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Assateague Island National Seashore

Maryland and Virginia

In 1750, La Galga ran aground at Assateague and sank into the sand. Its location today is unknown.

In 1750, La Galga ran aground at Assateague and
sank into the sand. Its location today is unknown. (Assateague Island pictured above)
Courtesy of University of Maryland's Center
for Environmental Science, Photo by Jane Thomas

Two Spanish shipwrecks are part of the history of Assateague Island National Seashore. Wrecked in 1750, the La Galga beached at Assateague Island while escorting Spanish merchants from Cuba. A second ship thought to be the transport vessel Juno was lost in 1802. Even though both lie off the coast near Assateague Island, hidden from view within an American park, the ships remain the property of the Spanish government. Visitors can see artifacts from the wrecks at the park visitor center. The tragic fates of the Juno and the La Galga are testaments to the dangers trans-Atlantic travelers faced when they sailed between Spain and its colonies. Assateague Island itself was an English colony and later became part of the United States.

The Spanish Royal Navy ship La Galga left its port in Havana, Cuba, in August of 1750 to escort Spanish merchant ships to Spain. When a hurricane passed over the ships during their journey, La Galga took on water and its crew steered it west toward Assateague Island, then a British possession, before it sank. Once the ship beached in shallow water close to Assateague Island, survivors swam or rowed to shore. Of the ship’s nearly 200 passengers and crew, only five perished in their struggle to reach dry land. The exact location of the La Galga today is unknown, but records of the wreck suggest that the doomed ship landed near the Maryland/Virginia border at Assateague and soon sank into the sand. According to popular legend, which Marguerite Henry famously retold in her classic children’s book Misty of Chincoteague, Assateague’s Chincoteague Ponies are descendants of Spanish horses that came ashore after escaping the La Galga or another shipwreck. This legend is unproven and a generally accepted theory is that the ponies are descendants of English colonists’ domesticated horses.

Spain loans some Spanish artifacts recovered from the waters around Assateague, like this anchor, to the National Park Service.

Spain loans some Spanish artifacts recovered from the waters around Assateague, like this anchor, to the National Park Service.
Courtesy of the National Park Service.

The second wreck near Assateague is an underwater site believed to be the resting place of the Spanish frigate Juno. Bound for Spain in 1802, the Juno sailed from Veracruz, Mexico in January then anchored for nearly 10 months in Puerto Rico after suffering damage during a storm. The ship set out from San Juan on October 1 the same year with a heavy load of valuable silver and over 400 passengers, including Spanish soldiers, civilians, and English military prisoners. As the Juno made its way north, another storm hit the ship, causing it to take on water. The crew of a nearby American ship, the Favorite, attempted to rescue the men and women aboard the Juno, but in the stormy waters they could not get close enough, and the ship sank somewhere off the coast of the mid-Atlantic region. The Favorite was only able to get seven of the Juno’s passengers onboard before the loss of the Spanish frigate.

In the 1990s, a legal battle erupted over ownership of the wrecks and their artifacts. In a landmark decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the Juno and the La Galga were still the property of Spain. After the ruling, the Spanish government was legally entitled to control access to shipwrecks and their artifacts. Spain agreed to loan the historic artifacts recovered from Assateague Island to the National Park Service for conservation and exhibition at the park’s visitor center. The loan included coins, an anchor, and nearly 100 other artifacts.

Assateague Island National Seashore is a 37-mile-long wildlife refuge and recreation area on a barrier island on the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. Visitors to Assateague can enjoy the sandy beaches, see the wild horses, camp, hike, and tour Assateague’s salt marshes and pine forests. At the visitor center, the park provides information about the human history of the island and about the island’s natural features.

Plan your visit

Assateague Island National Seashore, a unit of the National Park System, is located at Assateague and Chincoteague Islands at the eastern border of Maryland and Virginia. The park has two entrances: the north entrance at the end of Rte. 611, eight miles south of Ocean City, MD and the south entrances at the end of Rte 175, two miles from Chincoteague, VA. The visitor center for the park is on Rte. 611, just outside of the Varrazzano Bridge park entrance on the Maryland side of Assateague Island. The visitor center is open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas. For more information, visit the National Park Service Assateague Island National Seashore website or call 410-641-1441.

Spanish shipwrecks are the subject of an online lesson plan, The Spanish Treasure Fleets of 1715 and 1733: Disasters Strike at Sea. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home page.

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