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La Galga the Legendary Assateague Galleon

La Galga is Marguerite Henry's legendary galleon

Misty of Chincoteague

In 1946, Marguerite Henry was drawn by the curious and pervasive legend that the wild ponies of Assateague Island had come from a wrecked Spanish galleon which inspired her to travel to Chincoteague Island, Virginia, to witness the wild ponies for herself. She heard first hand from the Beebe family and others about the long held belief that the Assateague horses that had have run wild for centuries descended from those that swam ashore from the shipwreck of a Spanish vessel.

No one could remember the name of the ship or when she had wrecked but the horses that Mrs. Henry had so longed to see were the only tangible vestige of a Spanish fleet that had been driven by a hurricane over a thousand miles off course to be cast away on the seacoast of Virginia and North Carolina in 1750.

The story of this forgotten fleet has been slow to emerge into the modern conscience but the effects have been part of our culture for centuries. It wasn’t until the sunken treasure craze of the 1960’s that documents in the Spanish archives came to light about the 1750 fleet. The archives of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina contained only a few pages documenting their respective roles in a story whose historical significance has only recently been recognized.

Mrs. Henry’s galleon was called “La Galga,” Spanish for “greyhound.” In 1908, the State of Maryland printed its colonial documents found in the state’s archives. Within one of the many bound volumes is a letter from the captain of La Galga, an Irishman in the service of the Spanish king named Don Daniel Huony. He describes his misfortunes that brought him and his ship to run aground on Assateague on September 5, 1750. Documented in his letter to the Governor of Maryland is the controversy over the Colonial boundary line between Maryland and Virginia. Captain Huony reported that he had been told at the time of wrecking that La Galga lie in Virginia near the border. Because the shipwreck was lying so close to the boundary line a survey was ordered. The survey proved that the boundary line was actually “two ship’s lengths” south of La Galga placing the wreck in Maryland. This document would prove to be the single most important document in the ultimate and unlikely discovery of the forgotten shipwreck. Without it, her present location buried in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge would never have been deduced. For years, treasure hunters had looked for La Galga believing that with such a precise location the wreck could be easily found. But they failed to follow the remaining clues located in the Accomack County courthouse.

The first reference to Huony’s letter after its publication in 1908 was probably in 1940 in William B. Marye’s “The Seacoast of Maryland” published in the Maryland Historical Magazine. Marye made no connection between this shipwreck and the legendary galleon remembered by the inhabitants of Chincoteague. In fact, in the fine print of his foot notes, he says that a “sensible, unromantic” explanation of the origin of the horses is that they are merely “stunted stock descended from ordinary horses turned loose on the beach in colonial times.” Later National Park Service historians would repeat this claim which today is easily proven false.

In 1947, when Mrs. Henry published her classic, Misty of Chincoteague, she knew nothing about La Galga except what was remembered by the inhabitants of Chincoteague. Within the pages of her book is an account of the shipwreck legend told by the real life character of Clarence “Grandpa” Beebe. Beebe remembers the legend: “All the wild herds on Assateague be descendants of a bunch of Spanish hosses… legends be the only stories as is true!” Clarence Beebe went further and stated that “Why I heard ‘twas the Indians who chanced on ‘em first.” That connection between the Indians and the shipwreck survivors is documented in the record of La Galga’s loss found in the Spanish archives.

From the movie Misty released in 1961. Inspired by La Galga shipwreck in 1750

The legacy left by La Galga is that she was the inspiration of the children’s classic, Misty of Chincoteague. Mrs. Henry’s book was made into a movie in 1961. The book and movie brought the quiet little island of Chincoteague, inhabited mostly by fisherman, to the attention of the world. Each year nearly 50,000 tourists descend on the island for the annual roundup of the horses and pony swim where the horses are swum across the channel separating Assateague Island from Chincoteague. This festival has been celebrated as far back as the early 1800s.

The wreck of La Galga entombed on Assateague is the only known remnant of the 1750 fleet. But the story of wild horses is not the only tale that would survive the passing centuries. The 1750 fleet boasts another connection to classic literature and history. It is a story about buried treasure now familiar to the entire literate world. This true story that originated with one of the ships of the 1750 fleet would inspire Robert Louis Stevenson when he wrote Treasure Island. The Assateague galleon is now connected with two classics in children’s literature.

Treasure Island is a fictional tale about returning to a deserted island to recover a treasure buried there in 1750. That treasure, in real life, came from the galleon, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, which had sailed under the protection of La Galga’s fifty-six cannon. During the hurricane she was driven to Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina, where she was unable to proceed to Spain with her million dollar cargo. The Guadalupe was brought to anchor in Teach’s Hole, the same spot that Blackbeard was killed thirty-two years before. The desperate Spanish Captain hired two sloops to carry over a hundred chests of silver pieces of eight to Norfolk, Virginia, for shipment to Spain. Ultimately, the sloops sailed away, commandeered by two brothers from Hampton roads. Owen Lloyd and his one-legged brother, John, had contrived a plan that would deprive their former enemy of a fortune that far exceeded anything that Blackbeard was ever credited with. John Lloyd was captured and later escaped. Owen made it clear to the British Virgin Islands where he and his crew buried most of their loot on November 13, 1750, at Norman Island. One hundred years later, to the day, Robert Louis Stevenson was born. This story of greed, revenge, and stolen treasure was recently uncovered in the archives of Spain, England, Denmark, and The Netherlands.

