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Great Republic: a historical and archaeological analysis of a Pacific mail steamship

Andrew P. Roberts
Thesis: December 2008
Chair: Crisman
Nautical Archaeology Program


In 1986 the remains of a shipwreck were discovered on Sand Island in the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. The following year, a team of archaeologists investigated the site in order to determine its original identity. After a series of dives, the team concluded that the wreck was the remains of the Hudson’s Bay Company brig, Isabella, a ship that was lost in that area in 1830. Recent investigations on the shipwreck disproved this identity. The turbulent conditions of the Columbia River have helped researchers by shifting a significant amount of sand overburden away from the vessel, exposing a greater area of the ship. With this new information, the wreck is now believed to be the remains of the wooden side-wheel steamer Great Republic that belonged to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, rather than Isabella. This thesis investigates the history of Great Republic and its role in American maritime history, as well as its possible archaeological remains at the bottom of the Columbia River. In order to provide a clear and concise story, I begin with the history of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and its importance in the development of the western coast of the United States. Since Great Republic was integral to the Asian trade of the nineteenth century, the second portion of the thesis is dedicated to Asian-American commercial and political relations during the nineteenth century. Great Republic and its three sister ships are then described and analyzed in detail based on contemporary sources. Finally, the archaeological evidence is assessed beginning with the discovery of the wreck. I detail the investigations and discoveries made on the wreck over the last 20 years. In my conclusions I discuss the importance of Great Republic from a historical standpoint and emphasize its place in American maritime history. I also detail key aspects concerning the wreck that I believe are imperative for future research. Though the remains convincingly appear to be those of Great Republic there are still structural features that need to be analyzed before a positive identification is possible.

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