Padre Island National Seashore 1554 The Wreck of Three Spanish Ships on Padre Island
The wreck of the San Esteban, Santa Maria de Yciar, and Espritu Santo are the oldest known shipwrecks in U.S. waters. The wreck was the greatest disaster to hit the Spanish fleet in the New World to that time. • The remains have provided historians with information on: • mid-16th-century Spanish armaments • the coinage of the first mint established in Mexico • smelting of silver/gold in the 16th century • marks found on silver bullion • navigational instruments (3 astrolabes—a rare find)
Transatlantic travel in 1554 was hazardous at the least. Ships were often lost to storms or pirates. Therefore ship- owners did not usually risk their best ships but sent decrepit ships near the end of their usable life (hoping to collect the insurance). Of the original fifty-four ships that sailed from Spain to New Spain in 1552 with San Esteban, Santa Maria de Yciar, and Espiritu Santo, eight were lost before reaching their destinations (four to French corsairs).
Ships coming to Vera Cruz came via a route from the Antilles to the southern coast of Cuba to the Bay of Campeche. Ships going to Spain traveled along the coast north to 27º 30’ North and turned east or… …followed the northern coast of Cuba. Havana Vera Cruz
The original plan was to band the San Esteban, Santa Maria de Yciar, Espiritu Santo, and a fourth ship named the San Andres into a small fleet under command of Capitan-General Antonio Corzo, master of the San Andres, and proceed to Havana departing San Juan de Ulua on April 9. From Havana they would join other ships in a larger flotilla and would head on to Spain.
On the fateful voyage to Spain from Vera Cruz 304 people (passengers and crew) traveled on the San Esteban, Santa Maria de Yciar, and Espiritu Santo including: • Francisco del Huerta • Fray Marcos de Mena • Friar Juan Ferrer • Dona Catalina de Ribera • returning conquistadors • Illegal slaves (moriscos) • merchants
The cargo included cochineal, cow hides, sugar, wool, and a combined (estimated) cargo of about 96,000 pounds of silver and gold that comprised payment for bills, taxes, inheritances, and so forth.
Contrary to popular belief, the storm was not a hurricane by current definition. The wreck occurred in April, but hurricane season runs from July to November. It was most likely a spring equinox storm known as a “norther”. At the time, “hurricane” was a name for any severe storm.
The voyage from Vera Cruz to Havana normally took 20 days at most. The ships departed Vera Cruz on April 9 and were aground on Padre Island on April 29. There is no record of when the storm hit the small fleet, but it most likely struck when the ships were almost to Havana. Havana Vera Cruz
Salvage operations July 21, through September 12, 1554 Spanish Salvage expedition at site salvaging the lost cargo. Archive records place the wrecks at 26 degrees 30 minutes, actually is 26 degree, 45 minutes. The three ships carried a combined total of 87,000 pounds of precious metal (if all silver, approx. 6.6 million dollars with silver at 4.75 an ounce.) Approx. 35,801 pounds were salvaged, Leaving 51,330 unaccounted for. Spanish recovered about 40% of the precious metal. Of course most of the remaining cargo was pretty much a total loss. Example- Santa Maria Yciar, about 41% of the silver/gold was recovered. Of approx. 15,000 pound s of treasure, only 6,225 pounds was recovered. Upon learning of the disaster officials in Mexico promptly organized a salvage expedition, which arrived at the wreck sites within two months of the loss of the vessels. One of the three ships was still visible above the waves, and free-diving salvage workers began recovery operations. The other two wrecks were located by dragging. The expedition raised somewhat less than half of the approximately 1,000,000 ducats lost in the three ships. About 41 percent of its cargo was recovered.
Any sailor can tell you that life during a storm can be miserable, if not hazardous. Many people will be seasick. The rocking of the ship often makes eating often nearly impossible. Many sailors lose weight if caught in a storm for several days. Cargo may suddenly be tossed against people or people may be tossed against the cargo or bulkheads. Sometimes people are washed overboard.
