Memorandum on Legal Issues Related to La Galga and the Sea Hunt Case

On July 21, 2000, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals rendered its decision in the landmark Sea Hunt case whereby the Spanish ships, La Galga and the Juno, were awarded to the Kingdom of Spain. The published opinion, SEA HUNT INCORPORATED v. THE UNIDENTIFIED SHIPWRECKED VESSEL OR VESSELS, 221 F. 3d 634(4th Cir. 2000)  does not come close to documenting the facts that not only tell the true story of one of the most historically significant shipwrecks in America but undermine the validity of the Sea Hunt proceeding.

Legend says that the wild horses of Assateague Island descended from those that were believed to have been on board La Galga when she wrecked. Available evidence lends a great deal of credence to this legend. In 1947, Marguerite Henry published Misty of Chincoteague, a story about the Assateague horses. Millions of copies have been sold and the book is required reading in many schools. The story was made into a movie in 1961.

The Sea Hunt complaint was filed on March 11, 1998. What preceded the filing tells the rest of the story.

1732. La Galga was launched into service of the Spanish Navy.

1750. On August 18, 1750, La Galga departed Havana, Cuba, for Spain. She was then property of the Kingdom of Spain. On September 5, 1750, she was driven into shallow water next to Assateague Island, Virginia. No one died aboard ship as it did not sink. Five individuals drowned while swimming ashore, one was an English prisoner.1 Evidence shows that the shipwreck sat in shallow water and sand immediately began to accumulate around the hull. This process caused the inlet in which she had entered to close up.

While Captain Huony was at Assateague, he abandoned the shipwreck of La Galga. When locals asked for possession of the wreck, Captain Huony declared that “The Owner of the Land owns the ship.”2 Either that was William Gore, the owner of Assateague, or it was King George II of England. During the court martial held in Spain in 1751 to review the loss of the ship, testimony was given that during a Council of War held at Assateague that some of the ship’s officer’s suggested burning the wreck to keep it out of the hands of the English. Captain Huony decided not to, advising them that this could be considered an act of war, and England and Spain were enjoying a newly found peace. Instead, Huony told the Tribunal that he decided to give up the wreck, a move that hopefully would guarantee their safe passage through English territory.3 This abandonment may not have been necessary had there not been English prisoners on board La Galga, impressed by the Spaniards for the purpose of manning the ship and who had been held after the peace treaty by the Spaniards since the recent war had ended.4 The entire Spanish crew left after three days. No further attempt was made to recover anything directly from the wreck by the Spaniards. There was an inquisition by the authorities from Maryland and Virginia to recover items salvaged from wreck by the locals. There is no record that anything was returned to Spain, either the items themselves or the value recovered at sale.5