By Judy Berman
A beachcomber shuffles along the sand, shifts his metal detector slowly left, then right, in search of something shiny or black.
He scores a few bottle caps, loose change … and, then, he spots pieces of eight (gold), and silver that has a black silver sulfide patina on its surface.
It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.* Treasure hunters today hope to strike it rich like Kip Wagner did in the 1950s.
Wagner, a retired Florida contractor, frequently went to the beach in search of driftwood next to the Sebastian River. Instead, after a hurricane, he found a piece of eight – also known as a cob, a Spanish silver coin dating back to the 1700s.
He wondered why gold and silver kept washing ashore near his home. None of the coins were dated past 1715.
He began working with his friend, Dr. Kip Kelso, in researching shipwrecks from that time.
They discovered that the treasure came from the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet. During a violent hurricane, 11 of 12 Spanish Galleons and one French ship sank between Sebastian and Fort Pierce.
About 700 people – crew and passengers – lost their lives, and the fleet’s precious cargo of gold, silver, jewels and jewelry now lay on the ocean floor.
Some 1,500 survivors struggled to shore and set up camp while awaiting rescue. This site, now known as the Survivors’ and Salvagers’ Camp, is in the Sebastian Inlet.
Help did arrive within weeks. “Over the next four years, official Spanish salvors, Indian divers, English pirates, and privateers and river pirates of various nationalities flocked to the area to retrieve – or steal from each other – as much treasure as they could,” according to the McLarty Treasure Museum in Sebastian, Florida.
“Less than half the material originally listed on the ships’ manifest reached the Spanish treasury. The rest, so recently pried from the mountains (of Mexico and South America), now lay buried in sand and silt of the shore.”
Wagner purchased a $15 Army surplus metal detector. That led to finding the encampment, cannonballs, swords and artifacts from that site. Later, he took his search to the ocean and discovered remnants of one of the ships.
With the aid of their subcontractor, Mel Fisher, Wagner’s group – the Real Eight Company – salvaged the wreck of El Capitana from the 1715 Fleet.
By the mid-1960s, they hauled in “silver pieces of eight, gold doubloons, bars and plates of both metals, pearls, jewelry, and rare Chinese porcelains.”
Efforts continue to “coax from the seabed what 18th century divers left behind.”
There are still untapped treasures and areas to explore along the Treasure Coast. Who knows what the next major storm will stir up from the ocean?
But some try to resist that siren’s call as young Jim Hawkins did in the last lines of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island”:
“The bar silver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where Flint buried them, and certainly they shall lie there for me. Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island, and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts, or start upright in bed, with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”
Have you ever searched for treasure? Gold? Books? Memorabilia? What was your best find?
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Video: The Spanish ship Atocha Shipwreck Found – Gold Treasure Discovery – Mel Fisher Story. It also includes search for the 1715 Spanish Fleet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNdi4pbUIwc
1.Main Photo: Treasure Hunter
2.Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – book cover (1911) – Illustrator: N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945) http://www.openlibrary.org/details/treasureisland00steviala http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/77/Treasure_Island_title_1911.jpg/436px-Treasure_Island_title_1911.jpg
3.Photo: Mel Fisher’s Treasures – 40 pound “clump” of about 500 silver coins as a diver would find them on the ocean floor.
* Quote: “The, eh, stuff that dreams are made of.” Humphrey Bogart (Sam Spade) telling Ward Bond (Detective Tom Polhaus) what the black statuette is in the movie, “The Maltese Falcon.” (1941)
Link to: McLarty Treasure Museum at Sebastian Inlet State Park – http://www.floridastateparks.org/sebastianinlet/activities.cfm