Have the 1563 wrecks of the Angel Bueno and La Concepcion been found?
By BRAD BERTELLI - History columnist for The Reporter
Paul Robinson, president of the Bronze Cannon Corporation, cannot wait to talk about solving one of the great mysteries of the Spanish treasure fleet era.
It is an unprecedented Florida tale of fathers and sons spanning the better part of 500 years. Not only does the story stretch the length of the Spanish treasure route, it incorporates lost history, sunken treasure, the establishment of St. Augustine (the oldest continually occupied European city in North America), Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, and the son he lost as the result of a 1563 hurricane.
Pedro Menendez’s son, Juan Menendez, grew up to be a marine and military expert who achieved the rank of general before the age of 30. Like his father, Captain General Juan Menendez was tasked with protecting Spain’s treasure fleets and placed in charge of the 1563 New Spain fleet’s capitana, La Concepcion. The 500-ton warship led the fleet as it sailed away from the New World to deliver its gold and silver to Spain while the almiranta Santa Catalina, a ship of war like the capitana, guarded the rear of the convoy.
The treasure fleet is thought to have been carrying more than 17,000 pounds of gold home to Spain with the vast majority being carried by the capitana, almiranta, and a third ship, El Angel Bueno. A reported slave ship, in addition to as much as 5,000 pounds of gold, the Angel Bueno is thought to have been carrying ivory and Incan artifacts. As a matter of comparison, when the Nuestra Senora de Atocha sank off the Marquesas Keys during a 1622 hurricane, the ship had less than 1,000 pounds of gold on its manifest.
In 1563 the commander of the fleet, Captain General Juan Menendez, decided to ignore sage advice from his father regarding safe sailing practices. According to Barbara Purdy’s book West of the Papal Lines, the elder Menendez told his son, “In the whole month of July you can come out of the Bahama Channel, but do not sail after the first of August because of the great hurricanes.”
Unfortunately, the 1563 New Spain fleet encountered contrary weather in the lower Caribbean causing the convoy to arrive at Havana Harbor later than expected. To make matters worse, by the time the last two Honduran merchant ships scheduled to join the convoy arrived in Havana, July had turned to August. It was September 7 when Menendez led 12 ships bound for Spain out of Havana Harbor. Hurricane conditions quickly engulfed the fleet.
Along with the Angel Bueno, La Concepcion was reported lost September 10. Eleven ships in the convoy survived the storm’s ravages.
The location of the two ships lost in the storm has never been determined. Early searches for the Angel Bueno, as well as the Concepcion, were concentrated near Bermuda after 35 crew members from the Angel Bueno, swept away by the currents of the Gulf Stream, were rescued in a long boat six days later at 32.1 degrees latitude.
Because it is thought the shipwreck survivors had been considered mutineers, after their rescue they lied about where their ship had gone down.
The disappearance of the Angel Bueno and Concepcion has been considered one of the great mysteries of the Spanish treasure fleet era, until now. While the story of the 1563 treasure fleet is still unraveling today, the mystery began to reveal itself in the late 1950s to early 1960s as many of these sorts of things tend to do — over a cold beer. Billy Moore, a commercial fisherman, had been sitting at Captain Eddie’s Fish Basket (currently Mangrove Mama’s) on Sugarloaf Key when he overhead the Coast Guard crew stationed at American Shoal Lighthouse talking about a small bronze cannon they had hoisted up to the their maintenance deck.
If stories shared between beers can be believed, before the American Shoal Lighthouse crew handed the cannon over to their superiors, they showed it to a local salvage hunter named Ernie Rickman. Before moving to the Florida Keys, Rickman had been a Navy frogman and part of the rescue team at Pearl Harbor after the Japanese attacked December 7, 1941. Rickman made his living working salvage operations and collecting seashells. During the course of his day to day operations, Rickman either discovered or learned the location of dozens of shipwrecks in the Lower Keys.
Perhaps because no one knew much about the wrecks scattered along the Florida Reef in the 1950s, Rickman did not pay much attention to the sites other than to show them to tourists on sight-seeing adventures. Along the way Rickman introduced two young diving enthusiasts to each other, Whitey Keevan and Bill Robinson.
Keevan was the owner of Frank Keevan and Son, a land development company that also served as a government contracting agent for the Navy bases on Key West and Boca Chica. Whitey, who also developed Shark Key, moved to the Florida Keys in the late 1940s where he was a marine archaeological enthusiast with a love for historical shipwrecks. In 1962 he built a house on Sugarloaf Beach that looks out at the American Shoal Lighthouse where he still lives.
Robinson, the father of three boys and an avid adventurer and diver, worked on land development and road building projects for Charley Toppino and Sons. Having heard tales of shipwrecks and the story of the small bronze cannon discovered by the American Shoal Coast Guard crew, Keevan and Robinson began searching the Atlantic floor for evidence of shipwrecks — among the wrecks searched for was the Bronze Cannon Wreck.
