Cannon found at Wilmington’s Riverfront likely from the early 1700s

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Assistant State Archaeologist Chris Southerly poses next to the cannon found along Wilmington's riverfront. Photo by Christina Haley.
Assistant State Archaeologist Chris Southerly beside the cannon found along Wilmington’s riverfront. Southerly examined the cannon Wednesday morning and dated it to the 18th century. Photo by Christina Haley.

A cannon uncovered by construction crews along Wilmington’s Riverfront is likely from the 18th century.

The gun, size and style of the cannon found Tuesday afternoon in front of the Federal Courthouse building along Water Street pointed to a weapon made sometime between 1700 and 1750, according to Assistant State Archaeologist Chris Southerly with the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Office of State Archaeology.

“It actually looks to be in pretty good shape,” Southerly said after his examination of the cannon Wednesday morning. “In all likelihood, on face value, it’s probably an English gun, simply because we were a British colony or an English colony at the time,” Southerly said.

The cannon is cast iron, weighing about 700 to 800 pounds, Southerly said. While the cannon’s date is during a time when Wilmington was still a British colony – or maybe after it was incorporated as a city in 1739 – Southerly said the find is unusual because most of what’s been found in the immediate area usually dates to the Civil War period more than 100 years later.

“It’s been probably buried, maybe used as backfill or just an old cannon that was non-functional,” Southerly said. “More than likely it could have been off an armed vessel at the time. We have a lot of shipwrecks here in the vicinity, especially the Cape Fear River, that date from colonial times right on up to modern wrecks.”

Wilmington was still developing as a town and port in the early part of the 1700s. The cannon is from a “relatively early” time in the colony’s history, Southerly said, when Wilmington’s port was used for bringing in manufacturing and other goods to the colony. Maritime activity from ships and the naval stores industry at the time included pine, tar, and pitch, which were key to the colony’s shipbuilding industry.

Ships were armed, but merchant vessels were either lightly armed or not armed at all, Southerly said. The types of vessels that carried cannons in the time period would have been single-masted, or sometimes two- or three-masted, sailing vessels, anywhere from about 60 feet long to upwards of 120 feet long for some of the larger ships at the time.

“Piracy was kind of waning at that point, but there was still some activity going on at the time,” Southerly said. “Ships would have been typically carrying cargo…bringing  manufacturing goods from England to people here in the colonies. The colony itself would probably or may have had an armed vessel around at some point for defensive purposes but I would have to look at the details of the records to know if…the British navy would have provided the defense or patrol of the area.”

The cannon has been dated to be from the 18th Century, between the years 1700 and 1750. Photo by Christina Haley.
The cannon has been dated to be from the 18th Century, between the years 1700 and 1750. Photo by Christina Haley.

While the cannon is a singular find, Southerly said it’s possible other artifacts – such as the cannon’s carriage – could be unearthed as construction crews continue working. Southerly said he has spoken with the construction crew to keep watch for other artifacts that could be encountered as they work through the Riverfront Park development project. Other artifacts would add more value to the find, giving archaeologists additional clues to the cannon’s past.

Preservation of the cannon could take years, Southerly said, adding that the identification process could take less time. Archaeologists will look for maker’s marks or proofs marks that would help them solidify a nationality and narrow a time period. If no mark is found, other identification techniques could be used, such as taking a look at the reinforcing bands that are cast on the cannon and the flare of the muzzle.

“A lot of the guns that we pull up from the seawater take four or five years just to get the chlorides and salts from them so they can be safely dried out and a protective coating put on. This one being up on land in a wet environment…that helped to keep it in good shape,” Southerly said.

The cannon will be moved from the construction site Wednesday afternoon and taken to Fort Fisher for further examination, according to the City of Wilmington. City spokesman Dylan Lee said that while artifacts are sometimes found during construction projects downtown, he couldn’t recall a time when a cannon was discovered at a site.