In October 1774, Peggy Stewart, a Maryland cargo vessel, was burned by colonists in retaliation to Britain’s boycott on tea imports. The story begins in February 1770 with the arrival of the brig Good Intent to Annapolis from London. At this time, colonists were boycotting the current Britain tax of the Townshead Acts. The custom collector in Annapolis did not allow the goods to be taken ashore until the taxes were paid; the colonists refused to the pay the taxes on any goods. The merchants in stubborn refusal sent Good Intent back to London. Because of ships like Good Intent refusing to remove their merchandise, Britain repelled taxes on everything, except tea.

During the summer of 1774, Peggy Stewart left London loaded with 2,320 pounds of tea disguised as linen. When Peggy Stewart arrived in Annapolis on 14 October 1774, the owners were notified of the need to pay taxes on the tea. The colonists again refused to pay the taxes, yet feared a repeat of what happened with Good Intent. After public meetings were held over the future of Peggy Stewart, the colonists elected to burn the ship. On 19 October 1774, Peggy Stewart was moved to an open spot and burned to the waterline. This event became known as the “Annapolis Tea Party,” and cemented the history of Peggy Stewart as an important event in the American Revolution.


The burning of Peggy Stewart (Francis Blackwell Mayer 1896)

The remains of the wreck laid where it was burned, until it was discovered by the U.S. Navy. It now lays on the reclaimed land below Luce Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. The story of Peggy Stewart shows the one of the many ways shipwrecks are caused and how each individual wreck has its own story.

What is Underwater Archaeology?

Underwater archaeology is simply archaeology conducted under any body of water. It includes various types of sites, from shipwrecks like Peggy Stewart and other vehicles to sunken cities and submerged landscapes of our past. It is linked closely with maritime archaeology, which focuses specifically on human interaction with the sea, lakes and rivers through the study of associated physical remains found in and around bodies of water.

The field began in the 1950s when George Bass started excavations on a Mediterranean merchant ship found off Cape Gelidonya in Turkey. Although such underwater sites had previously been excavated, Bass was the first to take terrestrial excavation techniques underwater. The entirety of the wreck was mapped in accurately to one another and the excavations followed the typical standards of stratification and extensive care.

After Bass’ work in the Mediterranean and the development of better technology for finding submerged sites, the field took off in the 1980s. The finding of R.M.S. Titanic sparked more interest in the field. Discovered in 1985 off the coast of Canada, Titanic enchanted the public across the world to understand what cultural remains lay beneath the water. This interest had been furthered by the major treasure hunting expeditions that led to the discovery of Spanish treasure ships, like Atocha in the Florida Keys. The mix of legitimate archaeological excavations and incredible treasure hunting finds brought shipwrecks into the public eye and expanded the discipline of underwater archaeology.

Bow of R.M.S. Titanic with lights cast by James Cameron submersible, 2001 (Walden Media 2001).

Bow of R.M.S. Titanic with lights cast by James Cameron submersible, 2001 (Walden Media 2001).

Since the 1980s, underwater archaeology has exploded and developed new technologies to find more sites throughout the world, including in the Chesapeake Bay region like Peggy Stewart. Everything from pirate ships to World War II submarines to full cites and battle lands have been found, explored, and occasionally excavated to understand how they ended up on the seafloor, and what these sites can tell us about that period of history.

Water has always been a major source of transportation and life throughout human history. Cities initially sprang up on waterways and seas. Trade was conducted across it and migration required it to get to unknown places. The sea always brought adventure and occasionally brought tragedy and devastation to those who did not make it to their destination. This is why we study the remains left underwater—to understand why our ancestors traveled across the ocean, what happened while they were on it, and what their adventures and tragedies means for us today.


Written by: Allyson Ropp

Allyson Ropp is a Master’s student at East Carolina University in the Program in Maritime Studies, learning to become a maritime archaeologist. She is currently finishing her thesis and beginning her job search in the archaeological field.

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