessel with suspicions as to what its identity could possibly be. Eventually, after four years of research and analysis of artifacts found on the wreck, the vessel was successfully identified as HMS General Hunter.

 

Creation

 

In 1806, the schooner HMS General Hunter was built in Amherstburg, Ontario as a replacement for Hope, another ship of the same design that had run aground the previous year. It became one of two vessels tasked as Upper Great Lakes transport and patrol. However, it would not be until the War of 1812 that General Hunter would begin to make a name for itself.

 

Military Career

 

The Battle of Lake Erie by Peter Rindlisbacher (copyright. 2012), BCM&CC CA2011.001.001

General Hunter served as a British naval brig during the War of 1812. It participated in several military encounters during the war including the Capture of Detroit in 1812 and the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. It was during the latter that the vessel was captured by American forces. In the wake of capture, the vessel’s name was simplified to Hunter. It was then sold to private hands who, in turn, sold it back to the U.S. Army as a transport vessel.

 

Wreck

 

Fortune did not favour Hunter as in August 1816 it was caught in a vicious gale while sailing from Michilimackinac to Detroit. The crew was forced to beach the ship on the Canadian side of Lake Huron.

 

“… compelled to leave the brig about 100 miles (north-east of) the rapids of St. Clair, surrounded by rocks, buried in the quick sands…” – General Alexander Macomb (August 29, 1816)

 

Fortunately, no deaths were reported regarding this incident, but it did mark the end for this battleship. A group of American soldiers later returned to the vessel’s final resting place and removed its rigging, anchors, and cables before burning and abandoning it on the beach where it would be buried beneath the sand.

 

“… I have dispatched two boats to save the rigging, anchors and cables and to burn the wreck…” – General Alexander Macomb (September 7, 1816)

 

It would not be for another 185 years until this ship would be in the spotlight again.

 

Discovery & Excavation

 

General Hunter Discovery, BCM&CC AT2024.001.017-002

In 2001, a local by the name of Duncan McCallum stumbled across the tops of several ship ribs emerging from the sand of Southampton’s beach. This immediately drew the attention of several marine historians and archaeologists including Ken Cassavoy who organized several excavations of the wreck over the course of 4 years (2001-2004). Many possible identities were suggested throughout its excavations, including the cargo steamer Kahoolah, the schooners Forest and E. Fee, and its most notable ultimately inaccurate identity, Weazell, a British merchant vessel that was lost in the area in 1798.  Weazell seemed to be a likely candidate due to its anchor being found in the Saugeen River at an earlier date.  However, Weazell was ruled out as an identity as the discovered wreck held features of a military naval vessel as opposed to those of a merchant. 

 

“I’m disappointed the wreck probably is not the Weazell, but that’s what archeology is all about.” – Ken Cassavoy (Sun Times, August 7, 2004)

 

In 2005, the wreck would be formally identified as HMS General Hunter after confirmation from documents and correspondence held at the United States National Archives.

A Second Wreck

 

Finding one shipwreck is exciting enough, but finding a second is a whole other story.

 

 

Barge and Ship Chart, BCM&CC AT2024.001.017-002

Early excavation on the site revealed that there was not one, but two wrecks buried beneath the sand! The second vessel seemed much smaller than the previously known wreck; however, once it was uncovered, they realized it was a flat barge. It was dated to have been built in 1870 and was used as a work barge that aided in the construction of the Rail Dock and Long Dock located between Chantry Island and mainland Southampton. While this barge may seem insignificant when compared to General Hunter, its discovery allows a glimpse into the early days of Southampton’s development.

 

Legacy

 

While General Hunter remains below the sandy surface of one of Bruce County’s beautiful beaches, its legacy lives on. Having been reburied in 2004 to preserve its physical integrity, an interpretative plaque now marks the location of the reburied wreck and allows beachgoers to learn about the history that lies below them. The Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre also houses an almost life-sized reconstruction of the vessel that visitors may walk on and interact with alongside artefacts recovered from the archeological site including buttons, silverware, cannonballs, and various other pieces of military equipment. The ballast stones of the ship can also be seen in the outdoor garden area next to the Stokes’ Bay Lighthouse. Many questioned why the vessel would not be raised from the sand of the high trafficked beach, but according to Cassavoy, raising and properly conserving the wreck would have cost around $3 million ($4.5 million in 2024). Additionally, the wet sand of the beach naturally preserves the oak timbers of the wreck due to the lack of oxygen which could potentially accelerate the wreck’s deterioration if left exposed. Therefore, the movement of the wreck was deemed unnecessary to its conservation.

 

Expanding beyond the realms of Southampton and Bruce County, the wreck of General Hunter is a remnant of 19th century Great Lakes naval history. This is seen through its involvement as a patrol vessel, then as a war brig, then a transport vessel used by two different Western powers that had only just begun to enter and occupy these areas of the Great Lakes.

 

Sources:

 

Cassavoy, Ken. “Southampton Beach Shipwreck Project: 2002 Project Report.” 2002. Bruce County Archives AT2024.001.013.

Cassavoy, Ken. “Southampton Beach Shipwreck Project: 2004/2005 Excavation & Preliminary Research Report.” 2005. Bruce County Archives A2006.003.001.

Copy – U.S. Archives Document U.S. General Alexander Macomb to U.S. Secretary of War William Crawford September 7, 1816

Transcription – U.S. Archives Document Legal Declaration by John Davis, Master of U.S. Brig Hunter and Crew Members of Hunter, Thomas Wood and John Webb. Sworn Before            Notary Public George MacDougall August 29, 1816

Gowan. Rob. “Shipwreck Clues Still to be Uncovered.” Shoreline Beacon (Port Elgin, ON), 24 April 2002.

Kidd, Kenneth. “War of 1812 Fighting Vessel HMS General Hunter Came to Rest in Southampton, Ont..” Toronto Star, 20 January 2012.

LePage, Larry. “Crowd Gathers Around Southampton Shipwreck Site for Lecture Series.” Shoreline Beacon (Port Elgin, ON), 30 May 2007.

Patterson, Troy. “What the Ship Under the Sand Once Was.” Shoreline Beacon (Port Elgin, ON), 7 June 2006.

Rombouts, Rob. “Sign Marks Site of Shipwreck in Southampton. Shoreline Beacon (Port Elgin, ON), 18 July 2007.

The Canadian Press. “Shipwreck not the Weazell,” The Sun Times (Owen Sound, ON) 7 August 2004.

To learn more about HMS General Hunter, Click Here

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