"His stories were what frightened people worst of all. Dreadful stories they were; about hanging, and walking the plank, and storms at sea, and the Dry Tortugas, and wild deeds and places on the Spanish Main." - Young Hawkins in Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Dry Tortugas National Park (formerly known as Ft. Jefferson National Monument), located 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, encompasses seven small islands known as the Dry Tortugas within its 100-square-mile jurisdiction. Central to the area is Fort Jefferson, a masonry "third-system" fort with half-mile-long perimeter walls 50 feet high and 8 feet thick, located on Garden Key.
The Dry Tortugas are situated on the edge of the main shipping channel between the Gulf of Mexico, the western Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean. Gulf and Atlantic ship traffic must pass through the 75-mile-wide straits between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Any vessels traveling more than 1,200 miles of United States coastline will pass close to these islands. The Dry Tortugas pose a serious navigation hazard and have been the site of hundreds of marine casualties.
Most western Caribbean traffic also passes through the Straits of Florida, a situation that has changed little since the period of Spanish exploration and conquest. Spanish interests centered on the larger Caribbean islands of Santo Domingo (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and Cuba, and on the continental land masses. Much Spanish activity was in the western Caribbean, which became their stronghold, and which they began to fortify in 1567 in response to other European incursions in the New World.
The long history of the Dry Tortugas which began with their discovery by Ponce de León in 1513, and which were mentioned by the English as early as 1567, is reflected by the maritime archaeological sites within their waters. The earliest known shipwreck site is from the 1622 Spanish plate fleet, although it is reasonable to assume that there are many earlier, as yet undocumented casualties in the park. Marine casualties, wrecks, and strandings which occurred frequently in the past, still occur here. High potential for a large wreck population and rich archaeological record within park waters has been demonstrated by both historical research and archaeological fieldwork. Edwin Bearss (1971), National Park Service Historian, who very early recognized the park's historical importance, located records for more than 200 ships sunk, stranded, or damaged in the Dry Tortugas.
The Tortugas' strategic importance has long been recognized. The construction of Fort Jefferson underscored the perceived geopolitical importance of the Dry Tortugas to the United States in the 19th century. Fort Jefferson was a product of the build-up of coastal fortifications which took place as part of planned coastal defenses after the War of 1812. Fort Jefferson was considered critical for protecting both Gulf trade and Gulf Ports. Begun in 1846, the fort was a strategic necessity for the establishment of a United States presence on the international Caribbean frontier, and was a direct response to continued American concerns about British fortification of Bermuda, Spain's diminished role in the hemisphere, and the Mexican conflict in Texas. Principally, the fort was constructed to deny access to Tortugas anchorages to an enemy fleet attempting to blockade the United States.
There are a number of historical themes and movements potentially represented in the Dry Tortugas National Park archaeological record. The earliest sites are, of course, likely to be related to Spanish and other European exploration of the area. Beyond the period of exploration and discovery, consolidation of control and commercial development that followed, is a primary theme that could be elaborated by archaeological study in the park, for prior to 1600, Spanish fleets returning to Spain from Vera Cruz sailed around the Gulf hugging the shore. This early route brought the fleets close to the Dry Tortugas.
Later competition among European maritime nations for control and domination of the Atlantic, Gulf, and Caribbean have left material remains of war and commercial wrecks in the Tortugas. Today's international economic system is to some extent the result of interaction among these nations along sailing routes passing close to the Dry Tortugas. A representative material record of Spanish development and eventual decline as a world sea power, the competition among French, Dutch and British, and the rise of the United States as a maritime power, is found in the park's waters.
Development and commerce among the Gulf port cities are well-represented in the archaeological record of the Dry Tortugas. Ships from Tallahassee, Biloxi, Mobile, Pensacola, Port Arthur, Corpus Christi, Galveston, and New Orleans, were lost in the Dry Tortugas over the years.
Beginning with Ponce de León, who named the islands for the many turtles captured there, a record of local fishing and exploitation of the rich biotic resources of the islands and surrounding waters should be seen in the archaeological remains, as should indications of use by Native American and Caribbean peoples. Clandestine commercial operations - piracy, privatizing, smuggling and slaving - which are poorly documented in archival materials, should be manifested in the Park's archaeological sites. The great trade between the Atlantic coast and the western rivers, all of which passed close by the Dry Tortugas, has certainly left vessel, cargo, and crew effects that are not discernible in historic documents.
Please click here if you would like to snorkel the Windjammer Wreck.
Click here to view the site report on the Avanti, an iron-hulled windjammer located in the Park.
The information on this page has been gathered by the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit. Please send comments, questions, and information requests to: