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THE TREASURE HUNTER'S NEWSLETTER
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As salvors we have been salvaging the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet since Kip Wagner days in 1960. After 39 years one would believe all the mysteries of the fleet had been resolved. Of the six 1715 sites that we have located, over the years we have methodically salvaged several, and certainly done our homework in the research department. And, over the years, we have managed to put names to these historic ballast piles that lie scattered along the east coast of Florida. Yet, with all the efforts of some of the best historians and Old Spanish legajos translators, we have reached an impasse on nailing down the exact locations and names of four of the six sites.
The impasse begins with the "mystery" ship, the "Urca de Lima". To better understand the problem it might help to summarize that dramatic night of July 30, 1715 when the Spanish treasure fleet was driven on to the Florida reefs. It was sunrise the morning of July 24, 1715 when the treasure convoy of 12 ships set sail from Havana Harbor to begin the long voyage back to Spain. It had been a lucrative voyage for General Ubilla on board the fleet Capitana "Regala". His hold was full of treasure, as was his Almiranta "San Roman", sailing in the rear of his small fleet of 5 vessels. The other vessels in his fleet were the patache "Nieves", the "Urca de Lima", and a small balandrita "Maria Galante" that Ubilla had purchased in Havana to carry back a cargo of tobacco and sugar. General Echeverz headed up the second feet with 6 vessels. The 12th vessel in this convoy was the French vessel "Grifon" under command of captain Dare. The Grifon was allowed to travel with the fleet, rather than leaving Havana earlier and risk capture and leaking information to possible enemy warships that the treasure fleet was about to leave.
When the hurricane struck the fleet the evening of July 30th, the Grifon had taken a tack slightly to the northeast and was able to miss the hurricane altogether. That ship arrived in Brest, France unaware that the eleven ships of the convoy had all been sunk. The eleven ships of Spain sank along the east coast of Florida, scattered from Cape Canaveral southward some 50 miles. Of the eleven ships, only one managed to survive intact...you guessed it our "mystery" ship the Urca de Lima. the Urca managed to anchor close to shore in 16 feet of water, slipping between the outer reefs, a miracle by itself.
In the process of trying to save the ship from capsizing in the mountainous waves, captain Lima ordered the masts cut down. The crew had trouble cutting away the rigging of the main mast, and as a result it clung to the side of the hull as the ship struggled to stay afloat. It was a relief to find the ship still afloat after the hurricane passed, and the crew made every effort to free itself of the main mast as it thumped against the hull. Lima was congratulating himself on how "stout his ship was to have survived such a disastrous hurricane", when the following evening another strong storm passed through the area. The rigging, pulling on the stump of the mainmast, opened the hull...and the Urca promptly sank on the spot.
The topside structure of the Urca remained above water and most of the provisions on board were saved. In fact, Lima on 19 October 1715 wrote a letter to the Viceroy of Mexico in which he stated, "At the time of the disaster I was able to recover not only enough victuals for the men of my ship, but also to sustain all the people who escaped from the patache which wrecked two leagues from my ship". The registered treasure on board, 252,171 silver pesos, was also recovered by the crew. There was a bit of sin registrada aboard, mostly buried in the ballast, and this was recovered during the Kip Wagner salvage efforts. Survivors accounts placed the Urca "at the mouth of a river" and the huge ballast pile that Wagner worked in 1960 lay opposite the old Ft. Pierce inlet. The patache "Nieves" has been generally considered by everyone as the "Colored Beach Wrecksite" that lies 2 1/2 miles south of the present Ft. Pierce inlet, or about 3 1/2 miles from the ballast pile Wagner worked. ( The Spanish always overestimated distances ) the Nieves site is certainly one of the 1715 vessels. More gold and silver coins dated1690 to 1715 have been recovered from this site than all other 1715 sites combined.
