Early 1800’s Dagger-board Schooner Three Brothers Discovered in Lake Ontario


A rare dagger–board schooner, Three Brothers, has been discovered in deep water off Oswego, New York by a team of shipwreck enthusiasts. Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski, and Roland Stevens located the schooner in early July utilizing high resolution side scan sonar equipment.  The schooner was enroute from Pultneyville to Oswego, NY with a cargo of produce when it sank in a gale in 1833.  The Three Brothers is the first fully working dagger-board schooner ever found and is believed to be the oldest confirmed commercial schooner to have been discovered in the Great Lakes.  Dagger-board schooners were in use on the lakes from the early 1800’s until the 1830’s. 

Lost in a gale on Lake Ontario

On the morning of November 12, 1833, the schooner Three Brothers sailed from Pultneyville to Oswego, NY with a cargo of apples, cider and 700 bushels of wheat.  Unfortunately the schooner failed to arrive at Oswego. People theorized that the Three Brothers foundered in the severe gale that blew that day. Within a few days the ship’s tiller, a barrel of apples, and the captain’s hat were found just east of Oswego near 9 Mile Point.

Schooner Three Brothers built on Galloo Island in 1827

Galloo Island is located a few miles from the northeastern end of Lake Ontario near the St Lawrence River.  Several schooners and scows were built on Galloo, including the schooner Three Brothers built by Whitford Gill in 1827.  Gill was the first long-term resident to settle on Galloo.  He purchased land at the foot of the island in 1815 and in 1822 brought his family to live there, where he tended two orchards and operated a sawmill.   In addition to the Three Brothers, Gill built two other schooners, Old Taylor and Galloo.

Persons lost on the Three Brothers

John Stevenson (Captain) of Willliamson, NY

Cephas Field (crew member) of Sodus, NY

William Bastian (crew member) of Mexico, NY

Amos Gloyed (passenger) of French Creek, NY

A plaque in the center of Pultneyville, NY, dedicated to the memory of lake captains of Pultneyville, lists Captain John Stevenson of the Three Brothers - 1833. 

 Pultneyville merchants - owners of the schooner Three Brothers

The schooner Three Brothers was owned by Asahel and Bethel Todd of Pultneyville and Captain Stevenson of Williamson, NY.

The Discovery

In early July our shipwreck search team surveyed a deep area of the lake west of Oswego, NY utilizing high resolution Deepvision side scan sonar. The discovery of the schooner came as a complete surprise since this was not one of the shipwrecks thought to be in this area.   It took another 6 weeks of research and collaboration with shipwreck historians to provide enough details to identify this schooner as the Three Brothers.  In early August we returned to the schooner to obtain more data.  Video surveys were conducted using a VideoRay Pro IV underwater remote operated vehicle.

Surveying the Shipwreck

At the time we first deployed the remote operated vehicle (ROV) the lake was calm and the sun was directly overhead.  This created nearly perfect conditions as natural light illuminated the shipwreck so that the entire wreck was captured in the video image.  Almost immediately we saw that this shipwreck was very special.  The sight of a large single dagger-board appeared protruding up from the center of the shipwreck.  Dagger-board schooners were only in use on the Great Lakes for a short period of time in the early 1800’s.  Very little was known about their construction or the various methodologies utilized for deploying and retrieving the dagger-board. The dagger-board on this shipwreck measures 12 feet in length and protrudes 4 feet above the deck.  The overall length of the shipwreck is approximately 45 feet with a width of 13 feet.   There are two large holds on either side of the dagger-board.  On the second dive the ROV descended into each hold to look for any remaining cargo.  They both appeared empty except for a layer of sediment and the top of a barrel. The schooner does not have a raised cabin but only a companionway that leads to a small area below deck near the stern of the ship.  Scattered remains of boards and pottery can be seen in this area.   The masts had been torn from the ship when it sank and lay nearby along with some of the decking that was also pulled away.   A single anchor remains fastened in place next to the windless.  There are many holes in the deck caused by the rotting away of the wood, possibly pine.   The ship was steered by a tiller which is missing.  Upon impact the rudder was dislodged from the stern and much of it is buried into the lake bottom.