Maybe half (more or less) of the three hundred people on board the San Esteban, Espritu Santo, and Santa Maria de Yciar survived and made it to shore. Those who made it to shore would have been seasick (which can last for days), injured, starving, weak, or dying.
The island would have seemed merciless to the survivors. During April-May, the island’s marshes are often dry with no obvious source of fresh water. Survivors could have sustained themselves with supplies from the wrecks or shellfish, fish, or game.
The coast between the island and Vera Cruz was mostly unexplored. The survivors did not know what lay ahead of them, but they would have known that few arms and only two crossbows, a confrontation with the natives could be disastrous.
Unfortunately, the castaways mistakenly believed that civilization was only 2-3 days walk away, when it was actually at least 200 miles away.
The Natives in the area at that time would have been from a group known now as the Coahuiltecans, perhaps from a subgroup of the Coahuiltecans known later as the Borrados. As the castaways progressed farther south however, they would have encountered other peoples.
According to Marcos de Mena, after the castaways had been at the wreck site, for 5 or 6 days, the Chichimecas brought fish and fire. While the castaways were eating, the natives suddenly attacked.
Who survived? • Fray Marcos de Mena • Ship’s Master Francisco del Huerta • A soldier named Francisco Vazquez • Maybe 30 others
Platoro, Ltd. When in 1967 a General Land Office field representative officially reported the discovery of a sunken Spanish ship off Padre Island near Port Mansfield, recovery attempts for artifacts from the ship were already in full operation by a private out-of-state salvaging firm; the company, however, did not have a permit to operate within the state. Acting in accordance with a 1960 United States Supreme Court ruling that title to all submerged coastal lands out to a distance of 10.35 miles belonged to the state of Texas, Land Commissioner Jerry Sadler requested the Texas attorney general's office to bring suit against the salvagers in December 1967.
The State of Texas vs. Platoro, Ltd. The Kenedy County Twenty-eighth District Court granted a temporary injunction in January 1968 to halt further recovery operations and removal of objects. After considerable controversy and confusion over rights of the state, rights of private firms, and the land commissioner'sjurisdiction, the Indiana salvage firm began returning treasure to the state. The firm then filed suit in a federal court against the state actions, and after 1968 several rulings were handed down verifying federal jurisdiction in the case, and an injunction was filed to halt state proceedings in the original suit. The Padre Island artifacts recovered from the salvaging company were taken first to the General Land Office, then to the Texas Memorial Museum,qv and in October 1969 to the University of Texas Balcones Research Center (now the J. J. Pickle Research Campusqv) in Austin. The case remained in litigation until 1984, when Attorney General Jim Mattox and the Texas Antiquities Committeeqv settled, awarding the salvage firm $313,000 while Texas kept the artifacts the firm had recovered from the Espíritu Santo.
As a result of the difficulties surrounding the salvaging attempts the Sixty-first Texas Legislature passed the Antiquities Bill in September 1969 to fix procedures in artifact-recovery attempts. The bill provided for a committee with the authority for the designation and regulation of archeological landmarks and the protection and preservation of the archeological resources of Texas. Strict limitations were placed on all salvaging and excavation attempted by private individuals or companies.
The Texas Antiquities Committee's investigations at the 1554 wreck site, tentatively identified as the San Esteban, began in 1972 with a detailed magnetometer survey and lasted three months with a crew of from five to eight people. In addition to extensive excavations at the site, a surface survey of the island opposite the wreck sites was carried out in order to locate evidence of the survivors or salvagers' camps. Over 12,000 kilograms of encrusted artifacts were recovered during the two seasons of excavation.
Of the hundreds of artifacts recovered from the San Esteban, the most significant for interpretation of the ship itself was the aft section of the keel with part of the sternpost, which gives an indication of the ship’s size (70-97 feet). Also recovered were wrought-iron anchors, cannon, tools, ship's fittings and fastenings, and silver coin and bullion. Of particular interest were several items of aboriginal manufacture, including a mirror made from a polished iron pyrite nodule and prismatic blades of obsidian. The collection from the San Esteban is housed in the Corpus Christi Museum.