The original concept of an underwater survey of Pensacola Bay was expressed by the late G. Norman Simons, former curator of the Pensacola Historical (Society) Museum. For years, Simons carefully collected and collated records of ship losses, old charts and maps, reports of wreck sites, oral histories, and artifacts recovered by divers, to form a body of data which has served as a departure point for many researchers interested in the bay’s maritime history. Designation of the Gulf Islands National Seashore in 1971 led to an archaeological survey conducted by Florida State University of the Florida portions of the new park, primarily at the Naval Live Oaks Reservation, Santa Rosa Island, and the area around Ft. Barrancas. With local assistance of Simons and others, eight ship-related sites were recorded in shallow water and on land (Tesar 1973). Meanwhile, a brief offshore reconnaissance by the National Park Service was conducted with a magnetometer near Santa Rosa Island; however, upon underwater investigation divers encountered no cultural materials (Lenihan 1974).
Over a decade later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted a remote sensing survey of the Pensacola harbor channel and turning basin in front of the Navy Yard for the Navy Strategic Homeporting Project. The two-week survey in 1986 located 173 magnetic targets, of which 56 were associated with side-scan sonar images (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1986). Twelve were selected for additional investigation prior to dredging the port. The following year, a private firm, Tidewater Atlantic Research, was contracted to investigate the targets, but none were found to be significant. An unrelated shipwreck Convoy, previously thought by a local diver to be the Judah, was recorded (Tidewater Atlantic Research 1987).
In 1988, a local Milton resident, Warren Weeks, guided the state underwater archaeologist, Roger C. Smith, to the site of a well-preserved, two-masted coastal schooner abandoned in a back bayou of the Blackwater River. Almost a hundred feet in length, the submerged early 19th-century vessel was found to be intact from rails to the keel, with her pump and windlass still in place. In May of that year, Smith and Simons organized Pensacola’s first Conference on Maritime History and Marine Archaeology. The conference was jointly sponsored by the Florida Division of Historical Resources, the Pensacola Historical Society, the Historic Pensacola Preservation Board, and the University of West Florida. The conference brought together, for the first time, a network of amateur historians and archaeologists, recreational divers, commercial fishermen, and university and state employees, who began to focus on local maritime history and the potential for marine archaeology in Pensacola Bay. Concurrent with the conference was the opening of an exhibit of shipwreck artifacts from the Convoy at the Historical Museum.
As one of the sponsors of the conference, the University of West Florida acknowledged an interest in the potential significance of the area’s submerged cultural resources, but admittedly lacked the knowledge and expertise to pursue research and training in marine archaeology as it had with terrestrial archaeology. However, within months of the conference UWF archaeologists conducting a survey of Deadman’s Island for the City of Gulf Breeze encountered the remains of a small colonial ship eroding from the beach in shallow water. Dr. Judy Bense contacted Smith in Tallahassee to help conduct a preliminary investigation of the site with students and volunteers (Bense 1988). Smith was invited to join the university’s adjunct faculty, and together with Bense organized a class in marine archaeology, which was taught in the spring of 1989. The class included field investigations of a fishing smack buried under the sand at Perdido Key (Williamson 1991).
A university field school was organized in the summer of 1989 to excavate the Deadman’s Wreck with the co-sponsorship of the City of Gulf Breeze under the direc-tion of Smith, Robert Finegold and Marianne Franklin. Ten undergraduate students from several universities received classroom and field training at the shallow-water site. They discovered that the small British vessel had been in the process of careening, when she was found to be unseaworthy and was apparently abandoned (Smith 1990; Finegold 1990). A permanent exhibit with artifacts and interpretive materials was installed in the South Santa Rosa County Recreation Center at Gulf Breeze. Concurrent with the field school, a team of volunteers under the direction of David Baumer thoroughly documented the Blackwater schooner, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in Washington, D.C. the following year (Baumer 1990).
In the fall of 1989, a brief magnetometer survey and underwater investigation took place at the site of a proposed pier at the confluence of the Blackwater River and Pond Creek, near the site of the old Bagdad Saw Mill. Conducted by a private firm, Underwater Archaeological Consortium, in accordance with permit compliance requirements for the proposed construction, the investigation determined that no significant resources would be impacted by the new pier (James 1989). Early in the following year, during dredging operations to deepen the entrance channel to Pensacola Bay for the Strategic Homeporting Project, a bronze artillery piece became lodged in the pump of the dredge Carolina. A concerned crew member released the news to local media, prompting temporary relocation of dredging activities. A visit to the dredge by Corps of Engineers archaeologist, Dorothy Gibbens, and state underwater archaeologist Smith concluded that the piece was an eighteenth-century howitzer, and that additional materials, such as a broken anchor and several broken ship’s timbers, had also been impacted by the dredge. The State Historic Preservation Office requested that the area be resurveyed to locate the source of the materials, which appeared to represent a shipwreck. A brief visual and magnetic search, under Corps supervision at the location provided by the dredging contractor, failed to locate any historic materials (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1990).
Additional dredging of the bay in 1990 during the construction of a new pier to accommodate a larger aircraft carrier at the Navy Yard encountered a massive submerged object. The dredge operator, after pulling up several copper-sheathed timbers, personally dived on the site, and with the assistance of navy divers determined that it was over 120 ft in length and 50 ft in width. Again, the State Historic Preservation Office requested that dredging cease until an archaeological determination of the object’s identity and significance was obtained. Panamerican Consultants, Inc., was contracted to assess the submerged structure, which was partially excavated to reveal a large wooden container filled with stone, clay, and sand. Concurrent archival research in government records revealed details of a large caisson constructed and intentionally sunk by the Navy in the early 1830s. It was agreed that, after sufficient documentation and additional historical research, the structure could be removed, which occurred early in 1991. The project was completed after extensive recording of the caisson remains, collection and conservation of artifacts, and the construction of a scale model of the structure for public exhibit (Mistovich et al.1991).