The Fate of the Royal Savage

Royal Savage. Source: New York Public Library

In the summer of 1775, the British built two warships at St. John, Quebec, on the outlet of Lake Champlain. That fall, the American forces invading Canada captured the ships and added them to their little fleet on the lake. The largest, a 50-foot topsail schooner named the Royal Savage mounting six 6-pounder cannons, four 4-pounders, and twelve 1-pound swivel guns, became the flagship of the fleet.[1] A year later while under the command of Benedict Arnold, the American ships prepared to engage a British fleet in a battle over control of the lake.

At 8 o’Clock on the morning of 11 October 1776, the American fleet of fifteen ships lay hidden in the ¾-mile-wide strait between Valcour Island and the New York shore as the British fleet sailed past on the other side of the island before a north wind. In spite of being out-numbered, out-gunned, and out-classed, Arnold planned to fight and ordered the Royal Savage and three other ships under sail to open the engagement while the remainder of the fleet set themselves in a line across the strait. The four American ships got the attention of the British flotilla and then came about to re-join the rest of their fleet.

The Royal Savage, however, encountered problems. Three months earlier, John Trumbull, artist and son of Connecticut’s governor, made a comment in a letter written from Ticonderoga to his father about the sloop Enterprise that may well have been applicable to the Royal Savage. He precisely described the Royal Savage’s difficulties that morning when he wrote that the Enterprise was, “a most unmanageable thing; it is not possible to beat up against a head wind in her.”[2] Attempting to tack back against a north wind, the inexperienced crew of the Royal Savage missed stays a number of times and could not make much headway.[3] Whether by mismanagement or intention is not known but, around 11 o’Clock, she ran aground on the southwest point of the island and the crew abandoned her. A British boarding party turned the guns on the rest of the American fleet but soon found themselves under considerable fire and abandoned the ship as well.

The battle lasted until dark with the American fleet getting the worst of it. Not wanting to give the Americans the opportunity to re-take the Royal Savage, the British set fire to her and, unwittingly, helped the rest of Arnold’s ships escape. The fire lasted all night and provided a magnificent distraction, especially when the ammunition blew up. Add to that eyes unable to quickly adapt to the darkness of a moonless night after staring at the fire and the British never saw the American fleet slipping away close to the New York shore. The next day, the battle moved south but the burned-out hulk of the Royal Savage would sit on the bottom for another 158 years.[4]

Contemporary watercolor of C. Randle's artwork, "A Sketch of the New England Armed Vessels, in Valcure Bay..." (see original)
Contemporary watercolor of Charles Randle’s artwork, “A Sketch of the New England Armed Vessels, in Valcure Bay…” (see original)

In 1917, a young soldier named Lorenzo Hagglund received military training in Plattsburgh, New York, on Lake Champlain.[5] A lover of history, he must have been captivated by stories of the nearby battle and tales of seeing remains of the Royal Savage in the shallow waters just off the island. Following his service in World War I, the ex-officer found work as a marine engineer with a New York salvage corporation and eventually became a manager for a subsidiary company. Over the years, he gained considerable experience diving which would serve him well in Lake Champlain.

Never forgetting the stories of the battle, Hagglund submitted proposals to government agencies in an attempt to interest them in salvaging the remains of Arnold’s fleet. None of his submissions had any success. Still keenly interested in the battle, he returned to the Champlain valley for a family vacation in 1932 and spent most of the time trying to find the Royal Savage. First, he tried to narrow its possible location from local residents and then conducted a series of dives on the likely site. He found large numbers of various types of shot that had been fired during the battle but could not locate the wreck. Finally, on the last day of his vacation, Hagglund found the remains mostly buried in silt 150 feet offshore in 20 feet of water.

Now, with a definite location of a documented wreck from the battle, he made one more attempt to get government backing for a salvage operation. The proposal failed again. Determined to raise the remains of the ship, Hagglund decided to use his own resources for the project, found a partner in J. Rupert Schalk, and returned to Valcour Island with a salvage team in 1934.

