Mexican and early American style painted gourds near the Estudillo House in the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park; The Forty Acre's Service Station where César Chávez completed his first public fast.
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Biscayne National Park


Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Following Spanish discovery of the New World in the late 1400s, competition exploded among European nations to extract the many natural resources and exotic goods this new and mysterious land provided. Transporting these resources, including silver, gold, gems, spices, and other items from the New World back to Europe via the Atlantic Ocean was at times difficult and dangerous. Navigating the Atlantic Ocean was challenging because of nature’s whims, and sailors and merchants also had to be aware of pirates and corsairs.

To combat the threat of raids from rival nations, including France, England, and the Netherlands, Spain developed a formal convoy system as early as 1537 to protect its merchants and goods. Spain used the fleet system for more than 200 years and while it did protect the ships from some enemy attacks, it could not save the ships from disasters caused by natural obstacles such as coral reefs and violent hurricanes. In the warm blue waters of Biscayne National Park, near Miami, Florida, two shipwrecked Spanish fleet vessels rest on the ocean floor where they sank during a hurricane in 1733. The shipwrecks provide a glimpse into the hazards of European exploration and colonization of the New World.

While the Spanish made few attempts to settle South Florida or the Florida Keys, they began utilizing the area quite frequently after Juan Ponce de León discovered the warm, fast moving Gulf Stream that flows through the Straits of Florida (the channel between the coast of Florida and the Bahamas). The swift moving warm waters of the Gulf Stream provided the fastest route from the Gulf of Mexico to the North Atlantic Ocean; however, the route was dangerously narrow, with coral reefs, small islands, shifting sandbars, and dangerous currents all acting as natural obstacles. Many ships wrecked due to the limited navigational aids available at the time.
Sailors following the Gulf Stream faced natural obstacles like islands, coral reefs, and narrow passages.

Sailors following the Gulf Stream faced natural obstacles like islands, coral reefs, and narrow passages.
Courtesy of the National Park Service

While the route was treacherous, it still provided the best way for ships leaving the Gulf of Mexico to reach the North Atlantic on their return voyages to Europe. Spain’s fleet system used this water route. Each fleet had at least two heavily armed galleons (escorts) - a Capitana or flagship sailing at the front of the fleet and an Almiranta or vice-flagship in the rear- as well as pataches, which were smaller vessels used to communicate between ships, and resfuerzos or supply ships that carried food and regular cargo. Each fleet also had 10 to 90 merchant ships called naos. Naos were unarmed galleons that carried cargo, treasure, and passengers. For larger fleets, additional strategically placed armed galleons provided extra protection for the richly loaded ships.

Each year, two separate fleets, named the New Spain fleet and the Tierra Firme fleet, left Spain loaded with clothing and European luxury and household goods to trade with Spanish colonists in the New World. Often making the trans-Atlantic journey together, the fleets went in different directions once they reached the Caribbean. The fleets brought the European goods to various locations, and in return filled their vessels with New World products including Mexican silver, Chinese porcelain, Peruvian silver, pearls from Margarita Island, chocolate, sassafras, tobacco, leather goods, ceramics, and American Indian-made products. An analysis of these ships and the goods they carried reveals that, much like today, a truly international and worldwide trading network existed. Because of the diversity of products and the immense monetary value of goods on these ships, no one would question why Spain developed a convoy system to protect these vessels from pirates and raids. Once the fleets were fully loaded with New World products, they would meet again in Havana, Cuba for their return journey back to Spain.

Wreckers at Work” from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, April 1859.

"Wreckers at Work” from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, April 1859
Courtesy of the National Park Service

During July 1733, on a return journey to Spain, the New Spain fleet faced disaster. On Friday, July 13, 1733, under the command of Lieutenant-General Rodrigo de Torres, the New Spain fleet left Havana harbor on its return journey to Spain. The fleet of four armed galleons and 17 or 18 merchant vessels left the harbor for Spain carrying gold, silver, tanner hides, rare spices, tobacco, porcelain, and precious jewels. The following day, after the fleet sighted the Florida Keys, the wind shifted abruptly and increased in velocity, which indicated to General Torres that a hurricane was approaching. He ordered the fleet to turn back to Havana, however, it was too late – the hurricane was upon them!

