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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (07/2005) Headlines (06/2005) Headlines (08/2005)   Vol. 39 July 2005 
Treasure In The Headlines
As seen in the July 2005 edition of W&ET Magazine


It's almost time for the Seminoles to try to burn the Fort Foster bridge again.

Every year, they go in knowing they will be turned back by soldiers' gunfire.

The bridge, a late 20th century replica of the 1800s version, cost a lot of money, and Hillsborough River State park officials would frown on its destruction, even for the sake of history.

The outcome of the mock skirmish is always the same, but hundreds of spectators turn out annually for the re-enactment and demonstrations of the way people lived in Florida during the Second Seminole War period.

During the two days of the four-day event, the Seminoles will try to storm the bridge at 2 p.m.

"They always attack at 2," said Ralph Van Blarcom, Fort Foster curator. "I don't know why, I don't even know if they had clocks back then."

The soldiers did, though. Pieces of 1800s-era timepieces discarded by military personnel have been found in the Hillsborough River.

Diaries, letters, military rosters and other written records provide clues for re-enactors trying to replicate bygone days. More recently, Van Blarcom said, historians have learned a lot from examining a private collection of 1830s artifacts pulled from the Hillsborough River near the fort many years before landowner Bob Thomas donated the site to the state in the 1970s.

The collection was discovered deteriorating in a small Polk County museum a few years ago. With owner William Keller's blessing, Van Blarcom, a tropical fish pathologist with chemistry savvy, traveled to a state museum in Tallahassee to learn how to restore items that had been under water for more than a century.

"I think they used the river as a dump," Van Blarcom said of military men stationed at the outpost during the time of Fort Foster and its predecessor, Fort Alabama.

"We actually have a soldier's shoe with the name carved on the bottom," he said. "We have bullets and buttons and everything you can imagine."

He and others interested in Seminole War history have formed a nonprofit organization and taken custody of the collection- along with artifacts from other fort sites across Central Florida- while they try to find a permanent exhibit location.

Some of the collection is expected to go on temporary display at the Veterans Memorial Museum off U.S. 301 near Brandon.

Creating a permanent exhibit at Fort Foster would mean turning the artifacts over to the state, which the owner has declined to do, Van Blarcom said. Keller wants the exhibit to be a memorial to his son, Billy, who helped collect the artifacts and died in a car accident in 1971 at age 18.

Among yesteryear's items found in the Hillsborough River is a rare .32-caliber rifle typical of those that Seminole Indians acquired through trade with the Spanish, Van Blarcom said.

"It was found below a huge, gigantic oak tree," he said. "It was in a half-cocked position, with the powder and ball in it.

"It was a musket all ready to shoot. Was the Indian up in the tree? Was he shot and then he fell during the battle of Fort Alabama [in 1836]? Or did he drop his weapon in the river?"

Old coffee grinders and garden hoes provide clues as to how soldiers supplemented the standard daily ration of salt port, dried beef, beans and hardtack.

Van Blarcom fingered some tiny metal pieces that once dangled form a chain. He recognized them as an ensemble called a "whisk and pick" that was attached to a soldier's epaulet on the shoulder of his uniform and was used to clean his flintlock between firings. Van Blarcom used the pieces as a model to fashion a replica for his own re-enactment uniform.

The collection also includes a handmade wooden carpenter's level and what historians think is a cypress bucket crudely fashioned to hold grease for lubricating weapons or wagon wheels. The grease remains preserved in the bucket, petrified along with the wood by its years in the water.

The river also yielded coins, mustache combs, toothbrushes, pipes, liquor and wine bottles, a fancy officer's cup engraved with a dragon image, a collapsible cup likely owned by an enlisted man, buttons, and various embellishments that dropped from hats and uniforms.

Two tiny glass lenses in gold rims are thought to be the remnants of "Doc" J.H. Baldwin's spectacles. Baldwin was post physician at Fort Foster in 1837. His diary, Van Blarcom said, mentioned that he dropped his glasses one day while leaning over the river.

Robert M. Thomas, son of the Fort Foster site donor, said he roamed the spot as a boy. He remembers being enthralled by a big hole thought to be the scene of an explosion that blew up Fort Alabama in 1836 after the militia abandoned it.

The volunteers, sent to protect a bridge rebuilt after Indians burned it in 1835, left the original fort two months after it was built. According to historic accounts, the troops booby-trapped the post's powder magazine. Less than two miles down the road, they heard the blast and later learned that three Seminoles had been killed.

Thomas and Van Blarcom said the existing fort and bridge likely are much fancier than the 1800s versions, which probably were fashioned from rough-hewn logs found at the site.

From The Tampa Tribune, submitted by Ken Reckart, Seffner, FL.


For a few minutes, after the water had receded far from the shore and before it came raging back as a tsunami, the fishermen stood along the beach and stared at the reality of generations of legends.

Or so they say. Spread across nearly a mile, the site was encrusted with barnacles and covered in mud. But the fishermen insist they saw the remains of ancient temples and hundreds of refrigerator-size blocks, all briefly exposed before the sea swallowed them up again.

"You could see the destroyed walls covered in coral, and the broken-down temple in the middle," said Durai, a sinewy fisherman who, like many South Indians, uses only one name. "My grandfathers said there was a port here once and a temple, but suddenly we could see it was real, we could see that something was out there."

