By Seth Daniel
Just over 234 years ago, men who would come to be known as American patriots (but at the time were called “rebels”) lined up with muskets on the hill that has become known as Orient Heights.
In 1775, it was called Noddles Island, and the American rebels had been burning British stockades and moving livestock all over Beachmont and East Boston, doing their best to disrupt the British occupation.
Around 4 p.m. on May 27, a ship known as the HMS Diana sailed up the Chelsea Creek to engage these “terrorists”.
The Americans fired their muskets from the hills, disrupting the ship. Sometime later, as it turned to leave with the tides, the wind died down and then the sloop of war got stuck. The British tried to tow it out of the creek, but more and more Americans joined the fight.
Fire rained down from all sides, and the ship eventually sank, with the British fleeing in transport boats. The Americans looted the ship, took its supplies, cannons and guns, then set it ablaze.
They only left the hull for history.
Nevertheless, historians – both amateur and professional – have never been able to agree just where the Diana sunk and if its remnants might still be preserved in the noxious mud of the Chelsea Creek.
It has been the subject of many fruitless searches, and the battle itself is wrought with incorrect accounts and historical inaccuracies.
Now, courtesy of a federal grant of $48,300 from the National Park Service, one small state agency is going to try to rewrite the history of the battle correctly and – even more importantly – try to find the Diana once and for all, if she’s even still down there.
Victor Mastone, director and chief archaeologist of the state Board of Underwater Archaeology, will be heading up the project, and he has a personal interest in it. His father was from Revere and his mother was from Chelsea.
“For us, it’s redoing the history,” he said. “This is going through all the records again…Really, no one has ever defined this as a battlefield. We want to sit down and treat it as a battlefield and see what we can find. Maybe we can actually find the ditch where [Americans] leaned against to shoot at the Redcoats. It will really take it to the next step. If successful, maybe we can find out where the Diana ended up and how the terrain really was in the creek.”
The Battle of Chelsea Creek hasn’t been treated kindly in the history books, and, in fact, in most history books, it’s entirely forgotten. Most times, the nearly mythological Battles of Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill overshadow it.
However, the Battle of Chelsea Creek was the first Naval engagement of the Revolutionary War, and a victory that truly embarrassed the British Navy (the best in the world at that time) and disengaged that Navy from several future land battles, most importantly, the Battle of Bunker Hill.
“It had a huge effect on Bunker Hill,” said Mastone, noting that Bunker Hill occurred three weeks later. “If it wasn’t for this battle, Bunker Hill would have probably been lost in the first wave. Because of the Chelsea battle, the British Navy was wary of coming too close to shore and stayed away. The British were very nervous because of this loss of the Diana.”
While the importance isn’t lost on Mastone, it certainly was lost on the National Park Service, which didn’t even carry a record of the battle. That is one reason Mastone secured the grant.
“They didn’t even have it listed as a battle,” he said. “They had no Battle of Noddles Island, Hog Island or Chelsea Creek. As a former Revere and Chelsea resident as a child, I got a little aggravated. I said, ‘Wait a minute,’ and then I called them and they didn’t discourage me from applying.”
Before this grant, the Park Service typically didn’t award funding for projects or battle sites that weren’t listed.
The project, in official terms, will try to locate exact positions of British and American military operations and identify the actual remains of the Diana. They will create Geographic Informational System (GIS) and Global Positioning System (GPS) maps to help identify and interpret the exact positions on the battlefield. They will also use more traditional archaeological site visits to the creek.
That, they said, will help in assessing dangers and threats to the battlefield and guide management, preservation and public interpretation.
Likewise, the grant will help fund a community engagement process in which the historical societies in Revere, Chelsea and East Boston will be called upon to contribute to the process.
“We will sit down and work very closely with historical societies in all three communities,” said Mastone. “It’s not just us sitting down and doing this and saying, ‘Okay, here it is’.”
For Mastone, some of those amateur historians in the three communities may be very familiar.
The Diana has remained a popular local mystery for decades.
Many have purported to find it, but none were actually able to present definite proof of such a find.
The late Ralph DiPrisco of Central Avenue swore up and down that he had found the Diana just off the docks of the Irving Oil Farm in Revere. Deep in the mud, he had discovered the hull of a ship that was very old. To his death, he kept a piece of that ship in his home and said with confidence that it was a piece of the Diana.
Even the editor of this newspaper, Joshua Resnek, has been on numerous historical hunts for the Diana.
“That ship is long gone,” he concluded this week. “There’s nothing left to find.”
Mastone said many of those amateur historians have brought him out to the Chelsea Creek for an official look at what they believe to be the Diana.
“I’ve been dragged out there many times in that mud since I started here in 1987,” he said. “I was brought out in the Chelsea Creek once by a gentleman from Chelsea who was very dissatisfied with me. He had found a hull and it was from pre-Civil War – a nice find- but it wasn’t the Diana.”
Now, more than two centuries later, Mastone hopes that he can take an unbiased eye to the hunt for the Diana and to the rewriting of the Battle of Chelsea Creek, and thus give the conflict its rightful place in American history.
The project is expected to start sometime in the fall.