Wreck of the San Agustin
Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff
Sir Francis Drake
Manila was discovered
in 1571 by the Spanish explorer Magellan during his famous trip
around the world and the city was developed as a colonial outpost
for the Spaniards.
The Manila galleons, as they came to be known, would sail from Acapulco,
Mexico usually in December and would take roughly 8-10 weeks to
arrive using the trade winds. Officially the commercial traders
were allowed to send two ships per year of 300 tons each carrying
no more then 200,000 pesos of silver between them. The traders wanted
very much so to do more business with the Manila sea port because
they could profit by six times their investments. The silver was
traded for Oriental silks, clothing, porcelain, and other valuable
things not so readily available in Europe where they commanded high
prices. The porcelain was as valuable as gold. The Spanish government
tried to restrict the trade because they wanted the silver pesos
in Spain, but as in most cases where peoples are restricted, the
merchants simply found ways to bribe ship captains and port officials
to load on more silver. Most ships actually carried two million
pesos! The captains alone could receive as much as 40,000 pesos
in goods and gifts for his part in the adventure. By the end of
the century 3-5 million pesos a year were being funneled from the
mines in South America, to Acapulco, and finally on to Manila to
In the late 1400's the Pope had decreed that the Spanish had the
jurisdiction over the Pacific Ocean and until Sir Francis Drake
came into the picture in 1578 the Spanish had a free run of the
sea. Drake an English captain ravaged the ships he encountered on
the Pacific coast. King Philip II of Spain decided that he needed
the coasts of Alta California charted so suitable harbors could
be found and the Manila galleons would have a safe haven from privateers
and stormy seas.
King Philip II chose as the man for the task, the diligent and determined
Sebastion Cermeno. Cermeno sailed his own ship the San Pedro to
Manila. It was a harrowing trip and Cermeno, a skilled navigator
and excellent leader, determined the San Pedro would not be up to
the challenge of crossing the Pacific Ocean. He proceeded to make
arrangements for leasing another ship called the San Agustin and
securing the finest crew he could assemble to chart the new lands
of upper California. He was a very determined man that wanted nothing
to go wrong.
Agustin left Acapulco on July 5, 1595 for Acapulco. She was laden
with a cargo of silks, porcelain, and gold. The ship sailed in a
northeast direction until like others before they reached the latitude
of 35 degrees north and the westerly winds carried them towards
Acapulco. The ship arrived in the new world battered and leaky from
the stormy voyage. The ship loaded with 150 tons of treasure rode
low in the water and the men were forced to spend two out of three
watches manning the ships' pumps. The crew was very concerned about
the condition of the ship and petitioned the captain to sail on
to Acapulco instead of taking the time to chart the coastline.
The ship arrived at the coast near Cape Mendocino and sailed south
until they spotted a high ridge jutting way out into the ocean far
beyond the general line of the coast. As they sailed around the
ridge they entered a protected bay that had a river flowing into
it with plenty of fresh water to take on. This bay is known now
as Drakes Bay and little did the Spaniards know that some years
earlier Drake was afforded shelter in the same bay.
A wrecked ship
the wishes of his almost mutinous crew anchored off the entrance
of the estero from which the fresh water flowed. The crew assembled
a launch they brought with them from Manila called a vicoro, basically
a dugout log with planks on the side. They set up a camp on the
beach and the San Agustin rode easy at anchor in the bay protected
from northwesterly winds. The men explored the esteros and camped
at the beach for nearly three weeks. During this time they had encounters
with very friendly Indians called Coastal Miwok. They traded and
sampled the native foods.
In November a gale came from the southeast and ripped the San Agustin
from its moorings. The harbor did not afford protection from the
southerly winds. On the beach the already dismayed crewmen watched
with disbelief as the ships hull hit the sandy bottom in the shallow
water and wallowed helplessly. The ship was then pounded by great
breakers into pieces. Two men drowned and the rest of the men were
left on the beach, in a foreign country, with only the clothes on
their backs. Cermeno and his crew managed to salvage some supplies
and a couple bales of silk that was left stacked on the beach to
be picked up at a later date, which never occurred.
Dedicated Cermeno was left with but three choices now. 1. Settle
in and take up living with the Miwok until another ship happened
by. 2. Walk down the 1500 miles of coast to the nearest Spanish
outpost. 3. Gather up his men and using the launch sail to Acapulco.
Perhaps Cermenos dedication and perseverance to his king's commission
saved all of his crew, for he decided to forever abandon the San
Agustin and its treasure and head for Acapulco in the launch. 76
men and a dog crammed in the vicoro and headed south. The men gathered
up acorns, seeds, and fruits to eat on the journey as well as a
few silks to trade with along the way. As he left the bay Cemeno
entered in his log the name of the coastal indentations Point Reyes
and Point San Pedro. In the coming days of fog and merely taking
on the tasks of surviving the crew completely missed the greatest
natural harbor in the world, San Francisco Bay.
Cermeno and his men who still were angry with him, arrived in Mexico
in January of 1596. Not a man was lost on the arduous journey.
In 1941 and in 1952 archeologists from the University of California
uncovered Indian graves that contained iron rods and over 50 spikes
characteristic of Spanish galleons of the period. They also discovered
125 porcelain pottery shards from the orient. One can almost picture
the Miwok sleeping on fine silks and eating acorns out of fine china.
The San Agustin had been anchored in seven fathoms of water when
it broke away and headed for the beach. It's been said the San Agustin
carried $500,000 in treasure aboard from the silks and gold, to
the blue Chinese porcelain of the Wan Li and Chai Ching varieties.
In all the abandoned treasure not recovered was over 130 tons. All
the heavy cargo and cannon have sunk deep to the bottom. Recently
at an auction house in Amsterdam similar china was sold in over
1000 multiple lots for over 7 million dollars.
The Point Reyes Peninsula is a natural hazard to ships and since
the San Agustin, one of its first wrecks; there have been over 50
ships that have piled up on the beaches in this vicinity.
If you feel inspired to go in search of the San Agustin or any shipwreck
might I suggest a good reading called Complete Wreck Diving, by
Henry Keatts and Brian Skerry. The book will take you from research
to cleaning your finds.
Be sure to also check federal and state laws regarding shipwreck
diving or artifact recovery in the area you're searching