Treasure Island 1750

Stevenson’s map of Treasure Island dated August 1, 1750

When he wrote Treasure Island, Stevenson included a map that gave the location of a treasure that had been buried on August 1, 1750, by a Captain James Flint. In real life, it was the thirty-three year old merchant captain named Owen Lloyd who was born in Flintshire, Wales, that had perpetrated the crime.

None of this fascinating history would have occurred had La Galga been ready to sail as expected. Her delays, documented in the Spanish archives, timed her departure which fatefully placed the fleet into the path of a West Indian hurricane. Had the fleet’s departure occurred a day before or a day later, Treasure Island and Misty of Chincoteague would never have been written.

Today Misty of Chincoteague and Treasure Island is required readying in many schools but the students know nothing of the real history behind these stories.

In 1950, Walt Disney not only made the first color version of Treasure Island but it was the first non-animated movie for the studio. The actor Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver, invented the infamous pirate growl, ARRGH! The huge popularity of this movie inspired Disney to build the Pirates of the Caribbean amusement ride which in turn spawned the multi-billion movie franchise generating billions for the Disney empire. Pirates of the Caribbean would not have happened if not for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. But then Stevenson owes his tale of buried treasure to the history of the 1750 Spanish fleet.

Walt Disney made Treasure Island in 1950. Inspired by the true story that happened in 1750

In 1983, John Amrhein, Jr. and his partners located the site believed to contain the remains of La Galga within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. It was no easy discovery. Like everyone else that went before and after him, he searched the two mile corridor between the prescribed Colonial boundary between Maryland and Virginia and the modern line that was established in 1883 two miles to the north. The documents found in the Accomack County Courthouse on the Eastern Shore of Virginia not only proved the early boundary line but also documented the eastward migration of the beach that surrounded the shipwreck. Of equal importance, Amrhein met Ronnie Beebe, the great nephew of Clarence “Grandpa” Beebe, who not only related the same legend that his uncle told Marguerite Henry thirty seven years before, but described in detail how the legendary Spanish galleon had entered a small inlet causing it to close up in two weeks time. He even pointed to a spot very close to where the shipwreck was ultimately found. His story was verified in the Spanish archives.

Amrhein filed his report of discovery with federal officials and volunteered to make the demonstration with his electronic detection equipment. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined. And, in spite of the offer of assistance made by the Smithsonian Institution, federal officials refused to do any further investigation as required by the National Historic Preservation Act.

In 1998, a treasure hunting firm called Sea Hunt, Inc., filed a claim in federal court to an unidentified shipwreck lying off Assateague near the present Maryland border. The site had been visited by many others including Amrhein and dismissed as La Galga. It seems that Sea Hunt’s claim was prompted by the discovery of some Spanish coins on the beach in the vicinity of the unidentified shipwreck. Sea Hunt was ignorant of the fact that Spanish coins were legal currency in the U.S. until 1857 and could come from any shipwreck. The piece of eight was the foundation for the American silver dollar. Spanish coins of various dates have been found along the entire length of Assateague inspiring at least one major fraud with a fictitious ship called the San Lorenzo de Escorial.

The federal government, eager to put Sea Hunt out of business, represented Spain when it filed a competing claim to La Galga. Spain had no knowledge of the shipwreck before. Spain apparently did not know that the federal government not only retained Amrhein’s report of discovery from 1983 but that NOAA had recorded it in their database of shipwrecks in 1984 as being buried n the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Even though Amrhein’s discovery was mentioned during the trial, neither the court nor anyone else chose to investigate the truth. The federal government remained silent. In 2000, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals awarded an unidentified shipwreck, that Sea Hunt frivolously described as La Galga, to Spain. No evidence of discovery other than their misguided beliefs was presented to the court.

The Sea Hunt case was watched and studied around the world. Considered a landmark case, it was the first time Spain had entered shipwreck litigation in the U.S. court system and they won. Except what they won was not La Galga. The Sea Hunt location has since been abandoned by both the federal government and Spain in favor of the location within the refuge identified by Amrhein in 1983. The federal government and the Spanish embassy have blocked any archaeological investigation of this site since 2008.

The Sea Hunt case establishes La Galga’s a role in modern history. This alone would place her on National Register of Historic Places without even mentioning her historic connection to wild horses and buried treasure.Buried within the Chincoteague National Wildlife refuge is no ordinary shipwreck.

The Assateague Galleon

John Amrhein, Jr. with model of Spanish warship La Galga

In 2007, John Amrhein, Jr. published The Hidden Galleon: The True Story of a Lost Spanish Ship and the Legendary Wild Horses of Assateague Island which not only gives a full history of La Galga and her captain, his account of discovery, but the history of the horses as well.

In 2011, Amrhein published Treasure Island: The Untold Story, which documents the account of the demise of the Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe and her treasure and the remaining history of this truly historic fleet.