The stories of average people are often
missing from the written record, but
archaeology gives them a voice.
To facilitate access to shipwreck
sites and foster safe diving, the
Society maintains moorings on
several popular Wisconsin
A Society underwater archaeologist
examines the Frank O'Connor's two
story high steam engine. The shipwreck
is just one of over 200 in Door County
About Underwater Archaeology
Archaeology is defined as the scientific study of human culture through the investigation and interpretation of artifacts and other cultural remains. These "artifacts" and "cultural remains" may be as large as a complete sawmill or ship, or as small and personal as clothing, eating utensils, and other everyday items. As a sub-discipline of archaeology, underwater archaeology simply defines a specialized environment in which archaeological research may be carried out.
Underwater archaeologists in Wisconsin study a wide spectrum of submerged cultural remains. These sites have included a 1,800 year-old dugout canoe, an inundated 18th century fur trading site, and 19th and 20th century shipwrecks. Although the study of shipwrecks is only one component of underwater archaeology, it is perhaps the most well-known. The study of shipwrecks and their associated artifacts is known as nautical archaeology.
The Importance of Underwater Archaeology
Shipwrecks are unique time capsules, providing archaeologists and historians with insight into the past. Shipwreck sites not only feature a vessel, a magnificent artifact, but they often hold cargo, personal items, tools, utensils, and other diagnostic artifacts. Shipwrecks humanize history. In addition to teaching us the role of vessels in the nation's economy, shipwrecks acquaint us with the ordinary men and women, the builders, sailors, and longshoremen, who were the lifeblood of the shipping industry.
Through the study of shipwrecks, cargoes, armaments, equipment, and personal possessions of the crews and passengers, archaeologists are gaining a better understanding of the important role of maritime commerce, exploration, and marine technology in shaping world history and human culture.
Archaeological sites, on land and underwater, are cultural resources that have scientific, historical, educational, and recreational value. However, these resources are fragile and nonrenewable. Underwater archaeologists at the Wisconsin Historical Society are working to identify, preserve, protect, and provide access to submerged cultural resources.
Construction, illegal salvage, and treasure hunting threaten many of our submerged cultural resources. When artifacts are removed from a shipwreck site, valuable information is lost forever. This is akin to tearing pages from a book - with missing pages the complete "story" can never be told. The Society conducts underwater archaeological research and public education to preserve and protect the hundreds of shipwrecks located within the state.
Illegally seeking artifacts buried below one of the vessel's intact paddlewheels, looters destroyed a paddlewheel on the Niagara.
Underwater Archaeology in Wisconsin
Due to its sizable shoreline (860 miles on lakes Michigan and Superior), waterborne exploration, commerce, and passenger transportation have had a tremendous effect on Wisconsin's development. The state's early settlement, as well as economic, industrial, and social development, have all been shaped by Wisconsin's proximity to water. Bordered by the continent's two greatest inland waterways, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, Wisconsin possesses natural corridors for the efficient transportation of people and goods.
Throughout Wisconsin's history nearly every type of commodity, such as furs, iron ore, ice, stone, manufactured goods, and people, has been transported via water. The success of the lumber and grain industries in the mid-19th century offer excellent examples. Due to the size and weight of the cargo, transporting timber over land was a difficult and expensive process. Grain too, was moved much less expensively via water. Consequently, shipping these commodities on the decks and in the holds of watercraft emerged as profitable alternatives to land transportation. By the beginning of the 20th century, it cost 4.42 cents to move a bushel of wheat from Chicago to New York by water, while the same load cost 9.98 cents to transport via railroad.
With over 30,000 ships having sailed the Great Lakes throughout history, it is not surprising that there are more than 700 historic shipwrecks in Wisconsin. Although shipwrecks represent many of the underwater archaeological sites in Wisconsin, shipwrecks comprise only a portion of the state's submerged sites. Several hundred other prehistoric and historic sites are known to exist on the bottom of Wisconsin's lakes and rivers. Since 1988, the Wisconsin Historical Society has been studying and protecting all of the underwater archaeological resources that lie beneath the waters of Wisconsin's 14,000 inland lakes, its thousands of miles of rivers, streams, and Great Lakes' coastline.
Working in partnership with public institutions, private businesses, and dozens of volunteers, the Wisconsin Historical Society's underwater archaeology program has conducted investigations on over 100 archaeological sites throughout the state. These range from a Native American fish weir in Dane County to an inundated 18th century fur trading post in Vilas County, and from an 1830s schooner off Sheboygan to a 372-foot steel bulk carrier in Lake Superior. These efforts have resulted in over 40 Wisconsin shipwrecks being placed on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that provides increased state and federal recognition and protection to the sites.