Photos by Justin Heyes
Shipwrecks off the coast of Delaware were all too common in the 19th century. Here are some notable wrecks and what we’ve learned from them.
It was May 25, 1798, and HMS De Braak entered the Delaware Bay. The Lewes pilot boarded the warship to take it up the Delaware River, which is liberally laced with dangerous shoals and shifting currents.
“I’ve had luck,” Capt. James Drew told the pilot. Alongside the De Braak was a captured Spanish vessel, known as a “prize.”
But Drew’s good fortune was about to end. A sudden storm thrust the De Braak on its side, and waves quickly consumed it. More than 45 men died, including the captain.
Over the next 100 years, efforts to find the De Braak failed. Many blamed the “bad weather witch,” who allegedly used storms to thwart treasure hunters’ efforts.
Delaware’s most famous shipwreck is far from the only one. Disasters off the state’s coast were so common in the 19th century that the federal government commissioned lifesaving stations, lighthouses and breakwaters. Today, there are tangible reminders of the tragedies at sea.
Nuestra Señora de Atocha
Then Nuestra Señora de Atocha sank off the Florida Keys but set the stage for the future furor surrounding the De Braak. There’s also a Delaware connection: Melvin Joseph, a well-known Georgetown resident, funded the salvage expedition.
The galleon was part of a convoy carrying plundered gold and jewels from Central and South America, but the loot never made it to Spain; the ship sank in 1622 during a hurricane.
In 1969, American adventurer Mel Fisher led the salvage efforts backed by Joseph, and in 1975, divers found an inscribed cannon that verified the discovery; gold and emeralds followed.
Some of Joseph’s share is on display in the Treasures of the Sea exhibit on the Delaware Technical Community College campus in Georgetown.
HMS De Braak
The fanfare over the Nuestra Señora de Atocha’s riches reignited the hunt for the De Braak. So why care about a British warship? Capt. Drew had left a convoy to chase “strange sail,” plus he had captured a Spanish ship. As a result, there were rumors of gold, diamonds and precious metals.
In 1984, modern sonar pinpointed the wreck site. But instead of jewels, divers found objects that detailed life aboard 18th-century British warship: ammunition boxes, pearlware, barrels, muskets and the mourning ring that Drew wore for his brother, John, who died at sea five months before him.
In 1992, the state paid $300,000 for the hull—yanked from the bottom in a last-ditch effort to find gold—and artifacts, some of which are at the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes.
102 Kings Highway, Lewes; 645-1148; history.delaware.gov
Before COVID-19, the museum held presentations near the hull, kept in a shed in Cape Henlopen State Park. Tours are currently on hold.
Capt. James Drew’s grave is at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes.
200 Second St., Lewes; 645-8479; stpeterslewes.org
The Roosevelt Inlet Wreck
In fall 2004, during an Army Corps of Engineers beach replenishment project in Lewes, shell seekers found shards of pottery and metal. Were they from a 17th-century settlement covered by the sea?
In reality, the dredge had hit a shipwreck. Work halted, and divers discovered more than 200 artifacts. Subsequent exploration would reveal nearly 100,000 items, many of which were in pieces. By dating the materials, researchers determined that the ship had sunk between 1762 and 1775.
The 200-ton Severn, which sank in 1774, checked all the boxes. However, none of the recovered items bear the ship’s name.
View artifacts at the Zwaanendael Museum. 102 Kings Highway, Lewes; 645-1148; history.delaware.gov
The China Wreck
About 12 miles off Cape Henlopen is the China Wreck, named for a large amount of English chinaware found at the site. Lt. Merritt N. Walter, who directed the initial diving expedition after the 1970 discovery, said it looked like “a bargain basement sale at Macy’s.” Some plates were unbroken and neatly stacked.
The identity remains elusive. Some say it is the Principessa Margherita di Piemonte from Naples. Others claim it’s the D.H. Bills. But no one knows for sure without a manifest that matches the items or an artifact with the ship’s name.
Despite tricky visibility in the area, the China Wreck is a favorite spot for recreational divers, and intact ABC and alphabet plates are on display at DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum.
The Faithful Steward
The DiscoverSea Museum also holds artifacts from the Faithful Steward, one of the state’s most dramatic shipwrecks.
On September 1, 1785, the vessel left Ireland with families seeking a new life in America. There were 50 members just from the Elliott clan. As the ship neared Philadelphia, passengers and crew enjoyed a party. Reportedly, the captain and first mate passed out.
Unbeknownst to them, a storm pushed the ship onto a bank near the Indian River Inlet. Although just 100 to 150 yards from shore, most passengers could not swim, and the sea crushed longboats lowered into the careening waves. There were 249 passengers on board, and only 68 people survived.
The ship also contained barrels of coins for the fledgling United States of America, which had no mint. After a storm, treasure-seekers hit the area north of the inlet, now known as “Coin Beach.” Clifton of the DiscoverSea Museum began finding coins in 1980, and some of his finds are in his museum.
The museum also has a copper chamber pot, a small silver buckle and a bleeding bowl that the barber’s surgeon used.
In nearby Cape May, view the remains of a wreck with a Delaware connection. In 1926, Col. Jesse Rosenfeld of Baltimore purchased the SS Atlantus to create a ferry dock for the route between Cape May and Lewes.
Admittedly, it’s an odd choice for a boat slip. However, the Atlantus was one of 12 concrete vessels—an experiment that failed to gain traction.
Rosenfeld towed the ship to Cape May, where it broke free during a storm and ran aground 150 feet from shore. Instead of a dock, it became a photo opportunity and postcard subject. Unfortunately, little remains above the waterline. Meanwhile, the ferry service became a reality in 1964.
Inside the hushed rooms rests $4 million in artifacts, ranging from bronze cannons to a 71-inch chain made from 419 handmade links. Emeralds, some in gold, sparkle under the lights. The museum was closed during the pandemic, and there are tentative plans to reopen it by fall.
21179 College Drive, Georgetown; 259-6150; treasuresofthesea.org
Milton native Dale Clifton was 15 when he dove on the wreck with Fisher’s expedition, and Clifton’s impressive treasures are in his DiscoverSea Museum in Fenwick Island.
708 Coastal Highway, Fenwick Island; 538-9366; discoversea.com