The Port Mansfield Cut and the treasure discovered there

Dredging work unearthed a Spanish ship that had been buried for four centuries.

By W.F. StrongJanuary 4, 2023 3:35 pm, ,

Padre Island is the longest barrier island in the world, measuring 113 miles from Corpus Christi to near Brownsville. Up until the late 1950s, you could drive the entire length of the island in less than half a day with a decent four-wheel drive vehicle. That option was blocked in 1957 when the Port Mansfield Cut was dredged. It gave the new port created at Red Fish Landing a convenient waterway into the Gulf of Mexico. The channel had been a dream of the Laguna Madre-locked locals for decades.

October 20, 1957, at 4 a.m. was the incredible moment that the giant dredger dug out the last sand dune and cut the island in two. This formally created North Padre and South Padre Islands.

Bill Rapp, a Port Mansfield resident, was there for that moment and was elated that he was. He wrote: “You often dream of things and they come to pass, but for some reason you aren’t there at the precise moment. BUT I WAS THERE when the Dredge Miami took the final cut out of the old Padre and the waters of the Laguna Madre went rushing into the Gulf of Mexico.”

The Port Mansfield Channel was about nine miles long overall, running seven miles through the bay, and it cut through two miles of island mud flats and dunes to reach the sea. In fact, that was the common promotional mantra for the project heard frequently in Willacy County in the many years they lobbied Congress for the cut: “Give Port Mansfield access to the sea.”

A lone boat with an outboard motor was the first to pass through the channel after the dredge opened the way. But this was just the first phase. The channel needed to be widened considerably, and this is when things got much more interesting as a discovery was made that changed much more than the island landscape.

In the dredging that continued one bright sunny afternoon, the mud and clay being sucked from the channel and spewed onto the banks suddenly brightened as silver coins began sparkling in the sunlight. Hundreds of ancient Spanish coins were being harvested from the bottom of the canal. The dredge had crushed an old Spanish Galleon, the classic sailing ship, buried there for four centuries. Work was stopped for a while and the coins collected.

Ensuing investigations revealed a story more dramatic than the dredging of the channel. The ship that was discovered there was the Santa Maria de Yciar, one of four ill-fated ships carrying treasure that had set sail together from Vera Cruz, Mexico, in late April of 1544 on the way back to Spain. The king had ordered that the ships were to bring back 100,000 coins of gold and silver from Mexico for the Spanish treasury, but being a man who was wise with money, he ordered that his funds be diversified. Each ship would carry 25,000 coins so the risk was spread across all the vessels. The ships also carried some 300 passengers: priests, women and children, some soldiers and businessmen returning with fortunes of their own from New Spain, as Mexico was called then. Estimates are that the ships carried the equivalent of about $80 million in today’s purchasing power.

A late spring tropical storm blew them off course, and the relentless winds pushed three of the ships across the entire Gulf, where they were crushed on the sandbars of Padre Island. Their hulls were pried open and their treasures spilled out onto the sandy bottom. In the centuries ahead Padre would be known as the “graveyard of the gulf” because of its location as the backstop of storms. The fourth ship limped into Havana but was so damaged it could not return to Spain.

The passengers were marooned and decided that they would walk to Tampico, where there was a known Spanish outpost. They mistakenly guessed that they could walk there in three days – but it was actually 300 miles of trudging across dunes and swollen rivers and coastal marshes with no food and little drinkable water. They were mostly picked off and killed by Native Americans, and only one badly wounded friar made it to Tampico to tell the tale. Another passenger, after crossing the Rio Grande, decided to return to the ships, and he was saved when the Spanish salvage ships came for the treasure.

The three wrecked ships – the Esteban, the Espíritu Santo and the Santa Maria de Yciar – all sat undiscovered for four centuries. The Esteban and Espiritu Santo were both found years later a few miles north of the Mansfield cut. Treasure hunters descended on them and had collected quite a fortune when the State of Texas took action and forced them to cease and desist operations and turn over their plunder to the state. But Texas had no law to  protect its antiquities, so the Legislature quickly passed the State Antiquities Code in 1969. The state and the recovery company fought it out in court for years, and finally Texas paid them $313,000 for their efforts and then placed the coins, anchors, canons and other artifacts from the wrecks in the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, where you can still see them today.

You can visit the Port Mansfield Cut by boat or car. Launch your boat in Port Mansfield and enjoy following the dream made real out to the sea. Or, drive to South Padre and take State Park Road 100 North to Beach Access 6. Get on the beach and head north for 30 miles and you’ll be at the cut (four-wheel drive recommended). It’s beautiful there, with great fishing, and a marvelous place for a picnic on the granite boulders of the jetties.

And if you’re wondering if coins can still be found, Ron Mills, the executive director of Port Mansfield, told me that “within the past two years the channel was dredged to the deepest depths ever, at 23 feet between the jetties and 17 feet throughout the entire channel. During those operations there were no reported discoveries of new coins or other artifacts that may have pertained to the shipwrecks.”

Sorry, treasure hunters.

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