Assateague Island Claims Legendary Spanish Galleon

The model of La Galga wrecked on Assateague September 5, 1750

Model of La Galga the Spanish galleon legend says brought the wild horses to Assateague

September 4, 1750. Twelve miles off Assateague Island, Virginia

The Spanish warship, La Galga, was the only ship of the 1750 Spanish fleet still sailing. During the night of August 29, El Salvador and Nuestra Señora de Soledad were dashed upon Cape Lookout on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. While the Soledad’s treasure was saved, El Salvador’s cargo was lost which included four chests of gold and sixteen chests of silver pieces of eight. To the north, the galleon, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, came to anchor fifteen miles south of Ocracoke Inlet in a shattered condition and with a broken rudder unable to sail. Nuestra Señora de los Godos, with her million dollar cargo, and San Pedro, also richly laden, arrived in Hampton Roads, safe. The Nuestra Señora de Mercedesdrove onto a deserted sand bank at Machapungo Shoals, twenty miles north of Cape Charles at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.

La Galga had been driven past the protection of Chesapeake Bay and was then trying to make the entrance to Delaware Bay but was forced to turn around and try again for the Chesapeake as the winds had changed again. The hurricane had passed but the ship was now battling leftover northerly winds when suddenly the ship plowed to a stop after hitting a sand reef twelve miles off of Assateague. The crew took soundings as the ship struck at least twenty-five times before slipping into deeper water and coming to anchor. The aged and hurricane-battered ship should have sunk but was spared.

Captain Don Daniel Huony rejoiced, “God was willing to save us.” It was the feast day of St. Rosalia, the patron saint of mariners.

St. Rosalia antitodote of the pest and Evil

St. Rosalia, whose feast day is September 4, interceded in the fate of La Galga. From the 1668 book, St. Rosalia Antidote of the Pest and of All Contagious Evil, by Emmanuel Caliscibetta, courtesy of the Biblioteca National, Madrid. From The Hidden Galleon

Captain Huony ordered rafts to be built to ferry the crew ashore once the ship struck Assateague. Below decks, the storm-weary crew continued pumping buying precious time. The next day at 2 p.m., Captain Huony gave the command to cut the anchor cables allowing the fifty-six gun warship to drift out of control towards the deserted beaches of Assateague in the howling northeast wind.

Two hours later, the warship struck the sandy bottom off of Assateague and then bounced her way into shallow water just behind the surf. The ship was now full of water as the pumping had ceased.

Some of the sailors who were good swimmers volunteered to swim a line ashore to fasten onto another wreck on the beach. They were unsuccessful. Captain Edward Ford, a prisoner of the Spanish, volunteered to swim in with a flask containing a message from Captain Huony to the Governor of Virginia. While he was gone, several barrels of biscuit were thrown over to wash ashore along with personal luggage that would float. It would be all the food that they had to sustain two hundred men once they landed on the deserted and barren sandbank.

Captain Ford returned with some Indians who brought canoes and after several attempts succeeded in getting the line from La Galga to the wreck on the beach. The raft was lowered and the transfer ashore began as they pulled on the ropes bringing the raft ashore. On one trip, the raft overturned spilling two heavy chests into the water along with two Spaniards who drowned. Two others drowned having jumped overboard with bags of money tied to their waists. The fifth casualty was an Englishman named William Edgar of Philadelphia who had been captured by the Spaniards during the late war and illegally held prisoner in Havana.

Some of the other prisoners who could not wait to go ashore on the raft successfully made it to shore on some wreckage and escaped their Spanish captors.

September 8, 1750

Captain Huony was the last to leave the ship. He had successfully kept his crew safe during their twelve days of terror. No one died on aboard his ship. Some local Englishmen had now come over from the mainland with small craft and began ferrying the Spaniards up Chincoteague Bay to a landing where they walked overland to Snow Hill, Maryland. From there they obtained passage to Norfolk, VA.

Once the Spaniards left, the English from Chincoteague Island and mainland Virginia and Maryland began pilfering La Galga which was sitting in shallow water with her gun deck awash. Cannon were taken, as well as fittings and the water logged tobacco in her hold. A dispute arose amongst the looters as to who owned the wreck. Huony had declared before he left that the “owner of the land” owned the wreck. At the time, he was told that the wreck lay at the border between Virginia and Maryland but south of that line in Virginia. John Scarborough, Sheriff of Worcester County, Maryland, was determined to get control of the wreck for the benefit of himself and Samuel Ogle, Governor of Maryland. A survey was ordered, and it was found that the shipwreck lay “within two ship lengths” inside the Maryland boundary. The ship had not moved but the boundary did. Maryland chose to enforce the theoretical boundary of latitude thirty eight degrees. While Captain Huony was in Norfolk waiting to ship back to Spain, he received word of the survey prompting a letter to the Maryland governor apologizing for his “misunderstanding.” In this letter, he reiterated the location of the wreck. That letter was subsequently stored in the Maryland Archives and was later published in 1913. Out of the thousands of pages of documents in the Spanish archives related to the loss of La Galga, not one gives such specific directions to locating the shipwreck. Since 1913, this “treasure map” has been available for all to see.

