Maritime Heritage Sanctuary

CSS Virginia and USS Monitor

The Watermen’s Museum, working with local businesses, civic groups, and local, state and federal government agencies has embarked on a program to seek designation of the York River’s underwater area containing Cornwallis’ Sunken Fleet as a national marine Maritime Heritage Sanctuary.

What is the purpose of this initiative?

The York River Maritime Heritage National Marine Sanctuary Initiative is a local community and state effort to request that a historic area of the York River be designated as a National Marine Sanctuary.

What is a National Marine Sanctuary?

National Marine Sanctuaries are places of inspiration.  Sanctuaries are special areas within estuarine, coastal, ocean and Great Lakes waters that are designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for resource protection and management, research and education.  These sites must contain unique ecological, cultural, aesthetic, or recreational resources of national significance.  
Within their waters and along their shores, you can find vibrant tapestries of marine life, ancient mysteries of our past, and thriving communities of men and women who have relied on the sea for generations. Sanctuaries are places where anyone can go to experience the power and beauty of the ocean and form lasting memories in spectacular natural settings, from the vibrant coral reefs of American Samoa to the underwater burial ground for the USS Monitor. These underwater treasures are sources of national pride, and when we take care of them, we are protecting part of what makes America great.

What are marine resources and why must they be protected?

Healthy oceans and their coastal areas are the basis for thriving recreation, tourism and commercial activities that drive coastal economies, and the sanctuaries work with diverse partners and stakeholders to promote responsible, sustainable ocean uses that ensure the health of our most valued ocean places. Through visitor centers and collaborations with aquariums and museums, sanctuaries also serve as focal points for local engagement and economic development in communities across America.  The term “marine resources” can include natural resources like protected and threatened aquatic species, and underwater habitats; and historic and cultural resources, like shipwrecks, archaeological sites, and resources of cultural significance to native communities. Unique and special marine resources may be threatened by storms and erosion, pollution, environmental and human-induced changes, and other factors. Sanctuary designation can also provide support to other organizations to promote protection, study, education and enjoyment of the resources.

Serving Our Communities
Sanctuaries are supported by a network of dedicated and diverse people working to protect our ocean treasures. Across the nation, thousands of volunteers make sanctuary science and education programs possible, community advisory groups provide input, and non-profit partners build support for effective ocean management.

Exploring Our World
Sanctuary scientists and their partners work to understand and predict natural and human-caused changes throughout the sanctuary system. From environmental monitoring to habitat mapping to socioeconomic research, science and exploration are essential to the effective management of our special underwater places.

Teaching Our Youth
Challenges facing the ocean today cross national and ethnic boundaries, and marine sanctuaries serve as places where people can find common ground and discuss solutions. Sanctuary education and outreach efforts link communities through innovative programs and help spread awareness of the ocean’s connection to all life.

Preserving Our Heritage
Understanding our country’s maritime landscape helps Americans become stewards of our shared history and culture, including exploration, immigration, and harvesting the ocean’s bounty. Prehistoric sites, shipwrecks, naval battlefields and other resources protected by sanctuaries are there for us to explore, discover and appreciate.  It is our duty as citizens to protect these sites for future generations.

Why is a York River Maritime Heritage National Marine Sanctuary being considered at this time?

After twenty years, the process for adding new sanctuaries to the national system is open for nominations from the public, state and federal agencies, non-governmental organizations and tribes. York River waters contain significant marine resources, including historic British shipwrecks sunk during the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War. A sanctuary would provide opportunities for research, education, and conservation to protect these resources while providing additional economic opportunities.

Cornwallis’ Point of View (from an interview with John Broadwater, Underwater Archaeologist)
“Let’s try Cornwallis’ point of view. He’s there on the bluffs at Yorktown. It’s a beautiful, easily-defended harbor and yet now all of a sudden these very large French warships are challenging. They’re visible, I mean they’re sitting there literally within sight of Cornwallis and his troops.

