“There is no portion of the American coast more dangerous to the mariner where more property is annually wrecked, than on the Florida Reef. Its contiguity to the gulf stream, and forming a sort of Scylla to that Charybdis, the Bahama Islands, are the main causes which make it so dangerous to, and so much dreaded by, seamen.” (unidentified Florida resident, 1842)
For early European explorers, learning to navigate not only the Gulf Stream and the reef line, but the unpredictable nature of hurricane season, proved to have a steep learning curve. In fact, record books became so littered with ships wrecking while making the attempt that the wrecking industry, an industry that made Key West the wealthiest city in the nation per capita, was built on their misfortune.
Certainly the passage became easier as navigational technology improved and maps became more clearly chartered. Also, as ships upgraded from the use of wind to the more reliable use of steam for propulsion, captains were able to establish a higher degree of control. The forecasting of weather related phenomenon, too, improved. So much so, in fact, that between the development of the National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Doppler radar, it has practically become possible to broadcast every gust and squall associated with a tropical disturbance.
Despite all of the technological advances, however, once a hurricane forms nothing can stop it — a fact as true today as it was when European explores first discovered North America. One of the early documented hurricanes directly associated with Indian Key was the July 1733 storm. The New Spain fleet, transporting New World treasures home to Vera Cruz, departed Havana on a Friday, July 13. Lieutenant General Don Rodrigo de Torres commanded the 60-gun warship El Rubi, the lead escort for the fleet transporting treasures home to Spain. His command was accompanied by three secondary military vessels, 60-gun warships, including the Refuerzo El Infante and the fleet’s almiranta, El Gallo Indiana.
As well as the silver and gold stacked inside their holds, the military escort provided protection for 16 merchant vessels returning home with New World hardwoods, dyes, and spices. In addition, two supply ships bound for the Presidio of St. Augustine accompanied the fleet. Regarding the voyage, Naval Commissioner Don Alonso Herrera Barragan, who had been aboard the capitana El Rubi, wrote a letter to the President of the Council of Trade at Cadiz that read, “The 14th we discovered the land of the Keys of Florida. At 9:00 that night the wind began to rise out of the North. It continued to freshen to the point where we all knew a hurricane was imminent. We found ourselves close to the expressed Keys, with the wind and seas so strong we were unable to govern ourselves, and each new gust came upon us with renewed major force. On the 15th, signs were made (among the ships of the fleet) to try to arrive back in Havana, but we were unable to do so for the wind went around to the South without slacking its force or lessening the seas. By 10:30 that night we had all grounded in the expressed Keys at a distance of 28 leagues (or roughly 84 nautical miles) in length.”
The single ship from the fleet to survive the hurricane relatively intact and proceed to Spain was the El Africa. Four other ships managed to sail back to Havana. The rest of the convoy proved less fortunate with 17 ships sinking between Sombrero Lighthouse and Biscayne Bay. Among the fleet’s casualties were the El Rubi, the Refuerzo El Infante, and the 287-ton merchant vessel San Pedro.
The San Pedro sank in roughly 18-feet of water off of Lower Matecumbe Key. One of the interesting aspects of the San Pedro was that during salvage operations more New World treasures were recovered from the site than originally recorded on manifests. Much of the unaccounted treasures would have been contraband smuggled on board by the captain and crew.
Some of the surviving crew attempted to steal away with contraband prior to abandoning ship. It can also be imagined that as these sailors swam to safety, as they struggled to survive the wind and the waves, those treasures fell from pockets and clutched hands and left a sort of treasure trail behind them.
Survivors washed up on the nearest available refuge, a roughly 11-acre island located 1.25 miles north of the wreck site. Makeshift campsites were constructed on the island using natural resources and debris recovered from the wrecked San Pedro. Fortunately, help was not long in arriving. Once Spanish admiralty officials in Cuba got wind of the imperiled fleet, nine rescue ships equipped with supplies, food, divers and salvage equipment set sail from Havana.
Wreck sites were documented on charts drawn in 1733 and on these charts the island where the survivors of the San Pedro made their campsites was identified as c.a. la Matanza.
Today, that island is Indian Key.
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.