In April of 1554, four Spanish naos (a type of cargo and passenger ship similar to Columbus’s Santa Maria) left Veracruz, Mexico bound for Havana, Cuba and then Spain. A Spanish priest named Juan Ferrer was one of the passengers and before the ships set sail, he had a prophecy that the ships would meet with disaster. Many of the other passengers were merchants and nobles that were returning to Spain with their families. Records indicate that the ships were carrying more than 85,000 pounds of silver coins stored in wooded barrels.
The ships almost made it to Havana before they were hit by a powerful storm. Only one of the four limped into the harbor at Havana. The other three were blown all the way back across the Gulf of Mexico and on to the beach at Padre Island. About half of the three hundred people on board the San Esteban, Espritu Santo, and Santa Maria de Yciar survived and made it to shore. The survivors included many women and small children.
The crew had managed to salvage a small boat from one of the ships and about 30 of them set off towards Mexico for help. After six or seven days, when no help arrived, the remaining survivors decided to walk to Tampico. They believed that it was only a two or three day walk but it was actually almost 400 miles.
The survivors dragged their way down the beach, many were sick and injured, they were short of food and water. After several days, they were approached by a large group of Karankawa Indians. The Indians seemed friendly at first, offering food and water, but suddenly they attacked. The Spaniards were poorly armed, but they managed to fight off the attack as they struggled to escape down the length of Padre Island.
For days, the Indians pursued the survivors, picking off stragglers, one by one with their bows and arrows. The Spaniards finally made it to the Rio Grande. It was too deep to wade, so they built crude rafts out of driftwood. The rafts were unstable and during the crossing, they lost all of their crossbows.
Soon after, the Indians captured two of the Spaniards but set them free after taking their clothes. The desperate survivors thought that maybe the Indians would leave them alone if they gave them their clothing, so they stripped naked and continued their march. The women were so embarrassed by their nakedness, that the priest told them and the children to walk ahead of the men. This proved to be a mistake when the Karankawa circled around and ambushed them, killing them all. The distraught men carried on for several more days but eventually all but two had been killed.
ONLY TWO SURVIVORS
One of the survivors was named Francisco Vazquez. Early on in the pursuit he had slipped away from the group and made his way back to the site of the wrecks, where he hid in the dunes until he was rescued by a Spanish ship.
The other survivor was a priest named Marcos de Mena. During one of the final attacks, he was struck by multiple arrows and fell down prepared to die. The Indians moved on and after awhile, the priest revived and eventually made his way to the village of Pánuco. It is from Fray Marcos de Mena that we have a written account of what happened to the survivors.
HISTORIC RECOVERY ATTEMPT
Upon learning of the disaster, Spanish officials in Mexico organized a salvage expedition which arrived at the scene several months later. The San Esteban was still visible above the waves. They set up camp on the beach and for two months, free-diving salvage workers brought up load after load of silver reales. It is estimated that they recovered 40% of the treasure, the remaining 60% was lost to the Island.
The location of these historic ships had been lost to time until one of them was discovered during the dredging of the Port Mansfield channel in the late 1950's. The dredge passed right over the Santa Maria de Yciar, destroying it. Only a few relics from this wreck have ever been recovered, including one of the anchors. Word spread quickly of the find and treasure hunter's soon found the Espritu Santo about 3 miles further north and the San Esteban another 2˝ miles north of that.
In 1967, a professional salvage company (Platoro, Ltd.), began excavation of the Espiritu Santo. The State of Texas quickly shut down the operation and sued Platoro for recovery of the artifacts. The case remained in litigation until 1984, when a settlement was reached, awarding the salvage firm $313,000 while Texas kept the artifacts.
The 1554 wrecks on Padre Island are the oldest shipwrecks ever found in the US. The Texas Antiquities Committee conducted scientific excavation and recovery of the San Esteban in 1972 and recovered more than 25,000 pounds of encrusted artifacts. Today, this historic collection from the San Esteban can be seen at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science & History.
Over the years, many people have found old spanish coins washed up on the beaches of Padre Island. However, it is illegal to keep them and the use of metal detectors on Padre Island National Seashore is prohibitied.