Shipwreck of the Atocha

It was June 13, 1971. Don Kincaid, who had been diving off the coast of the Florida Keys, made his way to the surface with a handful of something shiny, coiled up like a small snake. He climbed aboard the work boat Virgalona with the aid of a ladder, and excitedly spread his find out for his colleagues to see.

Kincaid’s boss, shipwreck hunter Mel Fisher, congratulated him and radioed to his other cruiser nearby to join them. Kincaid had found nearly eight feet of gold chain, a sign that Fisher and his team were close to something big. In time, they would learn that they had found the remains of a Spanish treasure ship, part of a fleet lost in a hurricane in 1622. The ship was called Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

The workship James Bay, used by Mel Fisher and his crew to excavate the remains of the Spanish galleon Atocha.

The work ship James Bay, used by Mel Fisher and his crew to excavate the remains of the Spanish galleon Atocha (1979).

The Spanish government sent treasure fleets periodically to its New World possessions to collect gold, silver, precious stones, and trade goods that had been mined or produced there. The ships then returned to Spain to deliver their holdings into the coffers of the Spanish monarchy. The Atocha had been recently built at Havana, Cuba for one of these missions. The name Nuestra Señora de Atocha honored the Virgin of a shrine near Madrid. The ship was 600 tons.

An example of a Spanish galleon similar to the Atocha, on display at McKee's Museum of Sunken Treasure on Plantation Key (1972).

An example of a Spanish galleon similar to the Atocha, on display at McKee’s Museum of Sunken Treasure on Plantation Key (1972).

When the 1622 treasure fleet left Spain in April, it carried wine, cloth, ironwork, and books to distribute to Spanish settlements in the Americas. It also carried around half a million pounds of mercury, which would be used to extract silver from ore mined in what is now Bolivia. When the fleet reached the New World, the ships began trading their goods for the riches of the Americas. They took on silver from Peru, gold bars and silver coins from New Granada, tobacco, indigo, and tons of Cuban copper.

Fleet officials were already getting nervous; hurricane season had started. The oppressive tropical summer heat was intense, and workers cursed and sweated in the baking sun as they loaded cargo and tended their ships. The Atocha and its sister vessels remained docked at Havana while their captains awaited the new moon, which they believed would provide fairer sailing weather until they could get past the dangerous Florida coast. On September 4th, the fleet finally put out to sea.

 

Map showing the approximate location of the wreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha.

Map showing the approximate location of the wreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha (indicated by a red circle).

Less than two days later, a powerful hurricane passed over the fleet near the Dry Tortugas, snapping masts and scattering the ships. Two of the ships, Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita, sunk within sight of one another after running aground between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. Only five people from the Atocha survived, one sailor, two ship’s boys, and two slaves.

The loss of the treasure of the Atocha and the Santa Margarita was a significant financial blow for Spain. The Spanish government needed this money to run the country, especially the military, which was involved at this time in the ongoing Thirty Years’ War plaguing Central Europe. The Spanish sent salvage ships to the supposed site of the wreck, where indigenous slaves dove to the sea floor with the aid of a diving bell to search for the lost cargo. Eventually, the Spanish recovered about half of the treasure lost from the Santa Maragrita. One Spanish recovery mission found the location of the Atocha, but the water was too deep for divers to reach it. The Spaniards had little choice to abandon the wreck and its treasure in the churning waters of the Florida Straits, where it would remain for over 300 years.

Treasure hunter Mel Fisher viewing items recovered from the wreck of the Atocha (1978).

Treasure hunter Mel Fisher viewing items recovered from the wreck of the Atocha (1978).

That is, until Don Kincaid swam to the surface to show his shining discovery to shipwreck hunter Mel Fisher. After nearly two years of additional searching, Fisher’s crew began unearthing large amounts of treasure from the sea floor. On one day in May 1973, the divers brought up around 1,500 coins. They nicknamed the area the “Bank of Spain.”

 Gold coins from the wreck of the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Gold coins from the wreck of the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

The treasures kept coming. Swords, cannonballs, gold bars, a rosary, the navigator’s astrolabe – treasure after priceless treasure emerged from the deep. Some were sold to pay for the costs of the hunt, including payments to people who had invested in Mel Fisher’s expedition. Many artifacts from the Atocha are now on display in museums around the Florida Keys.