Chincoteague Island, 1946

Clarence "Grandpa" Beebe

Clarence “Grandpa” Beebe relates the legend of the lost Spanish galleon on Assateague to his grandchildren. From The Hidden Galleon

A woman named Marguerite Henry, a horse lover and a writer of children’s stories, came to Chincoteague to see firsthand the wild horses that a centuries old legend says were descendants of horses that swam ashore from a wrecked Spanish galleon. She met people who recalled vividly the legend that had been handed down. When she wrote Misty of Chincoteague the following year, she used the real life character of Clarence “Grandpa” Beebe to relate the legend as she heard it: “All the wild herds on Assateague be descendants of a bunch of Spanish hosses…legends be the only stories as is true.” Mrs. Henry also heard about the tradition that the Indians rescued the Spaniards.

Assateague Island, 1983

Many people have sought the shipwreck of La Galga, most inflamed by the lure of sunken treasure. One treasure hunter named John Amrhein, Jr., had searched on and off for three years. He was perplexed over the fact that the directions to the shipwreck were so precise and yet it could not be located. The present boundary was two miles north of latitude thirty-eight degrees. The two mile search between the old and new boundary could be covered in one or two days. It just wasn’t there. He soon discovered that the records in the Maryland Archives said exactly where the shipwreck would be. But none of his competitors took the directions literally; something that he now realized was the solution. Amrhein had just come from a meeting with Ronnie Beebe, the great nephew of Clarence “Grandpa” Beebe who not only reiterated the legend about the Spanish shipwreck and the horses but related the rest of the legend as his family remembered: “The shipwreck went into an inlet which closed up within two weeks time.” Ronnie Beebe then proceeded to indicate on a map almost precisely where the wreck would ultimately be found. Amrhein also uncovered documents found in the Accomack County Courthouse that were overlooked by other treasure hunters—documents that not only pinpointed the all-important boundary line but changes in Assateague as well.

Captain Huony told us that his ship, that would later become legendary, was located two ship lengths north of the Virginia-Maryland border. He also made the peculiar statement that the “Owner of the Land” owned the wreck. Shortly afterwards, Sheriff Scarborough reported to the governor that there were thousands of pounds worth of mahogany in the ship’s hold which could be gotten before “the ship bursts with the sea and sinks into the land.”  Nothing Beebe said contradicted the centuries-old directions. The shipwreck was then detected in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge with the help of a portable magnetometer. Amrhein filed a report with the federal authorities which outlined his discovery and encouraged them to treat the site the same as the steamboat Bertrand found in the Desoto National Wildlife Refuge in 1968. A year later, the Bertrand was entered in the National Register of Historic Places. The wreck was excavated and now sits in a popular museum at that refuge. At Chincoteague, the officials not only refused to verify the site but refused to discuss it with the public.

Today, September 4, 2012

It was 262 years ago that St. Rosalia interceded in the fate of La Galga. The ship and crew were spared certain death after striking the shallow reef twelve miles off of Assateague. A preponderance of the evidence suggests that the horses were on board this ship when she struck Assateague in 1750. In 1961, Marguerite Henry’s book was released as a movie by Twentieth Century Fox. Each year there is a carnival, roundup, pony swim, and auction at Chincoteague. Every year the shipwreck legend is remembered. Millions of tourists visit Assateague every year, many of them come to see the wild horses.

The wild horses of Assateague Island

Centuries old legend says the wild horses came from a wrecked Spanish galleon

La Galga’s role in the legend of the wild horses is certain. She also played another role that only recently has been unearthed. She was escorting the galleon whose treasure would be immortalized in Robert Louis Stevenson’s, Treasure Island.

But this historic shipwreck faces new dangers and it’s not from Mother Nature. The federal government has apparently done the required verification of the site that rests beneath federal land in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The feds not only refuse to disclose the site evaluation and any preservation plans they may have for La Galga but have agreed with the Embassy of Spain to block any independent verification of the wreck site, thus preventing nomination to the National Register. The only thing standing in the way of a museum that would feature this national treasure is the federal government.

To discourage further public interest in the shipwreck, the feds are now trying to dismiss the shipwreck legend as the source of the ponies. They blame Marguerite Henry for perpetuating that “myth.” They won’t even mention La Galga as the source of the legend even though there is no other documented Spanish shipwreck on Assateague.

St. Rosalia is not happy.

For more read The Hidden Galleon

Next: Spanish Treasure on the Outer Banks

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