18th Century British Warship Found In Dry Tortugas National Park

A National Park Service diver documents one of five coral-encrusted cannons found during a recent archaeological survey in Dry Tortugas National Park/NPS, Brett Seymour

It’s the stuff of a Patrick O’Brian novel: An 18th century British man-of-war wrecks on a reef on the other side of the world, its crew of 300 or so souls marooned on a deserted island for more than two months.

But it’s fact, not fiction, and the story has surfaced at Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida, where archaeologists have identified the remains of the HMS Tyger, a warship that ran aground on reefs in 1742. While the wreck had been spotted in 1993, recent discovery of cannons near the wreck site and additional research led to the definitive identification of the Tyger.

Built in 1647, the Fourth-Rate, 50-gun frigate sank in 1742 after it ran aground on the reefs of the Dry Tortugas while on patrol in the War of Jenkins Ear between Britain and Spain. 

Using leads from historical research, archaeologists from Dry Tortugas National Park, the Submerged Resources Center, and the Southeast Archeological Center surveyed the site in 2021 and found five cannons approximately 500 yards from the main wreck site. Buried in the margins of the old logbooks was a reference that described how the crew “lightened her forward” after initially running aground, briefly refloating the vessel and then sinking in shallow water.

Based on their size, features and location, the guns were determined to be British six and nine-pound cannons thrown overboard when HMS Tyger first ran aground. This discovery and reevaluation of the site led archaeologists to make a sound argument that the wreck first located in 1993 was in fact the remains of HMS Tyger. The findings were recently published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

“Archaeological finds are exciting, but connecting those finds to the historical record helps us tell the stories of the people that came before us and the events they experienced,” said Park Manager James Crutchfield. “This particular story is one of perseverance and survival. National parks help to protect these untold stories as they come to light.”

After HMS Tyger wrecked, the approximately 300 members of the crew endured 66 days marooned on what is today Garden Key. They erected the first fortifications on the island, more than 100 years before Fort Jefferson, which now dominates the island and is the principal cultural resource within the park.

The stranded survivors battled heat, mosquitoes, and thirst while attempting to escape the deserted island. They built vessels from salvaged pieces of the wrecked HMS Tyger and made several attempts to seek help, gather additional supplies and locate Spanish naval vessels in the area. After a failed attack on a Spanish vessel, the surviving crew burned the remains of Tyger to ensure its guns did not fall into enemy hands and used their makeshift vessels to make a 700-mile (1,125 km) escape through enemy waters to Port Royal, Jamaica.

While the site is routinely monitored and currently protected under cultural resource laws applicable to other sites within Dry Tortugas National Park, positive identification of HMS Tyger as a British naval vessel offers additional protection under the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004. The remains of HMS Tyger and its related artifacts are the sovereign property of the British Government in accordance with international treaty.

A similar warship, HMS Fowey, was lost in what is now Biscayne National Park in 1748 and is currently managed under a Memorandum of Agreement between the United States and the British Royal Navy.

“This discovery highlights the importance of preservation in place as future generations of archaeologists, armed with more advanced technologies and research tools, are able to reexamine sites and make new discoveries,” said Josh Marano, the maritime archaeologist who led the team that made the discovery.

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