Treasure from the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Treasure from the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Cannons taken from the wreck of the Atocha (1975).

Cannons taken from the wreck of the Atocha (1975).

Astrolabe from the wreck of the Atocha (circa 1980s).

Astrolabe from the wreck of the Atocha (circa 1980s).

What secrets lie beneath the waters near your Florida community? Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more photos of shipwrecks and the treasures they have yielded over the years.

New Accession Spotlight: 1926 Miami Hurricane Letter

Collections Management staff at the State Archives of Florida spends much of their time bringing new collections into the Archives and readying them for public access. Though the majority of our holdings document the activities and functions of Florida’s territorial and state government, the Archives also preserves and makes available papers, journals, photographs, sound recordings, and other materials created by private individuals and organizations.

Despite the fact that our most recent manuscript donation consists of only one item, its provides a strong first person account of significant events in Florida history. This prompted staff to quickly digitize and transcribe the item for inclusion on the Florida Memory website.

Excerpt from a letter describing the 1926 Miami Hurricane

The donation consists of a single hand-written letter describing hurricanes that hit southern Florida on September 18 and October 21, 1926. Written by “Kaye” from the Floridian Hotel, Miami Beach, to Louise Webber (d. 1993) of Bangor, Maine, the twelve page account details Kaye’s activities both during and in the aftermath of the storms.

Excerpt from page 3: "There was a barge smashing against the viaduct and a beautiful yacht right under our window being dashed to pieces on the sea wall in the lull we could hear the men aboard shouting, finally the lights went out and we could hear no more. I suppose they abandoned her when the water got inside."

Excerpt from page 3: “There was a barge smashing against the viaduct and a beautiful yacht right under our window being dashed to pieces on the sea wall. In the lull we could hear the men aboard shouting, finally the lights went out and we could hear no more. I suppose they abandoned her when the water got inside.”

Kaye began with a brief account of the October 21st storm before plunging into the events of September 18th and the days that followed. While it is known from the letter that Kaye was a resident and employee of The Floridian Hotel, her exploits detail conditions beyond the Floridian, especially during her walk across the causeway and to Hollywood in search of “her folks.”

Do you have original materials related to significant people, places, or events in Florida history? Learn more about donating them to the State Archives of Florida.

Lesser Known Florida Hurricanes: Jupiter Inlet (1696)

The Atlantic hurricane season is once again upon us. It’s time for preparation… and a little history.

Some of the most famous storms in the annals of hurricane history made landfall in Florida. The Sunshine State is certainly not alone in suffering from tropical weather; Hugo, Gilbert, Katrina, Mitch, and Sandy immediately come to mind.

We remember the devastation from Andrew, Charley, Donna, Jeanne, Francis and many others, but what about the lesser known hurricanes in Florida history? This series of blog posts takes a look back at lesser known hurricanes and other tidbits concerning tropical weather in Florida history.

Today, we take a look back at the Jupiter Inlet Hurricane of 1696 as described by Jonathan Dickinson.

Excerpt from "Insulae Americanae in Oceano Septentrionali ac Regiones Adiacentes..." by Nicolaes Visscher (1680)

Excerpt from “Insulae Americanae in Oceano Septentrionali ac Regiones Adiacentes…” by Nicolaes Visscher (1680)

On September 23, 1696, a hurricane of unknown strength impacted South Florida. Jonathan Dickinson, a Quaker merchant, and several of his traveling companions aboard the bark Reformation fell victim to the high seas whipped up by the storm. Tossed and battered by persistent wind and waves, the Reformation wrecked on a sandbar near what is today known as Jupiter Inlet. Dickinson survived the ordeal and wrote a journal about his experience. Below is an excerpt from his account describing the hurricane and subsequent shipwreck:

“About one o’clock in the morning we felt our vessel strike some few stokes, and then she floated again for five of six minutes before she ran fast aground, where she beat violently at first. The wind was so violent and it was very dark, that our mariners could see no land; the seas broke over us that we were in a quarter of an hour floating in the cabin: we endeavored to get a candle lighted, which in a little time was accomplished.

“By this time we felt the vessel not to strike so often but several of her timbers were broken and some plank started. The seas continued breaking over us and no land to be seen; we concluded to keep in the vessel as long as she would hold together. About the third hour this morning we supposed we saw land at some considerable distance, and at this time we found the water began to run out of the vessel.

