Unmasking a Sight Not Seen in Centuries
George Washington and his soldiers aboard a Durham boat in Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Most Americans are familiar with the 19th-century Emanuel Leutze painting of George Washington standing near the bow of a wooden boat, resolutely looking forward, his soldiers pushing away floating ice, as they crossed the Delaware River to attack Hessian
troops at Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas night, 1776.
What most Americans probably don’t know is that the vessels that ferried Washington and his soldiers to victory that night—and transported the Colonial militia and their supplies other times—were called Durham boats. As valuable as they were militarily
to Washington, Durham boats were more significant to the economic development of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ontario during the 18th century and the first few decades of the 19th century. They were the primary cargo boats of the region’s
But until recently, what was known about Durham boats came only from old, written descriptions. There were no identified archaeological remains of a Durham boat that historians could touch and study—until IUP anthropology professor Ben Ford helped unmask one.
Few people, however, will see the prized discovery firsthand. It is under more than 40 feet of water. And it likely will remain there.
IUP anthropologist Ben Ford began diving on the wreckage in New York’s Oneida Lake in 2013. (Timothy Caza)
In 2012, Ford was in Oswego, New York, giving a public lecture on the War of 1812 and the role large ships played in that conflict. He told his audience little is known about smaller vessels, like Durham boats, that were also important to the war effort.
At the presentation’s conclusion, Timothy Caza, a scuba-diving hobbyist, told Ford he knew where a possible Durham boat was located. Caza said he and two other recreational divers, Christopher Martin and Timothy Downing, had discovered a sunken boat a
year earlier at the bottom of Oneida Lake, northeast of Syracuse.
“They had done enough research to know that a Durham boat was a possibility for what they had found, from the dimensions of it,” Ford said.
In 2013, Ford dove on the wreckage with the three other men. Once convinced it was worth more study, they obtained the necessary permits from the state of New York to undertake a scientific examination of the remains.
A maritime archaeologist, Ford provided guidance on documenting the wreckage. He began scuba diving in 1998. “I got into it because I was interested in underwater archaeology,” he said. “Most of the diving I’ve done is for work.”
A wood scoop, wood mallet, and stoneware jug were recovered from the sunken boat. (Lake Champlain Maritime Museum)
Based on sparse written descriptions, Durham boats were built of wood and had flat bottoms and near-vertical sides. They were roughly 60 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 3 feet deep. Empty, they could float in a few inches of water, and even when loaded with
15 tons or more of cargo, they required only a couple feet of water to stay afloat. They were ideal for moving cargo on shallow rivers and early canals, where crew members pushed them forward with long poles. A sail propelled them across lakes.
The boats were named for their association with the Durham iron furnace in eastern Pennsylvania and may have been developed during the early to mid-1700s to move ore to the furnace and to transport other bulk cargo such as salt, flour, wheat, barrels
of whiskey, and potash used in early industrial processes.
“People did travel by them. They were good for running regularly as packets [transporters on fixed routes],” Ford said.
The boat found in Oneida Lake had nearly disappeared into the silt bottom. Only 18 inches of its hull were protruding from the
sediment. The divers used an airlift, also called a suction dredge, like a vacuum cleaner to carefully remove the sediment around and on top of the boat.
“Generally, the Great Lakes and Oneida Lake do a pretty good job of preserving these things,” Ford said. “It’s cold and dark down there, with limited oxygen. The parts that were down in the mud are in remarkably good shape,” with tool marks still visible
on some pieces. “But the parts above the mud have zebra mussels on them and more erosion.”
The team of divers took measurements, photographs, and video and set rods with attached levels in the lake bed to determine the curve of the boat’s frame and the shape of the hull. That allowed Ford to do volumetric calculations and to figure out how
much the boat displaced and how much it could float.
Ben Ford’s father, Doug, is at work on a model of a Durham boat. (Courtesy of Ben Ford)
“It probably sank around 1820,” Ford said. “By the 1830s, there wasn’t a whole lot of use for them,” because improved canals, and then railroads, were more efficient modes of transportation.
“Why it sank is a little bit of a mystery,” he said. “There’s no evidence of burning or breaking in half—nothing catastrophic like that. It’s in the middle of the lake, so it probably wasn’t scuttled. The only cargo on it was stone, about five tons of
The boat’s position on the lake bottom—perpendicular to the direction of the prevailing wind—suggests it may have gone down in a storm. “It might have been that the captain or the owner misjudged himself, his boat, or the situation, and it got turned
sideways and capsized and swamped,” Ford said.
A wood mallet, a wood scoop, and a stoneware jug were found in the wreckage and brought to the surface. Those artifacts are being conserved by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vermont.
Early in 2017, six years after the sunken boat was discovered—and after thoroughly comparing the measurements and photos of the remains with historical descriptions of Durham boats—Ford declared the wreckage a Durham boat. It was the first identified
archaeological example of that vessel type.
“There are still questions, such as how they built it,” Ford said. “I think they may have built it upside down on the lake shore and then gave it a shove down a slope and flipped it over. There’s no evidence of fasteners [like spikes] going through from
the inside. It’s a different way of conceiving how to build a ship. If it’s upside down and you use the bottom to design it, that’s more interesting.”
Although a significant discovery, the remains of the Durham boat will probably stay where they are.
“It’s really expensive to raise ships,” Ford said. “Once you raise them, they start to deteriorate unless you conserve them. And conservation is really the expensive part.”
If the boat remains where it is, it could become an underwater classroom for future maritime archaeologists. “It’s 40 feet of water. It’s pretty diveable. It’s not dangerous. It would be a really cool place to take students,” Ford said.
Discovery of the Oneida Lake Durham boat and its subsequent study and documentation are the kinds of challenges that attracted Ford to maritime archaeology.
A diver took measurements of the vessel at the bottom of Oneida Lake. (Timothy Caza)
“My primary interest is in how different cultures have interacted with the water, especially the Great Lakes—first, the native peoples used it, then the French and British and Canadians—and how each of them used the same environment and reacted to what
previous groups had done but also put their own mark on it,” Ford said.
To residents along the rivers and early canals of New York and Pennsylvania, Durham boats would have been mundane transporters—the way tractor-trailer trucks are today, Ford said. But by analyzing the boats, archaeologists can learn more about what was
important to people in the 18th and 19th centuries, how they did things, and how they built things.
“It’s a touchstone,” he said. “It’s a way to physically access this earlier period. Without this type of boat, it would have taken a lot longer to evolve economically and a lot longer for people to settle in this region, which would have had repercussions
for US history.”
Ford’s future underwater explorations will likely take him to the depths of Lake Erie. He is working with the Pennsylvania Archaeology Shipwreck and Survey Team to study the many sunken vessels there. The team’s mission is to identify and document shipwrecks
in Pennsylvania waters and develop educational programs about them.
“We know where a lot of them are,” he said. “There are sketches of them from divers. But the state of Pennsylvania doesn’t have a good record of them, which means that someone building a wind farm or running a pipeline through there could very well impact
these things without even meaning to do it.”
While it’s documented that the Colonial army used Durham boats to move supplies and soldiers, Ford said the vessel depicted in the Emanuel Leutze painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River is not an accurate representation of what a Durham boat
looked like. The actual boat would have been longer. The one in the painting, Ford said, may have been altered by the artist to fit his canvas.
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