Ships, Shipwrecks, and Salvage

Nicholas v. Chase: A French Bronze Revolutionary War Cannon

June 15, 1816. Philip Chase and Benjamin Downing were standing knee deep in water while the pale glow of the lantern silhouetted a heavy metal object lying just below the surface of the water. The metal shovel blade rang out as they scraped the sand away. The men’s eyes grew wide with excitement. Although the sun was shining brightly overhead, it was of no use to them at the moment. They were in a diving bell twenty-seven feet below the murky waters of the Pamunkey River. The metal object protruding from the river bottom was a French bronze cannon that weighed nearly three tons.

From inside the diving bell, they tugged on their messenger line signaling the topside crew to send down the heavy lifting ropes. The ropes were then lashed through the ornate dolphin lifting rings and then the diving bell was raised. The intrepid divers joined the other crew on deck: Francis Southwick, Zepheniah Barrows, Michael Goodin, Raymond P. Bendick, Bradford Chase, and Captain Gilbert Chase. The men heaved at the capstan bars and began to raise the gun, a relic of the American Revolution.

It was years before that Gilbert Chase from Massachusetts had arrived at the plantation of John Watkins on the Pamunkey River, a tributary of the York River in Virginia. He was there to carry a load of grain to Baltimore. The colonial town of Cumberland adjoined Watkins’ plantation. There were five wharves which were used to load and unload ocean going sloops that freighted in and out of this long forgotten Colonial town. While Captain Chase was loading his grain, he happened to have a conversation with a slave named Dick who told him offhand that during the war, a bronze cannon had fallen into the river next to a particular wharf while it was being unloaded. Captain Chase knew then that someday he would return to recover the valuable gun. Old Dick’s description was so accurate that it was located with “one dip of the bell.”

The First U.S. Patent for a Diving Bell

On April 1, 1806, the United States Congress granted to Richard Tripe of Dover, New Hampshire, patent No. 681X, for his design of a diving bell. It was signed by President Thomas Jefferson. It certainly was not the first diving bell by any means but the first to be registered with the fledgling government of the United States.
Tripe and his partner, Ebenezer Clifford of Exeter, first built the bell in 1805. It was constructed of wood and was about five feet nine inches high. It was five feet in diameter at the bottom and three feet at the top. Inside were seats for two men. The bell was weighted with iron ballast bars weighing fifty-six pounds each. A shank of an old anchor was fastened across the bottom which not only added weight but was used as a foot rest. An air pump supplied the divers from above. The whole contraption weighed two tons.

The inspiration for the diving bell came when a gondola sank two years before at Simes’s Wharf, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The gondola had sunk with nearly twenty tons of bar iron in sixty-two feet of water.

The record of their first dives described experiences and sensations that can only be understood by divers today. Clifford and Tripe descended many times to the bottom but had little success in recovering the iron. The duration of their dives was from sixty to seventy minutes, but it took about ten minutes going down and another ten coming up as the men topside strained at the windlass. Decompression, although unknown to them at the time, was not an issue. The divers complained that while descending they experienced pain in the “tympanum” (ear drum). Their ear squeeze was alleviated by stopping the bell every ten feet and then backing up a few feet which allowed their ears to clear.
On one dive to seventy-two feet, the bell filled two-thirds with water. From this description we learn the limits of their air pump. The divers also described that on a clear day there was enough natural light to read “coarse print” at the greatest of depth. These adventurers reported “no scenery in nature can be more beautiful, than exhibited to them, in a sunshiny day, at the bottom of the deep Piscataqua.”

The hyperbaric pressure appeared to have had health benefits for Mr. Clifford. Before his first dive, he complained of rheumatic pains. After the dive, he said he was completely relieved of pain and then walked six miles “without inconvenience.”

Clifford learned from his early experience, and in 1810, was successful in raising thirty six cannon, a brass howitzer, and several tons of cannon balls from Revolutionary War wrecks in sixty feet of water in the Penobscot River, Maine.

In 1806, Captain Chase formed a partnership with John B. Lyon who had acquired rights to use Tripe’s patent. Lyon was to get twenty-five percent of anything recovered while Chase and his crew would get seventy-five percent.

