On the island of Assateague, along the seacoast of Maryland and Virginia, there is a breed of horses that have run wild for centuries. Legend says they originated from a long lost Spanish galleon. This centuries-old tradition is remembered every year when 50,000 tourists descend on the island of Chincoteague to witness the annual pony swim and auction. This tradition became world famous when in 1947 Marguerite Henry wrote her award winning children’s book called Misty of Chincoteague. In 1961, the book was made into a movie.
On August 18, 1750, the Spanish ships, La Galga, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, El Salvador, Nuestra Señora de Mercedes, Nuestra Señora de Soledad, Nuestra Señora de los Godos, and a Portuguese ship called the San Pedro, cleared Havana, Cuba for Cadiz, Spain, carrying treasure and New World goods. Several days out, they encountered a hurricane as they entered the Gulf Stream and were swept far from their intended course. On September 5, 1750, the warship La Galga (The Greyhound in English) drove ashore on Assateague and came to rest close to shore and partially submerged. The only people who died were lost swimming ashore while trying to save their money. Her captain later described her location as “within two ship lengths of the Maryland and Virginia boundary.” These precise directions seduced many in the future who thought that they could easily find her remains.
In 1980, John Amrhein, Jr., author of The Hidden Galleon, armed with documents from Spanish and American archives, was convinced like others that he could easily locate the wreck. For two years the wreck evaded discovery. He then discovered that the elusive wreck was exactly where the old records said it would be but now it was lying under Assateague. New archival discoveries demonstrated that the beach had built out. The author also had a chance meeting with the great nephew of Clarence "Grandpa" Beebe, a character from Misty of Chincoteague. His nephew not only swore to his childhood recollection that the horses did come from a wrecked Spanish galleon but nearly pinpointed for Amrhein the wreck's location on Assateague. The tradition he heard in his youth was that the ship had entered in an inlet which caused the inlet to rapidly fill with sand. Amrhein was convinced that given the historical significance of the wreck that La Galga would one day be excavated and placed in a museum just as the steamboat Bertrand which was located by treasure hunters buried in the Desoto National Wildlife Refuge in 1969.
Wild horses on Assateague Island. A centuries old legend says that they came from a Spanish galleon wrecked on Assateague.
Buried treasure was no longer important as Amrhein was seduced by the history and the legend. It was now clear that La Galga was the legendary galleon associated with the wild horses. He and his partners verified the site and informed the authorities. In spite of the fact that federal agencies are required to verify historical and archaeological assets within their jurisdiction, verification never took place and they still refuse to do so. They ignored the potential for historical tourism that was already demonstrated with the Bertrand museum.
La Galga was not the only ship of the 1750 fleet to secure her place in history. At the end of the storm, the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe was disabled at Ocracoke Inlet, leaking and carrying a cargo worth nearly a million dollars. The galleon was brought to anchor in Teach’s Hole, the same spot that Blackbeard was killed thirty-two years before. The desperate Spanish Captain hired two sloops to carry over a hundred chests of silver pieces of eight to Norfolk, Virginia for shipment to Spain. Ultimately, the sloops sailed away, commandeered by two brothers from Hampton roads. Owen Lloyd and his one-legged brother, John, had contrived a plan that would deprive their former enemy of a fortune that far exceeded anything that Blackbeard was ever credited with. John Lloyd was captured and later escaped. Owen made it clear to the British Virgin Islands where he and his crew buried most of his loot on November 13, 1750. One hundred years later, to the day, Robert Louis Stevenson was born.
The Author with the model of La Galga built by his partner Bill Bane.
When he wrote Treasure Island he included a map that gave the location of a treasure that had been buried on August 1, 1750 by a Captain James Flint. In real life it was a thirty-five year old merchant captain named Owen Lloyd who was born in Flintshire, Wales, that perpetrated this infamous act of piracy.
In April of 2009, the author and his partner, Bill Bane, loaned a model of La Galga to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge for display at the Visitors Center. The agreement was for three years. The government has made it clear that they are not interested in the idea of a museum, so the model was recalled. Nonetheless, La Galga has secured her place in history. Not only is she the legendary galleon mentioned in Misty of Chincoteague, but she escorted the galleon whose treasure would be immortalized in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Two classics in children’s literature are now tied to a shipwreck buried on Assateague Island.
Amrhein has just recently published Treasure Island: The Untold Story which gives a full account of the 1750 treasure event and its aftermath. Without Stevenson’s Treasure Island there probably would be no Pirates of the Caribbean today.
©John Amrhein, Jr. 2007-2012