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Crew view side-scan sonar image of the
A gold bar is recovered from the 1622
Gold bars from the 1622
Pearls from the 1622
Spanish olive jars from the 1622

"Tortugas" Historical Overview

The "Tortugas" wreck site lies in the Florida Strait about 70 miles southwest of Key West near the Dry Tortugas Islands. The location of the site and the artifacts recovered, including gold bars, silver coins and pearls mined in the New World, suggests a vessel of 17th-century Spanish origin, likely one of the merchant ships—Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario —that had sailed with the 1622 Tierra Firme treasure fleet.

During the 17th century, the Spanish Empire claimed vast territories on four continents, including much of the New World. To keep her enormous empire afloat, Spain relied on the wealth she obtained from her colonies—valuable agricultural goods, gold, silver and gems delivered to Spain on merchant ships. Spain’s American colonies alone yielded billions of dollars of gold and silver harvested from their mineral-rich mines.

Flotas, or fleets of ships, were an integral part of the economics that developed early in the three centuries of Spain’s Colonial rule. Each year several fleets transported precious goods from the New World back to Spain. Routinely the merchant or cargo-carrying vessels were accompanied by heavily armed warships. Traveling in fleets offered protection from pirates and privateers, and safer transport of their consignment of treasures.

By 1622, Spain’s resources were severely strained. The Thirty Years’ War had taken its toll, further intensified when the Dutch joined the French in attacking Spanish vessels. The cost of fighting seriously overextended the Royal Treasury and Spain’s Crown had borrowed heavily from foreign moneylenders to help finance the war. Her continued position as a world power was dependent on the wealth she reaped from the natural resources of the Americas. 

In early spring of 1622, the Tierra Firme fleet departed Spain bound for ports of South America. Traditional stops included Cartagena, Colombia, Portobello, Panama and the coast of Venezuela where the ships would load gold and silver from Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia. The larger and more heavily armed galleons would carry the gold and silver, while the smaller merchant ships carried mostly agricultural products. With its cargo of precious goods, the fleet would then proceed to the port of Havana in March to rejoin the New Spain fleet of ships which had sailed separately for Vera Cruz to collect treasures from Mexico and products from the Philippines shipped via the Pacific. Once in Havana, the ships were refitted and provisioned for their return trip to Spain in the early summer.

However, problems and weather delayed the rendezvous of the two Spanish 1622 fleets until late in August, the height of the Caribbean’s hurricane season. The New Spain fleet departed Havana immediately. But the Tierra Firme ships, under the command of the Marquis of Cardereita, did not set sail for Spain until September 4th, 1622—six weeks behind schedule.

To take advantage of the Gulf Stream’s strong currents, while staying close to land, the ships headed north from Havana, through the Straits of Florida. One day into its voyage, between Cuba and Florida, the fleet encountered a fierce hurricane. The storm moved rapidly westward and scattered the ships, capsizing some and slamming others onto the Florida Keys. Debris was spread from the Dry Tortugas to the Marquesas Keys. 

Three treasure ships were lost in the storm, the famous Nuestra Senora de Atocha, Santa Margarita and Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario. Among the other victims was the smaller 117-ton merchant vessel Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario .

The loss of the 1622 Tierra Firme treasure fleet was devastating to Spain. Her Royal Treasury already depleted, the Crown was driven further in debt as she continued to borrow foreign money to finance her war against the Dutch and the French.

The "Tortugas" Identity

Most accounts agree that the three Tierra Firme treasure galleons lost in the September 1622 hurricane were indeed the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, Santa Margarita and Nuestra Senora del Rosario—further identified through their recovery by early Spanish and later modern commercial salvage operations.

Less is known about the other ships that sank in the storm that day. A combination of historical research examined in conjunction with archaeological data, including artifacts recovered from the site, suggests that the most plausible candidate for the "Tortugas" shipwreck is the Portuguese built and Spanish-operated Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario. This small Spanish merchant ship was owned by Juan de la Torre and captained by shipmaster Manuel Diaz,. At 117-tons, the weight of the vessel falls within the range of the "Tortugas" wreck.

The pearls recovered from the shipwreck suggest the the Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario stopped in eastern Venezuela, which, along with Islands of Coche, Cubagua and Margarita, was the source of Spain’s richest pearl beds throughout the 16th and 17th-century colonial exploitation of the Americas. , The ship’s voyage is further confirmed in the historical records which indicate the Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario headed to Nueva Cordoba, the antiquated name for Cumana, located at the mouth of the Manzanares River on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast.

Further, the coin assemblage found at the site includes no coins dated later than 1622 and the gold finger bars feature the same markings as those recovered at the Atocha wreck site. Other items among the "Tortugas" ceramic collection share similarities with the Atocha findings. Graffito incisions on either the shoulder or rim of several of the "Tortugas" olive jars appear to be the same as those which are inscribed on similars jars in the Atocha assemblage. Additionally, some of the tableware recovered from the “Tortugas” such as the Blue-on-Blue Seville Majolica is similarly attested on the 1622 wreck of the Atocha. Other artifacts, including glassware, rosary beads, mariner’s astrolabes and two bronze mortar and pestle sets, are also duplicates of the Atocha finds—further confirming the "Tortugas" Spanish colonial identify and its 1622 wreck date.

 

 

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