Florida’s Lost Treasure Fleets

Francis_Sartorius_-_Four_frigates_capturing_Spanish_treasure_ships,_5_October_1804Florida in the 18th century remained a lonely outpost of the declining Spanish Empire. Its most important mission was to secure the homeward route of the Spanish New World Treasure Fleets. These fleets had long funded Spain’s now-receding role in European and world affairs. The loss of the 1715 Fleet was another blow to the newly established Bourbon dynasties of Spain. Gold and silver in great quantities was homeward bound to King Philip V when a freak hurricane destroyed his fleet along the coast of Florida.

The beaches of “la Florida” were covered with bodies and wreckage from the doomed fleet. As the survivors were trying to comprehend what had happened to them, they were also trying to navigate their actual location. As the ships were wrecked at different points and were separated, in some cases by several miles, it was impossible for those who survived to really know the full extent of the disaster. Left stranded without water, food or any form of medical supplies, those who had survived the hurricane and being shipwrecked were now dying of starvation, disease and from a lack of water.

Admiral don Francisco Salmon undertook to immediately survey the extent of the damage. After deducing that all ships had been wrecked, he decided on August 6th to send Nicolas de India, Ubilla’s pilot, and 18 men, in a launch toward the island of Cuba, to give the alert and to send a personal message to the governor, Laureano de Torres y Ayala. It took ten days for the small boat to reach Havana. The alert had been given.

Within a few days, several ships were leaving the harbor of Havana, loaded with emergency supplies, salvage equipment, government officials and soldiers, on their way to the east coast of Florida. Salvage was to begin as soon as the relief expedition reached the survivors’ camps. Success came early as salvage sloops dragged the ocean floor for wreckage and quickly brought up chests of coins, as well as jewelry and gold. The Havana salvage flotilla was soon joined by Florida ships sent from St. Augustine to help in the recovery effort. By early September, such was the success of the salvage team that Admiral Salmon wrote the governor asking him to send 25 soldiers and ammunition to guard the king’s treasure as well as private properties that had been salvaged from the various shipwrecks.

1864_Johnson_Map_of_Florida_-_Geographicus_-_Florida-johnson-1864By this time, the weather and sea conditions had become unsuitable for continuing salvage, and in late October of the same year, over 5,000,000 pieces of eight had been recovered along with gold and jewels, and a huge part of the king’s treasure. Although salvage was essentially completed, efforts continued well into 1718.

News of the disaster had swept the Americas and Europe. Looters, pirates and privateers moved on what is today known as Sebastian, Florida with the hopes of getting rich. One of the most famous encounters with pirates was when Henry Jennings who in 1716 with his heavily armed sloop, the 40-ton Barsheba, and John Wills aboard his 35-ton Eagle, attacked the Spanish salvage camp at Palmar de Ays and detained the defenders while looting the camp.

They made off with some 120,000 pieces of eight and other valuables, as well as two bronze cannons and two large iron guns. When the Spaniards abandoned the salvage camp in 1718, great treasure still remained on the ocean floor. Some of the wreck sites were clearly marked by portions of the ships’ structures which could be observed protruding above water at low tide. For years after the official completion of the salvage operation, merchant ships sailing these waters would “fish” for treasure.

Little by little, the sites faded from memory, and the great 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet would eventually be forgotten and left undisturbed for nearly 250 years. In the early ’60s, the modern age of treasure salvage was ushered in by Real Eight Corporation. Their recoveries from the 1715 fleet are legendary and are told in Kip Wagner’s Pieces of Eight. Years later, other companies would continue to recover what seems to be a never ending trail of treasure from these shipwrecks. The memory of the 1715 fleet is enough to make all wreck finders excited—even today.

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