The Bronze Cannon is Raised

The former Home of John Watkins at Cumberland, Virginia

When Captain Chase arrived at Cumberland, Virginia, he applied to John Watkins and explained that he was there to search for the cannon. Watkins, who happened to be a magistrate for New Kent, County, said that he had no claim to anything below the low water mark so Captain Chase was free to proceed. But Watkins warned him that, should he be successful, he should contact the Virginia government as the cannon might be considered public property. Chase agreed to hoist a flag from his masthead should he raise the gun, thus alerting Watkins who was retiring to his home for dinner up the hill from town.

When Watkins observed the flag, he descended to the wharf and found the cannon being lifted out of the water. It was eleven feet ten inches long, was ornately decorated with hand carved mottoes, coats of arms, and names of distinguished Frenchman. The trunnion indicated the weight of 5,240 pounds . Near the muzzle was the unique name for the weapon: “Le Divertissant” (The sportsman). Below that, “Ultimo Ration Regum” (The last Resort of Kings) The cannon was cast in 1686 and fired a thirty-two pound ball.

Watkins sent an express to Richmond to alert the governor that the Captain Chase was getting ready to sail away with this extremely valuable artifact. The Attorney General, Philip Nicholas, applied to Judge Creed Taylor of the Superior Court of Chancery in Richmond for a writ of ne exeat to prevent the deportation of the cannon. The governor immediately dispatched the twenty-five year old Adjutant General, Claiborne W. Gooch, to Cumberland with the writ to serve on Captain Chase. Gooch was also instructed to first negotiate a reasonable price for the gun and hopefully hire Captain Chase too look for other cannon that were reported to be in the river.

When Gooch arrived at 8 a.m. Thursday morning, he found that “the bird had flown…an eagle with the prey in his talons.” The Mary Ann had left the evening before and was making her escape down the Pamunkey River. The river is very narrow and turns in all directions as it flows into the York River. In most places it is only 400 yards wide. If there was not a favorable wind, the Mary Ann would have to anchor until the tide ran out.

The Mary Ann had about eighteen hours head start in her bid to escape. Gooch knew it was forty-two miles to Yorktown and calculated he had just enough time to beat Captain Chase before he reached York Town and then Chesapeake Bay. Gooch rode in “reeking haste” and arrived at Yorktown that evening. The Mary Ann had not yet arrived at the Collectors Office where he was required to stop for his exit papers. This gave Gooch time to get the help of the U. S. Marshall of the Williamsburg District to assist him in the arrest.

Captain Chase arrived at ten a.m. on Saturday, June 22, and was surprised to find that Gooch was waiting for him. Assisted by the marshal, Gooch boarded the sloop and presented himself to Captain Chase. Gooch took the civil and equitable approach and offered Chase a liberal reward for his trouble in raising the cannon and a corresponding reward to go back and raise some others. Chase refused. Captain Chase and crew said they had a right to the cannon, that the government’s patent of the diving bell inferred the right to recover abandoned property so Chase demanded full value for the gun. Gooch suggested that he turn over the gun until a court could decide the issue. Chase and his crew then surrounded Gooch and the marshall in a threatening manner leaving Gooch no other choice but to exert his “civil authority” and arrest the sloop and the cannon. The marshall released his sloop ten days later after Chase agreed to surrender the gun. In Richmond, Attorney General, Philip Nicholas, filed suit against Captain Chase in the Superior Court of Chancery. Captain Chase engaged Thomas Tyler Bouldin of Richmond as his advocate. The legal battle was now underway.

The History of the Cannon

The shore of the Pamunkey River

It was along this shore that the forgotten town of Cumberland was located. And it was here that the diving bell of was used to retrieve the cannon

The cannon had come to Cumberland in 1780 by way of a French corvette which landed eleven bronze thirty- two pound caliber guns to aid the war effort against Great Britain. The cannon were naval guns and were too heavy to be used in the field. They sat on the banks of the Pamunkey until April of 1781 when the British Army was extending their campaign up the York and Pamunkey Rivers. The Colonial Army was ordered to load the cannon and other stores on flat bottom boats and move them as high up the river as possible. They were ultimately taken to the landing at Taylor’s Ferry, about thirty miles upriver from Cumberland. Unfortunately, the British got wind of the cannon, but when they arrived they found them too heavy to move so they were spiked and thrown in the river.

The cannon were later raised but by then the war was over, so they sat unmolested on the river bank until 1802 when they were carried to the State Armory in Richmond.

