On August 18, 1750, the Spanish warship, La Galga, departed Havana, Cuba, with the Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, El Salvador, Nuestra Senora de Mercedes, Nuestra Senora de Soledad, Nuestra Senora de los Godos, and a Portuguese ship called the San Pedro. This little unscheduled fleet was headed 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 Island 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.” But the boundary line had changed over the centuries. These precise directions seduced many in the future who thought that they could easily find the remains of La Galga.
Assateague Island is a barrier island lying off east coast of Maryland and Virginia. Here, there is a breed of horses that have run wild for centuries. Legend says they originated from a long lost Spanish galleon. In 1946, Marguerite Henry traveled to Chincoteague to see these curious creatures drawn by the Spanish shipwreck legend. This tradition became world famous a year later when she wrote her award winning children’s book called Misty of Chincoteague. In 1961, the book was made into a movie.
Although the location of La Galga was published in the the Maryland Archives series in 1913, no one connected La Galga with the Spanish shipwreck legend. This centuries-old tradition is remembered every year when as many as 50,000 tourists descend on the island of Chincoteague to witness the annual pony swim and auction.
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 La Galga was exactly where the old records said she 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 an inlet which caused the inlet to rapidly fill with sand. Amrhein was convinced that, given the historical significance of the wreck, La Galga would one day be excavated and placed in a museum just as the steamboat Bertrand buried in the Desoto National Wildlife Refuge which was located by treasure hunters in1969.
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 1983. 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. Not only that, the Fish and Wildlife Service has gone to great lengths to discredit the shipwreck legend and to even acknowledge the existence of La Galga on their website.
The colonists used to pasture their horses on Assateague in the late 17th century. This is well documented. But these horses were nearly all wiped out by a tremendous hurricane in 1749 when the island was inundated with a wall of water. The tide was so high it extended two miles into the mainland in some places. The historians for USFWS have known about this hurricane and loss of horses since 2007. Yet, on their website they state that the horses today descended from those left by the colonists. Although they mention the Spanish shipwreck legend, they not only try to discredit it, but they refuse to tell the public about the shipwreck of La Galga. In 1999, in direct contradiction to what is now stated publicly, the federal government testified before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals while representing the interests of Spain over La Galga, that "According to local legend, the ship disgorged a number of wild horses - the ancestors of the ponies that now range the coasts and woodlands of Assateague Island." Shortly after the shipwreck of La Galga, estate records mention the "beach ponies" as a different breed.
The National Park Service has taken the same position as well. On their website they state that "The 'wild' horses on Assateague are actually feral animals, meaning that they are descendants of domestic animals that have reverted to a wild state... Local folklore describes the Assateague horses as survivors of a shipwreck off the Virginia coast. While this dramatic tale of struggle and survival is popular, there are no records yet that confirm it." They refuse to mention La Galga by name and they refuse to say that the legendary shipwreck is even Spanish.
The author with the model of La Galga built by his partner Bill Bane.
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 Senora 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.
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.
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.
In 2012, Amrhein 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.
November 13 is Treasure Island Day. Read more about the role that the 1750 fleet played in the history of the Caribbean, the U.S. and in Europe.
Copyright John Amrhein, Jr. 2007-2014