“And at daylight we perceived we were upon the shore, on a beach lying in the breach of the sea which at times as the surges of the sea reversed was dry. In taking a view of our vessel, we found that the violence of the weather had forced many sorts of seabirds on board our vessel, some of which were by force of the wind blown into and under our hen-cubs and many remained alive. Our hogs and sheep were washed away and swam on shore, except one of the hogs which remained in the vessel.

“We rejoiced at this our preservation from the raging sea; but at the same instant feared the sad consequences that followed: yet having hopes still we got our sick and lame on shore, also our provisions, with spars and sails to make a tent.”

The party encountered local Native Americans known as the Jaega soon after reaching dry land. Over the next two months the survivors endured an arduous journey along the Florida coast. In early October they were captured by the Santa Luces, a band of Ais Indians who lived in modern-day St. Lucie and Indian River counties. Dickinson’s descriptions of Jaega and Ais ceremonies are similar to other captivity narratives and offer tremendous insight into the customs and rituals of indigenous Floridians.

"The Florida Indians Capture the Shipwrecked Company," from Pieter van der Aa, Naaukeuirge Versameling der Gedenk-waardigste Zee en Landreysen na Oost en West-Indien (1707)

“The Florida Indians Capture the Shipwrecked Company,” from Pieter van der Aa, Naaukeuirge Versameling der Gedenk-waardigste Zee en Landreysen na Oost en West-Indien (1707)

Eventually, the tired and weary travelers were escorted to St. Augustine. There, the Spaniards arranged for passage to Charleston (then known as Charles Town) and thence to Philadelphia, their original destination. As suggested by the title of Dickinson’s journal, he attributed their survival to “God’s Protecting Providence.”

To learn more, see Evangeline Walker Andrews and Charles McLean Andrews, eds., Jonathan Dickinson’s Journal, Or God’s Protecting Providence… (Yale University Press, 1945).

Lesser Known Florida Hurricanes: Pensacola Bay (1559)

The Atlantic hurricane season is once again upon us. It’s time for preparation… and a little history.

Some of the most famous storms in the annals of hurricane history made landfall in Florida. The Sunshine State is certainly not alone in suffering from tropical weather; Hugo, Gilbert, Katrina, Mitch, and Sandy immediately come to mind.

We remember the devastation from Andrew, Charley, Donna, Jeanne, Francis and many others, but what about the lesser known hurricanes in Florida history? This series of blog posts takes a look back at lesser known hurricanes and other tidbits concerning tropical weather in Florida history.

Today, we look back at the storm that derailed Spanish attempts to establish a colony at Pensacola Bay in 1559.

"Plan de la Baye de Pansacola" by Jacques Nicolas Bellin (1744)

“Plan de la Baye de Pansacola” by Jacques Nicolas Bellin (1744)

On June 11, 1559, 1,500 colonists and soldiers under the command of Tristán de Luna y Arellano (1519–1571) left Mexico bound for the northern Gulf coast. They intended to establish a colony at one of the sheltered harbors along the coast and use the settlement as a base of operations for expanding Spain’s reach into the interior southeast.

On September 19, just five days after arriving at Pensacola Bay, a violent hurricane pounded the nascent settlement. De Luna later wrote to the King of Spain about the storm:

“…there came up from the north a fierce tempest, which, blowing for twenty-four hours from all directions…without stopping but increasingly continuously, did irreparable damage to the ships of the fleet…great loss by seamen and passengers, both of their lives as well as of their property. All the ships which were in this port went aground (although it is one of the best ports there are in these Indies), save only one caravel and two barks, which escaped. This has reduced us to such extremity that unless I provide soon for the need in which it left us…I do not know how I can maintain the people…”

Following the storm, de Luna sent a portion of the settlers and soldiers inland in search of provisions. Ultimately, their efforts to extort crops from Native American tribes failed and the project was abandoned within two years of de Luna’s initial landing at Pensacola Bay. The Spanish would not return to the area until 1698, when they reestablished a settlement that persists today as the American city of Pensacola.

