While I was doing research for book 2 in the Mauzzy and Me Mystery Series, I came across a fascinating story about a possible treasure from a Spanish galleon still hidden somewhere in North Carolina’s Brunswick County. Although many historians have dismissed it as just a legend, established treasure hunters point to several tantalizing clues they say both establish the existence of the treasure as well as possibly point to its location.
As background, for well over two centuries, gold, silver, and gems were transported by treasure fleets back to Spain from its territories in South and Central America. I saw one estimate that from 1550 to 1790, $530 billion was shipped back to Spain (based on recent prices for gold and silver). Spanish treasure galleons would be loaded in Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, and then rendezvous in Havana before setting off together for Spain. The trade was so lucrative, in 1566 Spain established the first permanent transatlantic trade route called the West Indies Fleet or sometimes the Spanish treasure fleet.
One of the biggest risks to these fleets, if not the biggest risk, were hurricanes. While some treasure galleons sunk during storms have been found and salvaged, there are still Spanish treasure ships lost at sea that have yet to be discovered. One of those is the Nuestra Senora de Cadiz, a mysterious Spanish treasure galleon that disappeared in November 1554 after being separated from its six-ship fleet during a hurricane off the coast of Florida.
As the story goes, the overloaded Nuestra Senora de Cadiz was sailing to Spain with seventy-five tons of gold and emeralds in seven-hundred-fifty chests. That’s just under $5 billion in today’s prices.
Although no primary source documentation has been found, it is believed the ship set sail from Cartagena, Colombia and rendezvoused with five other treasure ships in Havana before setting sail for Spain.
The fleet was somewhere off the Atlantic coast of Florida when it sailed directly into a hurricane. The Nuestra Senora de Cadiz had its mainmast break and it lost its rudder, leaving it to the mercy of the battering winds. The last reported sighting from one of the other ships in the fleet had the Nuestra Senora de Cadiz being pushed north along the coast of Florida.
Legend states the ship drifted for days until running aground on the dangerous Frying Pan Shoals near Bald Head Island, which is at the tip of Cape Fear in what is now North Carolina. The shoals are sand bars and are considered treacherous because they quickly appear and then disappear into the Atlantic. This is significant because with the continually shifting sands, treasure hunters believe the ship was eventually completely buried deep beneath the floor of the Atlantic.
The ship was never found, which detractors point to as proof it is just a legend and nothing more.
But what about the treasure? Was it buried with the ship?
According to the legend, the ship’s captain ordered the treasure be offloaded and hidden until a rescue ship arrived. Using its four dories, it took the crew a month to get all the treasure off the ship and transported to the mainland. However, no rescue ship ever showed up and the entire crew did not survive the winter, leaving the location of the hidden treasure a mystery.
"Gloucester Harbor and dory" Painting by Winslow Homer in 1880; Image c/o Wikipedia
Despite the legend, historians dismissed it as just that—a legend. A story.
But if the treasure exists, where is it?
Much discussion has focused on it being hidden in a subterranean cave for two main reasons. First, the captain believed a rescue ship was on the way so their stay on the mainland was going to be short. If that were true, it made no sense to go through the effort to bury 750 chests if they could stash them in a cave. And second, since there is a surficial aquifer in southern North Carolina, the likelihood of the crew discovering a subterranean cave was high.
Now, what about those clues?
The first, an engraved boulder estimated to weigh five tons was found in Brunswick County with what appeared to be Spanish writing, the year 1554, and a strange elongated cross. Back then it was common practice for sailors to carve the name of their ship, captain and the year into a rock when they went ashore to pick up ballast stones. However, this boulder was found miles inland and unfortunately, the name of the ship had been obliterated by the elements and the captain’s name does not show up in any written records. Also, this mariners’ tradition did not include a cross, which makes some people believe the boulder is a marker and the cross is for directional purposes. Possibly pointing to the treasure.
The second clue, the hilt of a Spanish sword dating back to the 1500s was found in a cave within several miles of the engraved boulder. Treasure hunters say this is proof that The Legend of the Nuestra Senora de Cadiz is real, but historians point to the fact that Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s expedition from 1539–1542 took him through what is now the southeastern United States and this sword hilt was likely from that expedition. The question is, what was a Spanish sword hilt from the 1500s doing in a cave? This bolsters the theory the treasure was hidden in a cave, as discussed earlier.
Spanish Explorer and Conquistador Hernando de Soto; Image c/o Biography.com
The final, and perhaps most helpful, clue is the discovery two years ago of what archaeologists say is evidence of some type of small settlement. Among other things found were the tips of carved wooden stakes that possibly came from a rudimentary defensive stockade, handblown onion glass shards similar to that found in the West Indies and attributed to Spanish exploration expeditions, and a series of stones laid out in an elongated cross similar to that found on the engraved boulder. Carbon dating of the wooden stakes put their age at between 1540 and 1580.
Again, there is debate between the treasure hunters and historians about this settlement. The former believe this is evidence of the crew of the Nuestra Senora de Cadiz and therefore the cave holding the treasure had to be somewhere nearby. As part of their argument, they note that the long end of the cross made of stones points directly to the carved boulder with its own cross. However, historians say this is simply a camp from Hernando de Soto’s expedition.
So, there you have it. If you have treasure lust, there might be a multi-billion-dollar treasure horde waiting for you to find somewhere deep in the ground of Brunswick County, North Carolina. But a word of warning, it’s going to take more than a metal detector to find it.
Happy treasure hunting!
Oh, and APRIL FOOLS 😉 (hehe sorry!)
Have a terrific day.