Panama: Rio Chagres
Maritime Cultural Landscape
Survey Location: Rio Chagres, Panama
Dates: January 22 – February 9, 2008
Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann
Research Associate/Nautical Archaeologist
Office of Underwater Science at Indiana University
In Collaboration With
Instituto Nacional de Cultura de Panama (INAC)
Prior to the construction of the Panama Canal, for five hundred years the Rio Chagres carried people and cargo from the Caribbean deep into the jungle, where overland trails would then deliver them to waiting ships in Panama City. The pirate Captain Henry Morgan used this very same route in 1671 when he sacked and burned Panama City – the second most important city in the Spanish New World at the time. Four of Morgan’s ships sank off the mouth of the Chagres as he made his escape. Dozens of ships went down near the mouth of the Chagres, yet many have not been located and none have been formally mapped or recorded.
Nearly 200 years later, the Isthmus of Panama became a major highway for gold seekers enroute to California. The passageway supported ships on their way to take part in the Gold Rush. Steamers made fast journeys from New York and New Orleans to Panama, where the small settlement of Chagres expanded across the river to “Yankee Chagres,” a temporary settlement of hotels, restaurants, bars and brothels. One of the ships that participated in the “Panama Route” was the steamship Lafayette (1851), which sank near the mouth of the Chagres River. At least five other shipwrecks from the Gold Rush also lie off the entrance to the Chagres.
The Waitt Institute partnered with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) and the Instituto Nacional de Cultura de Panama (INAC) for this exploratory survey on the Rio Chagres in Panama. Leading the expedition as Principal Investigators were Dr. James P. “Jim” Delgado and Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann.
The 18-day expedition had several goals in multiple locations in Panama. The WID expedition team first conducted a survey in the mouth of the Chagres River at the site of the fabled Castillo de San Lorenzo in a search for the steamship Lafayette and other wrecks from the Gold Rush era.
Expedition Team Members
Dominique Rissolo, PhD/Expedition Coordinator
Executive Director, Waitt Institute
Joe Lepore/Director of Dive Operations, Surveyor
Dive Safety Officer, Waitt Institute
Michael Dessner/Logistics Coordinator, Surveyor
Director of Operations, Waitt Institute
From the Expedition Leader - Dr. James P. Delgado
The significance of the river and this area is both national and international, as recognized by an early 20th century historian; “for four centuries the Chagres has been the bond of union between the two great oceans of the world, the way between the East and West, the key to the portal of the South Sea” (Anderson 1911:7). Another historian called it “the world’s most valuable river,” calculating value on its role as the source of the Panamá Canal’s fresh water, but also noting its rich history, including “seeing more gold” than all the world’s other rivers combined (Minter 1948:3, 5). This broad-based assessment of the Chagres’ history reflects the essential truth that while there are key events in the history of the project area, such as Columbus’ visit, the establishment of the Castillo de San Lorenzo, the pirate attack of 1671, the subsequent British assault of 1740, and the inrush of shipping and people during the California Gold Rush, the flow of human history here, like that of the river itself, is strong and reflects an essential continuity of purpose. We propose to contextualize that history – as represented in the physical record – as a “maritime cultural landscape.”
The concept of the maritime cultural landscape is at its most basic level the combination of archaeological resources related to maritime activity, whether they are on land and in or on the water. A maritime cultural landscape can encompass shipwrecks, and associated sites on shore, such as lighthouses, fortifications, docks and wharves, warehouses and shipyards, but it can also include “the natural geography…the details of roads, coasts, routes, harbours, (e. g. the steepness, shallow banks) and the directions of prevailing currents and winds” (Westerdahl 1991 and Westerdahl 1998:2).
Originally conceived by archaeologist Christer Westerdahl to conceptualize the maritime archaeology of Scandinavia, the idea of the “maritime cultural landscape” has been adopted by maritime archaeologists working on a variety of sites around the world, as a means of encompassing within a more holistic framework the complex interrelationship between human (maritime) activity and natural features as expressed in the material record.
The concept of the maritime cultural landscape provides an ideal framework for assessing the diverse and extensive collection of structures, sites and material culture of the project area. Collectively, the natural features, human modifications, structures, and associated remains such as discarded materials, and shipwrecks not only represent, but also tell the story of five centuries of maritime activity in and around the entrance to the Río Chagres. There is also a very real possibility, with the inclusion of pre-Columbian sites known to exist in the project area, to extend the scope of study and interpretation of the Chagres maritime cultural landscape to a 1,000 to 1,500-year span. While some aspects of that history are of particular significance, it is important to note that all aspects, and all traces of that history, as represented in the archaeological resources, have significance as a complete and collective record of maritime activity in one of the world’s most significant focal points for shipping, Panamá, and in particular, the entrance to the Río Chagres.