Underwater Archaeologist, Shipwreck Historian, Author, Treasure Hunter, & Award-Winning Cartographer
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Spurred on by childhood tales of pirates and adventure, Dr. E. Lee Spence, built his own diving gear and found his first shipwrecks the year he was twelve. That was 1959-1960. He has since found hundreds more wrecks and has worked on everything from Spanish galleons and pirate ships to Civil War blockade runners and twentieth century freighters. He remembers the exciting dreams of his youth and is still making them come true. One of those dreams was eating off the dinner plates and drinking wine recovered from the shipwrecks. Another was finding gold and silver coins, cannons and swords. He has lived all of those and lots more.
Video by Tony Giambra: “Dr. E. Lee Spence, Author/Treasure Hunter.”
NightTalker Radio: Michael David McGuire’s interview with Dr. Spence
Dr. Spence is an internationally known expert on shipwrecks and sunken treasures. He received one of the first five doctorates (Doctor of Marine Histories, College of Marine Arts, 1972) ever awarded for marine archaeology anywhere in the world and he has long been considered one of the founding fathers of marine archaeology.
His work has been funded by such institutions as the Savannah Ships of the Sea Museum, CRIL (the Caribbean Research Institute Ltd., Colombia, South America), the College of Charleston, the South Carolina Committee for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the early 1990s he served as Chief of Underwater Archaeology for Providencia Y San Andres, a 40,000 square mile archipelago in the Western Caribbean. He has authored more than two dozen books, and has served as an editor for a number of nationally distributed magazines. He is also an award winning cartographer and has published a number of maps and charts dealing with shipwrecks and treasure.
Always an adventurer, Spence has traveled to a wide range of exotic places in the Far East, Europe, Central and South America. He has explored castles, palaces, shipwrecks, ancient ruins, secret tunnels, and subterranean and underwater caves. He has dived in the Great Lakes, the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean.
He has been shot at, buried in cave-ins, tangled in fishing nets, pinned under wreckage, run out of air, lost inside a wreck, and bitten by fish while pursuing his quests.
Although Dr. Spence has discovered numerous historically significant shipwrecks, including the Civil War blockade runner Georgiana and the Confederate submarine Hunley, he hasn’t only made discoveries underwater. He considers his identification of Charleston born banking and shipping magnate George Trenholm as the “Real Rhett Butler” to have been his most interesting non-shipwreck discovery. Trenholm’s fleet of fast steamers earned today’s equivalent of over one billion dollars running munitions, medicines, and merchandise through the Federal blockade. By the end of the Civil War, Trenholm was a major figure in the Confederate government. The United States actually charged Trenholm with treason and claimed he had made off with and concealed hundreds of millions in Confederate assets. Trenholm died without revealing his secrets. Spence is currently trying to uncover them.
The State of South Carolina’s claim of ownership to the Civil War submarine Hunley was based on Spence’s 1970 discovery of that vessel and his subsequent gift of his salvage rights to it to the State. Spence’s gift of his rights was made in September of 1995 at the official request of the Attorney General of South Carolina and the South Carolina Hunley Commission.
As an historian, Spence believes the biggest key to success on any expedition is the archival research that precedes it. Spence calls historical research “his drug of choice” and says, “In today’s world, time is the most expensive part of a salvage expedition. Man-hours spent in the archives can cut hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of time from the field phase of most projects.”
Read more about Dr. Spence on Wikipedia.
