Treasure Hunting in South Texas

The Houston Chronicle has the story of a dispute before the U.S. District Court over who has title to a ‘barkentine’ which was sunk in 1822 when it was hit with a hurricane:

The Texas Historical Commission this week filed notice that it will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to let it into a lawsuit over who has legal claim to what might be a shipwreck buried 160 miles southwest of Houston, near the Mission River in Refugio County.
“It’s like highway robbery,” Internet treasure hunter Nathan Smith complained Wednesday of the state trying to take away his possible $3 billion claim two years after he filed the lawsuit.
Inspired by the National Treasure movies, Smith read up on lost loot and used the Internet to look for a barkentine that got lost on a South Texas creek in an 1822 hurricane that killed half the crew, leaving the other half to a local cannibal tribe.
Once he spotted something and checked it in person with a metal detector, Smith filed a lawsuit in early 2007. The case was tried last December in a Houston federal court, where he was opposed by landowners who say Smith’s shoeprint-shaped vision is on their land, which they say sometimes floods with the tides.
One issue here is how the court views the findspot. Smith or the state of Texas will have a claim only if the area is determined to be “navigable waters”. If not, the landowners would have title perhaps. Another issue are the heritage laws of Texas:
Steve Hoyt, a marine archeologist for the historical commission, said he cannot comment on the case but that “our intervention is to seek a determination that, if the vessel (if it exists) is in a navigable waterway, it is the property of the state of Texas.”
According to the Antiquities Code of Texas, Hoyt said, historic shipwrecks on submerged lands are the property of Texas, including all parts and contents of the vessel. Hoyt said such wrecks cannot be disturbed without a permit issued by the commission, and those are only for scientific and historic research.

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