Shipwreck Coins
Last Updated: 09/18/2013

The Wreck of The Auguste

The Auguste sank in a gale off Aspy Bay, Cape Breton in 1761. Auguste was a former French privateer which had been captured by the British and had been hired to transport French exiles and prisoners of war from Montreal to France. Only 7 of the 121 passengers made it to shore alive.

Many of the passengers carried their life savings on board, so the ship contained large amounts of gold and silver.

The Wreck of El Cazador

El Cazador sank in the Gulf of Mexico in 1784 on route from Vera Cruz, Mexico to bring needed currency to Louisiana. It sailed for New Orleans and never arrived, and was ultimately listed as missing at sea.

In 1933, a traveler, while fishing in the Gulf south of New Orleans, snagged his net on the remains of the wreck.

The Wreck of Le Chameau
Sank off the coast of Nova Scotia August 27, 1725
Believed to be carrying over one million livres in French Colonial Silver Ecu Coins

One of the most important shipwrecks ever found in Canadian waters was the wreck of Le Chameau.  On the night of August 27, 1725, the future of Colonial French Canada was dashed to pieces on the rocks off Cape Lorembec, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The 600-ton, 48-gun pride of the French fleet, Le Chameau, was lost with all of her 316 passengers and what amounted to several years' worth of funds for the French colonies in North America in newly struck silver Ecu and half Ecu coins. Not only was this disaster devastating in the terms of souls and monies lost, but Le Chameau's passenger manifest was a virtual "who's who" of the French colonial aristocracy – people who had and were to have been the elite of their nation's colonies in North America.  A generation of leaders went down with that ship.

Shortly after the was wrecked, plans were made to salvage the ship's cannons and treasure.  It was initially thought that most of the valuables could be recovered, particularly as the rock on which she broke up was covered at low tide by only a few feet of water.  The next season some soldiers who were skilled divers were sent from Quebec and were employed at the wreck. The treasure, however, was not located. The criticism, as may be found in the official correspondence, was that the local authorities "waited too long to get proper people and recovery equipment in place, as was apparently available at Quebec."

After resting on the ocean floor for close to 250 years, Le Chameau was rediscovered by a local diver and entrepreneur named Alex Storm and his associates, who began recovering contents of the ship that had eluded the French salvors of 1726. They discovered mounds of cannonballs, iron-encrusted artifacts and a group of silver and gold coins. After more than a month of intensive work on the wreck site, Storm and his associates were able to bring to the surface many historically significant artifacts, along with approximately 30,000 livres in coins.  These were mostly French Ecu and half Ecu coins featuring the Royal Arms of France on one side, and King Louis XV on the other. Most of the silver coins were corroded after their long exposure to the turbulent salt water and sand, but all are still highly collectible today as relics of this important piece of Canadian history. The largest part of the coins that were originally aboard Le Chameau have never been recovered.

The Wreck of The Jesus Maria de la Limpia Concepción

The Jesus Maria del Limpia Concepción was commonly called La Capitana, for she was the flagship of the South Sea Armada. Four times the size of the Atocha, she was built for Philip IV of Spain. La Capitana weighed 1,150 tons with a length of 122 feet and beam of 40 feet, and carried 60 cannons. At the time of her sinking off the coast of Ecuador on October 26, 1654, she carried a treasure estimated to have a face value of as much as ten million pesos.

As most of the crew and passengers survived this wreck, there are excellent historical accounts of the ship's fate. On October 26, 1654, the pilot, Miguel Benitez, was confident that they would clear Punta Santa Elena safely and make port at Isla de Plata. At 11 o'clock that night, however, a passenger spotted breakers ahead. What follows is a quote from Captain Sosa:

                     The danger was very near and dead ahead. In turning, we found ourselves in the midst
                     of reefs. After hitting three times, our rudder fell off. The pumps were started because
                     the shock of each impact was splitting our seams.

                     Water was pouring through the caulking. In addition to the three pumps being manned,
                     everyone on board was bailing with jars, bowls and buckets. We worked all night. At
                     daylight we had about eight feet of water in the hold. Everyone was exhausted.

La Capitana was so overloaded that she drew water up to the second deck. It was stated that if the ship had not been so heavily loaded it would have been able to free itself from the bottom beneath 22 feet of water.

The morning of October 27th was total havoc; everyone was exhausted and near panic. Some people tried loading their pockets with gold and silver and swimming to shore; at least twenty people drowned in their attempts to reach safety. By high tide Captain Sosa managed to move La Capitana closer to shore and permanently grounded her in shallow water. Here he and his silver master worked feverishly and salvaged much of the treasure, cargo and 4 of the 44 bronze cannons.

For greater access to the treasure and other valuables below deck, they burned the ship to the water line. Many of the compartments there were not yet filled with water. At the peak of salvage operations, up to 52 divers worked the wreck.

Captain Sosa was able to salvage 1,500,000 pesos from  the wreck and salvagers sent later from Spain recovered another 2,000,000 pesos; it was known that more treasure remained. This started a major scandal as only 3,000,000 pesos in silver was supposed to be in the cargo. Later estimates placed the total aboard closer to 10,000,000. During the trials that followed, several people were jailed and condemned to death for neglect of duty

While most of the treasure was recovered shortly after the ship ran aground in 1654, modern equipment has recently  made the recovery of additional coins from this wreck possible.

The Wreck of The Nuestra Señora de Atocha
Sunk off the coast of Key West, Floriday 1622

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, and clergy.

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. The Atocha remained hidden at the bottom of the sea until discovered and salvaged on July 20th, 1985.

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