A Fishing Vessel Called Mistake Finds Sunken Spanish Treasure by Accident : History: Although it is not a major find, the Gulf of Mexico discovery of 1783 silver and other items has inspired researching the voyage’s circumstances.


The Spanish brig-of-war El Cazador, laden with 19 tons of newly minted silver, struggled against the storm--until the battle was lost, and the ship and its treasure sank in the Gulf of Mexico.

There it rested for 210 years, until last year, when it was found by accident--and by Mistake.

Last August, the fishing vessel Mistake dropped a trawl along the muddy bottom in 300 feet of water, 50 miles south of Grand Isle. It came up torn and full of rocks.

“Those rocks didn’t fit in with anything that’s supposed to be there,” said the Mistake’s captain, Jerry Murphy. “While I was thinking about that, one of my deckhands fell down on his knees on the deck and started shouting, ‘Coins! Coins!’ . . .

“The rocks and coins were being banged together in the net and started to rain down through the webbing.”


As it turned out, this was not a major find--the kind that might make its discoverer outrageously wealthy or unleash a murderous competition for silver.

But it has inspired a kind of historical treasure hunt, looking for the circumstances surrounding the ship’s voyage. And even if the sunken treasure isn’t worth billions, plans are afoot to exploit it commercially.

The coins were dated 1783 and carried the portrait of Carlos III of Spain. Murphy called the uncle who owns the Mistake and told him to get hold of his friend David Paul Horan, a marine salvage attorney who worked with the treasure galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha in the 1980s.

“I told him it looked to me like a mint shipment, because the coins were stacked, like poker chips, and all the same date,” Murphy said.

His guess was right on the money. Horan had a maritime history researcher check the Spanish archives. The researcher, Robert Stenuit, learned that El Cazador--The Hunter--was sent to Vera Cruz in late 1783 to get hard cash to pay the troops and government, and to redeem 250,000 pesos worth of paper notes used to pay them over the previous years.

It carried 400,000 silver pesos and another 50,000 pesos worth of smaller change, of various dates. At one ounce to the peso, and 12 troy ounces to the pound, that’s 37,500 pounds of silver.

The ship left Vera Cruz for New Orleans on Jan. 11, 1784, and was declared lost in June. It was the only big cash shipment out of Vera Cruz to be lost by shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico from 1783 to 1785.

The partnership formed to salvage the money and the ship asserts that the loss contributed to Spain’s decision to return the Louisiana Territory to France in 1800.

Not so, said Paul Hoffman, a Louisiana State University history professor and an expert in the state’s colonial history. The people most affected by the loss would have been those who let Spanish soldiers buy on credit, he said.

“The laundresses and boardinghouse keepers and tavern keepers--folk who extended credit to soldiers--would have had to wait another year,” Hoffman said. “It almost certainly did not have any effect on Spain’s decision to give up Louisiana . . . which had to do with its position in Europe and diplomacy and warfare and other reasons.”

The coins’ value depends on their history. The 1783 peso is common, worth $25 to $250 depending on condition, said Tom Michael, a market analyst for the Standard Catalogue of World Coins.

The price would be even lower if they were all sold at auction at once, because dealers would buy in bulk, he said.

Horan acknowledged that, as treasure ships go, this one is almost small change. The partnership sees people interested in history and in treasure lost at sea as the market for most of the coins and other artifacts, Horan said.

“We’re talking about a very affordable type of coin, purchased with a historical account of where it was found and where it was going,” Horan said.

Some other clients have invested $3 million to $4 million in robotics to excavate a wreck about 8,500 feet deep off the coast of Central America, he said. “This is not going to justify that kind of expenditure.”

Still, it is well worth bringing up more than the 40,000 or 50,000 coins, the ship’s bell, a faceted yellow stone--possibly a topaz--and other things found so far, Horan said.

He said the Grumpy Partnership--the Mistake is owned by Grumpy Inc.--will bring up coins first, because they are the most likely targets for theft.

Then there are the cooking utensils, the dishes, the belt buckles and weapons owned or used by the 40 to 100 men on the brig.

“You’re going to have the armament of the day--muskets and side arms and cutlasses and sabres and dirks and things like that,” Horan said. “We’ve got to be in position where we can stabilize and conserve all of those. We won’t bring anything to the surface that we can’t take care of.”

There is also the hope that Lt. Gabriel de Campos y Pineda, who was in command of the brig, might have been smuggling jewels.