No artifacts were discovered until 1975 when Jim Russell revealed to the partners that he and a friend had seen what appeared to be two cannons out at American Shoal. A few days later Russell brought Whitey and Bill to the location only to find the cannons had been removed. Before Whitey and Bill left, they performed a quick search of the surrounding area and discovered two additional cannons. After placing an underwater marker at the site identifying the location of the cannons, Keevan and Robinson formed Marine Archaeology Preservation Incorporated. Between 1975 and 1980 the only significant artifact recovered from the general area was an 11-foot anchor discovered much closer to the shore.
Marine Archaeology Preservation Incorporated disbanded in 1980. According to Paul Robinson, son of Bill Robinson, “We found nothing more until 1982 when a significant amount of ballast stones and encrusted objects were discovered, prompting the Robinson family to form Bronze Cannon Corporation and file an Admiralty action on the shipwreck. We immediately renewed and formalized our agreement with Whitey Keevan, which has remained in effect to this day. In 1984 we were awarded a default judgment and named ‘Salvors in Possession.’ Prior to 1990, we recovered very little more.
“There was one more bronze cannon to bring the total to five (six counting the original USCG cannon), a rudder gudgeon, a wrought iron breech-loader cannon, called a verso, an 11-foot galleon anchor and another 8-foot galleon anchor, assorted ship's pins, sandstone wheels, an iron cannon, and more ballast stones. All of those recoveries were made prior to 1990. Nothing else has been recovered since then and very little more discovered until November 2015.”
Robinson adds, “Bronze Cannon Corporation is now myself, my brother Bubba and his son, my nephew Zell, who was a decorated Marine Corps captain and pilot. We are still working with Whitey Keevan and in the last 15 or so years Vernon Strobel, a decorated three-tour Vietnam veteran, has joined the project. Commercial fisherman and diver Mike Laudicina is also a partner and friend of ours dating back to 1971 and a major part of the project. In the last few years John Halas, another decorated Vietnam Veteran and former Upper Keys Region Manager of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has also become an advisor and participant on the project. David Paul Horan, too, has been the attorney for the project since 1975.”
The Bronze Cannon Corporation is actively scanning the Atlantic floor within the realm of their Admiralty Claim while operating under a permit issued by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Searching for shipwrecks is not like it was back in the early days of Florida Keys’ treasure salvage when divers were less aware of the impact their search for long forgotten artifacts had on the environment.
Robinson repeatedly voices his objection to the Bronze Cannon Corporation being labeled a treasure hunting company. “Our mission is to uncover one of the great mysteries of the Spanish treasure fleet era,” says the president of operations. Over the course of the Keevan and Robinson collaboration, with more than a million dollars invested and over 50 years of work, they believe they have tracked down not just the locale of the Angel Bueno, but the wreckage trail of a second ship believed to be Juan Menendez’s Concepcion.
“We have no reason to seek publicity after 54 years, except to get our story out there, particularly the historical narrative,” says Robinson. “It is a story of staggering historical significance. The real short story take away from the historical narrative is this: Had these two ships not wrecked at American Shoal, bringing Pedro Menendez back to look for his son and subsequently founding St. Augustine in 1565 in an effort to expel the French, and had the French been able to consolidate their presence on the North American coast, all of North, Central and South America might be speaking French today. Certainly the balance of power politics on the European Continent would have played out differently right up to today. There may never have been two World Wars or a United States. World history turned on a dime at American Shoal in 1563.”
The hunt for the Angel Bueno has been based on countless maritime surveys, Spanish records, identifying marks found on recovered artifacts, and bolstered by an account in Barbara Purdy’s West of the Papal Lines in which she asserts Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda, who spent 17 years living with the Calusa Indians, “witnessed the entire tragic scene from the top of an ancient shell mound used as a lookout by the inhabitants along that portion of the coast.”
Fontaneda’s position, though it is impossible to say with any kind of certainty, is thought to have been in the general vicinity of the Lower Keys’ Sugarloaf Key where prehistoric Indian mounds have been identified.
Additionally revealed in Fontaneda’s memoir was a memory of a group of shipwrecked survivors washing up on the shores of Los Martires after a circa 1563 hurricane; in his text he remembers one of the survivors saying that he was in the fleet of the son of Pedro Menendez de Aviles, a Spanish general.
Bubba Robinson has spent countless hours slowly crisscrossing the open waters near the American Shoal Lighthouse dragging a magnetometer behind the Bronze Cannon Corporation’s unassuming research vessel.
The point the Bronze Cannon Corporation would like to make clear is this: “This project has nothing to do with the Robinson family chasing treasure or getting rich. The goal of the Bronze Cannon Corporation is to solve a 450-year-old mystery and then share that story with not only the Florida Keys’ community, but the world. I know we have the ship,” he says. “We have it on our charts, and I can tell you now that we will positively identify the shipwreck in 2016.”
Should the Robinson’s be right and they have indeed discovered the lost wrecks of the 1563 treasure fleet, the Bronze Cannon Corporation has agreed to display a generous cross section of any recovered artifacts at the Keys History & Discovery Center located in Islamorada. To contact the Bronze Cannon Corporation: AmericanShoal2@gmail.com