By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS
This week’s column was inspired by the following query to the editor concerning a mysterious and gruesome discovery made along the shores of Padre Island over 140 years ago.
Corpus Christi, Texas, April 5, 1870
To the Editor of the Picayune:
Sir,—Please find enclosed an old Spanish coin, one of many picked up lately on the edges and among the sand hills which line the Gulf shore of Padre Island. Human bones have been found on the north end of the island; and near its center and among the sand hills there are, in two or three localities, heaps of bones of human beings; skulls, small and large, with no appearance of ever having been interred, but seem the debris of a grand cannibalistic repast or massacre. The coin enclosed may have some important historic interest, and I would be glad to know its date.
Can you not give some information connecting itself with the loss of these coins and the mounds of human bones?
In regards to the human remains the editor was reluctant to offer a definitive answer saying: “At present we have not at command any historic clue by which the presence of these human remains may be accounted for. There is more than one conjectural solution, but conjecture settles nothing.” (The editor certainly had an unusual way of saying “I dunno.”)
Unsure of the coin’s origin, the editor referred the coin to “R.W. Ogden a noted authority on ancient coins.
Quickly identifying the coin, Ogden wrote: “The legend on the obverse, surrounding the arms of Spain, reads, “Carolus et Johana Reges.” On the reverse: “Hispaniarum et Indiarum.” Charles and Juana, rulers of the Spains and the Indies. The small letters on the right of the arms, M with a small “o” on it, represent the mint mark of Mexico, where the piece was struck. The letter I, on the left, is also a mint mark, either representing Indies or the initial of the engraver.
The reverse presents two columns, crowned, resting upon the sea, with the inscription” Plus ultra,” more beyond, and beneath it the figure 4, representing the value—4 reales or half a dollar.
The pillars represent the pillars of Hercules or Straits of Gibraltar, and “Plus ultra” Spain possessing territory beyond.
Your most obedient servant,
PS. It is my opinion, that in the early age of the settlement of the country, there had been a massacre of the Spaniards by the Indians, which will account for the finding of human bones in such a disturbed condition, and old Spanish coins scattered amongst them. R. W. O.”
To quote Paul Harvey, “Now for the rest of the story.”
Ogden was correct in his assessment of what drama was visited upon the souls whose bones were found scattered among the dunes. And the age of the coins suggest only one answer, the shipwrecks of 1554. The story, known as “The Flight of the Three Hundred,” was a first-hand account written Fray Marcos de Mena, one of the only survivors of a Spanish treasure fleet that wrecked along the shores of Padre Island in late May 1554. A copy of the manuscript lay hidden away in the maritime archives in Seville for over 400 years.
In his book, Padre Island Treasure Kingdom of the World treasure hunter Bill Mahan included a facsimile reproduction of the manuscript alongside an English translation. The only known first edition (published in 1570) currently resides in the rare book room at the Library of Congress.
In today’s market a nice copy of Mahan’s book can be bought for around $70 while an autographed edition could command several hundred dollars.
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