Indiana University Bloomington

Center for Underwater Science

The 15th Century Shipwrecks of La Isabela Current Investigations

Charles Beeker
Director, Underwater Science and Educational Resources, Indiana University
Stephen James
Panamerican Consultants, Inc.

Historical Overview

Christopher Columbus departed Spain September 25, 1493, on his second voyage to the New World, with 17 assorted vessels and over 1200 men in an attempt to establish a permanent Spanish colony. His destination was La Navidad, off the north coast of Haiti, where, during his first voyage he had left 39 men in a fortress built from the wreckage of the Santa Maria. Arriving nearly two months later, on November 28, 1493, Columbus found the makeshift fortress burned and all his men dead. Determining the area unsuitable for a permanent colony, Columbus and his fleet departed La Navidad December 6, 1493, sailing east along the coast of Hispaniola. Beating against the prevailing easterly winds for almost a month, on January 2nd, 1494, Columbus landed at a bay he had noted in his log during his first voyage. For reasons only known to himself, he established La Isabela on the north coast of what is now the Dominican Republic.

At the time Isabela Bay provided relatively secure anchorage, fresh water from the R¡o Bajabonico, a nearby delta plain for agriculture, and an elevated 15 foot limestone marl vantage point as a site to build a walled fortress overlooking the bay. However, Isabela soon proved to be unsuitable for habitation. The settlement was subject to deadly diseases, two devastating hurricanes, and an open roadstead anchorage which was unprotected from winter winds and swells. By order of the Spanish crown, a new permanent settlement was established near the south shore of Hispaniola on the west bank of the Ozama river, the current location of Santo Domingo. By 1498, Isabela was totally abandoned.

During Isabela's short occupation several ships were lost. The presence of these shipwrecks in Isabela Bay is documented by several primary sources that state or imply a number of vessels were sunk in the vicinity prior to abandonment. However, translations of these primary sources are sometimes contradictory.
All sources agree that at least two hurricanes hit the settlement and caused vessel losses, one occurring in June and the other in October. However, the years chronicled for the hurricanes range from 1494 to 1496. Similarly there are discrepancies as to how many vessels were lost. The original fleet included three naos, about ten square-rigged caravels, at least two lateen-rigged caravels, including the famous Nina, and some small Cantabrian barques for shoal-water exploration (Morison 1974:100). At least three vessels are thought to have been lost in the first hurricane. Peter Martyr writes in 1501 that "This strong south by west wind reached the city and the three ships that were alone at anchor. Without any perturbation of the water or surge of the sea, it broke their cables, gave them three or four twirls, and submerged them on the bottom" (Martyr 1555). Other accounts state that five vessels went to the bottom in this first storm. In September of 1495, a resupply fleet of four caravels under the command of Juan Aguado arrived and anchored in Isabela Bay. According to historian Helen Nader's archival research four vessels were wrecked in a hurricane in October, 1495 (personal communication, 1993).

Researchers estimate that in total eight or nine vessels were lost at Isabela, with represented vessel types including at least four to six caravels and one to two larger store ships or naos (Keith and Thompson 1985: 3-7; Morison 1974; Nader, personal communication 1993). One of the naos lost in the first hurricane was the Santa Maria, Columbus's flagship on the second voyage and nicknamed Mariagalante. Translations indicate that materials from two and possibly four of the sunken ships were used to construct new vessels. One chronicler states that after one of the hurricanes a 50-ton caravel named India was built from the timbers of two of the wrecked vessels and used on the return voyage to Spain (Morrison 1974; Nader, personal communication, 1993). Another states that while Columbus had sailed back to Spain, settlers repaired two caravels and used them to move themselves and all their equipment to Santo Domingo as Isabela was abandoned . If one takes these last two statements at face value, two and possibly four vessels out of the eight or nine which went down in the hurricanes may no longer remain in the project area. Possibly four or five vessels, including the Mariagalante, may be present in the bay, however, and some researchers argue that even more may be here.

Previous Investigations

The ruins of Columbus's Isabela settlement were originally surveyed in 1891 when visited by the steamer U.S.S. Enterprise, and shortly thereafter by Frederick Ober, Special Commissioner sent by the World Columbia Exposition to the West Indies. The area was described as overgrown with brush and cacti, with few local inhabitants. Ober indicated "only the ghosts of Spaniards inhabit the ruins. They can be distinguished from ordinary and common spirits by their politeness to a stranger...which indicates refinement in ghosts that have been running wild in the woods for four hundred years'.

Beginning in 1987, the ruins became the focus of major archaeological excavations under the direction of Jos‚ F. Cruxent, of the Universid d Nacion l y Experiment l Francisco de Miranda, in Coro, Venezuela. Since then the Isabela area has been designated as "Solar de las Americas" by the Dominican National Parks administration and the future location of a national museum. The small local fishing village which sat atop the site has been relocated to a nearby hillside to facilitate major excavations of the Columbus-era El Castillo settlement. These excavations have uncovered the 113' storehouse with support columns for the second floor, and the site of the first church in the New World. The church site recently was used to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the first Mass in the New World, held January 6, 1494. Next to the church are numerous graves of Columbus' men. Included are the skeletal remains of Spaniards with arms folded across the chest in traditional Catholic fashion, although at least one body was buried face down, hands tied behind his back, and most likely a participant in one of the unsuccessful rebellions that occurred at Isabela (J. Cruxent, personal communication, 1993).

Recently new information concerning the existence of "Las Coles", an associated agricultural settlement across the bay, has been published. The joint archaeological investigations of Kathleen Deagan of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, and Jos‚ Cruxent have determined the presence of a kiln in the agricultural settlement that was the source for various ceramic products utilized at the fledgling settlement. These ceramics including bricks, roofing tiles, and course earthenware, were previously believed not to have been produced in the New World until decades later (Deagan and Cruxent, 1992). The existence of Las Coles has implications with regard to the location of the original harbor activities in Isabela Bay. Previously the only site of occupation was considered to be the walled fortress, but with the discovery of the agricultural settlement, it is possible that loading, unloading, anchorage, and other harbor activities could have occurred in association with both of the sites. Additionally, the location and orientation of Columbus' house may indicate the site of anchorage. The 18'x 48' structure overlooks Isabela Bay and is oriented facing toward Las Coles. From this vantage point, Columbus could easily oversee the loading and unloading of vessels.

While the terrestrial components of Isabela have been the object of early survey and recently the focus of extensive excavations, the shipwrecks of Isabela Bay have largely been ignored. In 1983, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), under the direction of Don Keith, conducted a remote sensing survey of the central eastern portion of the bay and subsequently excavated selected anomalies. Due to time constraints, only two of nine potentially significant anomalies were investigated and these proved negative with respect to representing the remains of 15th century vessels. However, INA's 1983 investigations identified numerous additional anomalies that generated signal characteristics indicative of potential wreck sites; these have yet to be investigated (Keith and Thompson 1985).

In June 1991, the Palm Beach Maritime Museum obtained a two year government contract for the rights to survey and excavate Columbus's vessels. Although their contract eventually was nullified for nonperformance, the group produced an interesting theory concerning the location of the wrecks. They hypothesized that while Isabela Bay was used as a "roadstead" to offload personnel and supplies, the bay to the west of Punta Rucia was employed by Columbus as the main anchorage for the settlement and therefore should be surveyed for the lost vessels. To bolster their theory, they cited several references. One from the log of Columbus' first voyage (1493) states that "In the shelter of this point I named Punta Roja, I anchored at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. I dared not depart from there at night because of the many reefs. The water inside is very deep and forms a secure anchorage against all winds" (Fuson 1987:169) Most scholars agree that Punta Roja is Punta Rucia. Another states that "Isabela had a very poor harbor, wide open on the north and northwest and so shallow that the larger ships of the fleet had to anchor more than half a mile offshore". However, one consideration not taken into account when considering Punta Rucia as an anchorage for the settlement, is the tenuous nature of Columbus' command and how this affected his need to supervise activities, a difficult task if the vessels were anchored at Punta Rucia while he was at La Isabela. Additionally, regularly beating against the prevailing easterly winds towards Isabela would have been a time-consuming operation.

