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This mysterious American shipwreck is only revealed in the sands following some storms. Source: York Maine Police Department

American Shipwreck Finally Identified – And it’s Revolutionary!


The state of Maine in the United States is well-known for its many shipwrecks, but the stories behind some of the vessels are still unknown. A recent study on one of the mysterious American shipwrecks has shown it to be a vessel that is older than the United States itself. The ship was built before the American War of Independence and has a tragic history.

The Short Sands beach near York in Maine, on the east coast of the United States, is the site of the wreck. The ship’s outline was exposed by a storm in 2018. Several times in the past the sunken vessel had been uncovered during a storm .

It was previously exposed in the 1950s, 1960, 1983, and in 2013, when it was revealed by the storm Nemo. The Maine Historic Preservation Commission has categorized the shipwreck as an archaeological site.

The shipwreck on Short Sands Beach, York, Maine, USA. (Gerry Runte)

The shipwreck on Short Sands Beach, York, Maine, USA. ( Gerry Runte )

An Enigmatic American Shipwreck

In 2018, a team of researchers led by Stefan Claesson investigated the vessel, using archaeological techniques, scientific dating, and documentary research. Drones with GIS technology were employed to map and survey the site. They sought to determine the date of the vessel and its history.

The vessel is something of a mystery and the fact that it only appears occasionally has added to its mystique. Some have claimed that the ship dates from the Revolutionary era, while others have even claimed it to be a Viking ship. After every storm it is typically reburied by the shifting sands.

Dating the Ship that Emerges After a Storm

Claesson and his team believe that the ship dates to the mid-eighteenth century. It was probably built in 1754 and wrecked in the year 1769. The lead researcher on the project believes that the ship was the sloop named ‘Defiance’ and it is “a pinky [sic], a type of cargo ship .”

 It seems that some of the wreck has been lost or removed in the recent past. According to Archaeology.org, ‘Photographs taken of the ship in the 1950s and the 1970s show that its mast has since been cut off. ’

The team found that the shipwreck is over 50 feet long (15.24 meters) and when it was intact it was approximately 60 feet (18.29 meters). Most of the wreck consists of the bottom of the hull. Researchers at Cornell University used dendrochronology techniques to date the wood . They showed that the wood used in the hull came from trees cut down in 1753.

The Short Sands Shipwreck was last unearthed in 2018 after a large storm. (Records of American Shipwrecks)

The Short Sands Shipwreck was last unearthed in 2018 after a large storm. ( Records of American Shipwrecks )

Claesson visited the archives at Peabody Essex Museum and extensively searched the records of Daniel Moulton, a local notary who documented all the wrecks in Maine between 1750 and 1794. Seacoastonline.com quotes the lead researcher as saying that “It was an extremely detailed log.” Initially, Claesson though the shipwreck was the vessel ‘Industry’ which sank in 1769, but it did not go down in the right location.

But the researcher was particularly struck by Moulton’s account of a ship called the ‘Defiance’ that ran aground in Cape Neddick Cove in the year 1769. Claesson is quoted by Newsbreak as saying that “Defiance fit every description.” The notary’s account shows that the sloop left Salem, Massachusetts, for Portland, Maine in 1769.

‘Pinks in the Breakers’ (1875-1885) by Hendrik Willem Mesdag. (Public Domain)

‘Pinks in the Breakers’ (1875-1885) by Hendrik Willem Mesdag. ( Public Domain )

The Defiance Hit the Rocks

The sloop had a crew of four and a cargo of foodstuffs, including flour and pork. It was caught up in a storm and struck some rocks at Cape Neddick. Claesson told members of the Maine Historical Society that the sailors “attempted to save it and bilged the ship. The crew survived, but they couldn’t save it,” reports Seacoastonline.com.

The research leader presented his findings to the Board of Selectmen in March. His report also presented suggestions as to how the site could be preserved for the local community. Claesson told Seacoastonline.com that, “I suggested a rapid-response team of local volunteers who could cordon the site and educate the public so that nobody climbs on it or takes anything.”

Protecting the Wreck

It is hoped that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the federal body responsible for disaster planning and mitigation in the United States, will help to protect the site. They could introduce pre-disaster mitigation efforts such as sand-bagging to protect the wreck. This is because another bad storm could damage or even destroy the vessel that has lain in the sands of the beach for 250 years.

More research is being undertaken by Claesson and his team. It is hoped that the full story of the wreck will become known. The research lead is encouraging people to contact him via email at [email protected] if they have any stories or pictures of the wreck from the periods when it was exposed on the beach.

Top image: This mysterious American shipwreck is only revealed in the sands following some storms. Source: York Maine Police Department

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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