In April, 1554, a fleet of 20 Spanish galleons set sail from Mexico laden with loot stolen by the Conquistadores from the fabulous treasure house of Montezuma, last of the Aztec rulers. It was probably the largest and richest fleet ever to leave for Spain. The ships were heavy with casks of coins from the New World destined for the treasury of Charles I.
Aboard the ships were about 1.000 persons, including Fray Juan Ferrer, a well-known Dominican missionary who sprinkled gloom over an otherwise jubilant journey with the sour prediction: “Woe be to those who are going to Spain. Neither we nor the fleet will ever survive …” The priest was right. About 300 persons survived the wreckage of the galleons. All but two were slain later on land by Indians. Their deaths were found recorded years later in old Spanish documents dating back to that period.
Less than two weeks later, a furious storm in the Gulf of Mexico drove most of the ships back toward the coast, where they sank near Padre Island, a long pencil-thin sliver of land just off the Texas coast. The Fleet consisted of four caravels, the San Andrés,the Santa María de Yciar, the San Estéban, and the Espíritu Santo, all but the first of which foundered.
For more than four centuries the treasure In those ships has lain on the sea’s bottom, underneath 10 feet of sand and In less than 30 feet of water. Much of the treasure was salvaged soon afterward by the Spanish. In the 1960s two of the ships were rediscovered and salvaged by an out-of-state company, causing controversy by removing what Texans thought should belong to their state. A tiny cross of pure gold, smaller than a person’s thumb and worth an estimated $100,000 was brought up in 1967.
So were several astrolabes, forerunners of the sextant, possibly worth up to $75,000 apiece, and a solid bar of silver that weighed 29 pounds. The firm also found a crossbow with the wood and metal still preserved, cannon, coins—including those first minted in the New World in Mexico City—and other priceless artifacts. All were found about a half-mile offshore.
To some, these relics mean great potential wealth. To others, wealth is secondary to the incredible historical value of the ships and their cargo, including even such simple items as pottery, knives and forks.
The third wreck-site was apparently obliterated by a dredging operation in the late 1940’s on what is known as the Mansfield Cut, a manmade inlet. Platoro Inc., a private firm from Indiana, found just about all the treasure, including the gold cross, that has been raised so far off Padre Island. But, according to state officials, it accomplished the task by churning up the ocean bottom with a ship’s propellers, totally disregarding the historical value of the galleons and the damage this method of salvage could do to them.
Under a court order. Platoro eventually had to turn over the artifacts to Texas. But It wants them back. Ownership of these items and rights to the sunken treasure are being fought over In federal court. The 1554 Fleet wrecks have yielded almost exclusively Mexican coinage of Carlos-Juana, some of which still washes up on the beaches of Padre Island. Even when found on the beach, these coins are illegal to own in Texas, which has declared them all to be the property of the State, but they do trade freely elsewhere.