Ships, Shipwrecks, and Salvage


A Shipwreck, a Saint, and a Swindler


The Shipwreck of the Santa Rosalia

It was the first week of June 1788, that the 300 ton ship called the Santa Rosalia arrived at Baltimore, Maryland, from Cadiz, Spain, captained by A. A. Pardenus. She was carrying a load of salt, sherry, raisins, Jesuit bark, and silk handkerchiefs. After discharging her cargo, she took on a load of flour. By July 15, 1788, the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser reported her ready for sailing for Teneriffe.  This inconspicuous ship was about to meet her destiny, not just in a hurricane approaching the Virginia Capes, but centuries later she would become the foundation for an elaborate fraud involving a non-existent sunken  treasure, executed by a bold con man.

On Saturday, July 23, 1788, at five p.m., a hurricane struck Norfolk, Virginia. The winds were northeast and were filled with heavy rain which gradually increased to a hurricane by 9 p.m. Shipping was caught unawares and vessels were slammed helplessly ashore, many dragging from their anchors. The local residents fared no better as houses and trees were blown down, some known for their “antiquity and magnitude.”

The Santa Rosalia was caught in the middle. The Pennsylvania Gazette of August 20, 1788, reprinted an account from Norfolk dated July 31 that described a Spanish ship from Baltimore with four thousand barrels of flour on board was wrecked on Cape Charles and all of her crew of about thirty perished.

The storm had turned up Chesapeake Bay and then up the Potomac  River and was witnessed by George Washington at Mount Vernon who noted it in his journal. Since then, this devastating hurricane has been known as “Washington’s Hurricane.”

The Santa Rosalia never was heard from again. In London, her loss was recorded by Lloyd’s with this notation made September 16, 1788:

“Santa Rosalia, Pardenus, from Baltimore to Havannah is drove on shore at the capes of Delawar and dismasted part of cargo saved. “

Lloyd’s confused the Virginia Capes with the “Capes of Delawar.” The Pennsylvania newspapers reported no ship losses during the hurricane because Washington’s Hurricane never reached Delaware Bay.

Nearly two centuries later, Robert Marx, an underwater archaeologist and author of books on shipwrecks published his list of shipwrecks in the Americas up to the year 1825. One of his primary sources was Lloyd’s List of shipping news.

Marx recorded in his book an entry for the Santa Rosalia under the heading Delaware Coast, Bay and River:

Year 1788. Spanish merchantman Santa Rosalea, Captain Pardenus, sailing from Baltimore to Havana, wrecked near Cape Henlopen but some of her cargo saved.”

Marx had taken the liberty of adding the location of “Cape Henlopen” to his entry. He could just as easily have selected Cape May, New Jersey, on the opposite side of the bay. He also misspelled “Rosalia” as “Rosalea.” This innocent mistake would become the key to unraveling an elaborate scheme to defraud investors in two separate treasure hunts involving one con man named Donald Stewart.

Saint Rosalia was a rather obscure saint. The Spanish were famous for giving their ships a religious name. Through the centuries some saints were used regularly as was various interpretations of the Virgin Mary. Saint Rosalia was only used with any regularity during the reign of King Charles III of Spain  1759-1788.

St. Rosalia

Saint Rosalia

Saint Rosalia was born around 1132, daughter to Count Sinibaldo and Mary Guiscard, a descendant of Charlemagne. Her father had taken part in an antiroyal plot and was killed, and his property was confiscated. Rosalia then consecrated her life to Jesus Christ and lived as a hermit in caves at Mt. Coschina near Bivona and at Mt. Pellegrino near Palermo. She inscribed on the cave wall, “I, Rosalia, daughter of Sinibald, Lord of Roses and Quisquina, have taken the resolution to live in this cave for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ.” Rosalia died in the cave. She became the patroness of Palermo, Italy, after her bones were discovered by a hunter on July 15, 1625. Later that year, an epidemic of the plague struck Palermo. Rosalia’s relics were carried in a procession through town, causing an immediate end to the scourge. Another miracle would seal her association with mariners. In 1668, Emmanuele Calascibetta  published his book on Saint Rosalia entitled  St. Rosalia antidote for the Pest and of All Contagious Evil. Inside is an elaborate engraving of her with the caption “Umbram fugat Veritas” which means “Out of darkness truth.” Calascibetta  relates the story of a rescue at sea of Marcisco Morilo, the owner of a large ship returning from Palermo with a cargo of wine. As the ship neared Monte Pellegrino outside of Palermo, Morilo asked the crew and passengers to recite an Our Father and an Ave María to Saint Rosalia. Shortly after they sailed out of Palermo, Morilo encountered a fierce storm and everyone on board feared for their lives. The waves became ever more furious, the night was dark, and there was no possibility of help from the shore to save his crew. Morillo took from his pocket a small relic of Saint. Rosalia and asked everyone to join him in prayer. With tears in their eyes, they all pleaded to Saint Rosalia for deliverance. Out of nowhere, a small boat appeared and took them from their distressed vessel and to the safety of shore. They gave thanks to God and to the saint in a mass which Morilo quickly organized. Since that time, it is common for sailors to pray to Saint Rosalia during a storm or when there is fear of attack by pirates. In modern times we can say that she is not only the patron saint of mariners but the protector of the truth.