The controversy among modern day salvors is seeded in an old chart drawn by Bernard Romans in 1774. The chart is of the east coast of Florida, with a notation near the inlet at Sebastian " Opposite this river perished the Admiral commanding the Plate fleet 1715...the rest of the fleet 14 in number between this and ye bleech yard". the "bleech yard" is located at Jenson Beach, on the side of a hill, and is a sand patch where sailors would lay out their sails to bleach in the sun. It is a very prominent landmark that can bee seen from the ocean. This is 30 miles south of the Ft. Pierce inlet. Some salvors claim to have a copy of an old chart with the 1715 sites located on it, but the author has never seen the chart and cannot determine how far to the south the sites indicated on the "chart" are located. So, in some circles of the salvage community it is considered a very real possibility that the Urca actually sank opposite the St. Lucie inlet, and not the Ft. Pierce inlet. To add fuel to the controversy, Lima stated that "My ship is at Palmar de Ayz in 27 degrees, 15 minutes latitude." This would put the Urca very close to the St. Lucie inlet.
It is my personal opinion that Bernard Romans reported hearsay about the whereabouts of the 1715 fleet shipwrecks. It was nearly 60 years after the hurricane drove the ships ashore and scattered debris over miles of shallow reefs. There was absolutely no evidence of shipwrecks when Romans visited the area. When Lima took an astrolabe bearing on the noon time position of the sun one or two days after the hurricane to determine his position, I am sure that the weather was terrible, and trying to take a sun line at exactly noon with clouds scudding overhead was more than difficult. The pilot probably gave Lima his best "estimate" of their position, which is all Lima needed to send for help from Havana. And if the Urca was at the St. Lucie inlet, then that would put the Nieves somewhere just south of the St. Lucie inlet. If that were the case then "What two ships are located near the Ft. Pierce inlet?" They are certainly 1715 shipwrecks, and if that is the case then there are too many 1715 sites accounted for.
It is a curious conflict of accounts, one that will keep the fire burning for salvors that are willing to search south towards the St. Lucie inlet for undiscovered 1715 sites. But, treasure is where you find it...and we'll never find it all. Frogfoot.
Photo of Combined links of Gold Chain. Photo Credit: Stefan Sykora
How often have you wondered if you were stepping on gold or silver coins as you walked along the beach? It is possible! The Thanksgiving storm of 1984 that tore up a section of Corrigan's Beach five miles north of Vero Beach, Florida is a good example. That Thanksgiving weekend over 2,000 silver coins, and at least 16 gold coins, were recovered by metal detectorists who were willing to brave the pounding waves that cut away about seven feet of the beach. The coins lay on the hard coquina bottom under a layer of sand and silt and had been there since the day the Regla, capitana of the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet came ashore. Today we have another "treasure beach" in the Florida Keys. This storied beach goes back to 1965, two years after we salvaged El Lerri, a 1733 merchant nao that sank about one mile offshore of Lower Matecumbe. We hadn't found that much on El Lerri, even though it was one of the largest merchant ships of the fleet. It was a huge ballast pile, rising almost six feet above the sand and covering a good 125 feet by 45 feet of hard coquina bottom. The huge 14-foot anchor was given to Dick Bartlett, who owned what is now Cobra Marina on Windley Key. Today the anchor rests against the front of the building, a reminder that we worked hard moving ballast without a lot of glitter to show for it. That may be because the top decks came ashore over a mile away, carrying the personal belongings of some wealthy Spanish merchants on their way back to Old Spain.
Close up of the links on the Gold chain. Photo Credit: Stefan Sykora
As it turns out, Ray Manieri and I were working the area around Sombrero Light off Marathon in 1965. I had my 16-foot wooden Mohawk boat Frogfoot on a trailer, and we were staying at the Siesta Motel on US#1 in Marathon. On this Particular morning as we were hitching up Frogfoot to the back of my car, a father and son staying at the motel came up and started a conversation that began, "We understand you're treasure divers!" They wondered if there might be a place that the father, his wife and son might look in shallow water and find something from an old shipwreck. they were visiting from up north, and Florida was getting all kinds of publicity about the shipwrecks we were finding. We answered that if they were to drive up to a sign along the side of the road that said , " Yankee don't go home!" and signed Jerry Eagan - Real Estate. "If you park your car there at the sign and walk out about 150 feet, where the water is about two or three feet deep, you might find something That was about where we figured the El Lerri top decks came ashore. They thanked us as we hitched up Frogfoot, and we were on our way.
