On November 4, 1552, fifty-four vessels under Captain-General Bartolomé Carreño set sail from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain. The fleet had been preparing since the previous February and included an armada of six vessels, well armed and carrying 360 soldiers. The armada plus eighteen other vessels were bound for tierra firme (the mainland). There were also ten ships headed to Santo Domingo, four to various other destinations in the Indies, and sixteen for San Juan de Ulúa (Veracruz) in Mexico. These sixteen included the San Esteban (Francisco del Huerto, master), the Espíritu Santo (Damián Martín, master), the Santa María de Yciar (Alonso Ojos, master, and Miguel de Jáuregui, owner, captain, and pilot), and the San Andrés (Antonio Corzo, master). Of the sixteen ships bound for New Spain, these four and one other were the only ones scheduled to make the round trip; the rest were to be scrapped upon arrival in the New World. This was a common practice since the outbound cargo was much more bulky than the cargo to be returned to Spain, which consisted largely of precious metals that occupied very little space. Of the tierra firme contingent only seven of twenty-four were slated for return. On the outbound trip the fleet was cursed with foul weather, corsairs, and disaster. For instance, the capitana (the ship carrying the captain-general) burned and sank in mid-ocean, leaving over 300 dead and only twenty survivors, among them the captain-general himself. The fleet was scattered before the journey was well begun, and in all, eight ships were lost on the outbound voyage. None of the ships bound for Mexico was among those eight, and arrivals at San Juan de Ulúa occurred between early February and late March 1553. Upon arrival the mariners found a port still devastated from a hurricane in September 1552. Repairs were slow, which resulted in delays in unloading and prevented all but one of the five returning vessels from being ready to depart in time to meet Carreño in Havana for the return voyage. The San Pedro, one of the first to arrive on February 2, was ready to sail again on May 15 and departed with four ships which had come with a previous fleet. The remaining four ships waited in San Juan de Ulúa for more than a year, hoping to return with the next fleet. However, on April 9, 1554, they sailed independently with Antonio Corzo as captain-general, only about three weeks before the arrival of the New Spain contingent of the next fleet, that of Captain-General Farfán. The combined cargoes of the four ships had an estimated value of a little over two million pesos or more than $9.8 million (1975 values).
Twenty days later, on April 29, three of the four vessels were lost in a storm on Padre Island. Only the San Andrés escaped, reaching Havana in such bad condition that it had to be scrapped and its cargo transferred to other vessels for the return to Spain. Approximately 300 people were on the three wrecked vessels. Perhaps one-half to two-thirds drowned before reaching the beach. A small contingent, including the most skillful mariners, probably departed immediately for Mexico in one of the small ship's boats to inform officials of the disaster and organize a relief expedition. The second and larger group of survivors who remained ashore undertook what they mistakenly thought was a short journey back to Mexico along the beach. They ran afoul of the local Indians, and the trek turned into a death march with only one of the survivors, Fray Marcos de Mena, reaching Pánuco. Upon learning of the disaster officials in Mexico promptly organized a salvage expedition, which arrived at the wreck sites within two months of the loss of the vessels. One of the three ships was still visible above the waves, and free-diving salvage workers began recovery operations. The other two wrecks were located by dragging. The expedition raised somewhat less than half of the approximately 1,000,000 ducats lost in the three ships. About 41 percent of its cargo was recovered.
