The ocean floor around the Lowcountry is littered with shipwrecks
Story by Richard Thomas
Richard Thomas is an owner and guide for Hilton Head History Tours and is the author of Backwater Frontier: Beaufort Country, SC at the Forefront of American History.
On the shallow shelf outside the entrance to Port Royal Sound in depths of 10 to 60 feet of water are the remains of over 40 shipwrecks from various periods, most within a three-to-five-mile radius of the mouth of the Sound. A few are 16th- and early 17th -century wrecks, while most are from the golden age of piracy, the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Now they are either hazards to navigation or reef anchors for schools of fish that draw pole and spear fishermen to their well-plotted coordinates. But their origins are not necessarily as well known, and in most cases, unknown.
Better known are the wrecks of the General Gordon and the Betsy Ross, both directly off the entrance to the channel entering Port Royal Sound. Closer in is the General Gordon, a British-owned steamship that transported passengers in the 1800s from Nova Scotia to Florida. About five miles from the beaches of Hilton Head is the SS Betsy Ross, a 175-foot, WW II cargo transport that was sunk as an artificial reef in 1978. Also, near Tybee Island and buried in the sandy mud about 40 feet deep lies a 7,000-pound, Mark 15 nuclear bomb that was dumped by a B-47 bomber after a mid-air collision with another Air Force plane in 1958. Its location is not definitively known, and the bomb is reported to be an intact weapon containing both uranium and plutonium.
Far more numerous are the wrecks of wooden ships dating from the 1500s through the Civil War. In 1780 alone, the British Navy lost 24 warships to hurricanes along the coast between the Chesapeake Bay and the Savannah River, three of them south of Charleston. Between the mouth of Port Royal Sound and the tip of Parris Island, there are no fewer than nine wreckage sites, most from the years of the Civil War.
Far more intriguing, though, are the locations of the ships we know were lost in this area but whose remains have stayed undetected to date. Many of these are from 1690-1730, when the pirates and privateers who roamed these waters with impunity would engage in “wrecking” their targets for plunder as a less damaging and costly means (in terms of human life) of capturing an enemy ship. Especially in areas like the waters of Port Royal Sound, where hidden reefs or shoals were unknown to passing ships, pirates would lure their prey to ground or wreck on submerged obstacles. The vessels were forced to surrender and were more easily boarded and looted.
Still others are from the 1500s and early 1600s, when ships of European powers were scouting the area for potential colonization. Spanish ships in 1521 and 1525, are known to have wrecked on shoals at the entrance to “great rivers” during their exploration of the coast south of Georgetown. A French ship in 1576 is known to have wrecked in a winter storm at the entrance to the Port Royal Sound. This ship, called the Le Prince, was captained by Nicolas Strozzi, a cousin of the French Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici, and who was likely a nephew of the marshal of France, Piero Strozzi. It was carrying 40 cannons and chests of coins and bullion.
The mission of Le Prince was to return to Charlesfort, a French outpost abandoned in 1563, and build a colony on the site of the former Spanish capital of North America, Santa Elena, on modern Parris Island. The ship ran aground entering what the French called Port Royale, broke apart in the storm swells, and around 140 survivors swam with the current to the nearby island at the mouth of the sound. Very possibly on the island later named Hilton Head, they hastily built a fort since they knew that hostile Indians in the area had burned Santa Elena earlier that year. Within two weeks the local Escamacu tribe attacked the fort, killed 100 of the defenders and captured 40 people, including Strozzi, to present them to area chieftains as gifts of slaves. When the Spaniards returned to Santa Elena in 1578 to rebuild, they were under orders to drive all Frenchmen out of the area, so they searched for and traded for the French captives and either killed them or took them to St. Augustine to be imprisoned. Strozzi, one of the later-imprisoned captives, was executed three years later.
Despite searches underway as recently as the summer of 2022, the wreck of Le Prince remains undiscovered in the sands off the shore of Hilton Head. Discovering that and other wrecks might only be possible by using technology of the future.
There are more than 40 shipwrecks and artificial reefs located outside of the entrance to Port Royal Sound. The largest artificial reef in South Carolina is the Betsy Ross, located 18 miles offshore from Hilton Head. The site is a popular spot for fishermen targeting red snapper, black seabass, grouper and king mackerel.