In preparation for lifting the hull, the team first removed by hand the mud from inside the hull and for some distance around it. They carefully washed each bucketful and collected the artifacts found in the silt. As would be expected during exploration of a warship, they found cannon balls, grapeshot, and barshot, but they also found several more uncommon items like marked buttons, spoons, a canteen, a frying pan, a drumstick, and parts of an iron pot that may have been fragmented by the ammunition exploding. With the surviving portion of the ship clear of silt, the team attached sealed empty tar drums to help lift it off the bottom and hauled it up on shore. Once there, Hagglund had the assemblage mapped and tagged, numbering each timber and plank in sequence in anticipation of reassembling it for display. The team then disassembled the wreck and carried it away.[6]

With the science of underwater archaeology non-existent, Hagglund and Schalk used hard-hat salvage divers and relatively crude techniques to accomplish their goal. Interested more in collecting the ship’s remains and the artifacts found on and around her than what could be learned from them, the team’s methods certainly cost considerable information. They never mapped with any detail the area of the wreck or where they located artifacts nor did they place much emphasis on conservation—key practices in today’s nautical archaeology.

Hagglund gave away some of the artifacts recovered from the wreck to friends and influential people and others probably ended up in the hands of the team’s members. Regrettably, these bits of evidence of a fierce naval battle are probably lost forever. Some have certainly been misplaced or thrown out over the years. Others, lacking proper conservation and sitting on some shelf or in a box in an attic or basement for decades, will likely have suffered some degree of decay, particularly those made of wood.

The remains of the ship will have suffered the most. In the process of being moved, assembled, disassembled, and moved again however many times over the course of eighty years, pieces have likely been lost or certainly damaged. Worst of all, lacking proper conservation treatment, the remains of the ship sadly will have suffered from warping, shrinkage, and decay. They will never fit together again and are slowly disappearing as Nature takes her back.

Looking back in hindsight, however, we cannot judge and fault Hagglund, Schalk, and their team for the methods used in recovering the wreck. They simply followed the accepted attitudes and practices of the day. Today’s nautical archaeology is worlds away from theirs. In the later decades of the twentieth-century, the development of SCUBA diving equipment has greatly aided development of the science of underwater archaeology and a concomitant “growing consensus that historic shipwrecks are culturally significant public property and worthy of preservation and protection.” UNESCO’s 2001 Treaty to Protect Underwater Cultural Heritage and the 2005 Federal Sunken Military Craft Act have been significant efforts at putting the new attitude into law.[7] How these regulations affect the Royal Savage is not clear and ownership of the remnants is now in question.

The Hagglund family retained possession of the Royal Savage and the remaining artifacts until Lorenzo’s son, Hudson, sold them to the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1995 for $42,500. The city’s mayor at the time, Stephen Reed, and the then governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge, strongly supported the creation of five museums in the city. Between 1991 and 2006, using millions of dollars of city money set aside for the projects, Reed purchased around 38,000 artifacts.[8] While the ship had no real connection with the city or central Pennsylvania, plans called for revolving displays covering other periods and places in history thereby providing Reed the rationale for purchasing the Royal Savage. Two of the museums eventually opened but plans for displaying the ship and its story stalled and the remains ended up as a pile of boards and timbers in the corner of a city garage.[9]

The purchase of so many artifacts unrelated to the focus of the museums caused considerable distress, particularly when the plans for rotating displays went awry. Eventually, the city council decided to recoup some of the city’s money by auctioning off many of the artifacts the former mayor had bought including the pieces of the Royal Savage. In 2006, a number of the items with an American West connection went up for auction in Dallas, TX. A similar series of auctions took place over the following years culminating in the hiring of the large New York auction firm, Guernsey Auctions, to sell off the bulk of the remaining items, including the remains of the Royal Savage. On 8 October 2013, the ship came up for bid during the second part of the auction. Pre-auction estimates of the selling price ranged from $20,000 to $30,000—well below the price actually paid for it—with a hoped-for starting bid of $10,000, but the remains sold for only $5,000.[10] In the end, however, the bidder apparently decided not to take possession and Harrisburg has retained ownership of the pieces.[11]

Using the new UNESCO and federal laws as a foundation, the United States Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) laid a claim of superior title to the remains of the Royal Savage. On several occasions, NHHC and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM) attempted to gain access to the pieces or, at least, get an accounting of them. Once the city announced they would be auctioning off the remains, the NHHC and LCMM expanded the requests to include asking that the auction be delayed. Initially, Harrisburg—and more recently, Guernsey Auctions—ignored the requests. The fate of the ship looked even bleaker when the 2013 government sequester and shutdown severely hampered NHHC activity relating to the ship’s remains. As of this writing, however (March 2014), communication between NHHC and Harrisburg has begun again. Even better, representatives of NHHC have been able to examine the pieces and feel they are currently secure.

