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Coastal Delaware Area Features

Uncovering Treasures on the Delmarva Coast

  By: Donna Harper

“Many people don’t realize that relics like old coins and ship parts wash up onto local beaches each week from shipwrecks just off the coast,” explains local Ellen Rice, an expert on ancient shipwrecks. “On many public beaches these treasures can be kept, unlike relics found on the shipwrecks.”

Divers spend hours searching sunken vessels located off the coast, but must leave the underwater sights empty-handed, because it is illegal to remove anything from shipwrecks. But anything found on the beach up to the dune lines is “finder’s keepers.”

Sound intriguing? Rice thought it was. So interesting, in fact, that she turned her hobby of locating area treasure beaches into a career-changing work of art and history.

Rice created Treasure Beaches of the Mid-Atlantic, a beautiful watercolor and ink map of the shipwrecks from the 16th to 19th centuries, from the mid-New Jersey to North Carolina coasts, complete with detailed descriptions of their histories.

“I wanted to capture and document the part of history that is disintegrating into the ocean, our shipwrecks,” explains Rice. “Treasure Beaches of the Mid-Atlantic is the only visual representation of our shipwreck and treasure history.”

Rice’s map features colorful drawings of the shipwrecks and local landmarks, like lighthouses, coin beaches and the famous ponies of Assateague Island.

“It’s remarkable that people in this area have never been taught about the shipwreck and pirate history of this area,” says Rice. Over 1,800 shipwrecks lie at the floor of the Chesapeake Bay, and there are more than 2,000 in the Delaware Bay alone. 20,000 shipwrecks lie off the Mid-Atlantic coast from Sandy Hook, NJ, to the North Carolina line. According to Rice, valuable relics from these wrecks are found on our local beaches each year.
Rice’s map documents spots where famous pirates like Blackbeard and Captain William Kidd lost their battles with the sea. Some of these shipwrecks include the China Wreck at Lewes, DE, and the DeBraak at Cape Henlopen.

Rice’s project began in the 1970s. When she realized just how many shipwrecks were located just off the Delmarva coast, Rice had to choose a particular time period. Then she began the long and extensive research process. She gathered information from national and regional archives, 18th and 19th century firsthand newspaper accounts, Delaware and North Carolina maritime archeologists, libraries, and local dive shops, and relied heavily on ancient period maps to pinpoint locations of shipwrecks. She spoke with other shipwreck experts but found many were hesitant to share their data with her. Rice’s most important contact, local historian Dale Clifton, the founder of Discover Sea Museum in Fenwick Island, gave Rice access to research he was doing in England and Ireland.

When she had compiled all the information, Rice set to work on the actual drawing of the map, which consumed more than 2,000 hours over half a year’s time.  Rice says it’s all been worth it. Within a year of completing the map, she began a companion piece. An illustrated old newspaper-style document, Treasure Legends of the Mid-Atlantic tells many stories behind the map, provides additional information about the region’s shipwrecks, and reveals historic details about the pirates who once roamed our Mid-Atlantic shores and the “coin beaches” they left behind. Also included is a key to the map’s abbreviations – providing further clues to the Mid-Atlantic’s stormy pirate and shipwreck past.

Archival offset lithographic reproductions of Treasure Beaches of the Mid-Atlantic are available at Ocean Galleries in Ocean City, Fenwick Island, and Rehoboth Beach; at the Ellen Rice Gallery in Ocean View; on the artist’s website,; and at other fine galleries and stores all over Delmarva.

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