Archives Under the Sea: Shipwrecks at NARA

On Friday, June 2, 2023, the National Archives is hosting an underwater-themed hashtag party. Join the conversation on Instagram and Twitter using #ArchivesHashtagParty and #ArchivesUndertheSea. Today’s post is from Caroline Shanley from the National Archives History Office. 

The National Archives houses records that span the history of the National Park Service. Many of these records contain applications for historic designation, including shipwrecks and other pieces of maritime history. Researchers estimate over 1,000 shipwrecks lie in the waters off the Florida Keys. As a part of this month’s Archives Hashtag Party, we’re swimming down into two of these wrecks to showcase #ArchivesUndertheSea.

The Tres Puentes Shipwreck Site was the result of a hurricane off the southern coast of Florida in Hawk’s Channel around 1733. While Florida’s coasts were known to seafaring native people for thousands of years, in the 16th century European colonists began to take an interest in the region for its access to trade routes. First Spanish, then eventually French and English, fleets carried a mix of colonists, traders, and missionaries through the region. 

From around 1500 through the late 1700s, the Spanish controlled the bulk of the maritime passages around the southernmost end of the Florida peninsula. The Spanish Plate Fleets were the primary drivers of nautical traffic. These ships carried precious metals, including gold, silver, and gemstones from the Americas, namely Mexico and Peru, back to the Spanish mainland. While many ships successfully navigated home, unpredictable weather patterns caught some of these fleets.

Enter the Tres Puentes, which sank after rerouting to avoid a massive hurricane. It ended up in a shallow part of the channel and could not sustain the heavy winds and sea of the storm. Fully submerged in about 18 feet of water, the sinking ship stayed intact, which ensured that most of the crew survived. In fact, as the National Register of Historic Places nomination notes, “[t]he Spanish began salvage activities soon after.” Because these ships were filled with so many valuables, it was paramount for the Spanish colonists to recover their items before pirates could reach them. 

It was not until 1962 that the shipwreck was rediscovered. According to the nomination, a fisherman in his seaplane was the first to come upon it while surveying the coastline. While the fisherman wanted to keep the site a secret, word spread quickly and treasure hunters looted the remains. In 1977 the state of Florida conducted the first of many formal archeological surveys of the site. All in all, the application argues that the Tres Puentes historical significance stems from how it can provide more information about 18th century sea vessels and colonial Spanish maritime activities. 

The Lofthus Shipwreck happened much later in the 19th century. Just off the coast of Palm Beach on the Atlantic side of the state, this ship was carrying lumber from Florida to Argentina. Like the Tres Puentes, this shipwreck was the result of inclement weather. This shipwreck exemplifies some of the modernization that maritime commerce saw between the 18th and 19th centuries. First, the ship was constructed entirely of metal, a design choice that was widely implemented beginning in the 1840s. As noted in the National Register nomination, this “shipwreck is one of the few remaining examples of iron-hulled sailing vessels” that were also steam-powered.

These steam-powered ships, including the Lofthus, were Norwegian, hence the name. Norwegian ships pursued many global routes, including those along the coasts of the United States. While Norway in this period did not have the capital to manufacture such vessels, “the country did have an abundance of skilled maritime manpower to operate ships,” as noted by the National Register of Historic Places nomination. The nomination further states that one unique aspect of this strictly commercial, nonmilitary ship was the fact that “false gunports were painted along her sides to deter Sumatran and Javanese pirates.”

Today, visitors to Florida can still explore many of the historic shipwreck sites. The National Park Service even has a map of historic shipwrecks of Florida that people can visit. 

To learn more about shipwrecks found in the Records of the National Register of Historic Places, read John LeGloahec’s Text Message blog post.

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