By Jeffrey Kramer
Many researchers and historians claim that Florida contains more buried and sunken treasures than any other state. They have also put a price tag on these treasures, which amounts to a cool $165 million (1964). Florida, like all other states, has a fascinating and romantic history. Seven different flags have flown over her, not to mention the black flag of the pirates. Florida became the haven of many notorious pirates, including Blackbeard, Lafitte, Gasparilla, Kidd, Rackham, Bowlegs, Bonnett, and possibly even Morgan himself. They roamed the waters of the Caribbean Sea, and captured every ship in sight. Often, they brought their loot back to Florida, and buried it on some lonely shore. When they finally died, the location of their hidden wealth died with them. The majority of all buried treasure in Florida is the work of pirates.
Numerous wars have been fought in Florida and upon the waters around her. Men hastily buried their wealth when being pursued by the enemy. Valuables were lost or misplaced when the fighting started and were never found again. Naval battles accounted for the sinking of many ships with valuable cargoes, their resting-place to be forgotten in time. Some very valuable treasures were lost during the many wars in Florida.
Florida has survived through hundreds of hurricanes in the past four centuries, but many ships around her have not. From the year 1500 to 1960, hurricanes have sunk their quota of treasure-laden ships. These wrecked ships represent all nations, but the majority of them are Spanish galleons. They carried gold and silver from the New World to the Old, only to have their contents deposited on some jagged reef off Florida. Many gold doubloons and pieces-of-eight are awaiting a lucky finder on the Florida reefs.
Actually, there are two types of treasure hunting; buried treasure merely requires a shovel, but it is advisable to use a metal detector if success is to be achieved. Hunting sunken treasure becomes more expensive and complicated. Diving gear is needed and of course a boat is required. Only an experienced diver should go after sunken treasure. Luckily, Florida contains both types of treasures, thus enabling the prospective hunter to choose from a larger variety.
Florida has already yielded hundreds of lost treasures to many happy people. Among these are: A chest containing $25,000 in Mexican gold was found on Grassy Key. Miami has yielded some buried treasure. A road crew while building a new road near Cocoa found thirteen chests of treasure. $70,000 in silver coins were discovered on Lower Matecumbe Key, plus another 61 gold pieces were found by fishermen there. Dozens of pirate caches have been found on the West Coast of Florida. Millions of dollars have already been salvaged from the Spanish galleons off Florida. This is only a small sample of what has been unearthed and salvaged in Florida.
• The most notorious and successful pirate was Jose Gaspar, better known as Gasparilla. His methods were black and bloody, and he stands out among all the pirates who used Florida to bury their wealth. Leaving Spain at an early age, he sailed to the West Coast of Florida. He soon picked a good spot in Charlotte Harbor, and began to build his pirate kingdom. His headquarters were at Boca Grande, on what is today known as Gasparilla Island. In the following years, he accumulated a board estimated at $30,000,000. It is said that he and his brother buried all of his money on the islands in and around Charlotte Harbor. In all, he buried 13 casks and chests of treasure in the vicinity of his headquarters. His men, who numbered in the hundreds, also buried their smaller caches on these islands.
All had been going along fine for Gasparilla until the year 1822. The American Government then decided to get into the act and sent a Navy squadron to end his career. One day Gasparilla prepared to attack a merchantman, but to his surprise, it turned out to be a United States man-of-war. When he finally realized that it was a warship, it was too late. The notorious pirate then committed suicide by wrapping a heavy chain around him and jumping over the side. His ship soon followed him to the watery depths. The ship contained $1,000,000 in assorted treasure, and should be there today. Charlotte Harbor is an ideal spot to go treasure hunting. Just pick any island and start digging, because Gasparilla’s loot is buried on many of them, including Cayo Pelau. (See Topo page.)
• For many years, there lived in a cabin on Shell Creek an old Spaniard named Juan Gonzalez (not to be confused with Juan Gomez). He claimed that he had pirated with Gasparilla and knew where the famous pirate had buried one of his treasure casks. He said, “that it was buried near the shore of Lettuce Lake,” (this is near Ft. Ogden, Florida) and “that it is worth several million dollars.” Shortly after the Civil War Gonzalez made a deal with two cattlemen to dig up the cask. When the two men went to Gonzalez’ cabin with a skiff on an oxcart as per agreement, he was too sick to go. When they returned a few days later, they found him lying on the floor, dead. After he was buried, they searched his cabin. All they found was a jar full of gold coins and an engraved copper chart. This engraving may be the key to the buried treasure, but nobody has ever been able to decipher it. (I have seen a picture of the copper chart myself, and it seems to be authentic.) Whoever deciphers the engraving correctly (text only) will be a few million dollars richer. This is one of the most interesting pirate treasures in Florida. (See Topo page.)
• There are many legends of pirate treasure associated with the Tampa Bay area. During the 1700's, a pirate named Caster used Egmont Key off Tampa Bay as a base of operations. Before being captured and beheaded by the Spanish, he buried a sizeable treasure near Egmont Key. Another legend tells of two long boats carrying loot which was supposedly buried on the banks of Sweetwater Creek, near Rocky Point on the east side of Tampa Bay.
