• What are the Seneca Guns?

    Steve Plaffby Nancy Gadzuk

    Steve Pfaff, Warning Coordinator Meteorologist at the Wilmington office of the National Weather Service, provided some insight and information to help answer this question at the History Center’s April 18, 2016 open meeting.

    He first showed some short video clips on the Seneca Guns from a segment of The Unexplained Files, a TV series produced by the Science Channel. The clips included an audio recording of the “boom” most of the audience recognized as the sound of the Seneca Guns, as well as interviews with locals who described their experiences hearing the Guns.

    Steve was featured on the video as the down-to-earth scientist who explained some possible causes of the Seneca Guns and served as an antidote to the show’s sensationalist presentation of the Seneca Guns as both terrifying and earth-shattering. (Two representative episodes of The Unexplained Files are “Voodoo Zombies” and “UFO Meets Missiles at Malstrom Air Force Base,” so the Seneca Guns were up against some stiff competition for high drama.)

    Seneca Guns OriginsThe Seneca Guns got their name from James Fenimore Cooper’s short story, “The Lake Gun,” that featured similar sounds heard near New York’s Seneca Lake. Most occurrences are near water, as sound travels better through water than through air. They seem to be more common during temperature inversions, when cool, dense air near the ground creates a sound channel that sounds can reverberate against, creating the booms we hear at ground level.

    Steve described some of the possible causes for the Seneca Guns, such as the collapse of underwater caves, distant thunderstorms, shallow offshore earthquakes, sub-marine landslides, undersea methane release, and offshore military operations—and then gave us scientific evidence and data that seemed to disprove most of these theories.

    Seneca Guns - LandlidesCaptain Skippy Winner spoke from the audience about his own experiences in the past as a boat captain sending his observations and readings of sub-marine landslides and turbulence to the Weather Service to add to their data compilation.

    Steve acknowledged the importance of input such as Skippy’s in documenting and understanding the realities of weather activity.

    Did Steve ever give us the definitive answer as to what causes the Seneca Guns? Not really, but offshore military operations seemed the most plausible to me.

    James Fenimore Cooper had his own explanation for the phenomenon:

    “Tis a chief of the Senecas, thrown into the lake by the Great Spirit, for his bad conduct. Whenever he tries to get upon the land, the Spirit speaks to him from the caves below, and he obeys.”  

    “THAT must mean the ‘Lake Gun?’ ”  

    “So the pale-faces call it.”

    A Brief History of Sedgeley Abbey

    [Editor Note:  Sedgeley Abbey resources]

    What was Sedgeley Abbey?
    Ben Steelman,  StarNews

    The Land Was Ours: African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South
    By Andrew W. Kahrl . 2012
    Google Books

    Tales and Traditions of the Lower Cape Fear, 1661-1896
    By James Sprunt
    Google Books

    By Sandy Jackson

    [Originally published in the January, 1995 – FPHPS Newsletter]

    Sedgley Abbey Plantation same area- different spelling

    Sedgley Abbey Plantation
    same location – different spelling

    On the peninsula south of Wilmington, about a half-mile north of Snow’s Cut, just northeast of Doctor Point, was a large tract of land on which was located a colonial mansion known as Sedgeley Abbey.

    The land was probably not used as a rice plantation, although some of the property was in inland swamp. Most of the land, however, seems to have been a sandy plain, thinly covered with pines and scrub oaks. The property located near Gander Hall also touched the Haulover plantation on the sea-side.

    Sedgeley Abbey was built in the 1700s, possibly by William Lord. Sedgeley Abbey, constructed from coquina, was described “as one of the grandest colonial residence of the Cape Fear.” Historian James Sprunt compared Sedgeley Abbey in dimensions and appearance to the two-story, cellered Governor Dudley mansion in Wilmington.

    A corduroy road was also built across the peninsula to a river landing. Sprunt indicates that the plantation house was constructed in 1726 by a Peter Maxwell, but according to his headstone in the St. Philip‘s Church graveyard at Brunswick, Peter Maxwell was born in 1753.  In June 1788,  Peter Maxwell purchased from William Lord 320 acres lying at the head of Lord’s Creek.

    Presently Lord’s Creek is known as Telfairs Creek and terminates on the southern end at Snow’s Cut. Both the Joshua Potts map of 1797 and the Price and Strother map of 1808 indicate the “Maxwell” dwelling in that section of the peninsula.

    To the south and adjacent to Sedgeley Abbey, a John Guerard, sometimes spelled Gerrard or Geuard, purchased in 1776 a 600-acre tract of land from William Dry. In 1778 Guerard purchased another 920 acres from William Dry and also received grants in 1780 totaling an additional 970 acres near the sound. Guerard lived with his wife, Rebecca, on this property until his death in 1789.

    In his will, made on February 6, 1786, John Guerard bequeathed: “the whole plantation, horses, hogs, sheep, household furniture, with all the lands containing 1,000 acres, also seventeen negro slaves.”  In 1790 “‘Rebecca Geuard,” the widow of John, entered into a marriage agreement With Peter Maxwell, “an English gentleman of wealth and refinement,” and thus secured “the estate of the said Rebecca.”

    Included in the agreement was “all that tract of land situated and lying at or near the head of the Sound in New Hanover county aforesaid where John Geuard late of New Hanover county usually resided and at the present occupied by the said Rebecca Geuard.”

