The Spanish Treasure Fleet of 1715
Words by Ted Hunt
In July 1715 in Havana, Cuba, 11 Spanish treasure ships and one French warship were preparing to sail to Spain carrying over 15 million pesos in gold and silver. King Philip V of Spain relied on the riches of the new world to pay the bills and was in dire need of the money. The route was the same taken for over 100 years. The fleet caught the Gulf Stream north of Cuba, sailed north along Florida’s east coast, then turned eastward across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain. Lacking the Weather Channel, the admiral of the fleet had planned a rendezvous with the ships off the eastern coast of Florida, unaware of a hurricane brewing in the Atlantic. A major maritime disaster was imminent.
Spanish cargo manifests from the 1715 archives report the ships carried thousands of emeralds, diamonds, pearls, jewels, gold chains and countless gold and silver bars. There were thousands of chests of gold and silver coins: The silver coins alone numbered over 3 million. Because the ships carried so much silver, the fleet is often called the Plate Fleet—”plata” being the Spanish word for “silver.” The flagship carried eight personal chests for Queen Isabella of Spain, referred to as the Queen’s Jewels. There are no records of their contents, but rest assured, they held untold riches for the monarch.
Included in the fleet were mighty galleons with up to 60 cannons each to protect the ships from invaders. Not only were other European countries a threat but also privateers and yes, pirates. This was a busy time of year for pirates of the Caribbean (sound familiar?): They patrolled the coastal areas drinking their grog (a diluted rum concoction) looking for easy prey. On a moonless night surely the ships’ crews would have feared hearing the infamous cry, “Arrr, matey.”
On July 31, the hurricane slammed into the fleet off what is now Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties. Relentless winds drove the ships toward the shore. Some ships overturned and sank in deep water. Others had their bellies torn out and top decks ripped off as they were dragged by the wind and waves over the shallow jagged reefs. Treasure chests upon chests fell to the ocean floor, many bursting and scattering the Spanish wealth across the ocean bottom for miles. Cannons crushed everything in their path as they fell into the sea. Some ships ran aground just feet from the beach. The shoreline was littered with wooden hulls, planks and hundreds of bodies of sailors and the men, women and children who were passengers. Countless lifeless bodies floated in the waters. Estimates are over 1,500 people were lost in the disaster. The hurricane had laid waste to the entire Spanish Treasure Fleet. Only the French ship had managed to escape the storm and make it to France.
The Salvage Operation
Survivors walked north to the Spanish city of St. Augustine to report the disaster to the authorities. Salvors were sent immediately to recover what was left of the treasure. It’s believed the salvaging efforts only recovered 80% of the treasure. The Spanish eventually abandoned salvage operations around 1719, and the sunken treasure fleet of 1715 was forgotten to time, becoming just a footnote in history. It’s estimated hundreds of treasure chests worth $450 million remained undiscovered. The sea will hold its secrets for more than two centuries.
Fast forward 250 years. In the 1950s, a man named Kip Wagner was walking the beaches of Indian River County (Vero Beach) and found many black flat stones scattered along the tideline. Turns out, these black stones were actually 1715 Spanish silver coins that had tarnished in the saltwater over the centuries. Word quickly spread and the history of the ill-fated fleet resurfaced. Treasure hunters soon arrived seeking their fortunes.
Wagner formed a company called the Real Eight Corporation. (The name is derived from the words for Spanish silver coins, “reales” and “pieces of eight.”) He searched the shallow waters off Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties and found countless gold and silver coins and other artifacts of value. In 1964, renowned treasure hunter Mel Fisher of Atocha fame joined Wagner, and in only a few weeks, they found a carpet of 2,500 gold coins.
The hunters located what is believed to be five or six ships of the fleet, all within a “stone’s throw” from the beach. All in shallow water and easy to salvage. They found piles of ballast stones with stacks of Spanish cannons resting on top (ballast stones are large rocks used in a ship’s hold for stabilization). Names were attached to these wrecks—Cabin, Corrigan’s, Rio Mar, Gold Beach, Wedge and Sandy Point. Over the years, the hunters were rewarded with emeralds, jewels, pearls, gold and silver artifacts and thousands of silver coins. This area became known as the Treasure Coast, which runs approximately 80 miles from Sebastian down to Jupiter.
Today’s Salvage Operations
Florida is now under the watchful eye of the state. Wanting to preserve the history and antiquities of the past, and under the Federal Admiralty Law, the state now has control over everything within its three-mile coastal limit. Everything considered antiquity and recovered is the exclusive property of the state of Florida. Recently, the state granted a company called the Queens Jewels LLC, exclusive salvage rights to search within the protected zone off the Treasure Coast. Queens Jewels LLC can also issue offshore sub-contractor permits to treasure hunters. Each year, there are several sub-contractors that plow the shallows of the Treasure Coast in search of fortunes and the ultimate prize, the Queen’s Jewels.
There is good news for the landlubber too. You don’t have to be a scuba diver to share in the 1715 lost wealth. Just walking the beaches after a storm and knowing what to look for can be rewarding with a silver or gold coin from the fleet. Look at those strange rocks carefully, before you toss them back as skipping stones. You can also legally hunt with a metal detector anywhere along Florida’s beaches from the low tide line to the foot of the dunes. It’s “finders keepers.” Maybe, with a little luck, you will spot that gold coin lying there in the sand, just glistening in the sun. When you do, have a tankard of grog to celebrate. Arrr, matey.