Today I Found a Copper Nail...
From a Sailing Ship So Long Ago...

Maybe Tomorrow Iīll Find
a Spanish Doubloon...

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

The Beaches of Mexico
Mexico has one of the best selection of beaches of any country in the world: the cool waters of the Pacific, the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and the spectacularly clear waters of the Caribbean.

Sand and sun year around. Yet, the beaches of Veracruz are unique because of what gets washed up. Not only plentiful seashells, but sometimes you can find parts of old shipwrecks that date back over 400 years.

Old Shipwrecks around Veracruz
One day, I was in the library and found an old book with some pictures of Veracruz, and off to one side you can see two ships foundering on the reefs in front of the people at the old slaughter house just down the boulevard from the Yacht Club.The title of the picture said that it was about the ships wrecked in the "Hurricane" of December 20, 1856. Back in those days, they didnīt know much about weather and probably called a bad winter storm a Hurricane.

These winter storms or "nortes" pack hurricane force winds, and in the winter time they are frequent, and many times they are dangerous.

Ships Lost in the Veracruz Harbor During the "Hurricane" of December 20, 1856

Not Far from Where I Live
I took a closer look at the picture and realized I knew where it was. It was before the jetties were built in 1902, and it wasnīt far from where I live. I decided to dig a little deeper. Maybe Iīd find something washed up on the beach.

When you go out, you never know what you are going to find. The probabilities are good that you will always find something that is interesting to look at, or at least think about.Thatīs what I like about the beaches around the port of Veracruz. Itīs something that most local residents, or tourists, donīt know about.

A Closer Look--Looking for Old Shipwrecks from the Shore

Map Dated 1907
Still intrigued by the old engraving, I went down to the Archivo del Estados to look through some of their old maps. I was looking for the deadly reef not far from shore.

What I found is that that during the large construction project to modernize the port of Veracruz from 1897 to 1902, they had built a series of jetties to protect the ships from the high winds and waves during the winter gales that had wrecked so many ships during the past 400 years.

Now the jetty went right through the once deadly reef.
Map Dated 1907
Looking Safely from Shore
With the new jetty built in 1902, it looked like you could simply walk out and look down at the old wreck site.

Most people didnīt realize it but the jetty passed right over the once deadly reef.

In looking at the old maps, thereīs no telling how many other ships met the same fate over the years.

After all, Veracruz is a city that was founded in 1519.

Anything was possible.

After visiting the Archives, I decided to take a drive over to the boulevard and take a closer look at where the old ships went down.

I wondered what it looked like now.

Now I knew I had to see it for myself.

This is what I found.

Ships Lost in the Veracruz Harbor During the "Hurricane" of December 20, 1856

The Site Now

A Lone Jogger
A Walk on the Jetty at Low Tide
After parking the car on the boulevard, I went to take a look at the ship wreck site.

On the point of land where the old slaughter house used to be in 1856, is a plaza with a monument to the school teachers of Veracruz. There were a few people taking a stroll, but not many.

It was a beautiful fall day with blue skies and the tide was low, and I noticed the water was clear.

Maybe something could be seen in the water.

A Closer Look

The Protected Side
The Protected North Side
When you first walk onto the jetty you can see how the water gets deeper, then as you approach the reef, it suddenly becomes shallower.

On the left, the calm side, you could look down into the clear water where different varieties of little fish are protecting their little nesting areas.

In the calm area past the reef there were some tourists splashing around in the water having a great time.

It looked like they were right over the spot where they two ships sank in the winter gale of 1856!
The Dangerous Rocks
The Unprotected Side
Off to the right, I looked down at the jagged rocks that could have chewed up a wooden ship in a hurry.

I cringed at the sight looking down at the prickly black sea urchins, and silently thought to myself this wouldnīt be a good place to go barefooted.

About all that might be left of the ships would be the copper nails and any metal in the cargo.

By 1856, all the old Spanish treasure ships were gone and there probably wasnīt any gold aboard.
The Dangerous Rocks
The Fascination
The value of the cargo makes no difference because for me because anything thatīs 150 years old has value in just looking at it.

Coral in the tropics grow fast, and these particular ships are now probably covered with several feet of coral thatīs as hard as cement to crack through.Doing anything here just wouldnīt be worth the trouble.

Under the Calm Waters of the Harbor
As I looked across the calm waters of the harbor in Veracruz toward the Yacht Club, I wondered what could be underneath the blue waters?
Under the Calm Waters of the Port
Another Project
Most people probably donīt think much about things like that.

At the same time, I was stung with the curiosity about the past, and wanted to do some more looking.

My next plans are to go out after the next "norte" to take a look at the beach for myself.

You never know what youīll find in Veracruz, especially on the north side of San Juan de Ulua.