By nightfall, most of the ships had been wrecked, sunk, or swamped along 80 miles of the Florida Keys. Two of the ships that sank and were unsalvageable were the Nuestra Senora del Populo and the El Aviso del Consulado, which rest in the waters of Biscayne National Park today. The Nuestra Senora del Populo was a small, armed vessel that carried goods, and the El Aviso del Consulado was another small vessel used as a carrier between ships and as a scouting boat. While four ships made it safely back to Havana and one galleon, the El Africa, managed to sail on to Spain undamaged, the rest of the ships faced destruction in the treacherous Floridian waters. Small groups of survivors established camps wherever they came ashore and began salvaging. Rescue ships soon arrived from Havana loaded with supplies, food, divers, and salvage equipment to help recover as much lost treasure and goods as possible.

Over a couple hundred of years, a complex wrecking industry had developed to assist sailors in salvaging their cargoes throughout the region. The salvage operators were often American Indians, Spaniards, Bahamians, and Euro-Americans. The wreckers recovered goods from dying ships and helped refloat ships that had run aground but remained seaworthy. The salvagers burned to the waterline the vessels that could not be refloated or towed back to Havana, so divers could descend into the cargo holds to recover any possible cargo. Burning the ships to the waterline also hid them from pirates. The location of each wreck was marked on several maps and records were kept of all salvaged materials. Interestingly, more treasure was recovered than had been listed on the original manifests, which was proof that merchants smuggled contraband and extra gold and silver onto ships to avoid paying taxes.

Divers exploring the Populo shipwreck.

Divers exploring the Populo shipwreck
Courtesy of the Florida's Division of Historical Resources Bureau of Archaeological Research



The Nuestra Senora del Populo is the northernmost shipwreck of the 1733 fleet disaster and today is under the jurisdiction of the Biscayne National Park. The Populo, which is also known as El Pinque (The Pink – a type of small dispatch vessel), was lightly armed with 8 to 12 cannons and carried such goods as indigo, hides, brazil wood, citrus, and tobacco. The Populo was originally near the Capitana, but the hurricane winds whipped Populo far to north away from the rest of the fleet’s ships. In about 30 feet of water, Populo struck a coral reef, lost her balance, and then struck another reef that caused her to sink to her death in a sand pocket. While the Populo lost her goods to the water, her memory and significance are remembered today.

Visitors to the park can view the shipwrecks but must be careful because these are non-renewable historical resources and important archeological sites. As some of the oldest artificial reefs, the park’s shipwrecks are home to a myriad of sea creatures including lobsters, groupers, trumpet fish, anemones, tangs, parrotfish, and hermit crabs, just to name a few. Shipwrecks similar to the Populo lie all along the Florida Coast. Some shipwrecks are located within Dry Tortugas National Park, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, or one of Florida's Underwater Archeological Preserves. For more information on these other shipwrecks, please see the National Park Service Florida Shipwrecks: 300 Years of Maritime History Travel Itinerary.

Plan your visit

Biscayne National Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located just south of Miami, FL and just north of Key Largo, FL. The water portion of Biscayne National Park is open 24 hours a day. The visitor center at Convoy Point is open daily from 7:00am to 5:30pm, while the Dante Fascell Visitor Center is open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm. For more information, visit the National Park Service Biscayne National Park website or call 305-230-7275.

Other shipwrecks are featured in the National Park Service Florida Shipwrecks: 300 Years of Maritime History Travel Itinerary and are the subject of the online lesson plan The Spanish Treasure Fleets of 1715 and 1733: Disasters Strike at Sea available in English and also in Spanish: La versión en español Las flotas españolas de 1715 y 1733: Desastres en el mar (134). The lesson plan was produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places.

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