    The plantation at which Rebecca and Peter planned to live contained approximately 1,600 acres. Peter Maxwell received a patent in 1796 for another 100 acres at the head of the sound. Peter Maxwell’s holdings as a result of his marriage to Rebecca “covered a vast tract of land which extended from the present Doctors Point on the east bank of the river, south to a small creek on the southern side of that ancient landmark and sand hill, the ‘Sugar Loaf,‘ thence southeast to the Sea Beach, thence northward to his own northern line, thence westward to the head of Lord’s Creek, continuing on to the beginning on the bank of the Cape Fear River.”

    Sedgeley Abbey is most closely associated with Peter Maxwell.

    Peter Maxwell maintained cultivated fields, as well as indigo farms, orchards, and even a horse track at Sedgeley Abbey for a number of years, although by 1801 he decided to place the plantation up for rent.

    The following description appeared in the Wilmington Gazette, of December 24, 1801:

    To Rent – for a term of years, or may be agreed on. That fruitfiil, healthy and beautiful Plantation, near the head of the Sound, known by the name of Sedgeley Abbey for which there is a very commodious and well-furnished dwelling house, open to the sea beach by an, avenue, and about half a mile from the Sound, which at all Seasons affords abundance of Fish and the best Oysters in the State. There is also on the same a good Kitchen, Smoke-house, Barn, Stable, and Chairhouse, with a remarkable fine Peach Orchard — The land is well adapted to the culture of Corn, Cotton and Indigo, there is adjoining the house about 16 acres of rich inland swamp, which can be easily overflowed, much of which is cleared, and will produce excellent Rice. Whoever may rent the same can be accommodated with most kinds of plantation furniture, and supplied with, any stock belonging to the land at a valuation. For terms apply in Wilmington to Peter Maxwell, (Wilmington Gazette, December 24, 1801).

    Rebecca Maxwell died on February 12, 1810, and was buried beside her first husband, John Guerard, in the cemetery at St. Philip’s Church. Peter Maxwell followed his wife in death two years later. Peter and Rebecca bore no children, so Peter’s will (recorded at the New Hanover County courthouse the previous year) directed that his extensive holdings be sold and the money divided among his two cousins, John Robeson and Peter Robeson, both young weavers of North Britain. (McKoy 1973: 121). Peter Maxwell declared that:

    “If I die within 30 miles of Wilmington I request that I may be buried by my wife at Brunswick. I give and devise to my executors my plantation and houses at the Sound which was devised to my Wife by the will of John Gerrard supposed to contain 1,000 acres, but which contained by 900, by them to be sold. . . . Also . . . 600 acres opposite said plantation left to Mrs. Maxwell by will of John Gerrard. Also two-thirds of a tract containing 920 acres bought by me from Messrs. Warren & Hasford. Also 100 acres a patent, now in suit for possession, at head of Sound. Also 1380 acres lying to northward of first mentioned plantation, on head of Lord’s Creek. Also lot and house in Fayetteville. Also an improved lot’ of one-half acre in Wilmington . . . ”

    Telfair Forest EntranceIn accordance with the expressed wishes of the late Peter Maxwell, the great estate was sold, by the executor of his will. About 800 acres of land, including Sedgeley Abbey, was sold in 1815 to Sedgwick Springs $950. The larger, 1,380-acre, tract was purchased that same year $295 by James Telfair, after whom the creek on the property is named.

    Sedgeley Abbey plantation was again sold on December 31, 1821 by Sedgwick Springs, for $1750, to Hosea Pickett, who in turn deeded it the following year to Henry B. Howard in exchange for a loan. Upon repayment of the loan, the deed to Howard was voided.

    Hosea Pickett apparently paid his debt to Henry Howard, as the plantation remained in his possession until alter the Civil War. Sedgeley Abbey plantation was placed up for sale in November 1866, following Pickett’s death.

    At that time the plantation consisted of “about 3,000 acres, situated upon the Federal Point road. ” There were “about 500 acres of good farming land.” About 275 acres were cleared and fenced, with an ample amount of timbered land. In addition to a five-room dwelling house, the plantation also included a stable, barn, and servants’ quarters.

    By the 1870s Sedgeley Abbey lay in ruins. By the turn of the century only the cellar remained. The ruins of the plantation house lay obscure for a number of years. In 1978 archaeologist Mark Wilde-Ramsing, now of the Department of Cultural Resources, located the cellar remains of Sedgeley Abbey west of Highway 421. The cellar had been dug into stone approximately 8 feet deep.

    When revisited again in 1992, the foundation measured 30 feet by, 12 feet, and on the western end sank 6 feet below the normal ground surface.


    Hall, Lewis P.
    1975 “Land of the Golden River“. Volume 1. Wilmington, NC: Wilmington Printing Company.

    McKoy, Elizabeth F.
    1973 “Early New Hanover County Records“. Wilmington, North Carolina: Published by the author.

    New Hanover County Deeds and Wills, Wilmington, North Carolina.

    Price, Jonathon and John Strother.
    1807 “A Map of Cape Fear River and its Vicinity from the Frying Pan Shoals to Wilmington by Actual Survey“. Division of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina, Map Collection 131-F.

    Sprunt, James.
    1896 “Tales and Traditions of the Lower. Cape Fear, 1661-1896“. Wilmington: LeGwin Brothers.
    Reprinted by The Reprint Co., Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1973.

    Waddell, Alfred M.
    1989 “A History of New Hanover County and the Lower Cape Fear Region, 1723-1800″. Volume 1, Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, Inc.

    Wilmington Daily Journal (Wilmington, NC), November 10, 1866.

    Wilmington Gazette (Wilmington, N.C.), December 24, 1801.

    Wilmington Morning Star (Wilmington, NC), January 7, 1898.