First small piece of Gold Chain 2-1/4 inches. Photo Credit: Stefan Sykora
It was a long day on the reef and close to dark when we pulled up to the Siesta Motel. Before we were even out of the car the father, his wife, and son came out of the Motel carrying a plastic container full of water. They were grinning from ear to ear. "We went right where you told us to go...and look what we found!" In the bottom of the container lay a dirk, two silver pieces-of eight, and a very valuable "pillar dollar". After a lot of handshaking, and shaking of our heads, they pressed $50 on us for gas for the boat. I am sure they went back up north with a lot of treasure tales to tell. We were both wading around "Treasure Beach" the next morning in three feet of water!
Now fast-forward to February of this year...2000. I had my San Jose team ( Joe Kimbel, Doug Gossage, Bill Brohm, Brad and myself) staying at Bernie Smith's house on Lower Matecumbe, about two stones throw from treasure Beach. We were working on my search lease for the 1733 missing galleon San Fernando, and I had my 40-foot Striker search boat docked behind the house. After ten days of fairly decent conditions, the weatherman decided e would take a winter vacation, and he took the weather with him. The wind was blowing, the white caps were dancing, and we were sitting around looking at four walls and truing to decide if another trip to Key West was in order. It was then that I told the group about Treasure Beach and our 1965 episode. It seemed to arouse the sleeping giant that treasure has a habit of doing That day Brad and Rob Barfield searching Treasure Beach. They didn't find much that day, a spike or two, and Rob had to catch an early morning plane back to Atlanta. Brad returned early that next afternoon. It was then that he found a beautiful piece of gold jewelry with four gorgeous green emeralds. It was definitely a 1733 artifact, one that started a stampede to the beach the following morning by all of us. We found a few spikes and a lead musket bal or two, but nothing that glittered except modern silver coins dropped by bathers.
Gold chain 16 1/2 inches long. Photo Credit: Stefan Sykora
As the Summer Salvage 2000 got underway in May of this year we were back at Bernie Smith's house, rented for the entire summer. There were days in July that the weather kept us off the site. It was during those days that the pilgrimage to "Treasure Beach" began anew. Rob Barfield an I were working the area between High tide and Low tide at "Treasure Beach". I had moved the search area about 300 feet further north from the location Brad had recovered his gold jewelry. We both had no inclination that Pandora's treasure box was about to open. I spotted the first glint of gold. It was a small section of heavy gold chain 2-1/4 inches long! I waved Rob over and showed him the treasure, and with renewed interest both of us started working the area with a fine tooth comb. It wasn't long before Rob came up with another section of gold chain, this one a little over six inches long. Before the day was over I recovered another section--all apparently from the same original chain--this one 11-1/2 inches long. It was dark outside when we finally gave up for the day. The celebration came later as we showed the chains to the rest of the group.
19 1/2 inches of Gold chain. Photo Credit: Stefan Sykora
About a week later, a break in the action allowed me to take a few hours off and work Treasure Beach. I began working just north of where Rob and I had found the first sections of chain. Within ten feet of our last hole I found another section of chain, this one 16-1/2 inches long. Before I could catch my breath I had another section that measured eight inches. This was heady stuff. I began wondering how long the original chain could have been? I had started late, and dinner was waiting. The chain had been there for 267 years, it could wait another day or so.
The following day I started near where I had recovered the last section of gold chain, I had dug about three holes when the first links of gold chain appeared. I stopped, stood up and called everyone over to see "what they were looking for!" They all had a chance to see the first glimpse, no more than two or three inches, of gold chain. I then stood up, and stretched out what was 26 inches of encrusted gold chain! It started a flurry of activity. Before the group had scattered very far I found another section of gold chain! I couldn't believe it. This one was 19and 1/2 inches long. I soon had a lot of company in that area.
Gold chain measuring 26 inches long. Photo Credit: Stefan Sykora
Totally we had recovered about 90 inches of 24-karat gold chain that was obviously from El Lerri. Each section had some coral encrustation, an at one time I am sure it was a single chain that had been broken as the hurricane brought the ship ashore.
The Summer Salvage 200 season ended shortly afterwards. we had a good year, one full of fun and surprises, and with the possibility that next year we might just do it all over again. Treasure Beach will still be there, and I am sure we will never find it all!
Spanish Government Claiming All Spanish Shipwrecks in U.S. Waters as Property of Spain!
