How a Shipwreck Changed History, Part II: The Treasure

Discover how a fishing boat found the treasure of a lifetime…

Last week, we learned about the shipwreck that changed history, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and indirectly causing the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the United States in size.

But what happened to the ship and its contents – namely the 400,000 silver reales on board?

The famous scene from Treasure Island where the huge treasure trove is discovered.

The famous scene from Treasure Island when the treasure is discovered.

One lucky fisherman found out on the fateful day of August 2, 1993. Jerry Murphy was fishing on a boat ironically named “Mistake” when his trawler got caught in something on the floor of the ocean. At first, they thought it was rock or debris, but when they pulled the net up a shower of silver coins appeared instead.

Murphy had come upon a stash of hundreds of Mexican silver coins, all dated 1783.

Immediately realizing the potential he had hit upon, Murphy marked the spot with a plotter and went to make a few calls.

First he called up his uncle Jim, partial owner of “Mistake”, and told him the news. They could hardly believe their luck.

Then Jerry called a lawyer, and in three days, they gained legal rights to the shipwreck.

They also hired a researcher of maritime history who extensively researched the wreck.

If you’ve read Part I, you know the rest: the wreck was found to be that of El Cazador, the ship that sank and lost its hundreds of thousands of coins to the bottom of the sea.

A Spanish piece of eight from 1803.

A Spanish piece of eight from 1803. (via Jerry “Woody” on Flickr)

The coins found in the shipwreck included Pieces of Eight, the coin famous for its inclusion in classic adventure novels. Also known as a Spanish 8 Reales silver coin, the 8 Reales was the first U.S. dollar used in commerce and trade. It was used as legal currency until 1857.

Today, pieces from the El Cazador are available for sale from The Franklin Mint, offering the chance to hold a piece of history in your hands.

What would you do if you found treasure at the bottom of the ocean?

How a Shipwreck Changed History: Part I

In 1784, a Spanish warship called El Cazador sank to the bottom of the ocean…

…And caused the United States to double in size, forever changing history.

It all concludes with coins at the bottom of the ocean, but let’s start at the beginning.

The Territory

In the 1700s, Spain won the battle over control of North American territories by gaining the biggest plot of land: almost a million square miles in North America, the Louisiana Territory.

It was a big prize, but the port of New Orlean’s economy started to fail in the 1760s and ’70s and paper currency began to lose its value.
It didn’t help that scheming New Orleans revolutionaries created counterfeit bills that were useless to the Spanish Crown.

A Spanish four dollar bill for "The United Colonies", issued by the U.S. Continental Congress.

A Spanish four dollar bill for “The United Colonies”, issued by the U.S. Continental Congress.

Spain had to come up with a plan to appease the colonists in Louisiana, especially those near the vital shipping port of New Orleans. Carolus III, Bourbon King of Spain, made a key decision to exchange paper bills for silver coins, which would provide actual value to their currency.

Carolus III would send the coins to the New World, supplying New Orleans with a solution for the troubled economy.

El Cazador means “The Hunter” in Spanish.

The Plan in Action

The ship El Cazador was sent off from Spain, destination Vera Cruz, Mexico. After stocking up on more than 400,000 Spanish Silver Reales in Mexico in January 1784, the ship left for the New Orleans port.

Who knows what happened next: maybe a strong storm or pirates took over, but either way El Cazador never reached the shore of the New World, instead finding itself at the bottom of the ocean.

The ship was declared missing in June of the next year.

The loss was devastating to Spain and Louisiana’s economy, and though Spain dispatched more coins, the Spanish Crown began to wonder at the value of the Louisiana territory. They were never able to stabilize its economy.

The Territory Changes Hands

In 1800, the king of Spain finally agreed to give up Louisiana to France. But France was also having economic trouble, and soon afterward, Napoleon sold the territory to Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase.

The shipwreck of El Cazador led the Louisiana Purchase, the treaty that doubled the size of the U.S. and changed the fate of the world forever.

There’s a Part II to this story, centuries later in 1993, when a vessel named “Mistake” found itself in the same waters as the shipwrecked El Cazador.

But that’s another tale to tell: don’t forget to check back for the story next week!

Sources:

How Stuff Works

El Cazador

Hats off to you, Wikipedia