While the Eleutheran Adventurers were primarily farmers, seamen from Bermuda began settling on New Providence in the 1660s, attracted by ambergris, wrecks and salt. There were vessels dedicated to wrecking from this time, but wrecking was a secondary occupation for most men. These seamen, who called themselves "wrackers" or "wreckers", pursued wrecking aggressively, regarding all salvage as their property. They were rumored to have killed people who had inconveniently survived a shipwreck. They drove Spanish salvors away from Spanish wrecks, and even took goods that the Spanish had already salvaged. Spain retaliated against the Bahamian wreckers, whom they regarded as pirates, attacking their ships, kidnapping farmers, and burning Nassau.
The Bahamian government eventually exerted control over the wreckers. The wreckers were required to carry salvaged goods to Nassau, where they were auctioned. However, goods useful on a ship or in a wrecker's home were often diverted, often with a blind eye turned by government officials. Increased shipping after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 led to more wrecks. Vessels specifically designed for wrecking were built in the Bahamas. A U.S law of 1825 required that all goods salvaged from wrecks in U.S. waters be taken to an American port of entry (which, for the Bahamians, meant Key West, Florida). Many Bahamian wreckers eventually moved to Key West and became U.S. citizens.
Wrecking was a mainstay of the Bahamian economy through most of the 19th century. In 1856 there were 302 ships and 2,679 men (out of a total population of 27,000) licensed as wreckers in the Bahamas. In that year salvaged wreck cargo brought to Nassau was valued at £96,304, more than half of all imports to the Bahamas. More than two-thirds of exports from the Bahamas were salvaged goods. The government normally took 15% customs duty on salvaged goods. If the salvaged cargo was not claimed, the Vice Admiralty Court took 30%, and the Governor took another 10%. Shore workers (warehouse workers, agents and laborers) usually received around 14% of the value. The wreckers themselves usually received 40% to 60% of the value of the salvaged goods. Even so, the average annual income of an ordinary seaman on a wrecker was about ₤20.
The American Civil War sharply cut the volume of shipping around the Bahamas, and the wreckers suffered with far fewer wrecks to salvage. The end of the Civil War brought back increased shipping and wrecks. In 1865, the last year of the Civil War, £28,000 worth of salvaged goods were taken to Nassau. In 1866 that rose to £108,000, and peaked at £154,000 in 1870. Wrecking then entered a decline, and was nearly gone by the end of the 19th century. More lighthouses (eventually numbering 37 in the Bahamas), better charts, more ships powered by steam, better qualified ship's officers, and more seaworthy ships all contributed to fewer wrecks.
Starting in the 18th century ships from The Bahamas began frequenting the Florida Keys. The Bahamians were opportunists, fishing, turtling, logging tropical hardwoods on the Keys, and salvaging wrecks as the opportunity arose. When the Spanish were salvaging the wrecks of the 1733 treasure fleet, the Spanish commander of the operation expressed concern that the Bahamians would try to salvage some of the treasure on their own. By 1775, George Gauld, who produced a chart of the Keys that was still being used 75 years later, advised mariners to stay with their ships if they wrecked, so that the Bahamian wreckers could assist them. Although the Keys were at various times part of Spanish Florida, the British colony of East Florida and the U.S. Florida Territory, the Bahamians took goods salvaged from ships wrecked in the Keys to Nassau for adjudication, rather than to the Florida port of entry, St. Augustine. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 in 1815, increased shipping through the Straights of Florida resulted in an increase in wrecks on the Keys, and the Crown's share from the auction of salvaged goods became the major support of the economy of Nassau.
Key West had become a port of entry in 1822. In the same year the U.S. Navy chose Key West as its base for suppressing piracy in the West Indies. The city quickly developed into Florida's most important port. By the 1830s Key West accounted for 60% to 90% of imports and exports for the Territory. Most of this traffic was due to the activities of the wreckers. Warehouses for storing salvaged goods, shipyards for repairing damaged ships that had been removed from the reefs and for building vessels to be used in wrecking, and ship chandlers for refitting ships all contributed to the city's prosperity.
The salvaged cargo and the ship, if it could be saved, were taken to Key West where they were appraised or auctioned. The wrecking vessels and crews that participated in the operations would then be awarded a share of the salvage value. Half of the salvage award went to the owners of the wrecking vessels, divided among the boats on a tonnage basis. The other half went to the wrecker crews, proportional to the number of crewmen on each vessel. Ordinary crewmen received one share, "boys" a half-share, cooks, one-and-a-quarter shares, and captains one to three shares, depending on the size of the vessel. Divers, who dove into the flooded holds of ships to retrieve cargo, received extra shares. By the time a salvage award was divided this way, individual shares were often quite small. Contemporary observers estimated that wrecking crews on average made no more than an ordinary seaman.
