Exclusive: New clue surfaces in underwater hunt for conquistador’s lost ships

Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico 500 years ago and toppled the last Aztec king. Now a new discovery may help solve the mystery of what happened to his fleet.

A tantalizing clue that may help solve the 500-year-old mystery around the “lost fleet” of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés has been found in the Gulf of Mexico, according to an international team of underwater archaeologists with the Lost Ships of Cortés project.

An iron anchor consistent with the type carried by European ships in the early 16th century has been discovered off the coast of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, a site some 50 miles north of modern Veracruz, where Cortés founded a settlement in 1519. While researchers cannot say at this time that the anchor conclusively belongs to one of the ships of the notorious conquistador, it provides the first compelling clue to the location of the wrecked vessels.

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High above the bay where Cortés established Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz are the ruins of Quiahuiztlan. Its residents allied with the conquistador, who shortly thereafter conquered the Aztec Empire by capturing Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City).

“The arrival of Cortés and his conquest of Mexico changed the course of history,” says archaeologist Christopher Horrell, a National Geographic grantee and research fellow at Texas State University who serves as the project’s co-director. “These ships set into motion a series of events that changed the fates of the New and Old Worlds. Finding them would be an incredible discovery.”

Conquering Mexico

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This mid-17th-century painting, which depicts Cortés' meeting with Aztec royal ambassadors, features a landscape very similar to that of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz

Among the earliest European conquerors of the New World, Cortés first sailed to Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula from Cuba 500 years ago with strict orders from the Cuban governor to explore the area and trade with its indigenous residents. Instead, Cortés broke with the governor and established the settlement of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, claiming the town in the name of the Spanish king.

When members of Cortés’ crew rebelled against his rule and attempted to seize a ship to sail back to Cuba, the conquistador ordered all 10 remaining ships from his original fleet (an 11th had been sent back to Spain to notify the king) scuttled at Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz in July of the same year.

By the spring of 1520, Cortés had already marched on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán and taken its ruler, Moctezuma II, prisoner when the angry governor of Cuba sent another fleet of ships to Yucatán to arrest Cortés. Instead, the conquistador bribed many of the governor’s soldiers with promises of Aztec gold and silver, and went on to scuttle 16 of the ships sent to arrest him in the harbor of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz.

Not long after, Cortés seized Tenochtitlán and conquered Mexico.

“The conquest was a very traumatic episode in our history that sparks the imagination of most Mexicans,” says Roberto Junco Sánchez, deputy director of underwater archaeology for Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and a co-director of the research project. Next year the country will begin to observe events around the 500th anniversary of Cortés’ arrival and conquest.

A promising start

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Project co-director Frederick Hanselmann fans sand away from the 16th-century anchor that may have belonged to from Hernán Cortés scuttled fleet.

The anchor was discovered during a six-week survey this summer, in which project researchers combed a 30-square-mile area off Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz with remote sensing equipment designed to detect unusual features on the sea floor.

While the anchor is stylistically consistent with what an early 16th-century European ship would carry, it was its unusually well-preserved wooden stock that provided additional important evidence. Accelerator mass spectrometer and carbon-14 dating of a wood sample indicates that it was felled sometime between 1417 and 1530. It also appears that the wood may have come from a species of red oak that grows in Spain’s Basque region. Further testing is being conducted to confirm the identification.

Underwater archaeologists who work in the Gulf of Mexico say the results of the anchor testing, while not conclusive, are compelling. “That sounds very tantalizing, for sure,” says John Bratten, chair of anthropology at the University of West Florida and co-director of the Emanuel Point II project, which is studying wrecks from a 1559 Spanish attempt to colonize what is now Pensacola, Florida.

The Cortés researchers don’t expect to find a wealth of Aztec loot: Since the ships were scuttled, any objects of value would have been removed before the vessels were sunk. Rather, the discovery can illuminate how the conquistador controlled his troops in the leadup to the conquest of Mexico. Scuttling ships was a way of sealing his men’s fate and forcing their allegiance, says Frederick Hanselmann, director of underwater archaeology at the University of Miami and project co-director. “So we know why, but how and where would he do it?” Hanselmann asks. “Would he just float them offshore and say, ‘Oh the ships are gone?’ Or would he make an object lesson of it, and do it in plain sight?”

The project team has also documented a series of anomalies that they’ll continue to investigate next summer. The volcanic rocks of the region are of particular interest in the ongoing hunt for the shipwrecks, says project co-director Melanie Damour.

“One working hypothesis is that Cortés’ vessels were stripped of their usable components, then loaded with local rocks to help ensure they sank,” she says. “The magnetic signature of volcanic rocks, clustered in the bottoms of the wooden hulls, may help lead to the fleet’s discovery. Even more importantly, the ballast would likely have helped to preserve the wooden hull beneath them.”

The project has been funded in part with a grant from the National Geographic Society, with additional funding and resources provided by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).