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By Mike Toner

More than a dozen shipwrecks—relics of bygone centuries—have been discovered in the Great Lakes in the last two years. Each discovery lifts the hopes of researchers seeking to learn more about the schooners, side wheelers, and ore carriers that once plied America’s inland sea. But the pace of discovery is also raising new concerns about protecting the history the vessels have preserved. 

Since 1679, when French explorer and fur trader René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle first set sail on Lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan in his wooden barque Le Griffon, more than 6,000 ships and an estimated 30,000 lives have been lost on the five fresh water lakes that straddle the U.S.-Canada border. No estimate can be made for the number of Native American crafts lost in the lakes. Many wrecks may never be found. But the flurry of recent discoveries offers some stunning glimpses of what the frigid waters of the Great Lakes have preserved. 

Underwater photo of the stern end of a sailing ship encased in mussels.

Mussels coat the stern of cargo steamer Africa, discovered by documentary filmmakers in 2023.
Photo Credit: Zack Melnick / Inspired Planet Productions

New technology, from side-scanning sonar which relies on acoustical pulses to detect underwater objects, to remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that can “see” even in the dim light of deep water, is making it possible to find and study vessels once thought to be lost forever. Whether powered by sail or steam, whether lost in shallow waters close to shore or in the lakes’ deepest trenches, each wreck holds unique insights into a time when waterborne traffic was as vital to the growth of the United States as travel by land. For more than three centuries, the Great Lakes and the waterways connecting them were highways of commerce for trading, trapping, lumbering, mining, fishing and westward migration. 

Today, changes in climate, looting, failure to report discoveries, and invasive species of mussels challenge and strain preservation efforts. 

This is an excerpt of the Threatened Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes article in American Archaeology, Spring 2024 | Vol. 28 No. 1. Subscribe to read the full text.