The future is looking a bit brighter for the Royal Savage. Art Cohn, LCMM co-founder, special advisor, and leader in the efforts to return the Royal Savage to a location around the lake, wrote, “What happens now will be critically important to the proper preservation and public sharing of this national treasure. It also becomes a very important case study in the way these protected cultural materials are managed.”[12] In 1776, the ship had an inglorious role in a major naval action and, more recently, has been stuffed away in a corner of a shed. Today, the Royal Savage may well become a test case for the new underwater archaeology laws that attempt to grant ownership of such artifacts to governmental agencies even if recovered decades ago by private individuals. Whether NHHC is successful in its title claim or Harrisburg retains ownership, the Royal Savage may end up on display helping to explain the formation of our country. Maybe she will achieve the glory she searched for after all.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Schooner Royal Savage. Source: New York Public Library]

 


[1] Cannons are rated by the weight of the iron ball they fire. Swivels are small portable cannons mounted in a “Y”- shaped yoke which can be moved between brackets on the top of the sides of the ship. Armament information drawn from the “Townsend Document” (dated 22 October 1776) in the collections of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. Courtesy of LCMM and John Townsend.

[2] John Trumbull to Jonathan Trumbull, 12 July 1776, in John Trumbull, The Autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull, Patriot-Artist, 1756-1841, ed. Theodore Sizer (1841; revised ed., New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953), 27-28. The Enterprise did not serve as part of the fleet intended for combat but, rather, functioned as a supply and hospital vessel sailing back and forth between the fleet and Ticonderoga.

[3] Period illustrations of the ship show the foremast quite far forward. This feature may well have caused her to be unbalanced with regard to the center of rotation and overly sensitive to headwinds.

[4] For a more detailed description of the battle, see “The Battle of Valcour Island,” Journal of the American Revolution, 2 January 2014. https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/01/battle-valcour-island/.

[5] The information on Hagglund’s early years and the process used in recovering the Royal Savage comes from John Raymond Bratten, “The Continental Gondola Philadelphia” (Ph.D. diss. , Texas A&M University, 1997), 120-2.

[6] The team took photographs documenting the salvage operation and a number of them, along with comments, ended up in a scrapbook titled “Royal Savage Sketchbook.” The book is currently in the possession of Wes Small of The Horse Soldier, a military antiques shop in Gettysburg, PA (http://www.horsesoldier.com/). Mr. Small graciously allowed the use of some of the photos for this article.

[7] Art Cohn, “Royal Savage: A brief review and a call to action,” handout (Vergennes, VT: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 2013), 2.

[8] “Harrisburg Artifacts,” Roxbury News (Harrisburg, PA), 27 August 2008. http://www.roxburynews.com/index.php?a=525 (accessed 8 February 2014).

[9] “Harrisburg rediscovers lost artifact,” WHTM  (Harrisburg, PA), 24 July 2013. http://www.abc27.com/story/22923734/harrisburg-rediscovers-lost-artifact-reed-speaks-on-auction (accessed 8 February 2014).

[10] “liveauctioneers” on-line catalog entry, Lot 8342, http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/20185726_revolutionary-war-ship-the-royal-savage, accessed 10 February 2014).

[11] E-mail exchange between the author and Guernsey Auctions, 7 and 10 March 2014.

[12] Cohn, Royal Savage,” 4.

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12 Comments

  • Michael,

    This is indeed a sad story surrounding the Royal Savage and we can only hope that something good comes out of it. I know Art Cohn is one of those leading the charge in preserving American and Canadian shipwrecks and underwater archaeology is fortunate to have him and the LCMM providing this valuable service. Their work on the Spitfire should result in a wholly different outcome.

    I can’t help but wonder if Hagglund learned a little something from the methods he used in 1934 since the Philadelphia (now resting at the Smithsonian) came up in 1935 with, by comparison, relatively little damage. The two wrecks were probably in different situations allowing for one to be done quite well and the other not.

