Sea Hunt: A Case of Mistaken Identity
Recommended preliminary reading: Subaqueous Exploration and Archaeology, Ltd. and Indian River Recovery Co. Also a must the 4th Circuit Opinion awarding La Galga and the Juno to Spain.
On August 18, 1750, six Spanish ships and one Portugese departed Havana, Cuba, on a routine trip back to Spain loaded with treasure and other New World commodities. The 56 gun man of war, La Galga, was the escort. The fleet encountered a hurricane off northern Florida on August 25th. The fleet was disbursed and were caught in the northbound of the Gulf Stream and propelled toward the coast of North Carolina and Virginia. Two ships were lost at Cape Lookout, North Carolina; another was disabled at Ocracoke, North Narolina; two arrived safely at Hampton Roads, Virginia; a smaller vessel ran ashore north of Cape Charles, Virginia, and the last La Galga which ran shore on Assateague Island, Virfinia on September 5, 1750.
La Galga’s manifest stated she was not a treasure ship but there were a few valuable chests registered. She came ashore close to the beach in shallow water and did not sink. Everyone got ashore but five who drowned trying to carry money bags with them.
The Spaniards were told that they were located in Virginia at the border beteeen Maryland and Virginia. The Spaniards remained at the wreck site for three days until they were ferried to the mainland and travelled overland to Snow Hill, MD where they obtained passage to Norfolk, Virginia. The locals on the beach had demanding that Captain Huony surrender the wreck to them. His reply was that the “owner of the land” owned the wreck. By the third day it was reported that the hull was covered with sand.
In November, Huony was told about a survey while he was in Norfolk that placed the wreck two ships lengths north of the boundry inside Maryland. He wrote a letter to Governor Samuel Ogle of Maryland and conveyed the results of the survey. That letter survived in the Maryland State Archivess and was published with thousands of other Colonial documents in 1911. Over the years, accounts of the wreck’s precise location have beenn repeated in local histories and tourist literature.
In 1852, the Bark Sunbeam traveling from Havana to was lost near the Maryland-Virginia border in shallow water.
In 1859. The federal government surveyed the Virginia portion of Assateague Island. Two wrecks were noted visible either on the beach or in shallow water. One was 600 yards south of the present Maryland-Virginia boundary and another was 75 yards south of this.
In 1883, Maryland and Virginia finally agreed as to where the boundary was on Assateague. The line was moved a mile north but still south of the present boundary. The present line set in 1887 400 yards further north.
In 1943, the Department of Interior acquired the Virginia portion of Assateague through condemnation. Surveyors and researchers were hired to prepare a chain of title going back to the original patent of 1687. The boundary of 1687 was drawn as well as that of 1840. These lines are about 250 yards apart and situated a mile and a half south of the present line.
My personal involvement with La Galga began in 1978 when I discovered Captain Huony’s letter in the Maryland Archives. I thought it was a great find but wondered why I had not read about anyone finding La Galga. In 1980, I began my search having a competent researcher in the Spanish archives and my own research uncovered a letter from the Acting Governor of Virginia, Thomas Lee to the Board of Trade in England. He described the boundary line in 1750 as ending at Assateague “about latitude 38 degrees.” I knew that the wreck would lie between the present boundary and latitude 38 degrees, a distance of two miles. With these parameters, I was able to determine how long it would take to survey the area. The ship sat in shallow water after running aground, so it had to be within several hundred yards of the beach. A boat towing a magnetometer at five miles per hour could cover the two miles 250 yards out with fifty-foot separation of the transects in approximately six hours.
The week before our survey was to begin in 1980, I found out about Subaqueous Exploration and Archaeology, Ltd. and Donald Stewart’s quest for La Galga. He even published an article in the Maryland Coast Press without naming La Galga, saying the ship was carrying four million in treasure. He also drew a depiction of the wreck up against a sand bar with her stern sunk in deeper water. I soon found out that he was going to look on the Maryland side of the border. We abandoned 0ur search at latitude 38 and moved to the area just north of the boundary line and surveyed the area at the sand bar visible on the current NOAA chart. Nothing there. We then surveyed the sand bar on the Virginia side of the line and located magnetic anomalies.
On June 14, 1980, I attended the SEA, Ltd, prospective investors meeting in Ocean City. On the display table were numerour artifacts: Spanish coins, a belt buckle with a Spanish coat-of-arms and a small swivel gun all said or implied to have come from Assateague opposite the wreck site. I met Stewart, but not disclose my real interest of being there.
