The Enduring Mystery of the HMS Speedy

Lost Ship of the Month
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The Lost Ship of the Month for December is the legendary British gunboat HMS Speedy, lost with all hands in 1804 on Lake Ontario.  The Speedy is one of the earliest lost ships still missing on the Great Lakes and played a significant role in Canadian history.  Despite this, she is little known, particularly to those on the western Great Lakes.  Although her discovery has been announced in the media on more than one occasion, the claims have never been proven and she remains missing.

The HMS Speedy was built in 1798 at present-day Kingston, Ontario for the Provincial Marine in the recently created British colony of Upper Canada.  She was one of two vessels (the other being HMS Swift) rushed into production in response to a perceived threat from the recently minted United States and was reportedly constructed with improperly seasoned wood, leading to premature issues with hull rot.  She was designed to be used as a small gunboat and carried four cannons, but in fact was mostly used to ferry supplies and officials to the pioneer settlements around Lake Ontario.  She was built as a two-masted schooner of 55 feet with a 20 foot bowsprit and a raised stern gallery with cabins below.  Speedy reportedly developed issues with dry rot almost immediately and had constant issues with leaking.

The Speedy’s last voyage has gained considerable fame not only because she is still missing, but due to the passengers she carried.  A key passenger was the Ojibwa Indian Ogetonicut, who was being transported to the newly designated town of Newcastle (on the present-day Presqu’ile peninsula) to stand trial for the murder of a white man.  The man had killed Ogetonicut’s brother the year before and the authorities has failed to exact any justice, causing Ogetonicut to take matters into his own hands.  The trial was seen as an important case for the rights of native peoples and many dignitaries were on board, including Judge Thomas Cochran, Solicitor General Robert Isaac De Gray, Angus MacDonell, a member of the House of Assembly and several other notable government officials.  Two children of indigent parents were also on board along with servants, and four crew, bringing the total to 18 souls. 

The vessel was under the command of Captain Thomas Paxton, a lieutenant in the Provincial Marine and left from Queen’s Quay at present-day Toronto on Sunday, October 7th, 1804 at 4PM.  The vessel left under duress, as Paxton had expressed concerns that the Speedy was not seaworthy.  Paxton was subsequently ordered to set sail by Lieutenant Governor Hunter under penalty of court martial, as Hunter was eager to conclude the trial, ostensibly to discourage further native violence.  Ominously, the Speedy ran aground due to her heavy passenger load while exiting the harbor causing a few hours delay.  She then continued on to Port Oshawa where she was to pick up several witnesses for the trial, but two witnesses, the Farwell brothers, refused to board the leaking, overloaded vessel, choosing instead to go themselves by canoe. 

During the afternoon and evening of October 8th, a blizzard came out of the northeast, bringing strong winds and heavy snow.  At dusk on October 8th the Speedy was sighted off Presqu’ile where she fired one of her cannons to signal trouble.  Bonfires were lit on shore in an attempt to guide her in, but she was lost from sight, never to be seen again. 

An investigation was launched and Presqu’ile Bay was searched to no avail.  A few weeks later, debris including a topmast, a binnacle seat with a lantern bearing the name “Paxton”, a hen coop and a life boat were found off the south shore of Lake Ontario near Oak Orchard.  Historical accounts later claimed incorrectly that this debris had washed up on Weller’s Beach, which is on the northeast shore of Prequ’ile Bay.  Most historians agree that it would not have been possible for debris from the ship to end up on the northeast end of the bay during a northeast gale that verifiably blew most of the debris to the southwest.  People of the day concluded, based on the debris at Oak Orchard, that the Speedy had failed to make her turn to the west and ran upon the nearby Devil’s Nose reef at present-day Hamlin Beach State Park.  This area however, was examined and no wreck debris was found.

The Speedy’s loss was felt deeply by the early communities of Upper Canada, having lost so many prominent figures.  The main effect was that the newly platted town of Newcastle on the Presqu’ile peninsula was largely abandoned, being deemed an inconvenient location for an administrative center. 

It is notable that despite the early era in which loss occurred, a substantial amount of documentation exists, both of the vessel and the loss.  Newspaper accounts and a great deal of preserved period correspondence and papers provide a surprising level of detail into the fate of the Speedy.