- 2013- Honored with the 2012-2013 NOGI in science
- 2010- Undersea Explorers Award (Montres Charmex SA)
- 2010- International Who’s Who of Diving (Diving Almanac)
- 2009- Honorarium, National Geographic
- 1998- Who’s Who in South & South West
- 1997- Who’s Who in America
- 1996- Who’s Who in Finance & Industry
- 1992- Chief of Underwater Archaeology, Providencia
- 1991- Mark of Excellence, Beneath the Sea
- 1983- Grant, South Carolina Committee for Humanities, shipwrecks study
- 1983- Grant, National Endowment of the Humanities
- 1983- Grant, Ships of the Sea Museum
- 1976- Donald O. Bushman Cartography Award by University of South Carolina
- 1971- Grant, Contemporary University, University of South Carolina
- 1971- Honors Program University of South Carolina
- 1966- Honors Program University of Miami
- 1966- National Honors Scholarship University of Miami
- 1966- Reserve Officer Training Corps 4-year scholarship
- 1966- appointment to Merchant Marine Academy
- 1966- alternate appointment to United States Naval Academy
- 1966- alternate appointment to West Point, United States Military Academy
- 1966- First Prize Science Fair, underwater inflatable house
- 1965- National Science Foundation Scholarship
- 1960- National Educational Development Test Certificate of Merit
WIS TV (NBC): TV Interview re SS Ozama discovery
BBC Radio: What Lies Beneath
NightTalker Radio: Interview
World Footprints: Reno River Festival
Facebook Public Page: Dr. E. Lee Spence, Underwater Archaeologist, Shipwrecks, Sunken Treasure (85,500+ Likes)
LinkedIn: Dr. Spence’s Profile Page (his 6,500+ connections link him to 20,108,176+ professionals)
Pinterest: Dr. Spence’s Boards (140+ Pins and 430+ Followers)
Twitter: Dr. Spence is “HunleyFinder” (over 1600+ Tweets and 4,890+ Followers)
Dr. Spence was the original researcher behind the discoveries of two of the richest wrecks salvaged to date, i.e. the Gold Rush era steamer Central America, lost in 1854, and the Republic, sunk in 1865. The gold and silver coins and bullion recovered from them have been collectively valued at over a half billion dollars.
In 1970 Dr. Spence discovered the tiny Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley, which was the first submarine in the entire history of the world to actually sink an enemy ship in battle. He also located her victim, the USS Housatonic. In 1995, at the official request of Senator McConnell, Chairman of the Hunley Commission, Dr. Spence donated his rights to the Hunley to the State of South Carolina. The Hunley was raised in 2000 and is undergoing intensive study and conservation/preservation. The Hunley has been valued at over $20,000,000 and has been described by government officials as “the most important underwater archaeological discovery of the Twentieth Century.”
Dr. Spence has found a long list of Civil War blockade runners including the following steamers: Georgiana; Mary Bowers; the Stonewall Jackson (ex-Leopard); the Norseman; the Constance Decimer; the Wave Queen; the Celt (also called the Colt or Sylph); the Presto; the Stono (ex-U.S. gunboat Isaac Smith); the Ruby; the Beatrice; the Minho; the Prince Albert; the Sumter and the Flora. Although he wasn’t the original finder, he has also worked on many other Civil War wrecks such as the Dare.
Other discoveries include the locations and/or identities of numerous wrecks of merchant vessels of all time periods and nationalities, including but not limited to: the British transport Glasgow Packet captured and burnt in 1776; the ship America wrecked in 1788; the brig Consolation, sunk in 1804; the schooner Diamond, sunk in 1816; the square rigged ship Delia Maria, sunk in 1854; the schooner Prince of Wales, sunk in 1861; the bark Canterbury, sunk in 1875; the bark Carrier Dove, sunk in 1876; the steamer City of Vera Cruz, sunk in 1880; steamer United States sunk in 1881; steamer Ozama lost in 1894; and the fuel oil tanker George MacDonald, sunk in 1960. (Several of the above vessel identifications are, of necessity, tentative identifications.)
Dr. Spence was also the first person to research, prove and reveal to the public that George Alfred Trenholm was the historical basis of the fictional blockade runner captain, Rhett Butler, in Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gone With The Wind. Like many of his shipwreck discoveries, the announcement of that discovery made international news.
He has found as many as twenty-eight previously unknown shipwrecks in a single day. In that particular case he never formally announced their discovery because of safety and other concerns.
Another find is the wreck of a side wheel steamer. If it is the remains of the vessel he believes it to be, it will be still another major discovery. He does not plan a formal announcement until he can make a positive identification of the wreck.
SS Georgiana sunk in 1863: Blockade runner & most powerful Confederate cruiser.
H.L. Hunley lost in 1864: First submarine in history to sink an enemy ship.
SS United States sunk 1881: First submarine in history to sink an enemy ship.
SS Ozama wrecked in 1894: First submarine in history to sink an enemy ship.
Sea Research Society: Underwater Archaeologist and President
International Diving Institute: Faculty and Vice President
Dr. Spence has authored/edited well over two dozen books, so this section is incomplete and still under construction with pictures of more books by Spence to be added, please check back again soon.
