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Tiny button found on a shipwreck brings big surprise

The button has "USA" on it, but it was found on a British Loyalist shipwreck that sank during the Revolutionary War

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — A tiny discovery from a local shipwreck has shocked the people who found it.

"It’s something else, isn't it." Archaeologist Chuck Meide said as he held the pewter button in his gloved hands. 

That little button tells a story. 

In 2009, Meide and other local archaeologists with the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeology Maritime Program (LAMP)  discovered a shipwreck off the coast of St. Augustine. 

The recovered cannons and other artifacts from the wreck. 

The ship sank in 1782, Meide said, during the American Revolutionary War. And it was full of British colonists and soldiers who supported England. These were the folks who were against people such as Paul Revere and George Washington.

Lab work is still being done on hardened globs of debris, called concretions that were taken from the shipwreck.

Last month, delicately chipping away at a concretion to see what’s underneath, Conservator Andrew Tomson started to see something emerge. 

"I notice one spot looked a little round," he said.

That round spot was a button.

Great!  They had found other buttons in that shipwreck.  But this one would be different. 

Thomson said, "Once I popped it out, I saw it had "USA" on it." He paused, "and got really confused."

Meide, the Director of LAMP, recalled, "When he showed it to me, I did a double take!"

What in the world was a button with "USA" on it doing on an enemy's ship?

"This is a British Loyalist ship," Meide explained. "So these are the guys who would not have been wearing these buttons. They wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a USA button!  But it’s quite likely this is a war trophy. If you were on the battlefield and you wanted to take a piece of that action home to remember it by, you could easily strip a button from the uniform of a body of a fallen soldier."

These archaeologists learned that the patriots started wearing buttons with "USA" on them on their uniforms in 1777.  That means there were USA buttons before there was USA money.

Meide smiled, "You have to win the war before you have your own country, right?"

He said this is the only USA button they know of found on a shipwreck.

The button will be on display with the rest of the items found from that shipwreck at the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum.

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