Archaeologists Find 127-year Old Shipwreck in Deep Gulf

Archaeologists working under contract to the Minerals Management Service have discovered the 1876 wreck of a wooden-hulled sailing ship in 1,300 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. The 190-ft long wreck was first reported to MMS, the Federal agency that manages offshore oil and gas development, as a "possible shipwreck" in a remote-sensing survey conducted for Shell Oil in the early 1980s. Its identification and historical significance were unknown until last week, when scientists from Texas A&M University (TAMU) visited the site as part of a study of another nearby shipwreck.

Using remotely operated cameras and a one-man submersible generously donated to the project by Deep Marine Technology, Inc. of Houston, the nearly intact sailing ship was videotaped for later analysis by archaeologists from both TAMU and MMS. The cameras recorded large sections of the wooden hull standing over ten feet off the seabed and even parts of the rigging, but, surprisingly, no evidence of cargo.

MMS archaeologists have been able to identify the shipwreck tentatively by using a new computerized Geographic Information System Database of shipwrecks in the Gulf recently developed for the agency. Using this new tool, they have identified the wreck as a British merchant ship, the Western Empire, which was built in 1862 and sank on September 18, 1876. Historians currently are researching the history of the Western Empire, which went down carrying a cargo of lumber to New Orleans when the ship sprang a leak. Ten men were drowned when the ship sank.

The MMS is required by law to consider the effects of all its actions, including lease sales, studies, and permits, on the cultural heritage of the United States. To meet this responsibility, it requires the oil and gas industry to conduct marine surveys to search for shipwrecks and has, on staff, archaeologists trained to review the geophysical reports submitted by the oil and gas industry. The MMS reviews nearly 1,700 planned wells and pipelines every year for their potential effect on archaeological sites on the Outer Continental Shelf.