South Carolina

16th-century French shipwreck may be buried off SC coast

Hazards of diving, from an underwater archaeologist

James Spirek, an underwater archaeologist with the South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology, talks about the hazards that come along with diving around shipwrecks.
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James Spirek, an underwater archaeologist with the South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology, talks about the hazards that come along with diving around shipwrecks.

The Port Royal Sound is home to a rusted classic car and the resting place of an old dredge pontoon. Nearby creeks and rivers entomb Civil War-era vessels.

The salty waters are a known prime breeding ground for sharks.

But a remaining mystery is the location of a 16th-century French corsair called Le Prince. The heavily armed galleon boasted a 300-ton capacity and carried 180 Frenchmen on a voyage “raiding and trading in Spain’s New World possessions,” said Jim Spirek, the underwater archaeologist who began the search for the ship when he joined the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology in 1996.

Spirek believes Le Prince wrecked on the shoals at the mouth of the Port Royal Sound, in 1577 about three miles offshore. He was back in Beaufort County this month with a team of state researchers diving on a Civil War vessel in Skull Creek and plans to return eventually for Le Prince, buoyed by the Santa Elena History Center.

The wreck is part of the story of the Spanish settlement Santa Elena on what is now Parris Island. Native Americans drove away the original Santa Elena settlers, but the Spanish returned to reassert control not long after the French came ashore from Le Prince.

Le Prince spurred the Spanish to return after having abandoned the original settlement, Santa Elena Foundation chairman Andy Beall said. The French might have been fortunate to survive the wreck but soon faced new threats.

“I would liken the situation the French found themselves in as just having stepped barefoot into a fire ant hill,” Spirek said during a presentation on Le Prince at a gathering of 16th-century scholars in Beaufort last year. “They were in a rough spot.”

Spirek learned of Le Prince through University of South Carolina archaeologist Chester DePratter after coming to South Carolina more than 20 years ago. The archaeologists enlisted researchers to investigate archives in France and Spain for evidence of Le Prince’s whereabouts.

Researchers established a grid covering 24 square miles and from 2000 until 2004 surveyed the waters looking for sunken vessels. A 25-foot Sea Hawk dive boat towed a magnetometer in a pattern as if mowing a lawn.

They discovered an old Ford Model T off of Bay Point and dove on the pontoon.

But no Le Prince.

About 75 percent of the grid has been searched, Spirek said. The establishment of the Santa Elena History Center and its scholars conference last year inspired him to reignite the search.

He hopes to return with an airplane or helicopter to more quickly cover the remaining ocean floor with the magnetometer.

The machine could show evidence of cannons, anchors or other ship rigging. Le Prince would have been armed with several large cannons for engaging ships or firing to land and smaller artillery for shooting in close combat, Spirek said during his presentation last year.

The French managed to salvage a large bronze cannon and muskets from the wreck and built a large, triangular fort north of Santa Elena. But once in the ant hill, some were killed by attacks from local Native American tribes and 40 remaining survivors were distributed essentially as slaves among the tribes.

After Pedro Menedez Marquez arrived in 1577 with the pre-fabricated Fort San Marcos, the Spanish negotiated for the Frenchmen over the next few years.

“They were a constant threat to Spanish control in the area,” according to the first volume of “The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina,” written by historians Larry Rowland, Alexander Moore and George Rogers Jr.

“To have them amongst the local population couldn’t be tolerated,” Spirek said.

Almost all of the French were systematically captured and hanged by the Spanish. Those executed included Le Prince’s captain and French leader, Nicholas Strozzi, who wasn’t spared despite his wealth and political connections, historians noted in the book.

The French threat was neutralized with Spain’s show of force. The whereabouts of their vessel remains unknown.

Stephen Fastenau: 843-706-8182, @IPBG_Stephen