The U.S. federal government and the government of Spain have joined forces in a federal appeals court against Virginia and a company (Sea Hunt Inc.) to prevent the salvaging of treasure and artifacts from a Spanish vessel that sank off the state's coast nearly 200 years ago
This is all part of a lengthy court case that involves international relations, states' rights, federal power, maritime customs and the sovereignty of the United States. At stake are hundreds if not billions of dollars in treasure.
This all started in 1996 when Sea Hunt Inc. won Virginia permits to explore the Assateague coast (a coastline of Virginia). The following year the company found a silver coin with an image of King Carlos IV, who ruled Spain when the Juno sank in 1802. Ben Benson, the owner of Sea Hunt, declared that he had found the Juno. The company also claims to have found La Galga, a Spanish ship that sank in 1750 - without any treasure. Ben Benson had spent nearly two million dollars of his own money to search for and locate these wrecks.
Soon after locating these wrecks the National Park Service alerted the Spanish Government to try to claim ownership of both ships. The Spanish government then claimed ownership of both wrecks and sought to block salvage of the wrecks, even though the State government of Virginia had already awarded the right to salvage to Ben Benson.
"These shipwrecks are important to Virginia," said Virginia Solicitor General William H. Hurd, who argued for the state's authority over such wrecks today. "They are very close to shore. They've been there for hundreds of years. It's our view that they've been abandoned."
Virginia official have sided with Sea Hunt, citing a 1987 federal law giving states jurisdiction over abandoned ships in coastal water. However, the U.S. Department of Justice has sided with the government of Spain.
Both sides are arguing a ruling by a federal judge in Norfolk that ruled last year that the Juno and its treasure belonged to Spain and La Galga belonged to Virginia. Under the ruling, Sea Hunt was free to resume salvaging only the ship without treasure. The decision was based on Judge J. Calvitt Clarke Jr.'s finding that in a 1763 treaty, Spain relinquished its claim to property in North America, including La Galga. Because the Juno sank after the treaty it was not abandoned by Spain, the ruling said.
If our courts rule in favor of the government of Spain, and it ally the U.S. federal government, that will allow the government of Spain free access to our national waters and recover treasures that have been in our country for hundreds of years. It seems a shame that the government of Spain can just lie back and watch someone put years and millions of dollars into a project and wait to see it they find any treasure and if they do then Spain can claim ownership. Spain has never made any attempt to recover any materials or artifacts from ships that sank along our coast hundreds of years ago. It seems absurd that now when someone finds an old Spanish vessel carrying treasure Spain can claim the wreck and freely come into U.S. territory and recover the treasure at the expense of citizens.
I guess piracy still does exist!
In late July of 1715, a hurricane surprised a twelve-ship Spanish convoy off the east coast of central of Florida and destroyed all ships but one. Laden with millions of gold and silver cobs, ingots, and many other treasures, this fleet had undertaken a much-delayed departure from Havana during what Floridians know to be the hurricane season.
The main part of the fleet had sailed for the New World in 1712 as the aforementioned War of Spanish Succession was approaching an end, negotiated by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Even after 1713 the seas were not entirely safe for commerce, although less vulnerable than during the time of the San Jose disaster of 1708.
Spain desperatly needed the wealth stockpiled in the New World, far greater than usual because it had accumulated for so long.
The principal elements of the fleet had gone to Veracruz to deliver mercury (an essential substance in the refining of silver cobs), sell merchandise, and pick up quantities of Mexican-minted bars and cobs. An unfortunate series of complications kept the fleet in Veracruz for two whole years before it could rendezvous in Havana with the vessels bearing the South American treasure brought from Panama and Cartagena. After still more delays in Havana, what was ultimately a twelve-ship fleet did not manage to depart for Spain until July 24, 1715. The route was to be the routine one: up the coast of Florida on the Gulf Stream, which gradually turns outward into and across the Atlantic at about the location where the fleet was lost. When the winds and sea drove the ships shoreward, some sank in deep water, some broke up in shallower water, and others were grounded close to the beach.
Spanish slaves working the silver mines in Peru.
Hundreds of the crews and passengers lost their lives while other hundreds of survivors improvised a camp on shore to await aid from the Spanish fort in St. Augustine, to which a party was dispatched. They did not know that a srviving vessel had made it back to Havana, whence salvage ships were dispatched to the scene.
