Ships, Shipwrecks, and Salvage

Schooner Sinks With $270,000 in Gold and Silver off the Delaware Capes!


The HummingbirdThat was the headline news in 1810. But before you grab your SCUBA gear you need to do your research.

Captain Tucker left New York on board the Hummingbird in late summer of 1810 in his schooner, Hummingbird, destined for Port au Prince on the island of St. Domingo. With him was his partner, James Gillispie, who was not only part owner of the schooner but was acting as supercargo. The Hummingbird was a small schooner of 47 tons built in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1807. Captain Tucker looked forward to a tropical vacation while he loaded cargo for a return trip. The trip to St. Domingo was routine and uneventful but when he sailed for New York in late October he intercepted a hurricane which held him in its grasp for three days. At the Florida Keys many ships were dashed to pieces but fortunately for the Hummingbird, she only suffered some damaged rigging. She was forced into Havana, Cuba, to refit.

Captain Tucker and James Gillispie were certainly familiar with trade that came out of Havana. It was here that treasure had been shipped back to Spain aboard overloaded galleons since the 16th century. Ships carrying gold, silver, and other new world commodities from Mexico and South America would stop in Havana and often would load on more cargo and treasure before returning to Spain.

The Hummingbird cleared for New York on December 11, 1810. Her new masts and rigging were soon put to the test when the hapless schooner was hit by another storm off of South Carolina which left her disabled and drifting northward in the Gulf Stream. Captain Tucker became ill and was forced to remain in his cabin. James Gillispie took control.

On December 19 they fell in with the schooner, Sheppardess, Captain Ransome, sailing from Charleston to Providence Rhode Island.  Captain Ransome hailed the Hummingbird and Gillispie responded. He declared that the schooner was loaded with specie and that they were in desperate need of help. The Sheppardess passed a line to the Hummingbird crew and began to tow her up the coast. The next day, they were sighted by the schooner, Polly and Eliza, just off the coast of Delaware. The winds were now northeast which impeded their northerly progress. On the 21st, the wind shifted around to the south east bringing the schooners outside the Delaware Capes.

The Hummingbird signaled Captain Ransome that they were in taking on water and sinking. Captain Ransome brought his schooner around and picked up Gillispie, Tucker, and the other crew. The Hummingbird soon slipped beneath the waves. The crew of the Hummingbird were then placed aboard the schooner, Delight, bound for New York and upon their arrival reported that the Hummingbird was carrying logwood and $270,000 in coin when she sank. The story of this “tragic” loss was repeated in other papers along the East Coast.

A Captain Taggert, who apparently was familiar with James Gillispie and the Hummingbird, took it upon himself to alert potential insurers that “no specie was shipped on board the said vessel.” Gillispie acted dumfounded and outraged at this public accusation and published in the papers a resounding denial on December 26, 1810.

“Independent of the bills of lading or my own knowledge of the fact and not withstanding the assertion of Captain Taggert whose veracity will be enquired into by a jury of his countrymen I shall show the community in a court of justice by testimony respectable, disinterested, and incontestable that the money said to have been shipped on the schooner Hummingbird was shipped on her and remained in her so far as prosecuted her voyage and was lost in her when she foundered at sea and that her goung down was occasioned by the act of God and was of such a nature as to preclude the possibility of its being an act of man these proofs which are ready to be produced and will be brought forward as soon as a hearing can be procured will I trust set the columnist of Capt. Taggert in a point of view by which society will know how to appreciate them and their author and that such testimony I implicitly rely to erase entirely from the public mind whatever impressions such a cruel (because wholly unfounded) accusation was intended to make.”

The records do not exist today of this examination but James Gillispie was convicted in criminal court for barratry. There never was any treasure. He had augured the hull sending the Hummingbird to the bottom.

This is one shipwreck that modern treasure hunters should avoid.

Nearby off Cape Henlopen another treasure was reported to have been lost. The sloop-of-war, HMS De Braak, was returning from a cruise in the Caribbean and had a Spanish prize in tow. Modern salvage proved to be hardly worth the efforts.