So where is the HMS Speedy?  There are essentially two theories respecting her loss and final location.  The first theory was first put forth by marine historian and author CHJ Snider in his “Schooner Days” column for the Toronto Telegram in 1949.  Snider, known for his colorful interpretations of historical events, posited that the Speedy, while attempting the port tack into Presqu’ile Bay, lost her bearing, ostensibly due to the magnetic deviation caused by the mysterious “Sophiasburgh Triangle,” an area wildly exaggerated to have claimed “hundreds” of ships.  In the blinding snowstorm, she blundered onto a rocky pinnacle, rising 100 feet from the Lake bottom, dubbed by Snider, the “Devil’s Horseblock.” 

The other theory is that of author Brendan O’Brien, author of the 1992 book “Speedy Justice,” which provides an in-depth review of the loss using detailed archival sources.  O’Brien, not surprisingly, put substantial credence in the debris which washed ashore at Oak Orchard.  He believed that Captain Paxton, unable to make the port tack into the bay, was instead forced to come about and run before the northeast storm.  He theorizes that Paxton would have eventually needed to turn eastward in order to avoid coming up on the south shore of the Lake, and that during this turn, the vessel fell into the trough of the seas and capsized, going quickly to the bottom.

Snider’s theory was largely accepted for the latter half of the 20th century and was put forth by most local histories and documentaries.  This theory eventually led Belleville, Ontario treasure hunter Ed Burtt to believe that a wrecksite he found off Dobb’s Bank in Presqu’ile Bay in April of 1990 was the Speedy.  Burtt reported that the hull was 60 feet in length with two toppled masts and that he found 8 pound cannonballs and cannons, a manacle with an attached moccasin, a pair of spectacles, as well as a 1733 coin and a bell bearing the letter ‘S’ near the site.  Despite numerous articles and talks on the find, Burtt’s claim never gained traction within the archeological community.  This was partially due to Burtt’s insistence on raising the wreck, plans to monetize the find by suggesting he could make an admiralty claim to gain partial ownership, and his reluctance to allow archeologists to verify the alleged artifacts. 

Historians also began to poke holes in the claim based on Burtt’s belief that the Speedy struck the Devil’s Horseblock.  Old accounts of this pinnacle rising from 100 feet of water to within inches of the surface were discredited because that depth of water doesn’t exist anywhere in the area of Dobb’s Bank, and the existence of such a pinnacle has been disproven by modern bathymetric surveys.  Burtt explained this away by stating that the Speedy knocked the pinnacle over when it struck.  Archeologists were also quick to point out that the wreck, initially reported in 100 feet of water, was actually much shallower, precluding the state of preservation the 1804 remains were allegedly in. However, the main reason Burtt’s claim has been widely discredited is that convincing evidence of the cannons, cannonballs, bell and coin were never produced, despite ample opportunity.  Most archeologists have consequently, dismissed the claim and there has been little interest in pursuing it. 

Burtt died in 2017, but reportedly shared his coordinates for the site with Oshawa diver Jim Van Loosen.  In the ensuing years, no news on the site has been forthcoming, and although most modern historians have long since discounted Burtt’s claim, it would be interesting to learn what Burtt found, as it reportedly consists of scattered debris from an early vessel.

Most historians currently support O’Brien’s theory that the Speedy was unable to make the port tack into the harbor and instead turned south and ran before the storm.  This theory is supported by the significant debris that was found just off Oak Orchard on the south shore of the Lake.  The location of this debris is consistent with the known direction of the storm from the northeast.  O’Brien also rightly points out that the debris, consisting of the vessel's boat, topmast, chicken coop, binnacle and rigging were all items that would be associated with a foundering in deep water, as opposed to a vessel striking bottom and breaking up.  O’Brien further posits that the debris was found floating in a group, suggesting that the ship had foundered relatively nearby.  Had the debris drifted south from the Presqu’ile area, it would likely have been more widely disbursed.  Finally, no fishermen have ever reported snagging a wreck off the area and divers have not found her, suggesting that the ship lies in deeper water.

As such, O'Brien believed that the HMS Speedy lay in deep water, somewhere northeast of Oak Orchard on a line with Presqu’ile.  The likely search grid for the Speedy is large, but no larger than that of the legendary 1780 vessel, HMS Ontario, which was located after an extensive search by Rochester area wreckhunters, Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville.  Whether the Speedy lies closer the Presqu’ile or closer to the US shore, she almost certainly lies along the line shown on the attached bathymetric chart.

If the HMS Speedy is found, she will automatically become property of the British Navy, as military vessels are never abandoned.  An admiralty claim by the finder is consequently, not possible.  Still, the Speedy would be one of the more important finds in recent history and would be of tremendous interest to historians of Canada.  To date, she has not been seriously searched for due to the size of the likely search grid.

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