Author of: Treasures of the Confederate Coast: The real Rhett Butler & Other Revelations
Author of: Spence’s Guide to South Carolina
Author of: A Look at South Carolina’s Underwater Heritage
Author of: Shipwrecks, Pirates, & Privateers: Sunken Treasures of the Upper South Carolina Coast, 1521-1865
Author of: Shipwrecks of the Era of Revolution South Carolina & Georgia 1763-83
Author of: Shipwrecks of the Era of Colonization South Carolina & Georgia 1521-1762
Author of: xxxxxxxxx
Author of: xxxxxxxxx
Author of: Shipwrecks of Charleston Harbor
Author of: Wreck of the Georgiana: Mystery Ship of the Confederacy
Author of: Shipwreck Encyclopedia of the Civil War: North Carolina 1861-1865
Author of: Shipwreck Encyclopedia of the Civil War: South Carolina & Georgia 1861-1865
Author of: Shipwrecks through War, Weather, and Error
Contributing Author to: xxxxxxxxx
Contributing Author/Editor to: South Carolina and the Sea: Day by Day toward Five Centuries
Publisher/Senior Editor: ShipWrecks®
Underwater Archaeology Editor: Atlantic Coastal Diver
Publisher/Senior Editor: Wreck Diver
Underwater Archaeology Editor: Treasure Diver: The Journal of Underwater Adventure
Contributing Editor: Treasure Found
Contributing Editor: America’s treasure Search magazine
Contributing Editor: Treasure Quest magazine
Contributing Editor: Treasure magazine
Chief Editor: R.L. White Pages magazine
This section is still under construction with more books to be added, please check back again soon. It relates to various non-fiction books crediting Spence with various discoveries and/or referencing Spence as a source and/or listing his works in their bibliography, as well as novels dedicated to Spence and/or mentioning Spence’s real-life discoveries in the storyline.
Treasure: Man’s 25 Greatest Quests for El Dorado by B.A. Tomkins
Ghosts from the Coast by Nancy Roberts
Hidden Treasure by Alison Hawes
The CSS H.L. Hunley by R. Thomas Campbell
The Fire of Mars by Stephen F. Clegg
This section is under construction with more maps, chaets and certificates to be added, please check back soon.
Map: Shipwrecks of Charleston, South Carolina
Map: Shipwrecks of New York & New Jersey
Map: Civil War Shipwrecks
Wreck Chart: Map showing cross section and location of Georgiana
Map: Shipwrecks of Hilton Head, South Carolina
Map/Certificate: map of Civil War shipwrecks of Charleston with relic pin attached
This section is under construction, please check back
Academy of Underwater Arts & Sciences: Awarded the 2012-2013 NOGI for Science (for his pioneering work in underwater archaeology)
Montres Charmex SA: Awarded 2010 Undersea Explorers Award (in part for discovery of the Hunley)
National Geographic Society: Awarded honorarium in 2009 for consulting on shipwrecks for Sylvia Earle’s Ocean an Illustrated Atlas
Dr. Spence’s work and discoveries have been written about in over a thousand periodicals worldwide. U.S. News & World Report (magazine) credited Dr. Spence with the discovery of the Hunley, and he has been quoted or mentioned in thousands more. A very incomplete list includes the London Sun; People magazine; Oggi (Italian Equivalent of People magazine); Vi Menn (Norwegian magazine); La Stampa (Italian newspaper); Heutzu (German magazine); Life magazine; Canadian Diving News magazine; International Journal of Nautical Archeology (Great Britain); MacCleans (“Canada’s Weekly Newsmagazine”); Tresors de l’histoire (France); USA Today; the New York Times; the Los Angeles Times; the Miami Herald; the Tallahassee Democrat; the Atlanta Journal; the Atlanta Constitution; the Chicago Sun Times; the Detroit Free Press; the Charlotte Observer; Treasure (magazine); Skin Diver (magazine); Treasure Diver (magazine), etc.
The (London) Sun: £600M Gold in Them Thar Holds – Discovery of the steamer Central America
People Magazine: “Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of Mumm! Veteran Diver Lee Spence Toasts the Treasure of the Lost Wreck Regina”
The Epoch Times: Unburying Treasures: Cartographer Finds Hidden Treasure – How maps help save sunken ships
CNBC: Diving Into Sunken-Treasure Investing
Millionaire Magazine: “The Vault”
X-Ray Magazine: “U.S. Civil War Wreck: H.L. Hunley Submarine”
U.S. News & World Report: “The Hunley”
Der Standard (Austria): Goldrausch in der Tiefsee (Gold Rush in the Deep Sea)
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