The Spaniards undertook salvage operations for several years, with the help of Indians, and perhaps they recovered more than half of the vast treasure, from the holds of ships whose remains rested in water sufficiently shallow for breath-holding divers. Gradually the salvors enlarged their encampment and built a storehouse on the spit of dune land just behind the beach that bordered a jungle. At some point a flotilla of British freeboaters under Henry Jennings appeared on the scene, raided the storehouse, and carried off some of the treasure to Jamaica. The Spaniards, however, resumed on the ocean floor until our time.
After a hurricane in the late 1950s a resident of the area named Kip Wagner found a piece of eight on the beach near Sebastian Inlet, some of whose dune line had been altered by the storm. He had wandered the beaches before and knew, like many local people, that storms sometimes were known to cast up similar coins onto the sand. The sunken treasure fleet out there was not unknown to Mr. Wagner. This time, however, he decided to pursue leads, like a 1774 chart of Florida with annotations of the sunken fleet opposite the Inlet.
Later, for $15.00, Wagner said, he bought one of the early metal detectors, a military surplus unit, prototype of the wands so common and sophisticated now at prices into the thousands of dollars. With this detector he sought and located the encampment area of the Spaniards and uncovered cannon balls, swords, and various artifacts. Examples of what he found can be viewed today in a museum owned and operated by the state of Florida on the very site of the Spaniards' encampment. Ultimately Mr. Wagner rented an airplane to look for dark spots in the ocean that might be the remnants of a ship, and he found them. Having noted the location, soon he and the pilot took out a boat and found the sunken ship's bed of ballast stones and a number of cannons, the timbers of the vessel having disintegrated ages ago. The next step was to buy a surplus navy launch and form a team of congenial divers and associates, at first bound only by a gentlemen's agreement and backed only by a salvage permit from the state of Florida. All of this took place over a period of years before it evolved into the Real Eight Company, the origin of whose name is obvious.
Kip Wagner with his $15.00 surplus metal detector on at the 1715 salvage site.
Wagner and his people originally built a dredge and suction apparatus; only later did they adopt the blower principle of their subcontractor Mel Fisher. The first finds were pieces of clay pots. With time came the jewels, the Chinese porcelain, the silverware, the gold and silver ingots, and as many as 10,000 gold cobs of the Mexico, Peru, and Colombia mints; and mostly in encrusted clusters, well over 100,000 silver cobs of all denominations. You can read all about it in January 1965 issue if the National Geographic magazine, or you can try to find a copy of Kip Wagner's own book, Pieces of Eight, a forthright narrative that is eminently readable, and also more accurate than all the other publications that have tended to romanticize the topic.
The salvage coins were all cobs, most of them minted between 1711 and 1715 in Mexico City, although all the other colonial mints and numerous earlier dates were represented too, some of the dates extending well back into the 1600s. Many of the dates and types of the 1700-1715 period had been either rare or unknown. Now they are less rare but still sell at ever higher prices because of the demand created by the years of publicity of the finds. Furthermore, what most distinguishes the cobs recovered from the 1715 fleet from those of other shipwrecks is their generally good weight. This would be expected of the gold cobs, since gold does not corrode, but for some reason the general run of silver cobs is superior to those of the 1733 fleet or to those from the Atocha and Margarita, all from different periods it is true, yet all from tropical waters around Florida.
John Brandon's group of treasure hunters find an eight reale this day.
As the salvage operation on the 1715 fleet reached diminishing returns, some of the associates like Mel Fisher headed for Key West and other areas to search for new wrecks. Do not believe, however, that the 1715-fleet search is over. Other galleons remain undiscovered, search areas are still leased from the state, and even old wreck sites continue to deliver quantities of gold cobs to an insatiable numismatic market. Some of the material throughout the state of Florida-divers, beachcombers, and old-time collectors who love their cobs and sell only when they must. The one collector that never sells is also the one with the largest collection of them all- the state of Florida.
COPYRIGHT : This LOST TREASURE USA newsletter, and my website at www.LostTreasureUSA.com are copyrighted 2003-2006 by FLOYD MANN ( D.B.A. Lost Treasure USA ). But, you may ( please ! ) forward it to as many people as you like.
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