Rio History: 18th Century Shipwreck Found on Padre Island

By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS

A few years back I was interviewed by Na’Tassia Finley who asked about treasure hunting on South Padre Island. During the segment I talked about the famous Padre Island shipwrecks of 1554. While the camera rolled, I showed her some coins from that same era and explained the unlikely prospects of any her viewers actually finding treasure from those wrecks. “But don’t be discouraged,” I quipped, “treasure is still there waiting to be found, one just has to be in the right place at the right time.”

I’ll use Joe Hagan’s story as an example. Joe, who lived with an aunt and uncle on the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station from 1949-50, sent me the following email: “Being just an 11 year old kid in paradise was great! Padre Island was a desert with just a long pier, lots of sand and a small store,” Joe Hagan wrote. “Gosh, how I miss that time! My uncle, Ray Cummins, had a Model A Ford with the old rumble seat. I have wonderful memories of those times.

We used to travel down the Island about an hour to his favorite place where we always tied a rope to a post that stuck up out of the sand. The other end was tied to the car and we had a good canvas tarp for a shade.

Little did we know that post was a mast from an ancient shipwreck! A few years have passed and I heard of someone who was excavating a spot on the Island! I have always wondered if they were checking out our favorite spot. Do you have any knowledge of that story? It would be great if you could respond to my curiosity!

Thanks, Joe Hagan

Hmm… let me think for a minute, I thought as I finished reading Joe’s email. After a short search through my journals I found the material I was looking for.

Shortly after Hurricane Beulah, (1967) Corpus Christi treasure hunters, Richard Clements, Gene French and Ed Page began salvage upon a wreck (uncovered by the storm) that lay about 3 miles south of Bob Hall Pier, located at North Padre Island.

“The hull construction indicates the ship is a Spanish nao, approximately seventy five in length with cannon ports, two decks and double planking,” Page told Grady Phelps, a reporter for the Corpus Christi Times. Over the next couple of days the three recovered human bones, musket balls, about twenty five pounds of oxidized silver, enough beeswax to fill a five gallon bucket, a Roman coin dating back almost two thousand years and plenty of river rock that undoubtedly was used as ballast and packed around cargo to keep it from shifting during transit.

Within weeks of the discovery several museums around the country had made offers to buy the hull of the ship. “The top offer was $20,000” Page said. Clements was the discoverer of the wreck. He said it was hard to describe the thrill when he spotted one of the wooden pegs sticking out of the sand after the storm. He tried to yank it up but couldn’t budge it. He decided then that it must be attached to something big which further excavation revealed. Realizing the value of the discovery, Clements immediately pitched a tent over the spot. From that time on at least one of the men was present at all times. Clements said he kept a shotgun nearby but never felt threatened. Clements and his partners also posted claims at five other sites that had been uncovered during the storm but this was the one that held the most promise. Hundreds of sightseers descended upon the site to watch the diggings and for the most part were very cooperative. But some of them were not as nice and began digging holes of their own. “We just ignore them” Clements said at the time. “We let them dig until they get tired. That’s the way to fix that.

Some of them have pretty big mouths too,” he added.

Texas State Archaeologist Curtis Tunnell was unable to determine the age of the vessel though he did feel it was not a Spanish galleon and dated it somewhere in the mid-1800s. Page and French disagreed, pointing out that lead sheeting fastened with bronze nails indicated the ship was not early American or English as it was the custom for shipwrights in both those countries to use copper nails to fasten lead sheeting. We may never know whether this is where Joe and his family spent their vacations but it was discoveries like these that led to the Texas State Legislature writing a new Antiquities law that expressly forbids any excavation of shipwrecks found on public land.

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