The sandbars at the entrance to the Port Royal Sound are believed to have crippled dozens of ships carrying European explorers, British soldiers and Union navy personnel over centuries.
Now researchers are returning to Beaufort County to search for some of the elusive shipwrecks. An 18-month operation beginning this week will finish a sweep of the ocean floor. State archaeologists hope to find sites where historical records show about 40 ships went down, according to an announcement from the state Maritime Research Division.
At the top of the list might be Le Prince, a 16th century French corsair. The heavily armed galleon carrying 180 Frenchmen is believed to have sunk in the Port Royal Sound in 1577, not long after the Spanish founded the Santa Elena settlement on what is now Parris Island.
Archaeologists with the S.C. Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology Marine Research Division are leading the project after receiving a $214,500 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration.
The work will help historians better understand how ships moved through the area to conduct trade and during times of war. Identifying wreck sites will also help inform state and federal regulators making decisions like where to dredge for beach renourishment projects, NOAA says.
Underwater archaeologist James Spirek, who will lead the search, began searching for Le Prince in 1996. He had previously surveyed the Port Royal Sound from 2000 to 2004 and has said about 75 percent of the search area had been covered.
The process includes towing a magnetometer by boat over established grids to search for the iron and steel of shipwrecks. Archaeologists will also use sonar to search the ocean floor for exposed areas of the wrecks, the Marine Research Division said.
The work will be conducted over 100 days through early 2021.
Shoals of the Port Royal Sound extend about 7 miles into the ocean and have plagued ships for centuries.
In addition to Le Prince, researchers will also be looking for the British HMS Colibri that sank during the War of 1812 and the Marcia, part of the Union fleet used to block southern ports during the Civil War.
Finding Le Prince could help local historians better tell the story of Santa Elena, the Spanish settlement first occupied in 1566 that was central in the Spanish and French struggle for control of the New World. The Spanish were later driven away from the outpost by Native Americans, but they returned after Le Prince wrecked to erect another fort and eventually captured and executed most of the French survivors.