top of page
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is a 501 (c) (3) accredited, not-for-profit organization existing to research, interpret, and exhibit the maritime history of Florida and the Caribbean in ways that increase knowledge, enrich the spirit, and stimulate inquiry.

Archaeology ​& Research/ More ... Santa Clara

The Santa Clara, an early Spanish galleon, sunk in 1564


The wooden remains of the ship itself were generally found in their original context, but were quite soft and abraded from their long immersion. This hull structure was recorded through drawings and photographs before being reburied as found. What was been examined was, for the most part, exterior hull planking sporadically intersected by badly degraded framing components, all joined by combinations of iron fasteners and wooden dowels. A row of iron shroud chains, or chain-plates, show the ship was a square-rigged vessel. The surviving structure runs a length of 64' 2" (19.55 meters) and shows the ship rolled onto its starboard side sometime after sinking.

The large and varied group of artifacts recovered from the site is a key reference collection for anyone interested in the material culture and mechanics of the early Spanish colonial maritime system. Weapons, including an artillery battery of bombardetas and versos, crossbows, swords, and pole arms, and iron armor provided the crew with a variety of military options. The ceramics seen from this site reflect not only various functional categories, such as tableware, drug containers and those for food storage and preparation, but the changing aesthetic tastes of colonial Spain, and trading patterns of the time. The remains of over one hundred olive jars, along with various Spanish and Italian majolicas, and a variety of lead-glazed wares form the major part of this group. Other artifacts include iron rigging, trade goods, glassware, medical equipment, cookware, and carpenter's tools. Two small silver coins minted in Mexico City, and stamped nuggets of Peruvian silver have also been found. Evidence from the wreck for the Old World horse, pig, and cow confirms these creatures were making their mark on both sides of the Atlantic. A small South American caiman bone reveals that one was, for whatever reason, being taken to Spain.

To ensure that it would be a structured study, an excavation plan was formulated around a list of wide-ranging questions about the ship. Between 1992 and 1999, the MFMHS conducted six excavations to examine and document the shipwreck. The data collected during these excavations made it evident that most of what remains of this ship and its contents has been preserved in an undisturbed context. In general, artifacts had moved little since their initial deposition and provided significant insight to the internal arrangements and loading practices used on board the ship. The location of the galley, and the stowage strategies for various classes of arms and artillery, as well as the storage of various supplies were revealed. Lamentably, the wreck was slightly damaged during earlier, undocumented explorations by treasure hunters, most significantly to areas of the lower hull structure where the ballast is concentrated most heavily. Fortunately, the absence of a "treasure" on the site kept the incentive for any such exploration at a low level and helps to account for the relative lack of disturbance.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, owner of the galleon Santa Clara and founder of St. Augustine, Florida. Image: Library of Congress.
Olive jar from Santa Clara.
Documenting artilley on the Santa Clara site.
Conserving a rapier sword from the Santa Clara.

Careful analysis of the materials found on the shipwreck, along with clues provided by the remains of the ship itself, shows that it was a sizeable vessel that sailed between 1555 and 1575, and had touched at Tierra Firme (Colombia and Panama) before sinking during a return voyage to Spain. By comparing the archaeological evidence to the historical record, it became clear that the St. Johns shipwreck could none other than the Santa Clara, a 300-ton Spanish Indies galleon owned by the famed Spanish mariner Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. While returning to Spain in October of 1564, the galleon grounded on a reef in the western Bahamas and could not be freed. Its cargo of silver and all the people on board were safely removed to the accompanying San Pelayo, and the Santa Clara, with all of its equipment, was abandoned.


And Santa Clara’s story, because it is associated with many significant historical figures – the great Spanish mariners Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and Esteban de Las Alas, Peruvian viceroy Lope García de Castro, Inca nobleman don Francisco Inca Atabalipa, Costa Rican conquistador Juan Vasquez de Coronado, high-ranking official Hernando de Santillán, Peruvian aristocrat don Antonio Cabeza de Vaca, and the Venezuelan conquistador Diego Hernandez de Serpa, among others – tells of a previously unexplored event in all of their lives and a offers sharper understanding of the world in which they lived. For these people, the Americas had been a presence throughout their lives, and, though exploration and conquest was still a reality for some of them, they were all making use of a well-established system designed to carry people and goods across the Atlantic. It is clear from the exploration of the wreck that Santa Clara was an early social and technological “melting pot" that bridged continents and helped to set the course for our modern world.

Mel Fisher Maritime Museum - Galleon "Atocha"
bottom of page