Shipwrecks are notoriously hard to find. Archaeological evidence of many historic wrecks is simply nonexistent (a surprising number were completely salvaged). But archival evidence is another matter–many wrecks can only be found in dusty archives. Let me explain.
Along the American coast, few wrecks ever disappeared. Long before the internet, the telephone, or the telegraph, news of most shipwrecks, printed and reprinted in the “Shipping News” columns of port city newspapers, travelled up and down the coast with remarkable speed (future “Source of the Week” post!). Even more, the shipwrecked crew and/or coastal residents typically salvaged at least part of most coastal wrecks. Tall tales of nefarious “wreckers” aside, this salvaged material usually found its way back into the “stream of commerce.” Undamaged goods made their way to final destinations while damaged goods were typically sold at public auction. Advertisements for these auctions, like the one above, are oftentimes the only evidence we have of many shipwrecks, especially before the 1870s when the federal government began to systematically tabulate them.
This ad, published by New York City’s The Diary on April 21, 1792, announces the sale of cargo salvaged from the brig William. It is the only evidence I have been able to find about this wreck, but it tells us much about the William, Squan Beach, and shipwreck and salvage during the early Republic. Like other auction ads, it’s a great place to start any shipwreck research.