to trace the Atocha and Tierra Firme Fleet's route)
On September 4, 1622 the Tierra Firme flota of twenty-eight
ships left Havana bound for Spain. With it was carried the wealth of an empire;
Silver from Peru and Mexico, gold and emeralds from Colombia, pearls from Venezuela.
Each ship carried its crew, soldiers, passengers, and all the necessary materials
and provisions for a successful voyage. The following day, the fleet found itself
being overtaken by a hurricane as it entered the Florida straits. By the morning
of September 6th, eight of these vessels lay broken on the ocean floor, scattered
from the Marquesas Keys to the Dry Tortugas. In them were the treasures of the
Americas, and the untold stories of scores of Spanish sailors, soldiers, noblemen,
to view a map of the Caribbean
The heavily armed Nuestra Señora de Atocha
sailed as Almirante, or rear guard, of the flota, following the others
to prevent an attack from behind the fleet. For additional protection, she bore
the name of the holiest of shrines in Madrid. She had been built for the Crown
in Havana in 1620 and was rated at 550 tons, with an overall length of 112 feet,
a beam of 34 feet and a draft of 14 feet. She carried square-rigged fore and
mainmasts, and a lateen-rigged mizzenmast. Atocha
would have had the high sterncastle, low waist and high forecastle of a typical
early 17th century galeón. She had made only one previous voyage
to Spain, during which her mainmast was burst, and had to be replaced.
For the 1622 return voyage, Atocha was loaded with
a cargo that is, today, almost beyond belief -- 24 tons of silver bullion in
1038 ingots, 180,00 pesos of silver coins, 582 copper ingots, 125 gold bars
and discs, 350 chests of indigo, 525 bales of tobacco, 20 bronze cannon and
1,200 pounds of worked silverware! To this can be added items being smuggled
to avoid taxation, and unregistered jewelry and personal goods; all creating
a treasure that could surely rival any other ever amassed.
The Nuestra Señora de Atocha sank with 265
people onboard. Only five -- three sailors and two slaves -- survived by holding
on to the stump of the mizzenmast, which was the only part of the wrecked galleon
that remained above water. Rescuers tried to enter the drowned hulk, but found
the hatches tightly battened. The water depth, at 55 feet, was to great to allow
them to work to open her. They marked the site of her loss and moved on to rescue
people and treasure from Santa Margarita and Nuestra Señora
del Rosario, other ships also lost in the storm. On October 5th a second
hurricane came through, and further destroyed the wreck of the Atocha.
For the next 60 years, Spanish salvagers searched for the galleon, but they
never found a trace. It seemed she was gone for good.
In 1969, Mel Fisher and his Treasure Salvors crew began a relentless, sixteen
year quest for the treasure of the Atocha. Using sand-clearing
propwash deflectors, or "mailboxes," that he invented, and specially-designed
proton magnetometers, they spent long years following the wreck’s elusive
trail--sometimes finding nothing for months, and then recovering bits of treasure
and artifacts that teasingly indicated the proximity of the ship and its cargo.
In 1973, three silver bars were found, and they matched the weights and tally
numbers found on the Atocha’s manifest, which had been transcribed from
the original in Seville. This verified that Fisher was close to the major part
of the wrecksite. In 1975, his son Dirk found five bronze cannon whose markings
would clinch identification with the Atocha. Only days later, Dirk and his wife
Angel, with diver Rick Gage, were killed when one of the salvage boats capsized.
Yet Fisher and his intrepid crew persevered.
By 1980, they had found a significant portion of the remains of the Santa
Margarita -- with a fortune in gold bars, jewelry and silver coins. On
May 12, 1980, Fisher’s son Kane discovered a complete section of the Margarita’s
wooden hull weighted down by ballast stones, iron cannon balls and artifacts
of 17th century Spain.
On July 20, 1985, Kane Fisher, captain of the salvage vessel Dauntless, sent
a jubilant message to his father’s headquarters, "Put away the charts;
we’ve found the main pile!" Ecstatic crew members described the find
as looking like a reef of silver bars. Within days, the shipper’s marks
on the bars were matched to the Atocha’s cargo
manifest, confirming Kane’s triumphant claim. At long last, the wreck’s
"motherlode" had been found -- and the excavation of what was widely
referred to as the "shipwreck of the century" began.
Quickly, Duncan Mathewson, Mel Fisher’s chief archaeologist, assembled
a team of archaeologists and conservators from across the country to ensure
that the artifacts and treasure were excavated and preserved properly. Because
the material had lain on the ocean floor for three and a half centuries, much
of it was in an extremely unstable state; immediate preservation treatment was
required to prevent its destruction after it left its saltwater tomb.
Today artifacts and treasures from the Atocha and
Margarita form the cornerstone of the Mel
Fisher Maritime Heritage Society Museum’s collection. Among the items
found on the wrecks are a fortune in gold, silver bars, and coins destined for
the coffers of Spain; a solid gold belt and necklace set with gems; a gold chalice
designed to prevent its user from being poisoned; an intricately-tooled gold
plate; a gold chain that weighs more than seven pounds; a horde of contraband
emeralds -- including an impressive 77.76 carat uncut hexagonal crystal experts
have traced to the Muzo mine in Colombia; religious and secular jewelry; and
With the treasure, and perhaps ultimately more important, were countless articles
that provide insight into seventeenth-century life, especially under sail: rare
navigational instruments, military armaments, native American objects, tools
of various trades, ceramic vessels, galley wares, even seeds and insects. A
portion of the Atocha’s lower hull were examined
and then recovered to be stored in a protected lagoon at the Florida Keys Community
College, making them readily accessible to interested researchers.
Following a long conservation process, the many of the artifacts from the Nuestra
Señora de Atocha and Santa Margarita are now on
permanent display at the not-for-profit Mel
Fisher Maritime Museum. Approximately 200,000 people visit the Key West
museum annually to marvel at them -- and applaud the triumph of the human spirit
that their recovery represents.
To trace the Atocha and Tierra Firme Fleet's
journey click here.