TwHP Lessons

The Spanish Treasure Fleets of 1715 and 1733: Disasters Strike at Sea

[Photo] The San Pedro Underwater Archeological Preserve today.
(Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research)

[Photo] The Urca de Lima Underwater Archeological Preserve today.
(Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research)


he sun disappeared and the wind increased in velocity coming from the east and east northeast. The seas became very giant in size, the wind continued blowing us toward shore, pushing us into shallow water. It soon happened that we were unable to use any sail at all…and we were at the mercy of the wind and water, always driven closer to shore. Having then lost all of our masts, all of the ships were wrecked on the shore, and with the exception of mine, broke to pieces."1

This violent storm off the coast of Florida in July 1715 ravaged 11 Spanish ships as they attempted to return to Spain. From the mid 16th to the mid 18th century, heavily-armed fleets such as this plied the waters between Spain and the Americas transporting massive amounts of New World treasure. Through this treasure fleet system, Spain created a mighty New World empire and became the most powerful nation in Europe. The fleets' return voyage—when the ships were laden with silver, gold, gemstones, tobacco, exotic spices, and indigo—was the most dangerous. Pirates and privateers from rival European countries threatened to seize the precious cargoes and jeopardize Spain's dominance of the Americas. The greatest danger, however, came not from enemy countries, but from unexpected and deadly hurricanes.

In 1715 and again in 1733, Spain's treasure fleets were devastated by hurricanes off the coast of Florida. Although the Spanish managed to recover some treasure, much more remained on the ocean floor. The sunken ships lay forgotten for more than 200 years until modern treasure hunters discovered several of them. Today, the remains of two of the ships—the Urca de Lima from the 1715 fleet and the San Pedro from the 1733 fleet—are protected as Florida Underwater Archaeological Preserves. These ships are time capsules from a bygone era and can reveal much about the history of the mighty maritime system that helped shape the Americas.

1 Miguel de Lima, owner of the Urca de Lima. As quoted in Della Scott-Ireton and Barbara Mattick, "Urca de Lima" (St. Lucie County, Florida) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001, Section 8, page 2.


About This Lesson

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

Setting the Stage: Historical Context

Locating the Site: Maps
 1. Trade routes of the Spanish treasure fleets
 2. The Urca de Lima and the San Pedro  shipwreck sites

Determining the Facts: Readings
1. The Spanish Treasure Fleet System
 2. The Urca de Lima and the Shipwreck  Disaster of 1715
 3. The San Pedro and the Shipwreck  Disaster of 1733
4. Rediscovering the Treasure Fleets of 1715  and 1733

Visual Evidence: Images
 1. The Urca de Lima
 2. The San Pedro
 3. Urca de Lima wreck site
 4. San Pedro wreck site
5. The Urca de Lima Underwater Archaeological  Preserve today
 6. The San Pedro Underwater Archaeological  Preserve today

Putting It All Together: Activities
 1. Life Aboard a Treasure Fleet
 2. "Take Only Photos and Leave Only Bubbles"
 3. A Global Economy
 4. Preserving Local Historic Resources

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The lesson is based on the Urca de Lima and the San Pedro, two of the thousands of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.



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