San José Shipwreck - Online Database

Online Database of Historic Artifacts
Recovered from the 1631 Shipwreck

San José

Located in the Republic of Panama

The galleon San José, christened 25 April 1611 with a displacement of approximately 700 tons, was the Almiranta of the South Seas Armada of 1631. On 31 May, the aging ship set sail from Callao, the port of Lima, Peru, loaded with precious cargo. Her vast riches included nine tons of silver in the form of 1,417 bars and 416 individual wooden chests of silver coins, known as reales de ocho—or pieces of eight—weighing in at 51 tons. Most of the silver originated from Potosi, then a territory of the Viceroyalty of Peru, today of Bolivia, where it was mined from a virtual mountain of silver called Cerro Rico de Potosi.

The San José, named for the patron saint of carpenters, immigrants and the New World, sailed with a complement of 106 crewmen and at least as many passengers, along with their own personal wealth, which included navigational instruments, weapons, silver and gold coins and bullion, tableware and ornaments, and magnificent gold and gemstone jewelry. With smuggling a widely practiced tradition, the San José also carried an additional and very substantial fortune in contraband wealth.

The voyage was anticipated to take slightly more than two weeks and conclude at Panama City, where all cargo would be offloaded and transported across the isthmus to Portobello, for subsequent shipment to Spain. On 17 June 1631, “a clear night with great currents,” the San José struck a shoal in the Gulf of Panama. First Pilot Captain Juan de Medina testified, “...the ship struck bottom with the anchor beneath it. The anchor did not hold and the ship touched bottom several more times in such a manner that it was lost.” While immediate salvage efforts resulted in some of the sunken treasure being recovered, a great fortune was left abandoned.

The final resting place of the San José was forgotten for centuries. In 2013, Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo, S.A. (IMDI), began legally authorized search and recovery operations under Salvage Contract #231 of 25 July 2003, issued by the Ministry of Economics and Finance of the Republic of Panama, and Resolution #136-13 of 16 July 2013, issued by the Office of Historical Patrimony of the National Institute of Culture of the Republic of Panama.

The artifacts in this database are all legally obtained and registered with the Office of Historical Patrimony of the National Institute of Culture of the Republic of Panama. Any artifact from the San José wreck that is not accompanied by an authorized certificate of authenticity remains the property of the Republic of Panama.

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