    If you could contact me at gshattuck@gmail.com I would love to talk to you further about some Lake Champlain issues.

    • Gary,

      As near as I can tell, Hagglund and his crew dealt with both ships in pretty much the same manner. The difference in condition comes primarily from what happened to each one during the battle–the “Royal Savage” burned to the waterline while the “Philadelphia” sank intact after having holes punched in her by British cannons. Beyond that, after recovery, the latter remained whole while Hagglund disassembled the former.

      Mike

  • Mike;
    Gary brings up a good point. The last time I visited my Catamount home, “Philadelphia” was resting on timbers near the canal in Whitehall (Skenesbourough), exposed to the elements and withering away. I recall donating some money to help in her preservation. Any news on progress with her?

    • Jim,

      I think you may be confusing the “Philadelphia” with the War of 1812 “Ticonderoga” (part of Macdonough’s fleet at the 1814 Battle of Plattsburgh). The former has been in the Smithsonian since the 60s but the latter still sits under a pavilion outside the museum in Whitehall, NY. The last I knew (which is quite dated info) there are no plans to do anything with the “Ticonderoga.”

      • Mike’s correct – it was Ticonderoga I saw just three years ago; bleached timbers and spikes. A true shame. I don’t recall that it was roofed – perhaps that’s at least some improvement.

  • I finally came back to this article, and found it very interesting. Please do post a new article update (best to be a separate article versus a comment here) when something happens to the Royal Savage’s remains. Thanks, Derek

  • An update: cross-posted courtesy of the US Naval Institute News.

    Navy Accepts Remains of Revolutionary War Schooner
    By: Megan Eckstein

    (Click here to read the full article.)

    The Navy accepted the remains of a Revolutionary War ship from the city of Harrisburg, Pa., on July 1, noting the importance of displaying naval history for the public.
    The city bought the Continental Navy schooner Royal Savage remains in 1995 but has kept them in storage since, according to a Navy news release.
    “This ship, and its artifacts are now going to be preserved and cherished for the public for generations to come as they should be,” Mayor Eric Papenfuse said in the news release.
    “For the last 20 years, the artifacts have stayed in storage, out of public viewing, and we are pleased today to bring them to the light of day and to make sure they are being given the proper care.”
    Naval History and Heritage Command director Sam Cox accepted the artifacts on behalf of the Navy, saying “the United States Navy takes very seriously our obligation to protect and preserve the heritage of the Navy and our nation.”

    “The first thing we will do is go through a process of preserving and protecting them for the long term,” he said. “As we go through that process, we will open the process up to scholars. Archeologists and historians have much to learn from this.”

    Royal Savage was a British two-masted schooner that American forces sunk during the siege of St. Johns, Quebec, in 1775. Americans raised and repaired the ship soon afterwards, and it became the flagship of the Lake Champlain squadron that denied British access to the lake and contributed to the defeat of the British in Saratoga. The schooner ran aground in a battle in 1776, and the British captured and burned the ship in the lake. The burnt hull of Royal Savage remained in Lake Champlain until 1934, when marine salvager and amateur archaeologist Lorenzo Hagglund raised them. His family possessed the remains until Harrisburg bought them in 1995.

  • The story of the Royal Savage has taken a couple interesting turns this past summer. A year-and-a-half ago, the city of Harrisburg, PA, turned over the remnants of the ship to the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command. The NHHC transported the artifacts to Washington, D.C., and began the process of inspecting and inventorying them. Recently, Chris Sabick, the Archaeological Director for the Maritime Research Institute wing of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, traveled to D.C. to inspect the items. The remnants of the ship are spread out inside a huge building instead of being piled in a back corner of a warehouse and, in spite of the lack of conservation, Chris said most of them seem to be in good condition.

    It would be an understatement to say that Chris exhibited a high level of excitement when I talked with him a few days ago. He noted several pieces that still had numbered tags on them that correspond to a drawing of the ship with each piece numbered that had been produced when Lorenzo Hagglund’s team disassembled the ship in 1934. These features will greatly facilitate any attempt at reassembling the pieces. Having done his master’s thesis on the construction techniques used in a warship of similar size, Chris is quite curious to see if any similarities exist between the two vessels. He also looked over the 1500+ smaller artifacts that came along with the ship’s pieces. These had been recovered by Hagglund and include all sorts of personal items and equipment.