Before Captain Chase had returned to Cumberland to salvage the cannon in 1816, he had visited the State Armory to inspect the bronze cannon there and more than likely appraise the value of the cannon he intended to raise. He found there were six bronze cannon that were “brothers” to the one he had intended to raise. Each one had its own name like “Le Gourmand,” “ L’ Enviee,” and “L’Advocat.” No two were alike; each had its own custom embellishments. Their weights ranged from 5,140 pounds to 6,040 pounds, all cast in the late 17th century.

The case file of Nicholas v Chase no longer exists, probably lost in the fire at Richmond of April 3, 1865. But depositions and statements from Claiborne Gooch and John Watkins did survive as well as Chase’s arguments and the judgment of the court. Besides testifying in court about how he came to know about the cannon, Chase would certainly have repeated the same plea he had made to Governor Wilson Cary Nicholas, the brother of the attorney general who was then seeking to recover the cannon:

“Your memorialists having known that the Congress of the United States had granted letters of patent to Richard Tripe for the purpose of using the invention called the Diving Machine, by which law those concerned might search all waters—Creeks, Rivers and Ponds, and Bays—and to appropriate what might be found to the use of the finders. Being thus authorized by law, your memorialists formed themselves into a company, obtained powers from the patentee, and deserted their homes and families to make such search as the above law authorized and as casual information might invite.”

Captain Chase told the governor that the State’s rights had been forfeited by the cannon’s “continuance so long in the water, without any effort on the part of the State to reclaim it.” He had previously argued with Gooch that the similarity of the guns in the armory with the one that he recovered was not proof that the cannon belonged to the State. The State certainly had knowledge of at least the possibility of the cannon lying on the bottom at Cumberland because in the Commonwealth’s own archives was, and still is, an inventory dated 1804 of ordinance scattered about the state. Specifically mentioned were several large brass cannon that had been thrown into the Pamunkey at the wharf located at the lowest part of the town of Cumberland. Thomas Newton, a U.S. Congressman from Virginia, claimed he was shown the place and said that by dragging they “might be brought up if not already found.” At least one was still there in 1816 when the diving bell of Richard Tripe made its historic descent.

Virginia Loses Cannon

In January, Chancellor Creed Taylor ruled that it was “not proved to the satisfaction of the Court that the said cannon was ever the property of the Commonwealth.” In April of 1817, Captain Chase arrived at Buchanan’s Wharf on New York City’s Lower East Side. On board the sloop, Mary Ann, was his bronze prize. Virginia had lost a “handsome treasure.”
The case of Nicholas v. Chase was certainly a historic case if not a precedential one. This was one of the first recorded salvage case in the United States outside of the admiralty court. Although the cannon was arrested by a federal marshal, Virginia chose to litigate in their own Superior Court of Chancery. Ancient precedents in admiralty law state that the salvor would not be awarded the items salvaged outright. The proceeds of the sale or division of property would be allocated between the owner and the salvors based on merit. When the owner could not be found, the sovereign would then step in as owner.
The court ruled that that the cannon was never the property of the state. Evidence had been submitted that the cannon at the State Armory were cannon imported on the French ship and were clearly property of the State. Apparently the court determined that while the cannon were on board the sloop, they were still property of France. Since the subject cannon was never landed onto Virginia soil, Virginia never took title. The cannon were not delivered according to a contract but were a gift from France. This gift could have been recalled at anytime before delivery. It can easily be inferred now that the cannon on the bottom of the Pamunkey either still belonged to France or was considered abandoned and belonged to no one, even though it lay partially embedded in the submerged lands of the Commonwealth of Virginia for thirty-six years.

French cannon VMI

Le Gourmand French Bronze Cannon at VMI Parapet Today

Today, two of the bronze cannon that formerly came from the French corvette at Cumberland, Virginia, have survived and are displayed on the Parapet at the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington, Virginia. They were carried from Richmond by canal boat and arrived there on June 8, 1863. The others were melted down during the Civil War. No doubt the gun landed at New York in 1817 met the same fate.

John Amrhein

John Amrhein, Jr. with the VMI cannon

Cannon named L’Enviee (right) at the Parapet of the Virginia Military Institute. This cannon fired a thirty-two pound ball and weighs 5, 480 lbs. It was cast in 1693 at Douay. This cannon is nearly identical to the one that Nicholas Chase salvaged with the help of Richard Tripe’s diving Bell.