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El Cazador—How a Shipwreck Changed America's Landscape

Treasure Ship Lost at Sea

The ship El Cazador (which translates as The Hunter in English) was about 90 feet long, with a shallow draft and two masts. She probably carried 18 high quality bronze cannon. The Spanish Brig of War set sail from Veracruz, Mexico on January 11,1784 under the command of Captain Gabriel de Campos. She was loaded down with 17 metric tons of newly minted silver reales, the Spanish currency of the time. King Carlos III of Spain ordered the money to be transported from the mint in Mexico to New Orleans, which served as the capital of Spain's Louisiana colony. New Orleans was settled by a melting pot of immigrants from France, Spain, Africa and the West Indies; New Orleans had developed its own unique culture. With such a mix of peoples in one place, the city often lent itself to corruption; as it does now. King Carlos III needed to pay his soldiers and government officials in charge of the city; however, the paper money circul­ating in New Orleans had lost much of its value as it was widely counterfeited.

In January 1784, El Cazador left Mexican shores, headed for the Louisiana bayou. In June, the ship was declared missing after going down somewhere between Veracruz and New Orleans. The more than 400,000 silver reales on board was sizeable amount of money for the Spanish government. That unlikely shipwreck gave King Carlos III pause about whether the Louisiana Territory that Spain acquired from France some 20 years earlier was still a worthwhile investment.

El Cazador

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Louisiana Territory

King Carlos III of Spain was cousin to King Louis XV of France through their shared Bourbon bloodline and had at least a cordial relationship. In 1762, Louis ceded the Louisiana Territory to Carlos III with the Treaty of Fontainebleau. Louis XV sought to keep his precious Louisiana Territory out of British hands. The French had lost the global conflict of the Seven Years' War (known as the French and Indian War in North America) to the British; King Louis XV foresaw the upcoming repercussions of France’s defeat and the intentions of Britain to assert her dominance in North America and the Caribbean. In 1763, Britain and France signed the Treaty of Paris that ended the war officially and gave the growing British Empire all of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River, save for New Orleans, which Louis XV had deftly passed into family hands via the Spanish king a year prior.

New Orleans' geography had its share of pros and cons. Plagues of mosquitoes attracted to the waterlogged city’s sub-tropical climate bred disease, including yellow fever, dysentery, and smallpox which ran rampant during seasonal outbreaks. Despite the disease, Alligators, venomous snakes, marauding mosquitoes, and constant danger of flood, New Orleans was still prime commercial real estate because of its position at the end of the mighty Mississippi River. Farmers, traders, and merchants of all stripes could send their goods down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico via New Orleans, exporting and importing goods anywhere in the world. Spain exploited its control over the port and levied expensive tariffs for its use. As more people settled in the sprawling Louisiana Territory, it became ever more costly for Spain to manage and control it. As a result of Spain beginning to lose its colonial grip on not only Louisiana, but much of its holding in the Hemisphere all through the 1790’s, France started eyeing its former territory in Louisiana once again.

Map of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803

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Napoleon Needs the Money

Napoleon took the French throne by coup d’état in 1799 and he looked to the Western Hemisphere to aid the expansion of his empire. On Oct. 1, 1800, Spain and France signed the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso. With it, Napoleon cut a deal to give Spanish King Carlos IV’s son-in-law Tuscany in exchange for returning the Louisiana Territory to French control. At the same time, trouble was brewing in French owned island of Hispaniola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) that once ironically belonged to Spain. Ongoing events on Hispaniola would indirectly alter the young United States forever, the only successful slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere occurred in Haiti from 1791 to 1804. The French had been unable to completely subdue the Haitian slave rebellion; Napoleon wisely decided to cut France’s losses on Hispaniola after losing 55,000 troops by 1802 to the slave army which had evolved into a highly effective guerrilla army. Although the loss of France’s lucrative sugar plantations in Haiti would mean Napoleon’s war chest would take a hit, he would need to replace the loss of income.

While Napoleon sorted out his imperial problems in early 1800’s, another leader also contemplated expanding his nation's horizons. President Thomas Jefferson viewed French control over the port at New Orleans as a hindrance to American settlement in the West. Jefferson didn't want to fight with France over the territory, Jefferson understood that war with the French under Napoleon’s military command would prove catastrophic for the young United States; President Jefferson instead sought out a diplomatic solution. He sent James Monroe as his envoy to the French government with an offer to buy New Orleans for no more than $3 million. Instead of haggling over the port city, Napoleon surprised Jefferson by upping the ante. He put up the entire Louisiana Territory for sale -- no more, no less. The strict constructionist president was conflicted at first with the offer since the Constitution didn't include allowances for the federal government to accept land purchases. To get around that, he framed the deal as a treaty between the United States and France. The strategy worked, and Jefferson bought the enormous swath of land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains for $15 million on April 30, 1803. Priced at barely four cents per acres, the 828,000 square miles (2.1 million square kilometres) signed over in Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase Treaty effectively doubled the size of the United States and set it on the path to conquering the continent all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In less than three years, Louisiana passed from Spain to France to the United States. Though it took an unlikely shipwreck, war and a slave uprising to get there, Jefferson sealed the largest land deal in U.S. history with peaceful diplomacy and a signature.

