Captain Cook’s Famous Ships
Search for Captain Cook’s famous ships the Endeavor and Resolution at Newport, Rhode Island. November, 1985.
On April 27, 1781, a force of British soldiers covertly positioned themselves on a rise overlooking a bend in the James River and attacked a fleet of Virginia Navy ships. They were led by Benedict Arnold after he deserted the American cause and threw his lot with the English. The attack was a complete surprise and all nine American warships were either captured or burned.
While on book tour in New Zealand I wandered into a marine museum near the Bay of Islands. Their main exhibit was a giant model of the ship that carried Captain Cook on his first round the world voyage of discovery, the Endeavor. On one wall was a plaque describing the ship, her service, and her final disposition as a derelict in Newport harbor, Rhode Island in the late 1770s.
The fact that her bones lay in the U.S. was more than enough to send me on a research probe.
She was built in 1764 as a cat-built bark and originally named the Earl of Pembroke. In 1768 the ship was purchased by the Admiralty for scientific research to make astronomical observations and chart then unknown regions of the Pacific. Upon completion of Cook’s epic voyage, the Endeavor was refitted and carried naval stores to several destinations including the Falklands.
In 1790 she was purchased by an American, a Captain William Mather, to carry whale oil for the firm of Gibbs & Channing and rechristened the La Liberte. A cargo of barreled oil was taken on board and she sailed for Newport, Rhode Island where she arrived safely and lay alongside the wharves for several months before receiving a cargo. Loaded at last, she ran aground on leaving the harbor. Refloated, she returned to dock where she was surveyed and found not worth repairing, her old timbers severely rotted and sprung.
She was sold to Captain John Cahoone, who was building a packet called the Concord. He salvaged what materials he could from the Endeavor’s upper works and used them on the packet under construction.
For many years the Endeavor’s lower hull lay in view until the gale of 1815 when what was left of her above the silt was badly battered, reportedly on Cahoone’s shore at the south end of the town. Sometime in the early 1820s the rotting hulk was pointed out by Mr. Gibbs to John Gilpin, the British consul. Gilpin then certified the wreck and removed pieces of it which he sent to England. What was left of the wreck was soon torn apart by souvenir hunters who made canes, snuff boxes and other knick knacks out of the timbers.
The remains of the lower hull and keel were then covered over by silt and the famous ship was soon forgotten, her final resting place lost in the past.
Some historians think the ship disintegrated at Gibb’s lower wharf where she was surveyed after the grounding. This prospect is entirely possible as it was Gibbs who pointed out the wreck to Gilpin. However, this was a busy docking area and it seems more logical for Cahoone to have towed the derelict down to his dock so his carpenters could remove whatever they needed and transfer to the new packet on the spot rather than haul it almost a mile from the Gibbs wharf. Gibb’s wharf, by the way, was located slightly to the north of Mary Street.
Petersen’s History of Rhode Island (1853) also puts the wreck on “Cahoone’s shore”.
Now our search turned to Cahoone’s beach. This was a tough nut to crack. All we knew in the beginning from the Newport Historical Society was that Cahoone’s beach was at the south end of Thames Street before the turn toward what is now King’s Beach.
There were no records of Cahoone’s property, but the breakthrough came when it was discovered that Captain Cahoone sold his waterfront beach and wharf to a Captain Waite, whose name is depicted on any number of later maps of Newport.
An on site search by a NUMA team traced the alley that was Waites Wharf. The area has been heavily filled in and is now a large parking area surrounded by a small restaurant and fish market on the west end, a slip for the excursion boat SS Newport on the north, old buildings to the east, and apartments and condominiums on the south.
I’m the first to admit it’s a wild guess and a long shot, but there is a remote chance the few remains of the Endeavor lie beneath this parking lot.
It must also be noted that there are some historians, mostly Australian, who suggest that Captain Cook’s other ship, the Resolution, is the one that came and died in Newport in 1793. Who can say with any certainty?
Are a few bits and pieces of the Endeavor buried under silt and landfill somewhere around Gibb’s & Channing’s old lower wharf, or is she truly under the parking lot over what was once Cahoone’s beach? Is it indeed the Endeavor or Cook’s equally famous ship, the Resolution?
Perhaps someday, someone will find a clue hidden away in an archive and an excavation can be launched with fair hope of success.