The Tierra Firme Fleet arrived in Cartagena de Indias on July 27, 1622, and then continued its voyage to Cuba, arriving in Havana in very bad weather on Sunday, August 21. The Nueva España Fleet had already arrived in Havana sometime between July 11 and August 4. Both fleets were to leave Havana for Spain together, escorted by the Escuadra de la Guarda; however, the news of Dutch corsairs in the area forced them to change their initial plan and a new destination was set.

Governor Francisco Vanegas ordered the Nueva España Fleet to leave Cuba for the Bahamas Channel on August 14, escorted by a small Armada, while the Tierra Firme Fleet, carrying a much more valuable cargo, was instructed to leave later, escorted by the Escuadra de Guarda.

Thus, on September 4, seventeen merchant ships, eight war galleons and three pataches departed from Havana. The Marquis of Caldereyta was on board the galleon Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, which was the capitana of the Tierra Firme Fleet, at the head of the fleet. Next came the merchant galleons, with the Nuestra Señora de Atocha at the back and, ahead of the convoy, the escorting Guarda Squadron. But no sooner had they left the Caribbean island, at the crack of dawn of the 5th day, than a gale with strong northwesterly winds hit the fleet and scattered the ships.

The Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita sailed together amidst the storm, making slow progress south of Florida. The wind affected the maneuverability of the heavy galleons, driving them dangerously into the Florida Keys.

Captain Bernardino de Lugo’s Santa Margarita was the first to collide with a sandbank and run aground amidst the heavy swell. Most of the people on board drowned after being swept away by the waves and the wind. The Nuestra Señora de Atocha continued sailing for another hour, firmly withstanding the pounding waves on the decks and masts. Suddenly, when they were near Matacumbe Key, a wave dashed the ship against the rocks, shattering the keel and snapping the mainmast. Water began to enter through the hull until the 550-ton galleon, with 27 bronze cannons and open sides, sank to a depth of about 16.70 meters. The mizzenmast could still be seen sticking out of the water when some two hundred and sixty people had already died. Only one sailor, two pages and two slaves managed to save their lives by clinging to the mizzenmast.

The fleet admiral, following the storm, and driven by the wind on the foresail of the central mainmast, was pushed northward all night and throughout the next day. During that time they thought about stopping to rest in some harbor or safe place on those coasts; but suddenly they entered shallow water, and after a short time, the ship ran aground in a little over two fathoms of water, where its ram was broken to pieces and everyone died except for three men and two boys. This happened off the coast of Maracambe in Florida. The galleon Santa Margarita followed the same route and met the same fate.

A few hours later, the galleon on which Miguel de Echazarreta was traveling, the Nuestra Señora del Rosario, ran aground on an islet, with no loss of life.

After the storm had subsided, Caldereyta gathered together the surviving ships, which had arrived one by one in Havana during the month of September, to return to Cuba. The galleon Santa Cruz managed to save 68 people from the Santa Margarita, rescued the five survivors of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, and took them to Havana. The ships that had survived the storm gradually arrived at the Cuban port.

The total toll was about 500 persons dead, almost four million ducats lost and three galleons, three merchant ships and two pataches sunk or destroyed by the storm.

While the affected ships were being repaired at the shipyards of Havana, General Antonio de Oquendo was sent from Spain with nine galleons to rebuild the fleet. In 1624, they reached the Peninsula with 34 ships loaded with 81 million gold escudos and with the only loss during this voyage of one galleon, the Espiritu Santo.

Cultural heritage in the hands of treasure hunters

Three hundred and fifty years later, Mel Fisher, who had already made a fortune by selling artifacts he had salvaged from the wreck of the 1715 fleet, found the exact location where the two galleons of the 1622 fleet had sunk. To make it look more like an archaeological research project, Mel Fisher hired a land archaeologist, Duncan Mathewson, who had never seen a sunken ship, did not know how to dive, and had a complex relationship with state underwater archaeologists. Mathewson himself acknowledged his initial reluctance to enter the project. “I was about to risk what little credibility I had left with American archaeologists by joining a treasure hunter and, even worse, one who wasn’t too popular.”

U.S. law then determined that the archaeological pieces found by Fisher were his, and, therefore he was free to sell them, destroy them or give them away. This ruling also approved the method used to locate and extract them; a method that used a device called the “mailbox,” a huge metal tube, one meter in diameter and shaped like an elbow that was fitted to the ship’s propeller. The method consisted of starting the ship’s engines so that a current of water would clean the sediments on top of the archaeological remains in seconds. An unorthodox method that moved objects from one place to another as if a bomb had been dropped on them.

From the Atocha and the Santa Margarita wrecks, they extracted some exceptional artifacts: more than a thousand silver bars, 115 gold ingots, 100,000 coins of Philip II, Philip III and Philip IV, ivory boxes with magnificent reliefs of Indian origin, lead seals, jugs, Mesoamerican ceramics, Chinese porcelain, metallic enamel earthenware, ring swept hilt and cup hilt swords, daggers, rapiers, helmets, armor fragments, muskets and arquebuses with serpentine levers, an inkwell, a sandbox, a candleholder, a mortar with its pestle, a set of weights, an astrolabe, several dividers, a pocket watch with a magnetic compass, silver jars, reliquaries, crucifixes, necklaces, chains, rings, gold and emerald pendants, brooches, belt buckles, a gold belt set with rubies, pearls and diamonds, buttons, raw emeralds, gold cups and plates and even the fragment of a small booklet. Apart from these, several bronze cannons in a very good state of preservation were also extracted, among which there were some with cannon weight marks that coincided with the weights of the cannons embarked on the Atocha, according to the records kept in the Archive of the Indies in Seville.

Part of the huge treasure found was displayed in June 1975 in a traveling exhibition that toured the state of Florida, dazzling with golden sparkles. Finally, the pieces that were not sold were displayed in the museum that the Fisher family and Treasure Salvors Inc. opened in Key West (Florida) in 1978.

Ships assigned to this fleet