Suspected cannonball found at Wetherill

An alleged cannonball found by Jamie Carlson buried under shells and rocks at Fort Wetherill. A representative from the Newport Artillery Company believes it is a 24-pounder fired from Fort Adams in the 1840s.

An alleged cannonball found by Jamie Carlson buried under shells and rocks at Fort Wetherill. A representative from the Newport Artillery Company believes it is a 24-pounder fired from Fort Adams in the 1840s.

The discoveries of previous visitors at Fort Wetherill typically range from clownfish to graffiti.

One woman, however, uncovered something more explosive.

Jamestown resident Jamie Carlson spotted an unusual object while taking a walk on the beach near the fort in March. It stuck out to her because of its round shape, despite being partly covered by shells and rocks. At first, she thought it was a “big, funny-looking rock.” Further inspection, however, indicates it is likely a cannonball that was shot about 180 years ago from across the bay at Fort Adams.

“It was sitting right on the beach, just below the high-water mark,” she said. “There was one part of it that I could see was smooth and round. Everyone walked past it.”

Carlson, however, did not want to be like everyone else and bypass it. She ultimately lifted the object with her son.

“When we were leaving, I looked at it again and thought, ‘This is not just a rock, this is something.’ So, we picked it up and we brought it back to my son’s house,” Carlson said. “We all had fun examining it, looking at it and trying to decide what it was.”

One of her friends, who is interested in geology, was the first to guess it was a cannonball. Carlson, who worked as a tour guide for the Newport Historical Society for about 10 years, finally decided to post pictures of the object on Facebook to seek answers.

Replies to Carlson’s query suggested the Newport Artillery Company for answers. The organization was chartered by King George III in 1741 and is the oldest continually operating militia in the United States still operating under its original charter. According to its website, the charter was slightly changed after the Revolutionary War to denote its allegiance to the newly founded United States.

Michael Pine, a lieutenant colonel of the artillery company and a tour guide at Fort Adams State Park, believes the object probably is a cannonball based on the photos Carlson shared on Facebook. While he couldn’t be absolutely certain based just on the photograph, its weight of about 20 pounds was a giveaway.

“There’s a very good chance that it’s a 24-pounder from Fort Adams,” Pine said.

If it were a cannonball, Pine said the object likely dates to sometime in the 1840s. Fort Adams initially had been built in 1799, but was rebuilt from 1824-57, and was garrisoned in 1841. In the 1870s, all the muzzle-loading smoothbore cannons were deactivated or scrapped.

“In 1841, the army moved in there and started operations,” Pine said. “And they had target practice.”

Pine said Col. John Macgruder, later a general in the Confederate

Army during the Civil War, liked to use Fort Dumpling as a target to test the fort’s cannons. That fort had been built after the Revolutionary War, and Fort Wetherill was constructed in the same area about a century later.

“As it wasn’t a built-up area or anything, they shot it out,” Pine said. “To save money, they didn’t use full-size charges and the full range of a 24-pounder. That’s the cannon that was mounted on the top of Fort Adams. They used half charges.”

Fort Dumpling was located less than a mile away from Fort Adams across the East Passage of Narragansett Bay. Pine said a cannonball with a short charge would have made that distance.

“It may have hit the ground and rolled down to the beach, and it just stayed there,” he said. “They’re heavy, they get covered with sand over the years and the weather uncovers them.”

The Newport Artillery Company has a few 24-pound cannonballs in its Clarke Street headquarters, and divers have found cannonballs in the waters and beaches between the two forts in the past.

Pine suggested Carlson submerge the possible cannonball in either saltwater or transmission fluid to preserve it. He said the object is not dangerous and does not contain gunpowder.

“Those guns were solid iron balls,” he said. “There’s no explosive in them. They were meant to be blunt-force weapons. If they found a 32-pounder, then we could possibly have problems.”

When Pine’s information was relayed to Carlson, she said she was glad to hear an expert opinion on what it likely could be and was hoping to eventually get the object’s identification confirmed by someone who could examine it up close.

She said the shape of the object has become more oval-shaped than round since some of the debris has fallen off it since she found it.

“Maybe that’s what happens to cannonballs when they were shot,” she said. “Maybe they do lose a little bit of their shape. I’d like to find out more about it.”

Carlson said she was thinking about giving the object to either the Jamestown Historical Society or the library as a historical relic.

“The most fascinating part is the history of it,” Carlson said. “Not that the physical thing is so exciting, it’s that it actually happened in our history.”