In August of 1980, I called Stewart to let him know what I was doing. He was surprised to know he had competition. I described to him the magnetic anomalies we had located on the shoal south of the boundary line. While on the phone he consulted the current NOAA chart as I described my findings. He said we could meet two days later in Ocean City, MD. During this time, he constructed a chart that he would show me that he said was a copy of a British survey done in 1752. The copy was made on a blue print machine. It showed a wreck symbol on the shoal in the exact spot that I had described to him. That night, I invested in SEA, Ltd. and afterwards investors who were sitting on the sidelines jumped in when they found out another treasure hunter had teemed with Stewart.
The area was thoroughly surveyed and more magnetic debris was located closer to the beach. The anomalies were small and suggested that whatever was there was not a Spanish warship that would have numerous iron fastenings, cannon balls etc. Excavation on the shoal produced nothing. Stewart than directed SEA, Ltd. to hunt for his make-believe wrecks described in Subaqueous.
In 1982, I teemed up with some other SEA, Ltd. investors and explored the area around latitude 38 degrees and resurveyed the SEA, Ltd. area repeatedly and were convinced that La Galga may be buried under the beach. This notion was confirmed when I found the 1943 survey in the Accomack County Courthouse. Not only did it document the earliest boundaries but proved that the beach had built out over the centuries. Part of my research included interviewing some locals from Chincoteague. I then found out that legend said that the Spanish ship that brought the ponies to Assateague was lost in a former inlet. Gold and silver were no longer important but the history was. Our group then began searches in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. We located a significant anomaly in the area that some Spanish coins and a Spanish pistol had been found years ago. Without a permit there wasn’t much we could do so we reported our findings to the government which included the all-important survey of 1943.
In January of 1984, NOAA recorded our findings in their Automated Wreck and Obstruction Information System (AWOIS) and placed La Galga under Assateague. This information was later included in software on some GPS units. We offered to pinpoint La Galga for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but they declined. This information was later included in some GPS units:
#03245 Description Washington Post, Dec. 14, 1983; Spanish galleon foundered off MD-VA coast in 1750; 50 gun frigate, cargo of mahogany planks and tobacco (Spanish archives). Wreck assumed to be buried by migrating dunes and shifting coastline. Ocean Recovery Operations Inc. backing research efforts. John l. Amrhein Jr. and Wilson Bane are points of contact. Magnetometer readings have been positive at the site. Site is within Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (see nos. chart 12211 and GS quad Boxiron, MD-VA, 7.5 min). 17
The Washington Post of December 1983 ran the story about my report on December 13. 1983. The article described the location of the wreck as “buried in an Assateague Island marsh…just south of the Maryland-Virginia line.” The article described that we had first surveyed three square miles of ocean before we concluded, with the help of the 1943 federal survey, that La Galga had to buried in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and we would have to have cooperation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The article made it clear that we did not expect any financial gain and anything recovered would belong to the federal government. A similar article appeared in the Wilmington News Journal of January 1, 1984, but it also described my visit to the suspected site with the News Journal reporter and representative of the USFWS. The Baltimore Sun, USA Today and other papers carried the story
The report was also shared with John Broadwater, Senior Underwater Archaeologist with Virginia. After reading the report he concluded in his letter to me on February 8, 1984:
“I enjoyed talking with you at the Conference on Underwater Archaeology in Williamsburg earlier this month and I enjoyed even more reading your excellent report on the Galga.
It is very apparent that you’ve spent a great deal of time on your research and the location you have predicted sounds very plausible. I think you are to be commended for devoting so much energy to the research and for sharing that research with others.
The discovery and identification of La Galga would be a very significant achievement and would solve a mystery that has interested a great many people. I’m not sure what actions you have taken toward pursuing your investigations, but if I can be of any help, please let me know. I would like to keep in touch with you and Al Alberi on this matter and would be happy to meet with you to discuss your plans and to assist you if possible.”6
In about 1984, Richard Cook, former investor in SEA, Ltd., formed Alpha Quest Inc. to go in search of La Galga and the other wrecks described by Stewart at Ocean City. Alpha Quest had no luck other that the recovery of some artifacts in the area that SEA, Ltd. abandoned. Not a single musket ball was recovered but they were convinced that they had La Galga because Alpha Quest misinterpreted where the former boundary was and they continued to consult with Donald Stewart. They also ignored the information contained in the 1943 survey which they had gotten from me.
