Searching for the Lost Ships of Cortés

In July of 1519, in a brazen act that would upend history, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés ordered his men to sink all but one of the 11 ships they sailed from Cuba to Mexico on a supposed exploratory mission.

Nearly 500 years later, the fleet’s final resting place remains unknown. But members of an international team of underwater archaeologists who are conducting the first modern-day search for the scuttled vessels, as well as 16 others that Cortés sank a year later, have found an anchor that provides the first compelling clue to the location of the lost ships. They made their discovery by combining archival and historical data about Spanish conquistadors and the Aztec empire with the best available science, technology, and local community knowledge to survey the seafloor for remains of his fleet.

“Cortés had two mutinies to quell from men who wanted to return to Cuba, so scuttling those ships was his way of sealing their fate and forcing their allegiance,” said Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann, director of underwater archaeology at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “So we know why. But how and where would he do it? Would he just float them offshore and say, ‘Oh the ships are gone?’ Or would he make an object lesson of it, and do it in plain view?”

Hanselmann and the other co-directors of the Cortés expedition, Christopher Horrell, research fellow with the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, Roberto Junco Sanchez, director of underwater archaeology for Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), and Melanie Damour, an independent researcher, lean toward the latter scenario.

With a grant from the National Geographic Society awarded to Horrell and funding and resources from INAH’s underwater archaeology unit, they and their international team of researchers spent six weeks this summer surveying a 30-square-mile area offshore of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, the first Spanish town which Cortés established in 1519, 50 miles north of the modern-day port city of Veracruz.

By towing a magnetometer behind a small boat to detect anomalies on the seafloor, they uncovered a historic anchor with a well-preserved wooden stock. Wood samples from the stock were sent to two different laboratories, and their testing suggest the samples came from a tree felled between 1417 and 1530, the time period of the Age of Exploration and the conquest of Mexico.

INAH’s Archeobotanical Laboratory also determined that the wood is a type of red oak that may be indigenious to northern Spain, though additional analyses are ongoing. Interestingly, this area includes the Basque region, where the manufacture of iron tools, fasteners, and anchors was common during the 15ththrough 19thcenturies.

“It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that anchors were consistently manufactured with iron stocks, so…uncovering it was pretty exciting,” Hanselmann said. “But we have to remain skeptical. As scientists, you have to remain objective and not jump to any conclusions.”

For now, the anchor remains where it’s been for centuries. Without the means to analyze and preserve the artifact, the archaeologists followed protocol and reburied it where they found it. Once the team acquires more funding, they plan to recover and conserve the anchor and explore dozens of other anomalies recorded with the magnetometer.

As Horrell noted, the well-preserved nature of the anchor stock suggests that other wooden artifacts, including other remains from wooden ships, could be equally well-preserved. “The number of targets is promising and requires systematic diver evaluation, excavation, and documentation to either eliminate the anomaly from the list of potential targets or discover a shipwreck associated with the 1519 skuttling event,” Horrell said.

The most interesting anomalies, which signal various degrees of ferrous, or iron, material hidden below, are clustered together, which could indicate multiple components of a shipwreck site. “But it could also be a sunken marine buoy, a lobster trap, fishing tackle, or other marine debris,” Hanselmann said. “You never know until you go and look.”

The volcanic geology of the area, which could present challenges by influencing the local magnetic field, also could actually benefit the researchers in the long run.

“One working hypothesis is that Cortés’ vessels were stripped of their usable components, then loaded with local rocks to help ensure they sank,” Damour said. “The magnetic signature of volcanic rocks, clustered in the bottoms of the wooden hulls, may help lead to the fleet’s discovery. Even more importantly, the ballast would likely have helped to preserve the wooden hull beneath them.”

In all, the archaeologists are searching for the remains of two fleets of Spanish ships, sunk a year apart. The first: 10 of the 11 original vessels that Cortés and about 500 men sailed to Mexico in April 1519—against the direct orders of the governor of Cuba. The second: 16 of the 18 ships Cuban Governor Diego Velázquez dispatched to Mexico a year later with Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez and 800 soldiers aboard.

They had come to arrest Cortés, but after a short skirmish that left Narváez outmaneuvered and his soldiers eyeing the gold and silver Cortés took from the Aztecs, most of the newcomers willingly joined Cortés’ rogue mission. Not long after, with his small renegade army and alliances with Aztec enemies, Cortés seized Tenochtitlán and conquered Mexico.

“The conquest was a very traumatic episode in our history that sparks the imagination of most Mexicans,” said Junco. “We think of ourselves as heirs to a great prehistoric past that ended with foreign Spaniards. We hope to change the idea that our Spanish roots are foreign, and by looking at the technology of the first ships to sail our waters.”

In 1891, Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, a prominent Mexican historian and archaeologist, made the first known attempt to locate Cortés’ fleet—without, of course, the modern-day technology his successors have today. “Utilizing hard-helmet divers, he started underwater archaeology in Mexico and was one of the pioneers in this field of scientific research,” Junco said.

Believed to have been a combination of lateen and square-sail rigged caravels, little else is known about the vessels. Given that they weren’t laden with gold or other riches, they haven’t attracted treasure hunters who scour the seas for Spanish shipwrecks.

But to Hanselmann, Horrell, Junco, and Damour, Cortés’ lost fleet offers a glimpse into the beginning of the conquest that ushered in a new era of globalization, connecting and reshaping different cultures, peoples and nations across time.

“The conquest of Mexico was a seminal event in human history and these shipwrecks, if we can find them, are symbols of the collision of cultures that led to what most of the Western Hemisphere is today, geopolitically and socially,” Hanselmann said. “They are tangible connections to the story of our shared past.”

Added Horrell, “Archaeology is all about discovering patterns of human behavior through the material remains people left behind. In this case, the shipwrecks and associated artifacts are the tangible remains that can recast the story of the conquest, providing a greater understanding of how our world has changed through time.”

Additional expedition support was provided by Marine Magnetics, YETI Coolers, Hypack, Diver’s Alert Network (DAN), and the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

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