A large marble statue of Saint Rosalia, which could be seen many miles away, was later erected on Pellegrino facing the sea. She became a brilliant, noble, and celestial beacon. Charles III, King of Naples, became King of Spain in 1759 after his half brother Ferdinand VI had died. He donated a statue of Saint Rosalia to the people of Palermo. It was only during his reign that ships were named Santa Rosalia. He died on September 13, 1788. Every year in Palermo, she is venerated for three days, July 13 to 15. She is the patron Saint of Palermo and her feast day is September 4.

Saint Rosalia and the con man


Donald Stewart

Donald Stewart

In the summer of 1980, a treasure hunting company called Subaqueous Archaeology and Exploration, Ltd. (SEA) was formed at Ocean City, Maryland, by a man named Donald Stewart. Stewart had been a director of sorts at the USS Constellation in Baltimore. The ship was surrounded in controversy and so was he. It was believed that the ship that was brought to Baltimore from Boston in 1953 was the original Constellation built in Baltimore in 1797. Unfortunately it wasn’t and her true identity had been concealed by an elaborate fraud which included fabricated documents being inserted into the National Archives bearing the archives stamp. Not only was Stewart involved in this scheme but he would later use his “National Archives Stamp” to conceal his fraud about the shipwreck he called the “Santa Rosalea.”

SEA had been formed ostensibly to search for the Spanish man-of-war, La Galga, which ran ashore on Assateague Island, Virginia, in 1750. True to form, he lured potential investors with fabricated documents and claims of millions in treasure. I was one of them.

My interest was in La Galga and I was already searching for the warship when I become aware of Stewart and SEA’s plans to search for her. In late August, after months of no success, I had a fateful meeting with this compelling conman. I was living in Washington DC at the time and had become quite proficient in the National Archives and Library of Congress in my shipwreck research. But I was also young and gullible. Stewart had enticed me with phony documents on our first meeting resulting in my forking over $2500 for a share of stock in SEA. I also quit my job and went to work for SEA.

Ironically, it was Donald Stewart who introduced me to Saint Rosalia, a move that he would later regret. But it must have been ordained as I later would find out that La Galga should have sunk with all hands on September 4, 1750, her feast day. Instead, the storm-wracked vessel was kept afloat while the terrified Spaniards prayed for deliverance. She did not sink but drove ashore on Assateague the following day. Had the warship sunk on September 4, I would not have met the conman or the saint.

Over the next few months, Stewart pumped me full of shipwreck and treasure tales that were largely untrue. In early November of 1980, I had to return to my former employer in Washington for some consulting work. Stewart called me and asked me to do some research on five shipwrecks: The Faithful Stewart(sic) 1785, the Three Brothers 1775, the Cornelia 1757, the Adeline 1824, and the Santa Rosalea 1788. I would later find out that all of these wrecks were situated in Delaware, and all but the Three Brothers was listed in Robert Marx’s book. And what was printed in Marx’s book was either inaccurate or untrue.

When I went to the Library of Congress, I returned to a familiar alcove which had some books on the American Revolution. I took a wrong turn and discovered an index on records of the Continental Congress. I looked up the Santa Rosalea but found a reference to a letter from 1785 not 1788 about the Santa Rosalia. I had to go to the National Archives to view the microfilm of the letter. It was written in Spanish and was a list of a fabulous treasure aboard the Santa Rosalia. It was written in Spanish which I could not totally understand.

Much later, and much too late, I was able to get a good translation. The letter was written July 19, 1785, and referenced a treasure hoard that was transferred from the Santa Rosalia to the Santiago de España. I tried to translate the first line before I gave it to Stewart. I took “A los ocho de esta noche ha entrada” to mean “By the eight who have just arrived.” It sounded like survivors of a shipwreck to me. What it really said was “At eight o’clock tonight entered.” The letter was describing the arrival of the King’s ship the Santiago de España having come from Cuba with treasure transferred from the Santa Rosalia.

