Partial 1777 map showing the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Library of Congress
THE LOST SHIPS of the 1766 SPANISH TREASURE FLEET
By Steven Danforth Singer
I remember reading about the salvage of the wreck of the El Nuevo Constante. The only ship known to have been found in modern times from the 1766 New Spain (Nueva España) treasure fleet, which left Vera Cruz for Havana on August 21, 1766. It was found by a local shrimper in 1979, about a mile off the Cameron Parish, Louisiana coast, in 15-20’ of water. Having snagged some copper ingots in his net, and realizing he’d found an old shipwreck, some treasure, a cannon, and other artifacts were recovered. The site soon came under the control of the State of Louisiana, and an archaeological investigation was then performed in the 1980’s. The wreck was eventually identified as the Constante which went aground in 1766. Local place names dating back to 1766 like “Constance Bayou,” also helped in the identification. All the crew had survived after it wrecked, and much of the treasure was soon salvaged, though some still remained. I’m not going to go into the story of the wreck, but anyone interested can check out the book: The Last Voyage of the El Nuevo Constante, by Charles Pearson & Paul Hoffman, or can simply do an internet search of the El Neuvo Constante shipwreck. The following State of Louisiana website is a great reference site: https://www.crt.state.la.us/dataprojects/archaeology/elnuevoconstante/assets/el-nuevo-constante.pdf
Recently I came across some 18th century newspaper reports regarding the loss of the fleet. It appears two hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast in 1766, one in early September that made landfall in the Galveston area, and which wrecked part of the 1766 fleet, and another that slammed the Pensacola area on Oct. 22. The first newspaper report I came across was from Charleston (called Charles-Town back then) dated Dec.23, 1766. A Capt. Henderson had arrived there from Pensacola. He reported about the Oct.22, 1766 hurricane that devastated the Pensacola area, but also reported “that five very rich Spanish galleons, from La Vera Cruz, for Havana and Old Spain, were drove ashore in the Bay of St. Bernard, W. and S. of Pensacola, some time before the hurricane of Oct. 22.” It also stated that a ship from New Orleans had been sent to help with the rescue/salvage but was presumed lost and that the British naval vessel Adventure sailed from Pensacola on Nov.11, “to give all possible assistance.” A 1777 map (see attached), clearly shows the Bay of St. Bernard, and also says this is the area La Salle settled in 1685. Historians have pretty much determined that La Salle came ashore in Matagorda Bay and settled in the area of present-day Victoria, TX, and the map does indicate that Matagorda is the present-day name of that bay. The archaeological report from the 1980’s investigation also states there were actually six merchant ships and one warship that left Vera Cruz on August 21, 1766.
A Capt. Edwards arrived in Charleston in early Feb, 1767, fourteen days after leaving Pensacola. He reported that all the Spanish galleons that had drove ashore in the Bay of St. Bernard were “entirely lost, and the people belonging to them gone to Havana, having saved nothing but money, and even lost some of that.” There was no mention of exactly how many vessels he actually saw wrecked in the bay though.
I had also checked Lloyd’s List for the years 1766 and 67, which is a great source regarding vessels movements, losses, etc. The first report I found about the fleet was in an Oct. 1766 report which mentions that the fleet or “Flota” as leaving Vera Cruz in early June, 1766, but goes on to state: “The Spanish Flota, which sailed from La Vera Cruz the beginning of June last, having been met by an Advice boat, put back the 25th ditto, and reloaded the Treasure.” I’m going to speculate that more treasure had arrived at Vera Cruz right after the fleet left, and that the fleet was ordered back in order to load this additional cargo.
