Digital Library

San Esteban 1554 (41 KN 10)

Ricardo Borrero L


Country: United States of America

Place: Padre Island

Type: nao

Identified: San Esteban

Dated: 1554

History of the shipwreck

A fleet of forty-eight vessels sailed on November 4th of 1552 from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain under the command of Captain-General Bartolomé Carreño. In addition to the forty-eight vessels, the fleet was escorted by six armed vessels carrying 360 soldiers. Eighteen merchant vessels and the six ships of the armada had Terra Firme as destination. Ten ships were bound to Santo Domingo, sixteen to New Spain and four to other destinations. The sixteen vessels bound to New Spain, included the San Andrés, under the command of  master Antonio Corzo, the San Esteban, under the command of master Francisco Huerto, the Espiritu Santo, under the command of master Damián Martín, and the Santa María de Yciar carrying the master Alonso Ojos and the owner, captain and pilot Miguel de Jáuregui. Just these four ships and an additional vessel were supposed to return to Spain, while the remaining were to be scrapped in New Spain. Only seven of the vessels bound to Terra Firme were scheduled to return. However, they went through many misfortunes in the return trip. The Capitana burned and sank. 300 men died and only 20 survived including the Captain-General.

In 1553 the ships bound to New Spain arrived to San Juan de Ulúa, which was severely affected by a recent hurricane causing many delays in the unloading and reloading process, so that the fleet did not arrive on time to La Habana to meet Carreño for the return trip. Only the San Pedro arrived on time and departed with four ships of a previous fleet, while the rest remained in Veracruz for more than one year. They departed on April 29th of 1554 under the command of captain-general Antonio Corzo, just three weeks before the arrival of the next fleet. Twenty days later, as a result of a storm, three of the four vessels got lost in Padre Island causing 300 deaths. San Andrés was the only vessels that reached La Habana; however, it was severely damaged and the authorities decided to scrap it and transfer the cargo to other vessels.

A few survivors from the vessels lost in Padre Island, departed to Mexico in a small boat to bring the news. The rest of the survivors attempted to reach Mexico following the beach, but in the way they engaged in conflict with the natives and only Fray Marcos de Mena reached Pánuco. Once the small boat arrived to Mexico with the news, a salvage expedition was organized and it arrived to the wreck site two months later. One of the vessels was still visible and some goods were recovered by free divers. The other two vessels were located by dragging and approximately 41 percent of the cargo was recovered.

In 1972 a magnetometer survey was conducted by the Texas Antiquities Committee and the wreck was relocated. A “blow” which is a sort of prop wash was used to remove the thick layer of sand covering the shipwreck. Excavations continued in 1973. More than 12 000 kg of encrusted artifacts were recovered and a nearby island was surveyed in search of remains of potential survivor camps, while historians transcribed and translated more than 1000 pages of documents on the shipwreck events.


Figure 1. Site Plan


Description of the site

The site was a large area with scattered artifacts and ballast stones embedded in dense Pleistocene clay, under a layer of fine sand 1.5 m thick.  Its depth varies between 5 and 7 m and it is about 500m offshore. The wooden remains are composed of 5 m of keel, and sternpost, stern knee and several hull planks.


Silver coins and bullions, items of aboriginal manufacture such as a mirror made of polished iron pyrite nodule and prismatic blades of obsidian


Seven anchors were recovered from the site and two additional anchors were recovered from nearby sites. Three of them were broken. Two of them were probably carried as ballast and one was on top of the other. One of them had part of a palm missing. The anchors are made of forged iron. Remains of rope (three strand hemp, 1.5 cm in diameter each/ 5cm total diamter) wrapping on of the rings were preserved. Remains of one of the stocks were found and identified as Quercus sp. The direction of the stock keys is parallel to the arms.


 A verso or swivel gun, which was probably part of the ballast; 17 iron breech chambers for two or three different sizes of versos; two fragmentary iron wedges or forelocks to secure the breech chambers and a cone shaped iron object which was probably part of the mounting system of a verso or swivel gun were recovered from the site.

Iron concretions

Type, size, characterization, identification…


 An auger, a light-weight reamer or auger, a hand vise or pincers, a small pick-adze (with handle remains), and a thimble-like object with leather inside were recovered from the site.


