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"Tortugas" History

The items excavated from the site, including coins, gold bars, pearls and olive jars helped tell a tale of a lost Spanish merchant ship likely lost in 1622 while traveling with the famed Tierra Firme fleet. The question was – which one?

Establishing the identity of the deep-sea “Tortugas” wreck proved to be an intriguing puzzle for researchers. A 24-hour hurricane enveloped the Florida Keys in September 1622 but contemporary accounts of the devastation concentrated on the fate of the major ‘treasure’ ships in the Tierra Firme fleet. References to the smaller, less valuable merchant vessels that were not transporting Crown property received cursory coverage. In addition, the same ship is often cited under multiple different names or just by the name of the owner or captain, some of whom do not match listed personnel. On occasions, a ship and owner/captain’s name seems to be conflated. Multiple vessels also carried the same name.


The Fate of the Tierra Firme Fleet

Historical documents confirm that the Tierra Firme fleet set sail from Portobello (Panama) on 22 July 22, 1622, and reached Cartagena (Columbia) on July 27. On August 3, the ships continued towards Havana (Cuba) where they dropped anchor on August 22 to prepare for their home voyage to Spain.


The governor of Havana called a council with various authorities to declare a optimum date of departure for the fleet.  Despite prevailing fair weather, the collective wisdom favored remaining in port pending the lunar conjunction, expected on September 5, which “did commonly in those parts bring clouds and obfuscation of ayre, which would not vanish without tempests, and turbulent winds”


Behind schedule and well into hurricane season, 28 ships with their “Admirall”, eight galleons, three pinaces (presumably pataches) and “other attendants upon the Fleet, with their consorts” eventually left port at sunrise on Sunday, September 4. Rather than head directly for the Bahama Channel, the fleet spent the day tacking in front of Havana, monitoring whether the lunar conjunction was likely to improve conditions.


By Monday, the fleet was underway at the worst possible time. The weather window had indeed changed and the incoming winds turned to the northeast. A storm was brewing and the ships wound up their mainsails, tied them fast to the yards and continued solely under the power of their mizzen sails. The wind strengthened and started to whistle, the clouds thickened and the horizon turned overcast. At sunrise the fleet was very close to the Tortugas Islands and ‘Bajos de los Martires’ when the hurricane landed. The air became so dark that the fleet ships lost sight of one another.


The ships remained victims of the elements and incapable of steering under sail, a condition that forced the 630-ton Santa Margarita’s mainmast to snap and its rudder to break. The storm continued to rage until the morning of September 6 , leaving behind a trail of devastation.


The surviving ships headed back to Havana for repairs and to survey the damage, limping into port between September 10-14. On Monday, September 12, only 10 ships had returned safely to port, seven merchant vessels and three galleons, all dismasted and full of water.


Sources loosely report that five galleons, 11 other ships, plus “some others” from the Tierra Firme fleet eventually reached Havana safely. On all eight wrecks scattered across more than 80km of the Florida Keys as far east as the Marquesas Keys, around 550 people, including 121 priests, drowned. 


Identifying the Wreck

The cargo found on the “Tortugas” shipwreck’s closely matches sets excavated from the Atocha and Margarita.  The “Tortugas” coin assemblage includes no issues post-dating 1622 and the latest match by mint and assayer those recorded on the Atocha and Margarita. Additional sets of artifacts recovered from the Atocha are duplicated on the Tortugas site in the form of gold finger bars stamped with identical mint, quinto and karat quality production marks, while the four forms of olive jars, the table wares and non-Spanish kitchen colonowares clearly originated in the same kilns as the ceramic wares from the Atocha. Other parallel artifacts include the astrolabes, beads and a bronze mortar and pestle.

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