The Shipwreck that Changed the World

In the 1780s, Spain’s many wars had depleted its treasury. King Carolus III ordered new silver coins minted to replenish royal coffers and help boost the nation’s unstable North American colonial economy, which had been all but destroyed by counterfeit paper currency. On January 11, 1784, Spanish brigantine of war El Cazador (The Hunter) set sail on its mission to deliver the coins, embarking from Vera Cruz, Mexico, to the port of New Orleans. Laden with 450, 000 of the Spanish Reales (silver dollars) and cannons for protection, the heavy ship and its valuable load disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico. Captain Gabriel de Campos y Pineda and crew were officially declared missing at sea in June.

The loss of El Cazador was a crushing blow to Spanish hopes. In 1800, the country reluctantly sold the Louisiana territory to Napoleon Bonaparte. Three years later, Bonaparte sold it to the United States for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the fledgling nation.

On August 2, 1993, El Cazador and its treasure surfaced along the Gulf Coast in the nets of local fishermen Jerry Murphy and Jim Reahard. The duo happened upon the wreck in their vessel, The Mistake. Captain Murphy destroyed his boat’s nets with the serendipitous catch that brought to the deck a large clump of silver coins all dated 1783 and fused together by more than 200 years of saltwater exposure.

Secretly working with an attorney the two fishermen formed the Grumpy Partnership, filing a legal claim for the shipwreck, which was completed in three days. Salvaging the ship’s contents, however, would take more than a decade. After the recovery project and a financially disappointing venture to create a museum of the wreckage in Grand Bay, El Cazador’s contents were sold to a private collector in New York City, disappearing from public view. Except for a few pieces that remain in private collections in the Bay area, websites devoted to the lost vessel are the only way to view the recovered artifacts.

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Jacob Laurence

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