Treasures Of The Atocha
and her sister ship the Santa Margarita
Gold-unaffected by the corrosive action of the sea water
still gleams after 350 years underwater. The coins and ingots discovered
were critical in dating the wreck. Plenty of contraband in the form of
unmarked bars was also found.
Photo By Robin Holabird
legend began in September, 1622, when
treasure laden Spanish ships left Havana,
Cuba, bound for Spain. As part of a convoy of
28 ships, a specially designed warship called the
Nuestra Senora de Atocha carried most of the
valuables: silver ingots, nearly a quarter of a
million silver coins, hundreds of pounds of gold
ingots, thousands of emeralds, and enormous
quantities of silver tableware, ornate jewelry,
religious items, gold chains, and other personal
belongings. Instead of aniving and being quickly
spent in Spain, the vastness of this wealth has
obsessed people for generations.
The treasure’s long life happened when a hurricane whipped into the fleet
two days after leaving Havana. Soon the Atocha and another
galleon, the Santa Margarita, were severely
damaged and swept northwest toward the Florida Keys. The
Atocha was suddenly smashed onto a reef, sinking in a matter of minutes,
while the Santa Margarita ran aground and was broken up just a few miles
Of the hundreds aboard the Mocha, only three seamen and two slaves
survived, although 68 crew and passengers were rescued from the Santa
Spanish officials quickly organized salvage operations to try to recover
the enormous quantity of treasure aboard the two ships. Using a crude diving
bell, salvors managed to reclaim much of the cargo from the Santa Margarita,
but the Spaniards could not find the wreck of the Atocha.
Through the centuries the legend of this fabulous treasure ship prompted
countless adventurers to search for the riches she carried. Spanish records
were unclear in reporting the location of the ship’s sinking. Finally when
Mel Fisher’s research historian, Dr. Eugene Lyon, delved deeply into the
Spanish archives, the general area of the Atocha wrecksite became known.
After years of grueling search costing millions of dollars, Fisher’s crews
eventually located the Aloe/ia off the
Marquesas Keys. They also found the remains of the Santa Margarita, with
much of the treasure missed by the 17th century Spanish salvage crews.
Valued at between $200 and $400 million, the riches of the Mocha lived up
to their longstanding reputations as one of the greatest lost treasures of
Photo By Loren McIntyre
In the century following Christopher Columbus’ first
landfail in the New World in 1492, Spanish conquistadors explored and
conquered a vast area of the western hemisphere. In several
regions they found untold riches, especially where natives had already
located deposits of gold and silver. Some Indians, such as these in
Colombia, proudly poured out buckets of gold nuggets for the exploring
Many gold ingots have been recovered from both theAtocha
and the Santa Margarita and are part of the Sept. 26 auction at Caesars
Palace. Legal ingots cany stumps showing their purity, proof of payment of
the proper tax, and sometimes the name of bar’s owner or the foundry where
it was cast A small notch, called an “assayer’s bite,” shows where a sample
of the bar was removed
to be assayed, thus verifying the gold’s purity.
Several extremely ornate chains, made of alternating
straight and twisted Un/C design, were found on the Atocha and Santa
Margarita. All the links in each chain are very uniform, and of a specific
weight relating to the weight of gold escudo coins. Some historians suggest
that these are “money chains, “with each link easily
removed to be “spent” when needed.
(Above) Gold coins, a gold crucifix and several
emeralds recovered by Mel Fisher’s crews are shown.
Many religious artifacts were also recovered, including
these small devotional columns, sometimes known as folios. Made of silver,
they appear to be a type of incense burner, but their
exact use is today unknown. Each carries a different design, and historians
speculate that they may have a connection with the Order of Jesuits,
although no similar columns have ever
been recovered from any other Spanish shipwreck.
A very large number of gold chains were recovered from the
Atocha and the Santa Margarita, prompting historians to investigate the
social history of the era. Following the defeat of
the Spanish Armada in 1588, and with the on going Thirty Years War early in
the 17th century, Spain was in a state of economic turmoil. Since much of
the nation’s wealth was held by the
church or nobility, the king was determined to stave off a possible revolt.
Accordingly, the wearing of certain jeweled items was discouraged, and the
more affluent adopted gold chains
as personal adornment. Soon these chains appeared everywhere, with women
usually decked in necklaces while men favored chains draped from the
shoulder. This 18-foot example also had a gold ring attached, perhaps for
of another ornament or pendant.