Whatever they saw is back under water and out of sight. But a few hundred yards away, something else came to the surface. The tsunami scrubbed away 6 feet of sand from a section of beach, uncovering a small cluster of long-buried boulders carved with animals, gods and servant girls.

The Dec. 26 tsunami savaged hundreds of miles of shoreline across Asia. It killed at least 126,00 people in Indonesia and at least 31,000 in Sri Lanka. In India, 10,700 people are confirmed dead, with more than 5,600 missing.

Mahabelipuram, capital of an ancient kingdom and famous for its elaborate Hindu temples, escaped mostly unscathed, with only three dead and limited damage.

And there's something else the tsunami gave back: tourists, drawn by heated headlines in the Indian media about a rediscovered Atlantis.

"People are coming to see what the tsunami dug up," said Timothy, who sells seashells and plastic palm trees at a beachside souvenir stand.

Tourism is a major employer here, and the coast road is lined with mom-and-pop resorts and cheap restaurants. If the tsunami scared most tourists away in Mahabalipuram it also brought some back.

On sunny weekend days hundreds of people now come to take a look at the carvings and splash their feet in the ocean.

"Business is good these days," Timothy said.

But what did those fishermen see? Archaeologists laugh at the tales of Atlantis and say it could take years of undersea exploration to uncover the truth.

But nearly everyone around here knows the stories- cocktails of history and mythology that tell of the great port city that traded with China and Southeast Asia some 1,300 years ago.

This is a town made for legend. It is home to dozens of Hindu temples, baroque stone structures often covered with carvings. But legend speaks of its most famous temples: the Seven Pagodas, named for the vaguely pagoda-like style of Hindu temples in this part of India. Those temples, which according to myth are said to have once lined the shore, were so beautiful that the gods destroyed all but one- the so-called Shore Temple, a magnificently carved complex now considered a national treasure.

Some fishermen insist they saw more than the six vanished temples when the waters fell back. "There must have been at least 20," said Sunderasan, a young man, gesturing toward the sea.

Archaeologists say excavations on shore and at sea were under way before the tsunami struck, and divers made promising finds of barnacle-encrusted blocks that appear man-made.

So officially, researchers express little surprise at what was exposed.

"The tsunami didn't do very much at all," said Alok Tripathi, who runs the excavations for the Archaeological Survey of India. He dismisses the talk of 20 temples offshore, saying the fishermen believe "every stone is a temple."

But anonymously, fearing they'd be seen as callous, some researchers quietly acknowledge the tsunami revealed more than expected.

"From an archaeological perspective, maybe the tsunami was good. We found some new things," said one.

"But from a human perspective..." he said, his words drifting into silence.

From The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, submitted by Ron Paul Smith, Honolulu, HI.


What does the number "1730" really mean, etched as it is on a cannon retrieved from a shipwreck that state archaeologists think is the flagship of the pirate Blackbeard?

A year? A weight?

That's part of the argument about whether the shipwreck really is Queen Anne's Revenge, the ship that historical accounts say Blackbeard intentionally sank off the Outer Banks near Beaufort in June 1718.

At a symposium at East Carolina University, those who believe it is the QAR defended their work.

"Anybody that says that's a date is really showing their ignorance of 18th century cannon foundry," said Nathan Henry, archaeological conservator with the state's Underwater Archaeology Branch.

Armory founders of that day used professional engravers to mark the cannons they made, Henry said.

"These numbers are chiseled," he said, posing instead the theory that the figures refer to the weight of the gun.

His comments referred to the authors of an article in the April edition of the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology that cites the numbers on the cannon as possibly the most important of several reasons to question whether the shipwreck truly is Queen Anne's Revenge.

"If this is a date, it definitely eliminates the identification of the site as Blackbeard's 1718 shipwreck," states the article, by Michigan state archaeologist Wayne Lusardi, a former conservator for the Queen Anne's Revenge Project, and East Carolina University Archaeologists Bradley Rodgers and Nathan Richards.

The article further states that the notion that the figures represent the weight is unlikely.

"English weights are denoted in hundredweights-quarters-pounds, written thus with dashes between the numbers," the article states.

Additionally, the article indicates that numerals denoting weight are generally placed across the breadth of the gun, not the length.

Henry, for example, said the numbers do add up to near the current weight of the cannon, which underwent conservation and cleaning measures after sitting for 200 years under the sea.

"Because guns were sold by the pound, this is a good indication that this is a price tag," Henry said.

The article claims those associated with the Queen Anne's Revenge Project may have slanted evidence associated with the wreckage to fit a preconceived notion that it was Blackbeard's boat found in Beaufort Inlet, while ignoring other possibilities.

The article puts forth a theory that the vessel appears more like a mid-18th century merchant ship than a pirate's boat.

Speakers at the symposium, however, presented research that dated the artifacts from the site to the early 18th century.

"We feel very comfortable that we're actually in the right time frame," said QAR Project Director Mark Wilde-Ramsing.

Several archaeologists from across the country, who participated in a symposium panel discussion, said nothing in the article had convinced them that the shipwreck was not the Queen Anne's Revenge.

"It has the likelihood of being the flagship of the pirate Blackbeard and at the very least it's the earliest shipwreck found in North Carolina coastal waters," said Roger Smith, Florida's chief state archaeologist.

State archaeologists never claimed conclusive evidence to identify the site.

From The Charlotte Observer, submitted by David M. Wolan, Charlotte, NC.

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