By JERRY ALLEGOOD
This article was published in the Summer 2010 issue of Coastwatch.
It took a nudge from Mother Nature for the Cashie River in Bertie County to reveal one of its long-hidden secrets.
Northwesterly winds blew the deep, dark water downstream, dropping the river enough to temporarily uncover a previously unknown shipwreck only a few feet from the shoreline of Bob and Becky Bowling’s home.
Becky Bowling had occcasionally retrieved smooth ballast stones from the river, but she had never seen the submerged jagged rocks resting on the remains of a wooden platform until some windy weather in February 2008.
“I thought maybe it was a sunken barge or a pier that had fallen in,” she recalls.
Examination by researchers at East Carolina University’s Program in Maritime Studies confirmed that the site contained more than a random pile of debris. Theresa Hicks, an ECU graduate student who is studying the site as a North Carolina Sea Grant project, says the ship is apparently part of a wharf or landing and it could be more than 200 years old. Additional studies are planned to help determine when and how it was used.
The Cashie (pronounced Ca-shy) is 60 miles of blackwater, only about 25 miles of it navigable, that winds through Bertie County before emptying into Bachelor Bay and Albemarle Sound. What the river lacks in length — it is one of few in the state that begins and ends in the same county — it makes up for in depth, with spots up to 80 feet deept. Through not as large or well known as the Chowan River to the north or the Roanoke to the south, it was a major transportation artery before railroads and highways.
Historians say remote landings were key points for shipping and trade at plantations and large farms along the river during the 1700s.
Even steamships were common after the Civil War. According to a history of Bertie County by Alan D. Watson, the steamship Bertie made runs from Windsor to Plymouth three times a week in 1874. As late as 1888, steamers brought passengers and freight daily to wharves in Windsor, the county seat.
But by the mid-20th century, regularly scheduled water traffic was history, and the ships sank in oblivion.
Several months after the Bowlings’ initial discovery, the river gave another peek into the past. The Bowlings persuaded Bradley Rodgers, a faculty member in ECU’s maritime studies program, to take a look when the river was low. “The wind was just howling out of the northwest,” Rodgers recalls.
A PUZZLING WRECK
Shipwrecks usually have a distinctive profile with planks sticking out of the midship area like ribs. But the Cashie vessel looked different, with no spacing between the frames.
“I was amazed when I looked at it,” says Rodgers, who has inspected scores of shipwrecks. “It didn’t seem to make any sense.”
As it turned out, the ship had been pulled close to shore stern first, another oddity. Because the stern is heavier, ships usually enter shallow water bow first. Even if it had been abandoned, Rodgers said, it probably wouldn’t be able to drift into shallow water.
“I’ve never seen a ship in (to shore) stern first,” he notes.
Researchers suggest it became part of a wharf or landing on a remote stretch of the river. “It’s obvious to us that ships were loading there,” Rodgers says. “We don’t know what they were loading.”
Excavations on shore yielded a mixture of Native American and Colonial era artifacts such as ceramic pieces and pipe stems. One theory is that the ship dates to the “contact period” when Colonial landowners were trading with Native Americans.
“We don’t have any vessels from the contract period of the early 18th and late 17th century,” Rodgers says.
Hicks, 25, wants to learn about the structures in the water as well as how they were used and what they might reveal about the economy of the times. Though not a port, a remote landing essentially served as a portal to the backwaters and plantations.
While others have focused on houses and slave quarters to learn about plantations, Hicks is looking at a planation wharf’s connection to the world economy. The search has taken her away from the waterside to pore over documents in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. She is scouring wills, deeds and census records to determine who owned land and what they produced.
She believes the Bowling’s 67-acre tract was part of 750 acres owned in the late 1700s by William Armistead Sr., a wealthy planter and merchant who died in 1791. In the swampy areas such as Bertie County, roads were slow to be constructed and difficult to travel. Waterfront property was the prime land to own even with the swamp that surrounded it, Hicks explains, because the owner had water access to move goods to market. The swampy Armistead land could be built up to create a road to a landing on the water.
The original Armistead property currently has two landings, one at Bowling Farm and another at what is today called Blanchards Landing. Hicks believes Blanchards Landing was constructed before 1769 because of descriptions contained in a deed for 20 acres. The description of William Armistead’s Landing in the deed best describes Blanchards Landing, which has a high hill directly behind it that slopes down to a swampy cove. While the Bowling Farm is situated in front of a high land, it is much higher than the swamp land surrounding it.
Documents indicate that Armistead owned 33 slaves and that the property contained 200 barrels of Indian corn and a number of horses, cattle, vessels, boats, furniture, china and tools. The reference to vessels is intriguing, Hicks says, because it might indicate that he transported his goods to Edenton or dealt with vessels that came up the Cashie to collect goods. It also could mean that Armistead dispatched his own vessels on coastal trading trips.
