Shipwrecks capture the imagination. We wonder about the storms, circumstances and hardships that caused them to sink. Shipwrecks also serve as time capsules for archaeologists and historians, because when excavated, they yield a great deal of information and artifacts about a specific era. Dozens of wrecks -- often European ships carrying supplies to live in the New World -- have been discovered in the Gulf of Mexico and several of them are of considerable historical significance.
1544 Spanish Shipwrecks
In 1544, three merchant ships carrying goods to the New World -- including large amounts of gold and silver -- sank off the Padre Islands coast during a hurricane. One wreck was destroyed in the 1940s, when the area was dredged to build a channel from the island to the Texas coast. Another was damaged by treasure hunters in the late 1960s. The remaining ship, the San Estebán, has been carefully excavated by the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory at the Texas Historical Commission. After more than 500 years under the sea, only a portion of the ship remained intact. But archeologists were able to salvage treasure from the wreck, including gold bars, silver bullion and Spanish doubloons.
In 1863, the USS Hatteras was lured into a trap set by a Confederate ship, and was quickly brought down by gunfire. Within 13 minutes, the crew surrendered and the ship sank. Today, she lies 20 miles off the Galveston coast, about 60 feet under water. Though most her enormous hull is buried in the sand, divers discovered the ship in the 1970s. The wreck site still belongs to the U.S. Navy, and it monitored to ensure that any oil and gas development in the area doesn't damage it. Archaeologists at the Texas Historical Commission and Texas A&M at Galveston are preserving the site.
According to the Texas Historical Commission, the Belle is perhaps the most important shipwreck to be discovered in North America. The doomed ship was originally one of Robert de La Salle's four ships and carried necessities and goods to start a colony in the Americas. In 1654, a series of unfortunate events, including food poisoning and dehydration, killed many crew members and those who remained lost control of the ship during a freak storm. The ship sank in present-day Matagorda Bay, an estuary on the Gulf of Mexico. Discovered in 1995, the wreck became the site of a major excavation project. Over the course of a year, the entire shipwreck was recovered and yielded amazing finds, including the ship's hull, bronze cannons, beads, pottery, skeletons and many artifacts. The items have been conserved and many are on display at Austin's Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.
The Caroline is Civil War-era shipwreck that was discovered off the Texas coast in 2009 in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. The Texas Historical Commission believes it to be the remains of an 1864 private merchant and cargo ship that carried bales of cotton. Her crew intentionally ran the ship aground -- and burned the cotton -- in the shallows near Galveston to escape capture by Union battleships. The Texas Historical Commission plans to investigate and preserve the ship in the coming years.