When in 1967 a General Land Office field representative officially reported the discovery of a sunken Spanish ship off Padre Island near Port Mansfield, recovery attempts for artifacts from the ship were already in full operation by a private out-of-state salvaging firm; the company, however, did not have a permit to operate within the state. Acting in accordance with a 1960 United States Supreme Court ruling that title to all submerged coastal lands out to a distance of 10.35 miles belonged to the state of Texas, Land Commissioner Jerry Sadler requested the Texas attorney general's office to bring suit against the salvagers in December 1967. The Kenedy County Twenty-eighth District Court granted a temporary injunction in January 1968 to halt further recovery operations and removal of objects. After considerable controversy and confusion over rights of the state, rights of private firms, and the land commissioner'sjurisdiction, the Indiana salvage firm began returning treasure to the state. The firm then filed suit in a federal court against the state actions, and after 1968 several rulings were handed down verifying federal jurisdiction in the case, and an injunction was filed to halt state proceedings in the original suit. The Padre Island artifacts recovered from the salvaging company were taken first to the General Land Office, then to the Texas Memorial Museum, and in October 1969 to the University of Texas Balcones Research Center (now the J. J. Pickle Research Campus) in Austin. The case remained in litigation until 1984, when Attorney General Jim Mattox and the Texas Antiquities Committee settled, awarding the salvage firm $313,000 while Texas kept the artifacts the firm had recovered from the Espíritu Santo.
The find was considered a major discovery by most antiquarians and archeologists and at the time was cited as the earliest Spanish material ever recovered from American waters. Among the 400-year-old objects recovered from the wreck were a small solid-gold crucifix, one gold bar, several silver discs, cannons, crossbows, and three astrolabes. The latter, considered by some to be the most valuable objects recovered, were used in navigation and are extremely rare today. As a result of the difficulties surrounding the salvaging attempts the Sixty-first Texas Legislature passed the Antiquities Bill in September 1969 to fix procedures in artifact-recovery attempts. The bill provided for a committee with the authority for the designation and regulation of archeological landmarks and the protection and preservation of the archeological resources of Texas. Strict limitations were placed on all salvaging and excavation attempted by private individuals or companies. On recommendation of the Antiquities Committee, the Institute of Underwater Research, a privately financed nonprofit organization, was formed in 1970 to locate other sunken ships in the same area as the 1967 find. In addition, the organization was to assist artifact recovery by any properly licensed salvaging company. The institute surveyed an area about twenty-five miles long near Port Mansfield, and sixteen possible sites of sunken Spanish ships were located and mapped for future investigation.
The Texas Antiquities Committee's investigations at the 1554 wreck site, tentatively identified as the San Esteban, began in 1972 with a detailed magnetometer survey and lasted three months with a crew of from five to eight people. Excavations were carried out with a "blower" device similar to a prop-wash deflector which sent a current straight to the bottom, thus eroding the 1.5-meter overburden of sand and shell. The artifacts were exposed lying on a dense deposit of Pleistocene clay. Several large conglomerates were recovered during the first season together with a number of isolated artifacts and small conglomerates. In 1973 investigators returned to the site with an underwater archeological field school. In addition to extensive excavations at the site, a surface survey of the island opposite the wreck sites was carried out in order to locate evidence of the survivors or salvagers' camps. During the 1973 season the remaining major artifact conglomerates were recovered, along with many small conglomerates and isolated artifacts. Over 12,000 kilograms of encrusted artifacts were recovered during the two seasons of excavation. Meanwhile, an archival research team was recovering and translating over 1,000 pages of original documents from various Spanish archives.
Of the hundreds of artifacts recovered from the San Esteban, the most significant for interpretation of the ship itself was the aft section of the keel with part of the sternpost. This is the only major fragment of the ship which survived, but it is a good one to have for size estimates. One consultant placed its length at about twenty-one meters (seventy feet) and displacement at 164 tons, another at thirty meters (ninety-seven feet) and 286 tons. Also recovered were wrought-iron anchors, cannon, tools, ship's fittings and fastenings, and silver coin and bullion. Of particular interest were several items of aboriginal manufacture, including a mirror made from a polished iron pyrite nodule and prismatic blades of obsidian. The silver coin and bullion and a small amount of gold bullion comprised the greatest part of the fleet's cargo, but such perishable items as cochineal, hides, and wool were also being shipped to Spain. The collection from the San Esteban is housed in the Corpus Christi Museum. The third wreck, the Santa María de Yciar, was destroyed in the 1950s when the Port Mansfield Channel was dredged.