In the first few years after Florida was acquired by the United States, salvage awards were determined either by prior agreement between the wreck master and the captain of the wrecked ship, or by arbitration. As the persons available to serve as arbitrators usually had ties to the wrecking industry, if not a direct business relationship with the wreck master and/or the owners of the wrecking vessels, the process was often abused, with awards as high as 90% of the salvaged value. In 1829 a United States District Court was established in Key West with admiralty jurisdiction, after which most salvage cases were decided in court. Court awards for a wrecking operation averaged about 25% of the salvage value. Private agreements and arbitration remained an option, however, particularly when the judge was not available.
Wreckers were required by the Federal law to carry equipment that might be needed to save cargo and ships. Such equipment included heavy anchors for kedging (hauling) ships off reefs, heavy hawsers and chain, fenders and blocks and tackle. Wreckers also had to be prepared to make emergency repairs to ships to refloat them or keep them afloat while they were sailed or towed back to Key West. By the middle of the 19th century windmill-powered pumps, and later a steam-powered pump, were kept in Key West. If the wreckers were not able to pump out a ship fast enough to float it using the ship's own pumps, they could rent one of the large pumps from Key West. As the wrecking vessels could not always directly approach wrecked ships, they had to carry sturdy boats.
Cargoes saved by wreckers varied tremendously. Cotton was perhaps the most valuable bulk cargo. A bale of cotton might be worth US$50 or $60 in Charleston, South Carolina, but a bale pulled from a flooded hold would be saturated with water, and weigh as much as half a ton. Unusual cargoes salvaged by wreckers included the "hydrarchos" skeleton collected in Alabama by Albert Koch, and a locomotive. In 1827 the Guerero, a Spanish slave-runner carrying 500 African captives, and the Royal Navy warship HMS Nimble ran onto the Florida Reef during a running gun battle. Wreckers went to the aid of both ships. After most of the Africans and the Spanish crewmen had been transferred to wrecker vessels, the Spanish crewmen commandeered two of the ships and sailed to Cuba with most of the Africans. The remaining 120 Africans were taken to Key West, and then to St. Augustine. After Congress passed a special law the next year, 96 surviving Africans were sent to Liberia.
The wreckers were unhappy about the lights, expecting them to reduce the number of wrecks and their livelihood. Initially, however, the lights did not greatly reduce the number of wrecks. Some ships wrecked when their captains became confused about which lights they were seeing, mistaking lights on the Florida Reef for lights on the Bahama Banks. Some wrecks may have been deliberate, as well. On a few occasions wreckers trying to refloat flooded ships discovered that holes had been bored through the hull below the water line. The captain of a ship that had wrecked stated that the wreck was not to be greatly regretted, as there were too many ships in the freight business. Judge Marvin of the Federal court in Key West told a navy officer in 1860 there was "a great deal of wrecking by design.
Shipping through the Straights of Florida, and therefore the number of wrecks on the Florida Reef, declined sharply during the Civil War. Following the Civil War, the number of wrecks did not increase as fast as the ship traffic through the Straights. More lighthouses were in place, better charts were available, and more ships were powered by steam and thus less vulnerable to being pushed onto reefs by unfavorable winds. Steam-powered vessels began to enter the wrecking trade. Eventually ocean-going tugboats took over what became known as marine salvage operations. By the end of the 19th century wrecks were infrequent. The last major wrecking operation was in 1905, when 77 small vessels and 500 men salvaged cargo from the steamer Alicia. Salvage work was abandoned when divers refused to continue, as contaminated water in the hold was causing them to become blind for 24 hours after a dive. The salvage award was US$17,690. The last local wrecker was bought out by a New York company in 1920. The Federal court closed the book of wrecking licenses the next year.
Wrecking was a major industry in the 19th Century, and as far back as the 16th Century, especially of ships returning from the New World using the Gulf Stream, which passes through the far south west of England. This would help to speed these ships on their way to France and Spain and put them out of position. Wreckers would attempt to frighten off the curious, suspicious or unwanted visitors, by spreading wild rumours concerning supernatural activity, ghosts and cannibals (as occurred in Clovelly) near their wrecking sites.
Wrecking was a major activity of the inhabitants of Stroma Island in the Pentland Firth off the north of Scotland. It was also well known on the Goodwin Sands off the south east of England where over 2000 wrecks have occurred. The boatmen of Deal, who took supplies to ships at anchor off the coast, would plunder any wrecked vessel. The Victorian architect Pugin supplemented his income by wrecking, using his lugger The Caroline to salvage cargoes from ships aground off the Goodwin Sands.
A 2005 BBC Documentary, Coast, successfully replicated the conditions of false light wrecking in an experiment which suggested that a single-candle lantern onshore would be sufficient to lure a boat into dangerous water on a dark night.
In 2007 the container ship MSC Napoli went aground off Branscombe beach in Devon. Some of its cargo got washed ashore and many wreckers plundered the cargo in spite of attempts to prevent this. People came long distances to retrieve such things as BMW motorcycles. Goods from wrecks are supposed by law to be reported to the "Receiver of Wreck" and finders will then be given a reward. However, it is rumoured that such goods turned up for sale on Ebay.