The Oldest Wooden Boat in America
Brown's Ferry Vessel-

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The Oldest Wooden Boat in America
Brown's Ferry Vessel-

It looks more like a dinosaur than a 18th century cargo ship, but the Brown’s Ferry Vessel on public display at Georgetown’s Prevost Gallery and Museum has archaeologists just as excited.

It’s being called the "most important single nautical discovery in the United States to date" and it can be seen on the third floor of the gallery, located at 633 Front Street, Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The Brown’s Ferry Vessel Exhibit, housed on the third floor of the museum since 1992, officially went on display in June, ending a 24-year odyssey for the Rice Museum, according to Jim Fitch, executive director.

Brown's Ferry Vessel

Fitch says he’s the only one left at the museum who saw the project begin. The decision was made that the ship should return to the county where it was found. After 16 years of preservation work, the museum’s roof was removed and a crane lifted it into the third floor in 1992.

Chris Amer, an archaeologist who also worked on raising the Hunley in Charleston, said the Brown’s Ferry Vessel might well be the first DUI incident in America. "We found a lot of wine bottles that went down with the vessel," he said.

Amer said the ship came in pieces, and archaeologists put it together "as best we could in the spirit of the vessel." They used 3,000 stainless steel pins to reconstruct the hull.

Hampton Shuping, a dive instructor, licensed by the Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the university of South Carolina to recover underwater artifacts, discovered the vessel.

On the bottom of the black River at Brown’s Ferry, he found the remains of an 18th-century vessel. It was carrying 12,000 bricks when water seeped into the hold and caused it to sink.

Recognizing the historical significance, he waived his claim and turned it over to the institute for scientific investigation. The ship was raised August 28,1976, with the artifacts on board from the day she sank, probably during the 1730’s.

The Brown’s Ferry Vessel was a general-purpose freighter used on rivers and coastal waterways during the 1700’s. Although powered mainly by sails, it could also be rowed or poled. Its flat bottom allowed it to be beached for unloading.

The recovery of the vessel was a joint effort involving the Rice Museum, the South Carolina underwater Archaeological Research Council, federal, state and local agencies, International Paper Company, and many concerned citizens.

The ship has been included in the National Register of Historic Places.

J. Richard Steffy, a nautical archaeologist, says the discovery of the Brown’s ferry Vessel is evidence of American shipbuilding nearly 50 years earlier than previous discoveries. " More importantly," he wrote in a pamphlet for museum visitors, "this was a merchant hull. Built without the anxiety, bureaucracy and inefficiency often associated with vessels of war. As such, it defines everyday technology in a competitive atmosphere. Additionally, this was a local type-representing a period and area in which far too little maritime information has been forthcoming."

The vessel establishes the fact that Southern States were as involved in shipbuilding and waterborne commerce as those of New England and the Chesapeake, according to Steffy.

This story was written by Jason Lesley and has been reprinted courtesy of the Georgetown Times.

From Texas A&M ANTH318  Nautical Archaeology of the Americas Class 14:

Brown's Ferry Vessel, c. 1740

The Brown's Ferry vessel was found in 1971 near Georgetown, in the Black River.

Its hull was raised in 1976, studied by J. Richard Steffy in 1979 and preserved in PEG until 1990, when it was again studied by Fred Hocker.

This was a river boat designed for cargo, but capable of river and coastal navigation, a type of vessels sometimes called periauger.

After reconstruction it was thought to have measured 15.32 m long, 4.32 m in beam, and 1.22 of sheer hight.

Hull remains

This is a very interesting vessel with a flat bottom, no keel, but the sides built frames first, following the traditional whole molding way of the Mediterranean shipbuilding world.  It had five pre-designed frames.

Its planking was cut of pine and cypress trees. The frames and posts of live oak.


It was carrying 12,000 bricks when it sunk, a cargo that left only 25 cm of freeboard.

On the site were found a beer mug with the arms of George II (1727-1760), four millstones, two dozen bottles, three iron pots, a slipware cup, a straight razor and several smoking pipes.

Perhaps the most interesting artifact was a quadrant, a deep-sea navigating instrument that was certainly not needed on the kind of navigation this vessel could perform.