Alpha Quest could not proceed with their La Galga project for lack of funds. That changed however when Ben Benson, President of Sea Hunt, Inc. found out about Alpha Quest who took Benson to the former SEA, Ltd. site and told him that it was La Galga, the ship that brought the horses to Assateague Island. They agreed to a partnership and Cook turned over his research.
On October 1, 1802, the Spanish frigate, Juno, left Puerto Rico, for Cadiz, Spain. On board were 413 soldiers and their families. As she neared Bermuda, she encountered continuous squalls forcing the Juno to sail northward for better weather. The ship began to leak. On the night of the 22nd, there were big waves and a stiff wind from the northeast, the topsail split and the ship remained unable to continue sailing for half an hour until the mizzen mast was cut. Four pumps were manned with the soldiers and sailors taking turns at the pump.
On the 24th, the American schooner, Favorite, was spotted and the Juno struggled to go after her. The Favorite had come from Madeira and was headed to Boston. At that point, the Favorite took a position and found themselves five hundred miles east of the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. The Favorite was on course in that longitude to clear Cape Cod which was necessary before entering Boston harbor. The Favorite approached and the captain of the schooner agreed to Captain Bustillo’s proposal to sail with the Juno and follow her orders. Four officers and four cadets from the Juno, including Lt. Don Francisco Clemente, transferred to the Favorite to help with communications and possible rescue. The disabled frigate sailed with a southwest wind and angled towards the American coast bypassing Chesapeake Bay.
On the 27th, Captain Pourland of the Favorite was informed that the Juno had lost her rudder during the night and that the pumps were no longer able to sustain the leaks. The men bailed water by hand now in the bow and the stern, and a steering oar was set up to replace the rudder. So they continued and at midday the ship was at 38 degrees latitude, 69.56 degrees longitude. In the last three days they had travelled 220 miles and were now lying 280 miles east of Assateague Island.
At 10 pm, the wind changed to the northwest, driving the Juno away from land and there was such a violent squall that the gaff peak was parted, leaving the ship under bare poles, and defenseless though she managed to avoid the sea’s blows for a distance of 10 to 11 miles. The frigate lost her mainmast, the fore topsail mast and the yard which had been used to replace the tiller. The Juno sent signals to the Favorite but the schooner was only able to come to leeward as close as a third of a cable’s distance. This was close enough to hear the anguished cries for help and watch the ship “disappearing below.” Overcome by the wind and convinced that she would capsize if she attempted to come around, the Favorite remained incapable of maneuvering for the rest of the night.
At dawn on the 28th the crew of the Favorite waited to sight the Juno but discovered that she had vanished during the night. The Favorite continued her route northward and dropped anchor in the port of Boston on November 1.
The record of the Juno’s fate and her last known position before she sank were documented in two accounts. When the Favorite reached Boston, Captain Pourland gave his account which was printed in the Boston papers. One was the Columbian Centinal of November 3, 1802. The account of the disaster was repeated in other newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic as the dreadful news spread. The other account was related by Lt. Clemente after he arrived safely with the Favorite. His account gives us the last position of the Favorite within hours of the Juno’s disappearance. His complete account was published by the Spanish historian Caesaro Francisco Duro in 1859. According to Duro, relying on documents from the Spanish archivess, the Juno had sunk about 280 miles east of Assateague Island.
In 1987, a scallop boat snagged a large bronze bell with Spanish writing on it and a wooden stern post with two bronze gudgeons 40 miles off of Assateague Island. A company out of Norfolk, Virginia, called Quicksilver International, thought that these artifacts may have come from the Juno. Quicksilver organized a treasure hunt and declared in the newspapers that the Juno could be worth 500 million dollars. In 1988, an admiralty claim was filed in the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, the same court that would hear the Sea Hunt case. Stock was sold and the hunt was on.
In 1989, an anchor was dragged up by a fisherman just off the beach at the lower end of Assateague Island (note all ships carried anchors). Attached to the anchor was a pewter plate with writing that appeared to say “Jane,” “Juno,” or “Jolle.” Ben Benson of Sea Hunt was made aware of this find and also of Spanish coins being found on the beach that predated 1802. He was totally unaware that Spanish coins could come from any shipwreck as they were legal currency in the U.S until 1857. He researched the last position of the Juno finding that she disappeared 280 miles off of Assateague. He studied what Quicksilver was doing and was convinced as they were that the bell and rudder post must have come from the Juno. He drew a line from the last position of the Juno through the location of the bell discovery to the anchor found in shallow water and the coins found on the beach and concluded that the Juno had come to rest 1500 feet off the Assateague. An inconcievable feet for a sinking ship to cross 280 miles in the ocean facing a north bound Gulf Stream in its path. Benson was not aware of just how many wrecks had occurred in this area and that another ship called the Juno was lost in this area in 1817 and a sloop called the “Jarvis” or “Janis “was lost in 1822. For his theory to be true, the Juno would have had to stay afloat for days at the same time crossing the north bound Gulf Stream current which would have propelled the ship north, not south as he conjectured.