Although Hicks has no actual record of what was produced on Armistead’s property, previous research on North Carolina ports of Currituck, Bath, Beaufort, Brunswick and Roanoke indicated that Port Roanoke at Edenton was a leader in the export of wooden staves and shingles from 1768 to 1772. Port Roanoke — which includes Albemarle Sound and the Pasquotank, Chowan, Cashie and Roanoke rivers — ranked next to last in exports of sawn lumber.
SHIPPING BY RIVER
Standing on the riverbank now, it’s hard to imagine large sailing ships moving up and down the river. Bass boats, outboards and small craft are today’s mainstays. During warm weather, water skiers perform turns and stunts in the relatively wide section in front of the Bowling’s property. Further downstream, the Sans Souci Ferry slowly carried vehicles across a narrower portion of the river.
The Bowlings, who run a landscaping business, built a house eight years ago on a portion of land Bob Bowling’s great-grandfather bought in 1882. The house in the Woodland Community overlooks the “Cashie Neck” section of the river, about 10 miles downstream from the county seat of Windsor.
Most of the surrounding terrain is low and swampy, but the Bowlings built on a patch of high ground that apparently attracted settlers decades ago. Bob Bowling remembers that the high ground was called “the island” when he rambled through the swamp as a boy.
From the surface, there’s not much to distinguish the landing site from adjacent shoreline. Cypress trees line the shore with knobby knees poking out of the shallow water. Underwater it’s a different story. Rocks of various sizes are strewn about the area with mostly small, angular stones on the wreck and larger stones around the wharf structure. Three cypress trees actually grow through the manmade remains.
While poking around the dark water, ECU students had to cope with low visibility and aggravating leaches. They devised a contest and awarded a bottle of port to the intrepid person who emerged from the water with the most leaches.
Hicks describes the wharf as built in a Cobb style, where logs — called stretchers — extend from the shore into the river. Other logs, called headers, are placed across the spreaders, parallel to the shore.
At the Bowling landing, spaces were filled with rocks, which probably came from ballast on ships. “It’s a standard, very uncomplicated wharf structure,” she adds.
EVIDENCE OF LANDING
The entire landing, with the ship extension, extends 20 feet out into the water and runs 50 feet parallel to the shore. The wharf is actually anchored to shore. Today the whole structure is about 10 feet from the shoreline when the water is high. But when the water is blown out of the river, you can walk onto the landing without getting your feet wet.
The bow of the vesse is missing, cut away in a manner and for a reason researchers have not determined. The rear of the ship includes a rudder which Hicks stumbled on, literally. So far, only one mail has been discovered in the 24-by-21-foot remains of the ship, an indication of the early construction.
“There’s a little teeny, tiny dot right there,” Hicks said, pointing to a photo on her computer screen. “That’s a nail — one one nail.”
Analysis of the wood revealed that the vessel’s frames and the wharf’s headers and stretchers are made of southern yellow pine. The ship’s keel is white oak. Hicks says it is odd that the frames were made of yellow pine because previous American-built vessels that have been studies contained oak frames.
Researchers have found scores of shipwrecks in Eastern North Carolina through historical records, sightings and surveys with underwater electronic equipment. They had scanned the Cashie with advanced sonar equipment but did not locate anything to indicate shipwreck remains, possibly because the wreckage and landing were so close to shore.
It’s actually showed us what we may be missing with our archaeological methods,” Hicks says.
Local historian Harry Thompson, 76, curator of the Port O’ Plymouth Museum in neighboring Washington County can easily recount historical facts and fanciful stories about the Cashie, but he says little is known about the remains found by the Bowlings.
“It was rumored there was a ship graveyard in the Cashie, but to my knowledge it has never been found,” he adds. “This one is a puzzle.”
Folks even used to say there were places in the Cashie that didn’t have a bottom. “You know and I know you can’t have a river with no bottom,” he says, noting that deep holes may have been created by artesian springs in the river bottom.
Thompson describes the Cashie as a “very narrow, crooked little river, which worked against big boats.” Still, the count thrived on ships because waterways were the only way in and out of the region. Early farmers cut trees, burned the wood and shipped the ashes in barrels to England for fertilizer. Landowners shipped lumber and special trees used for ship masts, as well as tar, turpentine, and pitch, or resin from trees often used to caulk the seams of wooden ships.
Thompson, author of Bertie Folklore, hopes the wind-blown revelation will enhance the county’s maritime heritage.
“There’s a lot of questions about that ship,” he says.
On a recent visit, Hicks and Becky Bowling sat by the river and pondered the circumstances that led to the discovery. Because the site is nearly a mile down a dirt road and surrounded by swamp, it is unlikely for someone to find the remote spot on the river and even more unlikely that someone would build a home there.
“It was a remarkable resource that never would have been found if you didn’t live here,” Hicks says to Becky Bowling.
In turn, Bowling observes that the wind and water provided a glimpse of the submergd structure when she happened to be looking.
The next day it was gone.
The Cashie keeps its secrets hidden.
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