The Florida Keys, a group of islands extending southwest from the southern tip of Florida, were an important staging area for Spanish treasure ships returning to Spain from Havana. Pirates, aware that the ships used the many straits and passages of the keys, often staged their ambushes from this region. Furthermore, the Florida Keys were notorious for frequent hurricanes, which sometimes wrecked the treasure ships and allowed for easy looting.
Because the Florida Keys were essential for the return trip to Spain, the Spanish crown appointed the famous admiral Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles as governor of Florida. His main job was to drive pirates from the region, as well as the English, who had ideas of establishing colonies just north of the region in present-day North and South Carolina. As a result, Spain established the first permanent colony in the New World at St. Augustine, which was quickly built and heavily fortified.
Dispatching the plethora of local pirates proved difficult. The nearby Tortugas (today Dry Tortugas) were full of privateers, bandits, runaway slaves, and angry merchants who frequently raided Spanish ships and plundered Spanish coastal towns. Disease and frequent hurricanes made any effort to mount an offensive very difficult. In 1622, eight Spanish treasure ships, full of riches from South and central America wrecked among the Tortugas after a violent hurricane. Several of the ships were battered amongst the coral reefs and sank immediately. One ship, known as the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, specially designed to withstand pirate attacks, was said to have contained the bulk of the treasure and was full of gold, silver, pearls, coins, and jewelry. It was apparently carried by a large wave and smashed to pieces. A second hurricane prevented the Spanish from making an immediate recovery. The shipwreck would become one of the richest and most famous of all time and would be documented, discovered, and explored by Spanish explorers in the 1970’s. Much of the treasure, estimated to be worth as much as 400 million dollars was recovered then.
Because of the wreck, the Spanish lost untold amounts of riches. Although they tried to recover some of the treasure, the area became infested with pirates, who combed the beaches for evidence of the treasure and who captured members of Spanish search parties and sold them into slavery or tortured them into revealing details of the location of the wreck.