Napoleon Bonaparte

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Recovery of the El Cazador

El Cazador sat at the bottom of the drink for over two centuries, then on August 2nd 1993, the fishing trawler Mistake; whose home port is Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Captained by Jerry Murphy was fishing in the Gulf of Mexico fifty miles south of New Orleans. As it fished, Mistake's net hung on a snag. Once hoisted on deck, the fishing net appeared weighted down with rock and debris. Upon closer inspection, some of those rocks were actually piles of silver coins, which had fused together while underwater. When the crew hoisted the net and dumped the contents on the deck, they found the net was filled with silver coins. The coins bore markings from the Spanish mint in Mexico, along with the date 1783 revealing it to be a rare and highly valuable “mint” shipment of uncirculated currency. Realizing that he may have stumbled onto a deep sea treasure trove, the fishing vessel's owner, Jim Reahard of Grand Bay, Alabama approached an admiralty lawyer in Key West, Florida named David Paul Horan, who then filed a claim on the wreck for Mr. Reahard. An oil rig service company called Oceaneering initially had the job of salvage, but was replaced by Marex International Incorporated of Memphis, Tennessee when Oceaneering experienced too many equipment failures; although, Oceaneering did bring to the surface several of El Cazador’s bronze cannon and hundreds of coins.

In September, Marex International used sonar and a small underwater robot to find the wreck. It took roughly an hour to locate the target and then three days to properly photograph it with underwater video and still cameras; coins could be seen covering the entire wreck site. In October and November of 1993, the company used divers and robots to begin recovery operations. The recovery and salvage operation was suspended in late November however, due rough weather. Robert Stenuit was hired to confirm the origin of the wrecked ship. He is a naval historian based in Brussels, Belgium with great expertise in 17th-19th century Spanish and French shipwrecks. Stenuit used the Archives of the Indies, a historical record cache kept in Seville, Spain which catalogued Spain’s conquest of the ‘New World” to make an identification based on the evidence pulled from the ocean depths. His investigation showed that no other large hordes of cash from Mexico were lost by shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico between 1783 and 1785. In 1994, it was firmly concluded that Murphy's discovery ...which ironically occurred on a vessel named Mistake, was indeed the ruins of the Spanish Brig of War El Cazador, or "The Hunter," that disappeared at sea in 1784 over 200 years earlier. Maritime salvage laws were never breached as El Cazador was found in international waters, was far too old for the Spanish government to lay claim, and was legally a marine archaeological find.

Treasure from the ship was originally housed in a safe at the old Grand Bay State Bank building located in Grand Bay, Alabama. It is now administered through the Franklin Mint. Interestingly, the first United States dollar was modelled off Spanish reales as it was seen as regal and quality style of currency. The treasure of the El Cazador consisted of over four hundred thousand Spanish Eight reales or “pieces of eight” and was confirmed in the ship’s manifest. She also contained an equal amount of smaller denomination Spanish colonial coins from the Mexico City mint was recovered in the El Cazador wreckage as well. Although the United States Mint was built in 1792, the government accepted Spanish reales as legal tender for decades until 1857. Over the years since its discovery, the Franklin Mint has sold off choice coins from the El Cazador to private owners with the modern “coin” to purchase these rare pieces of history.

El Cazador Video

Impact on History

An unlikely sequence of events was sparked off by the sinking of the El Cazador which led Spain to relinquish Louisiana back to France, and an entrenched, effective, and successful slave rebellion in Haiti then prompted Napoleon to sell Louisiana to the United States to make some quick cash for his war machine; the sale of which massively expanded American territory and opened the flood gates to westward American expansion. Just over two centuries later a fishing trawler operating of only fifty miles from New Orleans would accidentally find the El Cazador, bringing the story and the treasure contained within her hull full circle. Had El Cazador reached its destination, Spain would have solved her fiscal issues in Louisiana and would have been far less likely to cede the region back to France, meaning the United States might never have acquired Louisiana, thus altering America’s destiny.

Owning a Piece of History

Due to the large number of Spanish coins lost in the wreck of the El Cazador and the recovery centuries later, owning a coin from the wreck is surprisingly affordable. Genuine eight Reale coins from the ship wreck can be purchased from local coin shops, coin shows, eBay and Amazon for a little more than $100 per coin. To avoid getting duped by an unscrupulous or ignorant dealer, buy coins that have been professionally authenticated and encapsulated by the Numismatic Guarantee Corporation (NGC). This ensures you are getting an authentic coin.

1783 Mexico 8 Reale form the El Cazador Shipwreck

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