Highlights of the Atocha treasure are available to the public in a Sept. 26,
1987 auction at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
This unique event, joining treasure hunters, investors, auctioneers and a
prestigious Nevada casino, was originated and coordinated by Columbus
Industries of Reno, (a publicly-held company) a firm that specializes in
marketing items of historical significance. Columbus could not have brought
the auction together without the work of a dedicated staff: Fred Holabird,
President; Randall Moory and Wallace Emory, Board Members; Douglas McDonald,
Michael J. Morrison and Haase & Harris, legal counsel; Linda Whitmore,
Marketing; Robin Holabird, Public Relations; Gina McDonald, Computer; Eva
Leiker, Orders; Mike Brown, Security; Linda Borowick, Office Manager
(Southern Nevada); and Kate Zacha, Office Manager (Reno). This catalogue was
written by Douglas McDonald and printed by Reno Printing. All information in
this catalogue is copyrighted ©1987.
Most of the more than 200,000 silver coins on board the
Atocha were being transported in wooden chests stored in the ship’s hold.
Each chest contained from 2,000 to 7,000 coins, varying in denomination from
2 to 8 reales. Over the years the wood has desintegrated, leaving the coins
embedded together in their original shape. Only some 11 “chests” of coins
from the Atocha remain as they were brought from the wreck; all the others
have been separated and cleaned.
Most of the 30 tons of silver ingots carried aboard the
Atocha, as well as the majority of the more than 200,000 silver coins, came
from Potosi, in what is now Bolivia. Founded in 1545, the town quickly grew
to 160,000 people, most of whom were involved in some way with the
fabulously rich silver and gold mines located on the nearby mountain. This
1648 painting clearly shows the early mine workings on the Cerro Rico above
which produced more than 60 million pounds of gold and silver in just 50
years. Even today “It’s a Potosi!” is a common Spanish phrase denoting
something of great richness.
The mint at Potosi contained huge wooden machines which
formed silver, refined to a purity of 93%, into round bars. Each bar was
then sliced into thin planchets which were used for striking coins. These
early Spanish coins are called “cobs,” a term believed to come from cabo de
barra, or “end of the
European-bound Spanish treasure fleets were in constant
danger. Not only did hurricanes destroy many ships, but the convoys were
forced to maintain a constant vigil against pirate ships and privateers. The
English in particular harassed Spanish fleets with privately-owned warships,
such as the flying Pallas here advertising for sailors to share in the
spoils promised in a forthcoming attack on Spanish treasure ships. To guard
against these raiders, the Atocha and another armed
galleon accompanied (he 1622 Tierra Firma fleet.
From the west coast of South America, a small convoy of
ships called the South Seas fleet gathered the area’s products, including
the silver coins and ingots from Potosi, then carried it alI to Panama.
After shipment across the Isthmus, this treasure was stored at the fortified
city of Portobello. Spanish fortresses, including this one bristling with
cannon, guarded against attack by pirates or privateers. Every summer
another convoy, known as the Tierra Firme Fleet, collected the riches stored
at Portobello, transported everything to Havana, and there combined with
several other treasure fleets for the long journey home to Spain. In 1622
the Atocha called at Portobello before sailing on to
Cuba, and much of the silver she carried was loaded aboard in this harbor.
One of the Atocha ‘s bronze cannon rests on the floor of
the sea just as it was found. The then-new innovation of casting cannons of
bronze rather than iron gave the Atocha ‘s guns longer range than that of
older cannons, and enabled them to hurl their 16-pound projectiles with much
greater striking power. It was due to its fast speed and 20 bronze cannons
that the Atocha was assigned to
guard the rear of the rich European-bound Tierra Firme Fleet in 1622.
Finding the Atocha was just the first step. Years of
patient work finally uncovered large quantities of treasure. Using specially
designed pipes fitted over the propellers, a salvage vessel kicks up a plume
of sand which drifts away on the current. The water pressure exposes various
items from the Atocha, some buried by as much as 14 feet of sand. Pockmarks
on the seabed show where previous excavations were made in the search for
treasure and artifacts.
Some of the artifacts recovered from the Atocha are extremely delicate. To
keep from damaging any item, divers use small hand-held blowers to gently
remove small amounts of sand. Every item brought up from the Mocha, no
matter how small or insignificant, is carefully studied to learn more about
the ships, lifestyles and workmanship of the 17th century.
Divers systematically record the position of all portions
of both the Atocha and Santa Margarita. Careful study of these photos
and charts tells archaeologists a great deal about the ships’ construction,
how they sank, and how storms and currents affected the remaining portions
Atocha & Santa Margarita Coins
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