    It is still too early to say what will become of the remnants and smaller recovered artifacts. Given the rapidly-progressing state of computer-driven replication, copies of the pieces in any scale are a possibility allowing for clones of the ship to be displayed anywhere. It also opens up the possibility of some interesting activities using small-scale pieces. Although the ship sailed on and sank in the waters of Lake Champlain, it appears the Navy will not likely release the pieces for permanent display at LCMM. The museum is hoping for public pressure to motivate the Navy to allow the ship to return home to the lake at some point in the future.

    In a related happening, LCMM has been given the papers of historian Peter Barranco who has spent decades researching the lake’s history. His records alone are a valuable collection but, to add to the treasure, the files contain the papers of Lorenzo Hagglund, the man who raised both the Philadelphia and the Royal Savage. Barranco worked for and with Hagglund for several years and the latter’s family gave his papers to Barranco. The museum is currently developing a finding aid but hopes to go through the collection in detail to cull out important information. After 240 years of silence, it would seem the Royal Savage is starting to be rather vociferous.

    • Thanks much for the update, Mike. The RS has had quite a trip to get to where it is now and it is wonderful to know that what remains of it is finally in responsible hands. The Navy will do a wonderful job and I have no doubt that some kind of accommodation can be reached allowing for some portion of the RS, in whatever form, to return to the lake.

      Much else is also currently underway concerning her sister vessel, the Spitfire, and perhaps there is some way to “package” a deal that will further honor their contributions, including the Philadelphia’s, to the war. Thanks again.

  • Stephen Reed, the former mayor of Harrisburg, PA, who used millions of dollars in city funds to buy thousands of artifacts including the remains of the “Royal Savage,” today received a sentence of two years probation. Earlier this week, he had also pleaded guilty to twenty counts of receiving stolen property. The judge took pity on Reed as he commented that the former mayor is suffering from stage 4 cancer. Thankfully, the ship’s remains do not seem to have suffered too badly during their two decades under Reed’s control.

  • HI, Mike. I just ran across your article on the Royal Savage on the net, and thought I would contact you. My wife and I rented a furnished apartment from Lorenzo Hagglund’s widow in 1968 and 69. Actually, the apartment was basically half of the house Gladys Hagglund lived in. The doorstop to our apartment was an old cannon ball, and one day I asked her about it and learned for the first time of the Battle of Valcour Island. While living there we also met her son, Hudson, and kept in contact with him until his recent passing.

    I think you might be interested to know that prior to the Navy taking control of the Royal Savage, Hudson Hagglund was trying to get it back because the museum at Harrisburg had defaulted on the terms of the original sale. The terms specifically stated that the Royal Savage was to be permanently exhibited, along with a testimonial about its discovery and recovery by Lorenzo Hagglund. Hudson had his lawyer write to Harrisbug stating that the sale terms had been in default, but Harrisburg never responded to the letter, and Hudson passed away soon after.

    As Hudson’s health began to fade, I helped him get in contact with the Navy to make arrangements for them to come to his home on Long Island to twice pick up remaining artifacts his father had found. In speaking with the Navy about the Royal Savage, I discovered they were having difficulties with Harrisburg also, so I send them a copy of Hudson’s attorney’s letter to Harrisburg about Harrisburg’s default on the terms of their purchase of the ruins. I have not spoken with the Navy since, but they were very interested and eager to get a copy of that letter to use against Harrisburg.

    You might also be interested that Hudson had given me a Burlington Free Press newspaper written when the Philadelphia was recovered. In it was the score to a piece of music dedicated to the raising of the Philadelphia. From what I learned this music was performed on an organ at the unveiling of the Philadelphia when it first reached Burlington on a floating barge and it was never played since. I play the trumpet in a local community band, and took the score to my band director who transcribed in for band, and we played it at a couple of our concerts. As it turned out, the last time we played it was literally at the same hour that Hudson passed away.

    Anyhow, I really enjoyed your article, and would like to keep in touch if/when you learn more about the Battle. Have you ever read Lorenzo’s own little book about the discovery and raising entitled “A Page from the Past”? I have a copy, and it really gives one goose bumps to read.

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