The Beaches of San Juan de Ulua

Exploring the Beach
One day at the beach I found a broken copper spike on the beach at San Juan de Ulua. Or maybe itīs bronze. I didn't know the difference at the time.

Sometimes when Iīm watching TV, gently polishing my litte copper nail with a piece of sand paper, I can see the original color is starting to come out and my mind wanders off. I wondered how old it could be and where it could have come from? This is such a fine little treasure!

Finding a buried treasure has always held a special fascination and it seems like you can almost always find something old on the beaches in Veracruz. One time, I heard the story of a fisherman who found an old FBI badge from WWII found on the beach. To most people it may look like junk, but to me it has a special meaning.

La Gallega Reef
When I stand on the north side of the beach near the fort of San Juan de Ulua and look north across the Gallega Reef towards the navigation light, the sounds of the city and the busy port seem to fade away into a certain timelessness.

And I remember the maps Iīve seen in the old history books in the library, and my mind begins to wander, and I can almost see the old sailing ships from so long ago. This is a place that has a special meaning for me.

Looking North into the Shallows Along the Gallega Reef

Veracruz in 1706
Old Maps
Before I go beachcombing, I looked at some of the old maps of Veracruz and found this one in French dated 1706.

That was about the time, the French were exploring the swamps around New Orleans looking for a place to start their new town in Louisiana.Veracruz, founded in 1519, is a very old city and was almost 200 years old when the map was drawn up.

I even read that in 1653, several ships were lost when a bad storm hit the area. As I read through history, I found that over the centuries many ships sank in the harbor of Veracruz.
A Closer Look
In 1578, John Hawkins and Francis Drake lost 3 ships in the area.In the back of my mind I wondered if anything had washed up on the beach.

Then I looked at a new map, and you can see where the Island of San Juan de Ulua is no longer an island and ships in the harbor are now protected from the harsh north winds in the winter time.

In 1902, San Juan de Ulua was connected to the mainland with a protective jetty, and since then it has been filled in, and today you can drive over to the fort.

Still, that meant there were almost 400 years of sunken ships not all that far from shore.
Copper Nail
A Copper Nail and a Broken Brass Spike
The Copper Nail has a New Meaning
Another day I found a broken copper spike. Or maybe itīs bronze or brass. I don't know the difference.

Ancient Ship Building Tools
When I got home, I decided to find out more about how wooden ships were built back during the first hundred years of the European conquests of Mexico.

In each country, there was one common denominator. How to combat the corrosive effects of salt water. Iron or steel fasteners don't last long in a corrosive salt air environment.

So people found that brass fasteners such as long spikes and nails would last a lot longer those made of iron.

One day I was talking to an old fishermen out on the point near the Aquarium in Veracruz.

He told me that today most wooden boats use screws as fasteners.
A Lighthouse off in the Distance
So, my nail must be very old, before the days of manufactured screws.

I found that the first evidence of screws dates from the 15th century, when they were used in watches, guns and armour, but it wasn't until the 18th century that they before they became commonly used. Until then they must have used nails.

Hand-made screws were too difficult to make and in those days were of poor quality.

The manufacturing of screws was developed in England in the 1760s. And, Cullen Whipple of Providence, RI finally invented an automated method of cutting tapered screws in 1842.

Brass Nails Replaced by Brass Screws
Thatīs probably when the bronze nails were replaced by screws.

The bronze nail I have in my hand is very old. Judging by the pitting, the piece of bronze spike is probably even older.
The Reefs and Islands around Veracruz
I wonder where it came from and who made it.

Perhaps from an old Spaniards workshop who made bronze nails in Barcelona 300 years ago for what must have been a booming ship building industry for galleons going to New Spain looking to make a fortune.

They say that wooden ships only lasted 5 or 6 trips because of shipworms. Holding the ships together was a serious problem.

But this ship sank and all thatīs left of the ship are its nails and the ring neck of one of the many amphoras that carried olive oil or wine to sell in the mines of Zacatecas for a handsome profit.
A Closer Look
Deadly Reefs
The reefs gobbled up the fragile Spanish Galleons in storms. As the years passed, people forgot their names. Life went on.

Even today nobody really knows how many ships are there.

In many cases ships over the years sank in the same place, one on top of another, but generations apart. They are probably all piled together kind of like an elephant graveyard.

After bad weather in Veracruz you can see a couple of old fishermen walking the beaches looking for something of value.

Sometimes they find an old doubloon or two, or a piece of eight. Thatīs what I would like to find.
Ships Pass Close By
"El que no juega, no gana"
Thereīs a saying in Mexico, "El que no juega, no gana". It refers to playing the National Lottery. It means, "if you donīt play, you wonīt win."

I am one of the players and enjoy exploring the beaches.

One of my favorite places is last part of the beach next to the Pemex tank farm, just before you get to San Juan de Ulua.

The slightly darker blue shade in the picture is the Galleguilla Reef.
Nestled Amongst the Rocks
The Beach is Always Different
What I like about exploring the beach is that itīs never the same. This is because of the tides.

In Veracruz there is a difference of 1 meter water depth between high and low tides. It varies with the seasons.

In the summertime low tide is in the late afternoon when itīs not so hot. In the fall low tide can be in the early morning. Itīs always a little different.

Low tide is best for exploring among the uncovered rocks. Watch for the black urchins. They can leave a nasty sting.

A Little Detective Work
I used to collect seashells until I discovered the area around Veracruz is unique because of all the sunken ships in the nearby reefs just off the shore.

Just about all of them are undocumented. I found that was a lot more interesting than hunting seashells.
Old Bottle
A New Flavor
Then my beach explorations took on a new flavor. Like I really might find something interesting. The range of possibilities was wider.

Thatīs when I began to collect old maps of the area and watch the tides.

What looks like a heavier than normal piece of coral might hide something made of iron, or gold that might be valuable. Coral doesnīt know if itīs covering iron, silver, or gold.

If the fishermen were finding things maybe I would too.
Strange Rock
A Rock with Sparkles
One day at low tide, I found something among the rocks that was heavier than a rock. My heart leaped because I knew I had found a cannonball! I took it home for later inspection.

When I got home I took a hammer to the rock to break off the ages of old coral growth. As the pieces started falling away I discovered it wasnīt exactly round.

And it kind of sparkled. Every child knows that all that glitters is not gold. But, I thought, it could be silver. Veracruz shipped a lot of silver. And, what if this was pure silver ore! Wow!

I checked it with a magnet. Itīs not magnetic. Next I weighed it and found it weighs 2.5 kgs. It measures 3 X 4 inches.

After 6 months of being used as my back door stop, it hasnīt rusted or tarnished. It still kind of sparkles. I donīt know what it is.
A Nail in a Rock
A Nailed Rock
It helps to have a sharp eye and patience.

Another day at low tide, I found something that looked like a nail inserted into a rock.

Hmmm... I thought to myself, "Who would go to the trouble of nailing a rock?"

Even thought it didnīt look like much, I reached down and picked it up and put it in my pocket to take home.

When I got home and took a closer look, I realized it was a copper nail.

Originally, it probably was nailed into a piece of wood that in time coral had engulfed it and replaced the wood. I cleaned it up and put it in my collection.
Fisherman on the Rocks
It seemed like each wave would uncover something interesting. A new colored rock, or a little shrimp scurrying for cover under a rock.

Not Alone
Unfortunately, this is also the favorite spot for others.

Fisherman arenīt beachcombers and come to fish. They donīt like people scaring the fish off. So, I keep a distance out of respect. Sometimes I say hello and we talk about fishing.

Three Rocks
Three Rocks
Three Mysterious Rocks
When the Spanish conquistadores first discovered the island of San Juan de Ulua, they found the Indians had a ceremonial center.

Apparently this area is the scene of spiritual apparitions.

Just about each time I come here, I see three rocks arranged in this fashion.

A couple of years later, I met a "curandero" who told me this is a very spiritual place. Especially at midnight where people come to do "curaciones".

The three rocks may have something to do with that. Itīs a little too creepy to come out here at midnight to find out.

Maybe the fishermen in the area leave the rocks as a signal the fish are biting.
Clear Water
Bad Weather Stirs Things Up
I have been watching the weather forecast for tomorrow kind of hoping for some bad weather. Long swells from a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico would be great.

When itīs in your blood it doesnīt make any difference what the weather does.

It could be the smell of the salt water, the sound of the low surf, or the call of a gull that gets the adrenaline flowing.

Maybe Iīll find a gold doubloon or a piece of eight.

I know where thereīs an old piece of driftwood that could have been part of the mast of a Spanish Galleon.

Next time Iīll start there for a closer look for nail marks. No matter what I find I know itīs going to be very old.

A Faded Wooden Box
Carefully I set the two bronze nails down on the little wooden box I found a couple of weeks ago in a junkyard.
Copper Nails
Thatīs about all the polishing Iīm going to do today.

The box was an exciting find! Just sitting there faded among the scrap.

Later I sanded it down and painted on a couple of coats of varnish. It has become one of my favorites.

If I can get todayīs work done in a hurry, maybe I can get up early in the morning to go out for awhile.

Even though it will be high tide, maybe the overnight tide has brought something in.

I havenīt found any gold doubloons yet, but I keep looking. Just the beach and the salt air, the sound of the waves, and the swirl of the water are enough.

Maybe one of these days Iīll find a buried treasure.In the meantime, Iīll keep looking close to home.

You never know what you might find lost among the rocks on the beach or half buried in the sand.