The first report in Lloyd’s of the fleet encountering a hurricane was reported in the Jan. Lloyd’s List, and says: “The Flota, from La Vera Cruz, sailed from thence the 21st of Aug. and on the 1st of Sept. met a violent storm at S.E. which lasted until the 4th, in which they all separated; on the 23rd and 30th ditto, the Triumph and the Pearl arrived at the Havannah, and Letters from thence on the 21st of Oct. brings no Account of the M. of W. except that when separated, the Capt. had lost her fore Yard.” This statement is a little confusing. I’ll assume the Pearl and Triumph are British ships but can’t say why they would be mentioned in the Lloyd’s report about the Spanish fleet. Were they tagging along with the fleet, maybe leased or bought to be added to the fleet, or just encountered the fleet while in the Gulf? And “letters from thence” I’ll guess are reports from Vera Cruz about the fleet. Who is the Capt. (maybe meant Capitana of the fleet)? The letters “M. of W.” would be referring to “Men (or Man) of War.”
Another February report in Lloyd’s goes on to say: “The Spain and Dragon Men of War, (part of the Flota which had sailed for Europe) arrived back at Vera Cruz, the 28th of September, and one of the Merchantmen, which sailed with them from Vera Cruz is lost, it is also said that the treasure is ordered to be taken out of the Dragon, and put on board another Ship.” Later reports said the fleet at Havana was waiting for the two ships from Vera Cruz, and the last report on the fleet said they eventually arrived at Cadiz. By referring to the two ships that returned to Vera Cruz as “Men of War,” I presume they were stating that both were naval vessels and not merchantmen, which means that two of the fleet were warships and not just one, but as reporting back then was not always accurate, I can’t say for sure.
As to how many of the fleet actually wrecked I can’t say. Supposedly there were seven ships in the fleet, one being a warship, though Lloyd’s says two. Were more ships added at the last minute. Remember, the fleet was ordered back to Vera Cruz to load additional treasure according to the one Lloyd’s report. Why are the English named Pearl & Triumph vessels mentioned in a report about the Spanish Fleet? The El Nuevo Constante had been alone for a few days after separating from the fleet before going aground, so it wouldn’t be the one mentioned by the one or two Men-of War that returned to Vera Cruz. The El Corazón de Jesús y Santa Bárbara, or La Caraquena, mentioned in the state’s archaeological report, is one of the other merchantmen that supposedly wrecked along the coast of Texas, and is possibly the one described by the ships that returned to Vera Cruz. Why did the captains coming into Pensacola all report more than one vessel had run ashore in the Bay of St. Bernard if not true?
Now we know that one ship wrecked off Louisiana, the Constante. It’s a good possibility that one or more wrecked in the Bay of St. Bernard area (present-day Matagorda Bay area). Other possible areas I’ve seen mentioned are off Sabine Pass, Texas, and elsewhere on the Louisiana coast as Spanish artifacts of that time frame have been found along the shoreline, but who knows for sure. As previously mentioned, the British vessel Adventure left Pensacola for St. Bernard to offer assistance on Nov. 11, 1766. This was a 5th rate, 32-gun frigate, under command of Capt. Thomas Fitzherbert. It’s quite possible her logbook may still be available in one of the British archives, and it would be very interesting to see if indeed the Adventure had come across any of the 1766 fleet shipwrecks and where they were located.
Other reports from Charleston in both July & August, 1767, with information gathered from a couple of captains having arrived from New-Providence (Bahamas), mention the “wreckers” salvaging treasure form one or two Spanish galleons. This threw me off at first as I thought maybe they were from the 1766 fleet. These were actually wrecks stated as “cast away some time ago, on the Bahama Banks.” It was reported that 20,000 pieces of eight had been recovered so far, and last report I found said : “That some wreckers had found two of the galleons, formerly mentioned in the papers as lost, and got a considerable quantity of treasure out of them. And that no less than 27 vessels were out upon the wreck of one, said to have had 12 millions of dollars on board.” I only mention these as they could be confused with the 1766 wrecks in the Gulf of Mexico as both the loss of the 1766 fleet and these Bahamian wrecks were reported in the first half of 1767. What Spanish ships these were was not reported except that they wrecked long ago.
If I were to search for one of the 1766 shipwrecks, Matagorda Bay would be a good place to start. That the wrecks were reported as “drove ashore,” they’d likely still be in shallow water. Maybe buried under deep sand, salvaged by others years later, or just laying on the seabed waiting to be found. Only time will tell.