Five sets of chains with eyebolts were recovered from the site. These chains are part of the attachment of the shrouds to the chain plates. No deadeyes were found. Researchers also found and iron shear hook and a brass bearing (“cock”) pertaining to a sheave or pulley wheel. Arnold (1978) suggest it might have been part pf the winding block.

Rudder fittings

 A gudgeon with strap fragments, two pintles and a rudder iron and two additional fragments of iron straps were recovered from the site.


 Keel and posts

The preserved section was 5.1 m long, 31 cm sided and 27 cm molded (estimated value).  Towards its aft end its molded dimension increases to a maximum of 73 cm, where it is notched to receive the sternpost.  The rabbets, 5 cm deep, slant progressively outward.

The sternpost rakes 65 º abaft and is 31 cm sided and 27 cm molded (estimated value).  There is no skeg.

Keel and stempost were bolted to a stern knee that measured, as preserved, 2.7 m long, 20.5 cm sided and 18.5 cm molded.


No frames were preserved but a series of notches (5 cm sided) on the sides of the stern knee indicate that the frames may have been 21-25 cm sided and the room and space may have been 42-44 cm.  It seems that all floors were spiked to the keel and every 4th floor was run through by a keel/keelson bolt.


Garboard carved.  The preserved planks were 10 cm thick and 19 cm wide in average, narrowing in the forward direction.


Several fastenings were identified including treenails, wrought iron forelock bolts (including a wedge originally driven into one eye), eye bolts, planking spikes, nails, tacks and wooden pegs.

The garboard was nailed to the keel with iron nails.  There is evidence of both iron nails (sq. 1.2.-1.5 cm) and treenails (oak, no section given) on the stern knee, from the fastening of the planking.  The keel and sternpost were bolted (forelock bolts,  2.7-2.9 cm) to the stern knee.


Oakum and hair have been used as caulking materials.  The seams were covered with a resin soaked cloth and protected with lead strips tacked along the seam.

There was a layer of pitch on the mating faces of the keel, sternpost and stern knee.


Ballast seems to have been scattered along an area 15.5 m long.

Size and scantlings

Three different estimates for the size of this ship have been advanced: 20.12 m long and 5.49 m in beam, 27.1 m long and 8.88 m in beam, and 20-21 m long and 5.5-6.5 m in length.  I find the scantlings too strong for a ship as small as 20-21 m overall length but I do not have any means to advance other numbers.


  Sided (cm) Molded (cm)
Keel 31 27
Floors 21-25 unknown
Futtocks unknown unknown
Room-and-space 42-44
Planking 19 10
Ceiling unknown unknown


An iron (porthole?) hinge was found on site


Keel, sternpost, stern knee, planking and treenails were all of oak (Quercus sp.).

Size and scantlings

Probable length overall (LOA): 20 m aprox. according to Baker/30 according to Doran and Doran

Probable cargo capacity: 164 tons. According to Baker/286 tons according to Doran and Doran


Arnold III, J. Barto & Weddle, Robert The Nautical Archaeology of Padre Island: the Spanish Shipwrecks of 1554. Academic Press. London, 1978, p. 380.

Doran and Doran, in Arnold III, J. Barto & Weddle, Robert The Nautical Archaeology of Padre Island: the Spanish Shipwrecks of 1554. Academic Press. London, 1978, p. 375-384.

Baker, in Arnold III, J. Barto & Weddle, Robert The Nautical Archaeology of Padre Island: the Spanish Shipwrecks of 1554. Academic Press. London, 1978, p. 385-389.

McDonald, D. & Arnold, J. B. 111, 1979. Documentary sources for the wreck of the New Spain fleet of 1554.Texas Antiquities Committee Publication 8. Austin.

Olds. D. L., 1916, Texas legacy from the Gulf:: A report on sixteen century shipwreck materials recovered from the Texas tidelands. Texas Antiquities Committee Publication 2, Texas Antiquities Committee and Texas Memorial Museum. Austin.

Rosloff, Jay. & Arnold III, J. Barto “The keel of the San Esteban (1554): continued analysis”. IJNA (1984) 13.4: 287-296.