To learn more, see Herbert Ingram Priestley, The Luna Papers, 1559-1561 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010); Roger C. Smith et al., The Emanuel Point Ship: Archaeological Investigations, 1992-1995, Preliminary Report (Tallahassee: Division of Historical Resources, Bureau of Archaeological Research, 1995); Roger C. Smith et al., The Emanuel Point Ship: Archaeological Investigations, 1997-1998 (Pensacola: University of West Florida, 1998). Copies of documents related to the failed colony are available at the State Archives of Florida, Tallahassee, in Series 1632: Historic Pensacola Preservation Board, Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano.
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Lesser Known Florida Hurricanes: West Florida (1772)

The Atlantic hurricane season is once again upon us. It’s time for preparation… and a little history.

Some of the most famous storms in the annals of hurricane history made landfall in Florida. The Sunshine State is certainly not alone in suffering from tropical weather; Hugo, Gilbert, Katrina, Mitch, and Sandy immediately come to mind.

We remember the devastation from Andrew, Charley, Donna, Jeanne, Francis and many others, but what about the lesser known hurricanes in Florida history? This series of blog posts takes a look back at lesser known hurricanes and other tidbits concerning tropical weather in Florida history.

Today, we look back at Bernard Romans’ account of the West Florida Hurricane of 1772.

Excerpt from Romans’ “A General Map of the Southern British Colonies in America…” (1776), showing the area effected by the West Florida Hurricane of 1772

Excerpt from Romans’ “A General Map of the Southern British Colonies in America…” (1776), showing the area effected by the West Florida Hurricane of 1772

Between August 30 and September 3, 1772, a powerful hurricane battered West Florida. Bernard Romans—naturalist, cartographer, soldier, and author of A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida (1775)—wrote a vivid account of the storm. At the time the hurricane struck the northern Gulf coast, British Florida stretched from St. Augustine on the Atlantic Ocean, all the way to the Mississippi River near New Orleans. The British administered the colony as two provinces: East and West Florida.

Romans’ notes on the 1772 West Florida Hurricane are believed to be the only published account of the storm. Below is an excerpt from A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida, pages 4-5:

“The fatal hurricane of August 30, 31, September 1, 2, 3, anno 1772, was severely felt in West Florida, it destroyed the woods for about 30 miles from the sea coast in a terrible manner… [I]n Pensacola it did little or no mischief except the breaking down of all the wharfs but one; but farther westward, it was terrible… [A]t Mobile every thing was in confusion, vessels, boats, and goods were drove up in to the streets a great distance…all the vegetables were burned up by the salt water…all the lower floors of the houses were covered with water…”

Romans went on to describe the destruction of plantations near New Orleans on the Mississippi River and the hardships faced by residents of the area.

To learn more, see Bernard Romans, A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida… (University of Florida Press, 1962 [1775]).

Lesser Known Florida Hurricanes: Carrabelle (1899)

The Atlantic hurricane season is once again upon us. It’s time for preparation… and a little history.

Satellite view of Hurricane Andrew, 1992

Some of the most famous storms in the annals of hurricane history made landfall in Florida. The Sunshine State is certainly not alone in suffering from tropical weather; Hugo, Gilbert, Katrina, and Sandy immediately come to mind.

We remember the devastation from Andrew, Charley, Donna, Jeanne, Francis and many others, but what about the lesser known hurricanes in Florida history? This series of blog posts takes a look back at lesser known hurricanes and other tidbits concerning tropical weather in Florida history.

Today, we look back at photographs from the 1899 hurricane season, when a storm packing 100 mile per hour winds slammed into the Florida Panhandle.

Carrabelle railroad depot destroyed by the 1899 hurricane

Carrabelle railroad depot destroyed by the 1899 hurricane

After first making landfall in the Dominican Republic, the storm passed over Islamorada in the Florida Keys on July 30. The storm reformed over the Gulf of Mexico and reached its peak intensity on August 1 shortly before landfall in the Panhandle.

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Labor Day Hurricane (1935)

On September 2, 1935, a powerful hurricane made landfall in the Florida Keys. The storm was responsible for at least 485 deaths and an estimated $6 million in property damage. The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 was the first Category 5 hurricane to strike the United States in recorded history.

Today, we remember those who lost their lives during this terrible storm.

Rescue train swept off the tracks by the 1935 Labor Day hurricane

Rescue train swept off the tracks by the 1935 Labor Day hurricane

Monument to the victims of the 1935 hurricane: Islamorada, Florida Keys

Monument to the victims of the 1935 hurricane: Islamorada, Florida Keys