Sea Hunt felt that they had all the needed to know to salvage two Spanish ships. On March 11, 1998, Sea Hunt showed up in court.
Amrhein, John L., Jr.,The Hidden Galleon: The True Story of a Lost Spanish Ship and the Wild Horses of Assateague Island, New Maritima Press, Kitty Hawk, NC 2007.
Horner, David, The Treasure Galleons, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, NY, 1971
Owen, David R., “Some Legal Troubles with Treasure: Jurisdiction and Salvage, Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce, vol. 16, No. 2, April, 1985
Maryland Archives Volume 28 Proceedings of the Council of Maryland, 1732 – 1753.
- Amrhein, pp 4-45.
- Idem, p 35.
- Idem, p.38
- Idem p. 37
- Idem, p. Maryland Archives, p. 482
- Idem, p. 323
- Maryland Archives, p. 493; Amrhein pp. 46-47
- Amrhein, p. 279
- Idem, p. 166.
- Amrhein pp. 139-41
- Idem, p. 283
- Idem, pp. 91-93
- Idem, p. 103
- Idem, pp. 121, 271-2
- Idem, pp. 155.
- Still available at https://nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/data/wrecks-and-obstructions.html excel format. A similar article appeared in the Wilmington News Journal front page of January 1, 1984, but it also described my visit to the suspected site with the News Journal reporter and representative of the USFWS.
- Amrhein, p. 164
- Horner, p. 204. Horner suggested the Juno might be off the New Jersey coast.
- Duro, p. 170, https://www.google.com/books/edition/Naufragios_de_la_Armada_Espa%C3%B1ola/0NFSAAAAcAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Fernandez+duro+Naufragios+Armada+de+Espanol&pg=PA170&printsec=frontcover
During this research in the Boston Gazette, I encountered more to the story of the Juno worth printing but irrelevant to the Sea Hunt case. In early 1803, Captain Pourland of the schooner, Favorite, was awarded $500 to compensate for the damages incurred to the Favorite during Pourland’s rescue attempt. In addition, the Marquis de Casa Yrujo instructed the Spanish consul, John Stoughton, to write a letter to Captain Pourland commending him for his bravery and presented him with an engraved quadrant. “Your acceptance of this little remembrance which, your humane conduct in this instance, so much deserves, will do me great pleasure.
God preserve you a great many years,
Your attentive and faithful servant, John Stoughton.”
Captain Pourland’s response:
To John Stoughton, Esquire, His Catholic Majesty’s Consul for the Eastern States
I have just received your very polite note accompanied with a Quadrant, presented by the direction of the Minister from your Court, as a compliment for the personal services rendered the frigate Juno, and the preservation of three officers and four men from her. I beg you to present my respects to the Marquis de Casa Yrujo, for his attention, and assure him I extremely regret that it was not in the power of the crew of the Favorite to render their services more effectual to bring the ship and crew into port⸺while I rejoice, in way of their duty, we were able to do so much good, as to merit the approbation and reward which we have received⸺and you will accept my thanks for your civility, and the interest you have taken in this business.
While I remain sir,
Your most humble and obedient servant,
Boston, April 11, 1803
- The newspapers can be obtained online at Geneaology.com
- Documents provided by affidavit David Beltran Catala, Jurdical Minister at the Embassy of Spain, December 23, 1998,
- Amrhein, p. 256-7, 286; Quicksilver International, Inc. v. The Unidentified, Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel Sailing Vessel, Case # 88-618-N (E.D. Va.) Quicksilver and bronze bell, The Virginian-Pilot, September 21, 1997.
- February 21, 1857, An Act Relating to Foreign Coins and to the Coinage of Cents at the Mint of the United States, 34th Congress Session III, Chapter LVL, p. 163.
- The Norfolk and Portsmouth Herald of February 25, 1822 reported a schooner named Jarvis or Janus from New York to New Bern ran ashore on Winter Quarter Beach.
In case you missed it…
John Amrhein, Jr
More on the 1750 Spanish Fleet