Wild horses and 17 tonnes of Spanish treasure

August 10, 2009


John Amrhein, Jr's book The Hidden Galleon

Millions of people are familiar with the wild horses of Virginia's Assateague Island. They became world famous when Marguerite Henry published Misty of Chincoteague in 1947.

In this children's classic, she recounts the legend of a lost Spanish galleon being the source of the wild horses.

This legendary galleon now finds itself at the centre of a controversy over a Spanish treasure hoard.

Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Florida, is mired in a legal battle with the Kingdom of Spain in the federal court in Tampa over rights to 17 tonnes of silver coins which some have valued at $US500 million.

The treasure is reported to have come from a Spanish warship called the Nuestra Senora de Mercedes, sunk off Portugal in 1804. The treasure was recovered in May of 2007 and flown into Tampa for court protection.

Now, what do the wild horses of Assateague have to do with 17 tonnes of treasure from a shipwreck found on the other side of the Atlantic? Only one thing: the award-winning book called The Hidden Galleon: The true story of a lost Spanish ship and the legendary wild horses of Assateague Island.

The book, published in October 2007, not only gives a complete history of the horses and the legendary Spanish galleon called La Galga, which ran ashore on Assateague in 1750, but debunks a shipwreck case being cited by Spain to encourage the Tampa court to force Odyssey to give up their treasure haul.

The author, John Amrhein, Jr, describes how he located La Galga in 1983 buried beneath the sands and marshes of Assateague and within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.


Interior View of the Spanish Warship La Galga 1750
He was guided by intensive research in American and Spanish archives and by a descendant of one of the characters portrayed in Misty.

La Galga was carrying small amounts of treasure, tonnes of tobacco, and mahogany planks for the windows and doors of King Ferdinand VI's opulent palace being built in Madrid.

She drove ashore on September 5 on the deserted beaches of Assateague Island after enduring 12 days of a hurricane, leaving behind an enduring legend that survives today in the wild horses that run free and which are known today as the Chincoteague ponies.

The legend has it that ponies swam ashore from the shipwreck. However, it is more likely that early 17th-century colonists let horses loose on the island to avoid a tax on fenced livestock.

Amrhein also produces evidence of how La Galga and another Spanish warship called the Juno were erroneously awarded to Spain in 2000 by a federal court in Virginia.


The Chincoteague pony swim is immortalised in Marguerite Henry's famous book Misty of Chincoteague.
That case has been touted by Spain as its leading precedent to defeat Odyssey Marine Exploration.

In his book, Amrhein not only details the location of La Galga as buried under the island but that the Juno, lost in 1802, actually was reported to have sunk 280 miles from where the misinformed court was led to believe.

This evidence was not presented to the court when it awarded to Spain two unidentified merchant ships rightfully the property of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The author also recounts an earlier court battle where he exposed a con man who had swindled investors and the federal government with a fictitious ship called the San Lorenzo which he had claimed was the source of the wild ponies of Assateague Island.

Recently, the Spanish government has told the United States government that Amrhein and his archaeologist should not be allowed on Assateague to map the site of the buried Spanish warship.

It is expected that the Odyssey Marine Exploration case will go to trial where Amrhein expects more of this controversy to be revealed to the public.