Current Investigations

In 1993, Indiana University (IU) and the University of Indianapolis entered into an agreement with the Dominican Republic Government to search for and conduct archaeological investigations on Columbus era shipwrecks. Under the supervision of Charles Beeker, Director of IU Underwater Science and Educational Resources and Stephen James, nautical archaeologist with Panamerican Consultants Inc., two field investigations were conducted. These investigations included surveys of Punta Rucia and Isabela Bay.

Investigations at Punta Rucia consisted primarily of visual assessments of locally known sites obtained through oral interview of fishermen. After receiving positive responses from the fishermen to our inquiries about the presence of cannons, anchors and hills of round stone, we hired a "yola," the local fishing craft for the area, and the team was taken to numerous sites for inspection. Visual survey by towing a diver was conducted as well as a brief magnetometer survey of likely areas. The fishermen were quite familiar with the area and showed us a number of sites. Most turned out to be isolated anchors of either late eighteenth or nineteenth century origin. Our investigation at Punta Rucia was by no means comprehensive, but evidence supporting Punta Rucia as a potential Columbus anchorage was lacking. The majority of sites proved to be ground tackle in the form of anchors with chain. These had all been lost due to a foul bottom for anchoring, the bottom consisting of rock ledges covered with coral. The chain and anchors predominantly were situated in an alignment towards land. Our brief survey of Punta Rucia indicates the area is a poor storm anchorage due to a foul bottom and a lack of sea room if a vessel dragged or lost its anchor.

Although testing the Punta Rucia theory took several days, our main emphasis during this field period was the magnetometer survey of the southeastern portion of the Isabela bay, to the south of and partially overlapping the 1983 INA survey. This area was chosen because it had not been previously surveyed, and, like the Punta Rucia site, it appeared to be a possible anchorage. Identified by Jos‚ Cruxent during his excavations of the site, the remains of the original settlement's wharf lie beneath a modern wharf just north of the mainland site. The location of this structure would indicate anchorage of the vessels in the bay, at the very least during periods of loading or unloading. And given the findings concerning Punta Rucia, Isabela Bay would appear to be the only anchorage.

A Geometrics 866 proton precession magnetometer with a marine tow sensor was employed aboard a 16 foot, wooden-hulled "Yola." Positioning for the survey was accomplished through the use of a Trimble TransPak II GPS Navigation System, with a total of 43 survey track lines run and approximately 818 navigation way points recorded. Differential was not employed resulting in Selective Availability not being factored out of the received position.

The survey identified approximately 31 magnetic targets with at least 3 anomalies or anomaly groups exhibiting signature characteristics (duration/gamma strength) indicative of possible shipwreck sites and therefore warranting consideration in the form of archaeological testing. Logistical and time constraints, however, precluded anomaly investigation during our August field work. We returned briefly in November to assess two anomalies that appeared promising. These were broad based, multi-component signature anomalies located near the shore and bluff of El Castillo.

The November fieldwork was conducted aboard a 16 foot inflatable provided by Jerome Hall (who has been conducting work on the Pipe wreck in Monte Cristi to the west). Anomalies were repositioned with a Trimble Navigation Global Positioning System (GPS) and their positions were refined by running magnetometer transects, and then by swimming the magnetometer. Employing surface supplied air (SSA), we attempted to further refine the anomaly locations with an underwater metal detector. Unlike INA's excavations to the north, which encountered up to 3 meters of silty sand overburden, and our preliminary probing to the west which revealed at least 1 meter of overburden, the bottom in this area is composed of river cobble covered by 1 to 2 inches of silty sand. Because the tools employed were chosen anticipating the silt that had been observed in other areas of the bay, the presence of large cobble rather than silty sand precluded probing as well as dredging on these anomalies. Furthermore, metal detection revealed that some of the cobble consisted of magnetic rock, possibly marcosite, a local ferrous stone from which jewelry is made. Bottom searches over large areas indicated the widespread presence of magnetic rock in the bay.