I gave Stewart the letter at the same time expressing excitement about the discovery. Stewart said that the letter was not relevant. In January of 1981, SEA and Stewart’s so-called Atlantic Ship Historical Society filed claims to what proved to be four fictitious shipwrecks invented by Stewart. One of them was the Santa Rosalea he said wrecked in 1785, not 1788.

Baltimore federal court document

Filed in Baltimore federal court Santa Rosalea-1785

In late January, Stewart arrived at the local coffee shop where we always met. He was very excited and said he had just transcribed a letter dictated over the phone from someone in London:

“B.P.R.O.[British Public Record Office]

In January or early February 1785, a Spanish frigate belonging to the King of Spain named Santa Rosalea, sailing from Havana, Cuba, to Cadiz Spain, via Philadelphia entered the Capes of Delaware and found them blocked by ice which pierced the ship’s hull, so the captain headed south for Norfolk, Virginia, but started leaking badly. She ran for the beach and jettisoned her 40 cann as she went, and struck a shoal lying south and inshore of the shoals of Fenwick. She remained here for two days while the passengers and crew tried to reach shore. Only nine survived. The ship later broke up and during the months of March and April 1785 over 500,000 pesos washed ashore from the Delaware Line two miles south. The Santa Rosalea was carrying 17,000,000 pesos consigned for the King of Spain and the new mint at Philadelphia [the mint wasn’t founded until 1792]. The survivors went to Philadelphia where they returned to Spain that summer.”

At the bottom was a reference to the admiralty section of the British Public Record Office.

When news of this letter reached the investors, shares were sold out. The already cash-strapped corporation could continue to pay Stewart’s salary.

Water proof buoys were set at each of the four wreck sites including the “Santa Rosalea.” While on board the boat the day the buoys were set, I tried to read the federal court papers before they were inserted into the tubes. Stewart grabbed them and said I was not allowed to read them.

By the fall of 1981, the deficiencies in Stewart’s historical research were coming to light. My researcher in Spain not only gave me the correct translation of the letter found in our National Archives but she proved that the 1785 Santa Rosalia didn’t sink. I informed the board of SEA and they pressed Stewart for his proof of the Santa Rosalea. He submitted a single typewritten page which stated the following:

“I believe I can answer why there is so little information available on your Santa Rosalea

Note: from “Naval Tracts” Lt. George Pratt-R.N., documents removed from the Record Office-Department of State, Washington City – August, 1814 and transported aboard the Seahorse frigate after burning the place.

“One letter from the Minister Plenipotentiary to the U.S. Department of State dated Cadiz – 27.11.1788 relating to the salvage of the merchant ship “Santa Rosalea” by the fishing folk south of Cape Henlopen.”

References by Harold Underhill to the attached article –

Habana Records – Ship Losses, Museo Maritimo – Barcelona Armada Espanoles – Biblioteca Nacional – Madrid

Note – Ref: 1788 Spanish merchantman “Santa Rosalea” Captain Pardenus from Havana to Baltimore wrecked south of Cape Henlopen. (Spanish Shipwreck list) – Madrid Museo Naval – this is probably where Robert Marx got his information in Shipwrecks of the Western Hemisphere.”

Stewart also produced some Spanish coins dated 1788 that he said he had just found on the beach opposite where SEA had filed their claim. The board, for the moment, seemed satisfied.

In February of 1982 a buoy from one of the shipwreck sites had broke loose and washed ashore several miles south on Assateague. Rangers from the State Park retrieved it and called SEA. By this time I no longer worked for SEA but agreed to go get it. I cut it open and found the papers related to the “Santa Rosalea” and the site map included described the “Santa Rosalea” as having wrecked in 1785 not 1788. It also said that the shipwreck had been found. It was all a lie. I knew then that I was going to sue Stewart for fraud and I was going to alert the federal court about Stewart and his so-called historical society. The simple misspelling by Robert Marx, repeated often by Stewart, proved that the Stewart was the con man that I had now suspected him to be.

SEA board members asked me to hold off on my lawsuit because the corporation was now trying to raise money to salvage a ship in Delaware Bay known as the China Wreck. This idea was done at the insistence of Stewart. If the corporation ran out of money, Stewart’s annual paycheck of $30,000 would end.

On March 21, 1983 a filed a Motion to Intervene in the “Santa Rosalea” case. I also contacted a law firm to represent the growing number of investors who had had enough of Stewart’s obvious lies and fabrications.

In January 1984, the lawsuit against Stewart was filed in the Circuit Court for Worcester County, Maryland. Stewart was charged with fabricating four shipwrecks and fraudulent claims of treasure aboard La Galga. Discovery began. At issue now was when did his “Santa Rosalea” sink? Was it 1788 as he told the SEA board or was it 1785 as he had claimed in federal court?  And what was the correct spelling of the ship? A trivial detail that now loomed large in exposing his fraud.