Photogrammetry Dagger-Board Schooner

Dagger-Board Schooner

The early 1800’s dagger-board schooners were shallow draft ships with one or more wood panels that could be extended through the keel to increase its effectiveness while under way in the open water.  The sole purpose of dagger-boards was to prevent the schooner from being pushed sideways when sailing windward or with the wind coming from one side (abeam) of the vessel.  The dagger-board on the schooner Three Brothers was a panel of wood 2 inches thick with a width of 12 feet surrounded by a narrow watertight enclosure.   The dagger-board would be pushed squarely down though the bottom of the vessel to increase her draught while sailing and hauled up by separate tackles at either end.  The ability to raise the dagger-boards when entering a shallow harbor was a great advantage.  The boat could load and unload personnel and cargo in all sorts of locations that were not otherwise accessible with a larger sailing craft.  The term “dagger-board” was also referred to as drop-keel, slip-keel, sliding-keel, barn-door, or center-plate.   In 2008, Jim Kennard with shipwreck team partner Dan Scoville found the derelict remains of a dagger-board schooner in the western area of Lake Ontario that had been decommissioned and stripped of its masts and cabin. 

Historic Shipwrecks in New York State waters

Historic shipwrecks abandoned and embedded in New York State underwater lands belong to the people of the State of New York and are protected by state and federal law from unauthorized disturbance.

Historic Shipwrecks of Lake Ontario Project

The survey of historic shipwrecks in Lake Ontario was funded by a grant from The National Museum of the Great Lakes/Great Lakes Historical Society of Toledo, Ohio.

Shipwreck Discovery Team

Jim Kennard has been diving and exploring the lakes in the northeast since 1970. He has found over 200 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, NY Finger Lakes and in the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers over the past 40 years. In 1983 he discovered a unique horse powered ferryboat in Lake Champlain.  National Geographic featured the ferryboat in their October 1989 issue.  In May 2008 Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville discovered the 234 year old British warship HMS Ontario, the oldest shipwreck ever found in the Great Lakes.   Kennard is a Fellow member of The Explorers Club.

Roger Pawlowski has been diving on shipwrecks in the northeast and Florida for the past 14 years.  He is a retired Air Force Reserve pilot and flew missions in Desert Storm.  In 1980 while flying a practice mission over Lake Ontario he witnessed a small aircraft plunge into the lake.  His details of the incident and location helped Kennard locate the aircraft which was several miles from shore and in over 100 feet underwater.  Pawlowski is an electrical engineer and runs his own engineering consulting business.

Roland ‘Chip’ Stevens is a retired architect and working artist whose watercolors, many of which have been accepted into national exhibitions, are well known in the Rochester area.  A sailor for over 60 years, Stevens has a love of the sea as reflected in his seascapes.  A number of his paintings of shipwrecks discovered by the team have appeared in news stories and publications.  Based on the ROV video recording and side scan sonar imaging, Stevens created a watercolor painting of the dagger-board schooner as it appears today on the bottom of Lake Ontario.




anonymous by Richard Weiss on 9/10/2014
Hi Jim,
Congratulations on yet another great find.
Best regards to you Marilyn and family.
anonymous by Linda Gill on 11/17/2014
Whitford Gill was born 5 July 1769. His parents were natives of Exeter RI but removed to Springfield VT by 1770 as did many colonials during the British Navy blockade of RI. Whitford's grandfather was a son of John Gill, a mariner from Kent England who settled in Boston, MA, (1611-1671). JG had a wharf and built a seawall in Boston Harbor. There is a lovely carved headstone in Copp's Hill burying ground in Boston still today. (Many family histories have confounded his identity with JG of Salisbury MA and also JG of Milton MA, who were farmers, and of no relation). Whitford Gill came to Jefferson County NY with his two brothers, Amos and Maj. John Gill in 1810. During the war of 1812, the Gill brothers contracted to build warships for the US, one of which was burnt before it was launched. Whitford petitioned Congress for restitution but the claim was denied. His brother John was a casualty of that war on 18 Aug. 1812. Whitford is my g-g-g grandfather.
Thank you for the info on your g-g-g grandfather I would like to get more details on Whitford. Please contact me directly: kennard@shipwreckworld.com

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