Now he realizes that instead of having a safe encampment that can be defended against any possible attack from land, he’s got to defend his backdoor as well because his warships are very small. They’re no match at all for the large ships that the French brought in. The rest of his ships are transports, they’re not warships. So, he he’s got a second front now to where he’s being challenged actively. And he doesn’t realize yet that this huge siege that Washington is planning with the land troops is really in effect.

So, what he does is take some of his merchant ships and probably he would have chosen ones that had mostly been off loaded, where they’ve taken the supplies and cargo out, he lined them up in shallow water right along what’s now the public beach at Yorktown, and purposely sank them. He scuttled them and formed a line that was called “the sinking line” in one of the logbooks.

It was just a line of ships that were sunk basically end to end, and the idea was that these ships whose masts were still sticking out of the water and some the decks were just awash, so they could actually station troops on these ships’ decks, but it was going to be a very effective obstacle against any sort of amphibious landing by French troops.

So now he thinks he’s protected. But on the night of October 10th, the French and American forces have moved into the area and set up their initial cannon emplacements and they start firing on Cornwallis’ position. Interestingly for the naval aspects of this whole thing, the first targets were not Cornwallis’ troops who were still very actively digging in along the shore, but the ships out in the river.

And unfortunately for Cornwallis, one of the first causalities of the siege of Yorktown was his largest warship: the HMS Charon. The French were using a tactic that was fairly common, but very devious and not so nice. The French had little portable ovens that they could heat the cannon balls until they were red hot and firing those at a ship that’s covered with tar and rigging and sails, and are just bombs waiting to go off.

This was a very effective technique. Sure enough, they landed several of these red hot cannon balls on the Charon, and one dropped into the sail locker forward so the ship went up in flames. It was described by a local resident in Yorktown as a magnificent conflagration. It could’ve only been a really bad omen for Cornwallis and the troops.

On October 19th, the British formally lay down arms and that had such an impact back in England, the reverberations from the loss at Yorktown were so widespread that it basically ended the war. It was a couple more years before the formal Treaty of Paris was signed but Yorktown was, as you said, the last major battle of the Revolution.”

What are We Protecting (from an interview with John Broadwater, Underwater Archaeologist)

[Looking Back,] “Britain was the great sea power throughout the Atlantic and so they didn’t want any more ships falling into American hands, because they could immediately be put to good use both for transport and for warships. So he [Cornwallis] did scuttle ships at the very end before the surrender. Again, there are a lot of eyewitness accounts of these ships with just their masts and the spires sticking out of water all along the beach.

As archaeologists, we knew that this offered a great opportunity if the ships were still there. But if you read on past the battle of Yorktown you find out that one of the terms of the capitulation was that the British would give up all rights to the ships in Cornwallis’ fleet whether they were afloat or sunk. And the title to those ships would be transferred to the French in recognition of their key role in the battle.

Betsy at Watermans

The Betsy model on Display outside the Watermen’s Museum

So the French ended up with this dubious prize of mostly sunken ships. Believe it or not, they actually brought in a salvage team and salvaged and recovered and even put back into service at least one the ships that had been sunk. Because remember, most weren’t really seriously damaged, they just drilled holes in the bottom basically and sank them in place.

There have been some historical record reviews and underwater investigations on Cornwallis’ Sunken Fleet in the past.  Early records show that up to 40 vessels were sunk along the Gloucester and York County shorelines.  We know that some still exist, such as the Betsy, a collier that was investigated during the 1980s.”

Who is interested in pursuing a York River Maritime Heritage National Marine Sanctuary?

In 2015, a group of interested organizations and citizens led by the Watermen’s Museum formed a York River Maritime Heritage National Marine Sanctuary Nominating Committee to take advantage of the current opportunity for nominating new sanctuaries. The Committee is working with state and federal agencies, counties, non-governmental organizations and the public to generate support and participation for submitting a new sanctuary nomination. This is a local community-based process. Input from a wide range of interests will be sought as part of the nomination process.

What are the benefits of a York River Maritime Heritage National Marine Sanctuary?