Early on we filed Admissions of Fact against Stewart. We asked him to admit that the “Santa Rosalea” sank in 1785 as he had documented in federal court. He had no choice but to say yes. This admission now set him up to fabricate evidence that he would later submit in state court to defeat the plaintiff’s allegations of fraud.

Before the admissions were filed against Stewart, claims were filed in the U.S. District Court for District of Delaware by Indian River Recovery Company to six shipwrecks. The China wreck, the Faithful Stewart(sic), the Three Brothers, the Cornelia, the Adeline, and now the “Santa Rosea Lea.” Stewart had already professed an interest in each one of these shipwrecks. But Stewart was invisible in these cases.

Early in the summer of 1985, I was contacted by Peter Hess, a young admiralty attorney from Delaware. Peter was also an avid diver and was representing a group of divers and dive shops who were going to fight the wholesale grab of shipwrecks in Delaware waters. Peter had been following my actions against Stewart in both federal and state court. He knew that I would be interested in the “Santa Rosea Lea.” He did not know until I told him that Stewart had already expressed an interest in each of the Delaware shipwrecks. I told Peter that I was convinced that Stewart was behind all of this and that he was trying to establish a third spelling for ship Santa Rosalia to confuse the court in Maryland hearing fraud suit.

September 4, 1985. I had been called to sit for a deposition by Stewart’s attorneys in Salisbury, Maryland, and met this day to answer their questions. While the stenographer was setting up, I announced that today was the feast day of St. Rosilia. And I added, “and it’s spelled with and “ia.” Stewart’s attorney shot back “Big deal. Our ship is spelled with an “ea.” It was no doubt in my mind that Stewart was operating in the background in the Indian River Recovery Co. operation.

In October it was Stewart’s turn to be grilled. He was questioned about all of the shipwrecks and failed to produce anything but fabricated documentation. When it came to the “Santa Rosalea” purported to have wrecked in 1785, Stewart had to answer about a documents he submitted that were an obvious forgeries.

Our attorney referred to his answers to his previously filed answers to interrogatories:

Attorney: “B. Letter on April 15, 1785, Varick to John J. This is in the National Archives, correct?

Stewart: There she be.

Attorney: No problem. It indicates on the back with a stamp it’s a copy from the National Archives.

Stewart: Yes.

[The fabricated documents used to deceive historians and government officials related to the U.S.S. Constellation bore a National Archives Stamp.]

Attorney: In Washingon?

Stewart: That’s right.

Attorney: Record Group 26?

Stewart: Yeah.

Attorney: C. Pilot Records of Delaware Bay and Delaware River—

Stewart: They will hand you boxes and you go through them until you find it.

Attorney: But you can’t give me any further—

Stewart: All you do is ask for the pilot records, and boy they will pull them out. They are not even indexed by years.

Attorney: D. Lloyd’s of London basement archives?

Stewart: Okay. This is a gold mine.

Attorney: If you are in London, you just go to Lloyd’s?

Stewart: This was in ’74. I went to Lloyd’s. I was told I could actually go down there by Lord Hallen, and I went down.

Attorney: Who is Lord Hallen?

Stewart: He was the vice-president of Lloyd’s of London

Stewart’s deposition came to an end. It was obvious as to what had happened. He had concocted the story about the “Santa Rosalea” and the other shipwrecks. He then settled out of court.

The federal cases filed in Baltimore in January of 1981 were ultimately decided in December of 1983. Without a single artifact being brought into court by Stewart’s corporations and evidence that not only had nothing been found but the shipwrecks themselves were a fabrication, the judge dismissed the cases saying that the shipwrecks DID EXIST and the State of Maryland had a legal claim to them. Stewart’s fraud has been memorialized now in federal admiralty law and is cited in other cases as legal precedent. As for the Constellation, the confusion created by Stewart was finally unraveled in 1991.

The fraud upon Saint Rosalia was still ongoing in Delaware. But the patron saint of mariners and the defender of the truth was not finished either. See The Indian River Recovery Company

Stewart’s fraud related to La Galga would outlive him. He had displayed to me at our first meeting a British survey chart dated 1752 that showed a wreck symbol on it that said had to be La Galga. The chart was a clever, but cheap, creation. But when he produced Spanish artifacts that he said he had found in shallow water near the site indicated on his “survey” it would lead a former investor in SEA to form his own treasure hunting company and later declare that this site was La Galga. Another treasure hunting company called Sea Hunt would file a claim to this site and lose it to Spain. The Sea Hunt court was never offered any evidence that La Galga had been found. The truth is that the shipwreck lay a mile and a half  to the south and is presently lying buried in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.  Stewart’s name was never mentioned in this case.