The logistical and survey information obtained during the past two field endeavors will serve to guide our next effort which will be an extended season during the summer of 1994. We plan to resurvey the entire bay system with differential GPS, covering not only our own and INA's area, but the bay areas to the north and west. A resurvey will be conducted owing to the lack of total coverage during our initial survey, the destruction of INA's survey datum making replication of their data impossible, and the fact that a large percentage of the bay remains unsurveyed. A testing regime will be instituted on selected priority anomalies located during the previous field investigations, as well as additional anomalies located during the upcoming survey.

In closing, it should be stated that the archaeological and historical significance of these fifteenth-century Spanish vessels can not be overstated. These shipwrecks offer unique opportunities to research and interpret this important period of maritime history. Their discovery may provide answers to questions concerning historic Spanish ship construction, the economy of the Spanish explorers, and the social interaction of the European colonist between both themselves and the Native Americans. Although many controversies surround Columbus' colonization of the New World, this contact between distinct cultures forever changed our global societies.


Numerous groups and individuals have assisted this project and deserve our thanks. These include: G. Benjamin Lantz Jr., President of the University of Indianapolis; Paul K. Richard of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis; Panamerican Consultants Inc.; Jerome Hall of Pan-American Institute of Maritime Archaeology; and James M. Ridenour of the Eppley Institute; for direct and indirect support of the project. Leslie K. White, Associate Director of Underwater Science and Educational Resources, for project development and funding. Don Keith of Ships of Discovery; Kathleen Deagan, University of Florida; and Helen Nader, Indiana University for previous research information and archival assistance. Barto Arnold, John Foster, Jack Hunter, Daniel Beeker, Dominican Republic Government representative Burt Webber, and Bridgette Castillo, director, Luperon Beach Resort for field investigations. A special thanks to Pedro J. Borrell, representing the Comision de Rescate Arqueologico Submarino de la Republica Dominicana, for contract agreements and logistical support.


P.O. BOX 34785
BARTLETT, Tennessee 38184-0785


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  • FUSON, ROBERT E. 1987 The log of Christopher Columbus (R. Fuson, Trans.). International Marine Publishing, Camden, Maine
  • KEITH, DONALD H., AND BRUCE F. THOMPSON 1985 An Archaeological Survey of La Isabela, Dominican
  • Republic. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of Nautical Archaeology Exploration and Discovery Research Team and Morning Watch Research. On file at the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.

  • MARTYR, PETER 1555 Decades (Richard Eden, Trans.).
  • MORISON, SAMUEL E. 1942 Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Little Brown and Company. Boston.
  • 1974 The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages, A.D. 1492-1616. Oxford University Press, New York.

  • NADER,HELEN 1993 Personal Communication. Letter on file Sept. 5, Underwater Science and Educational Resources, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.
  • OBER, FREDERICK 1893 In the Wake of Columbus. D. Lothrop Company, Boston. PALM BEACH MARITIME MUSEUM
  • 1991 A New Analysis of Historical Research Data of the First Voyage of Columbus Which Results in Entirely New Insights as to the Geographical Scope of the Later to be Settled Site of Isabela, during the Second Voyage of Columbus. Unpublished manuscript on file at Underwater USER Office, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

    Original Published


    James, S.r. Beeker, C.D., The Fifteenth-Century Shipwrecks of LA Isabela: Current Investigations. In Woodward, R.P., Moore, C.D. (Eds.), Prodeddings from the Society for Historical Archaeoogy Conference (pp3-7). Uniontown, PA: The Society for Historical ARchaeology.