Sanctuaries provide benefits by supporting:  1) resource protection, 2) education and outreach, 3) research and monitoring, 4) community engagement for conservation and preservation, and 5) economic development. If designated, a sanctuary would bring financial and technical resources from NOAA, thus benefiting the York River and local communities. For example, sanctuaries promote public educational outreach through community-based programs, and become attractions for visitors, thus increasing tourism revenue. Sanctuary sites may also lead to the development of new research facilities or visitor outreach centers among other partnerships that involve and support existing facilities within a community.

How does a sanctuary protect marine resources?

Sanctuaries use a variety of tools to protect natural and cultural resources. These may include regulations to protect significant marine resources, and educational programs that teach responsible behavior to prevent or eliminate harmful impacts to these resources. The National Marine Sanctuaries Act, along with existing state and local site-specific legislation and regulations, provide the legal framework for conserving heritage and natural resources of the area.

Aren’t other state, federal, local, and tribal agencies already doing this?

Other state, federal, or tribal agencies may have some overlapping regulations or management authorities aimed at protecting specific marine resources. A sanctuary works in concert with these to comprehensively conserve and manage special areas of the marine environment.  Coordination and cooperation among NOAA, tribal, and government agencies and non-governmental organizations are keys to successful sanctuary management.

How is a site added to the national marine sanctuary system?

Designation of a sanctuary is a two-step process. Developing a nomination with involvement from a wide variety of interests is the first step. The nomination must meet federally required criteria and have broad public support. A nomination that passes NOAA review is then added to the inventory of areas that NOAA can consider for sanctuary designation. The second step begins if NOAA decides to initiate the sanctuary designation process for the proposed area. This involves developing an environmental impact statement (EIS) and management plan for the site, after holding several public hearings.  It is important to note that the nomination and designation processes are separate.  If nominated, there is no guarantee that NOAA will proceed with the designation process.

Where would a York River Maritime Heritage Sanctuary be located?             

A sanctuary designation only applies to submerged (underwater) areas and resources. The Heritage Sanctuary will be managed as small isolated cones of ships or groups of ships all enclosed within a larger area collectively called the Maritime Heritage Sanctuary.The area being considered for nomination is the York River above and below the Coleman Bridge adjacent to York and Gloucester counties (see map). This area contains the remains of as many as 40 British ships sunk in 1781 during the Battle of Yorktown. There may also be shipwrecks from the Civil War and other time periods. Boundaries recommended in the nomination will depend on which areas meet the sanctuary nomination criteria and have broad public support.

Would private land be taken for a sanctuary?

NO. Only submerged water areas can be consider The submerged water areas in the York River being considered are owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and are permitted and licensed for resource use.

Would a Sanctuary restrict the rights or access of commercial fishermen?

NO. Commercial fishing has historically been and continues to be a pivotal industry, monetarily and culturally, throughout the Chesapeake Bay. The fishing industry is regulated by state and federal laws to ensure licensed fishermen have access to fish and shellfish and that the  limited resources within the Bay are not over fished or otherwise eradicated.  It requires a very delicate balance between the fishing industry and state and federal agencies and advisory groups to meet the needs of regional and national customers, sustain viable fishery areas for generations to come, ensure today’s commercial fishermen can earn a viable income, and practice and teach conservation, ecology, and stewardship of the waterways to be treated with equal importance. The Sanctuary will provide precise locations for ships, opening up the current historical areas for fishing and aquaculture use on a grander scale, since VMRC will be better able to grant licenses that are not directly of a shipwreck.

Are local or state funds or taxes required to support a sanctuary?

NO. Once designated, the costs for operating a sanctuary are paid for by NOAA. Sanctuary staff is paid via federal source NOAA also develops partnerships with other organizations to conduct resource protection, education, and research programs.

Will a sanctuary designation affect tribal treaty rights?

NO. Treaty rights are not affect Tribes engage in consultation and coordination with NOAA through a government-to-government relationship.


Where Can I Find Out More Information About the York River Maritime Heritage Sanctuary?

Contact Person:  Michael Steen

Director of Education, Watermen’s Museum    (757) 887-2641


For more information about the entire NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary System and the sanctuary designation process, please see: