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Robert S. Weddle

HUERTO, FRANCISCO DEL (?–?). Francisco del Huerto of Seville, Spain, was master of the ship San Esteban, one of three vessels involved in the Padre Island Spanish shipwrecks of 1554. Most of the estimated 300 persons on the three ships were slain by Indians while trying to reach Pánuco. Huerto, however, survived, although how he escaped the fate of the others is left to conjecture. He was a seasoned mariner, the veteran of several ocean crossings with the Spanish Indies fleet. As a shipmaster, he sailed to South and Central America with the Indies fleet each year from 1547 to 1550. He returned on the San Esteban to Seville on June 9, 1551, and, on November 4, 1552, sailed out of the Guadalquivir River, Spain, on the fateful voyage. On April 9, 1554, in the company of four other ships, the San Esteban set out on the homeward course from Veracruz, Mexico, laden with more than twenty tons of precious metals-worth millions of dollars on today's market-as well as other cargo. Twenty days later three of the ships, including Huerto's San Esteban, were driven by a storm onto Padre Island.

Only one of the castaways who walked toward Pánuco, a Dominican friar named Marcos de Mena, made it there. By the time Mena arrived, word of the disaster had already reached Veracruz and Mexico City, and preparations were well under way to send ships to salvage the treasure and rescue any survivors. A few clues point to Francisco del Huerto as the person who used his navigational skills to carry the news of the disaster by sea, making a futile attempt to save the passengers and crews of the three unfortunate ships. Fray Marcos de Mena, in his confused account of the disaster recorded by Agustín Dávila Padilla almost thirty years later, relates that a "small ship" survived the disaster to return to Veracruz. Since the record reflects that there were no other ships involved in the wreck, he must have meant a small boat, such as a launch saved from one of the wrecked ships, rigged with sail. In all likelihood, only a seasoned mariner would be able to make such a voyage safely. In addition, the first report of the disaster from Veracruz included the precise latitude, information that only a skilled navigator could provide. Since Huerto was the only shipmaster known to have survived the shipwrecks, the conclusion seems warranted that it was he who sailed the small boat to Veracruz to seek rescue for the castaways, whom he expected to remain near the wrecks until help came. Their failure to do so, Mena indicates, was due to the appearance of Indians. A seemingly reliable report from Havana, after the ships' cargoes had been salvaged, cited thirty survivors-probably the number in Huerto's boat.

After the 1554 disaster Huerto resumed his career as shipmaster and sailed to Tierra Firme (the South American mainland) and Cabo de Vela from 1557 to 1561. In 1558 he was tried before the judges of the Casa de Contratación for having permitted persons to leave his ship before it was inspected. He was fined 20,000 marevedís, and his master's license was suspended for a year. In January 1563 Huerto was among masters and shipowners sitting as a body to transact business of the University of Masters and Pilots.

Nothing further is known of him. Not a scrap of paper survives with words that he wrote himself. Available documents, aside from reflecting his record as a shipmaster and the fact that his residence was Seville, tell nothing of him. His skill as a mariner, however, is well attested. That skill, had it not been for the coastal Indians of Texas and Tamaulipas, Mexico, might have spared the 1554 shipwreck castaways from their cruel death.

J. Barto Arnold III and Robert S. Weddle, The Nautical Archeology of Padre Island: The Spanish Shipwrecks of 1554 (New York: Academic Press, 1978). David McDonald and J. Barto Arnold III, Documentary Sources for the Wreck of the New Spain Fleet of 1554 (Austin: Texas Antiquities Committee, 1979).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Robert S. Weddle, "HUERTO, FRANCISCO DEL," accessed July 06, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fhu86.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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