• During the period between 1519 and 1617, when the Calusa Indians were at the height of their power, the King of Spain's “plate fleets” transported millions in New World gold, silver and precious stones. The leader of the Calusas was named Carlos, and he also ruled over a vast Indian federation that controlled the entire southern Florida coastal region. As tribute, the other Indians of the federation would give him most of the booty they collected whenever a ship sank along the eastern coast of Florida and they were able to salvage any of the cargo.
Accounts of Carlos’ wealth and power were recorded in the memoirs of a ship wrecked Spaniard. Hernando Fontaneda was only a boy of 13 en route to Spain when he found himself stranded on one of the Keys. He was soon taken captive by the Calusas and brought to the village of the chief, where he managed to amuse Carlos by performing songs and dances.
The young castaway’s life was spared and he spent the next 17 years as a member of the tribe. He learned several Indian dialects and served as a translator for Carlos in dealings with other tribes. Finally, when he was about 30, he managed to escape.
In the book entitled Narrative of Le Moyne, an artist who accompanied Laudonniere, mention is made of the proposed expedition that Fontaneda wanted to make back to try and recover some of the treasure Carlos had accumulated. “They (Fontaneda and his companion) also reported that he (Carlos) possessed a great store of gold and silver and that he kept it in a certain village in a pit not less than a man's height in depth and as large as a cask; and that, if I could make my way to the place with a hundred arquebusiers, they could put all the wealth into my hands besides what I might obtain from the richer of the natives.”
When Fontaneda eventually found passage to Spain, he wrote an account of his experiences in Florida and delivered it to the King of Spain. By doing this, he hoped to win favor and enter the King's service. In one section of Fontaneda's memoirs, dated 1575, there are several references to Calusa wrecking activity and the tribe's enormous wealth. The following is but one example: “I desire to speak of the riches found by the Indians of Ais, which perhaps were as much as a million dollars or over, in bars of silver, gold, and in articles of jewelry made by the hands of the Mexican Indians, which the passengers were bringing with them. These things Carlos divided with the caicques of Ais, Jeaga, Guacata, Mayajuaco and Mayaca, and he took what pleased him, or the best part.”
To this day, Florida historians, archaeologists and treasure hunters are still looking for leads to the tribe’s lost gold. It is known that Carlos’ village was near what is now called Charlotte Harbor, on the West Coast of Florida, near Fort Myers.
• Another pirate who made his headquarters near Charlotte Harbor was Black Caesar. He was a former slave who escaped to the West Coast of Florida. Soon afterwards he became leader of the pirates and built his base on Sanibel Island. It is said that he captured a Spanish galleon off Cuba, and brought it back to his stronghold. Among other things on the galleon was 26 tons of silver, which he quickly buried. This enormous hoard is supposedly on or near Sanibel Island.
• In 1798, Black Caesar buried a ship load of silver bars on the north end of Key Largo. This treasure had been captured from a Spanish Galleon en-route to Spain from Vera Cruz, Mexico. Black Caesar made the Spaniards dig a massive hole for the silver, then killed them all and buried them in the hole with the treasure.
• Calico Jack Rackham was another buccaneer who sailed the waters off Florida. Headquartering first in Cuba, he moved to the West Coast of Florida. Here, he buried his $2,000,000 treasure on an island some ten miles up either the Shark or Lostman’s River. (This treasure cache lie buried within the boundaries of the Everglades National Park and it is illegal to do any digging here.)
• In 1864, a U.S. gunboat chased a Confederate ship up the Suwannee River. As the Confederate vessel rounded the second bend of the river, the crew rolled off kegs of gold coins to prevent their capture by the Union gunboat.
• Apalachicola Bay... A Confederate blockade runner went down in the bay north of St. George Island, carrying $500,000 in silver bars and many Spanish coins.
• Steinhatchee River... Three Civil War treasures are buried along the Steinhatchee River, which empties into Dead Man Bay in Taylor County. A Confederate blockade-runner chased by a Union ship was scuttled at the mouth of the river. The crew buried $500,000 in silver close by. Another blockade-runner hiding near the mouth of the river buried $140,000 in gold coins when a Federal gunboat appeared. After the war, members of the crew returned to claim the money, but were unable to find the location because a flood had taken away the markers along the bank of the river. Union Soldiers buried a cache of gold coins five miles from the mouth of the river.
• On the northwestern coast of Florida is the site of Billy Bowlegs’ hoard. He was believed to be one of Lafitte’s top men and for some time lived near New Orleans. After the Battle of New Orleans, he cut his ties with Lafitte and set out on his own. Moving to Santa Rosa Island near Pensacola, he started his own pirate kingdom. After accumulating much treasure, he decided to bury it. Thus, on a small island in Santa Rosa Sound, he buried most of his gold and silver bars. Nearby on the mainland, he deposited the bulk of his coins. In the hold of his ship was another million dollars in miscellaneous loot. This ship was later sunk, and has never been recovered. Billy Bowlegs’ treasure awaits discovery by some very lucky finder.
• The pirate Louis Aury is said to have buried several chests near a freshwater spring located on a small bluff in Clearwater Bay. While operating out of the northern end of Anclote Key, Aury was alleged to have buried loot on the Anclote River as well as on Honeymoon Island and Seahorse Key. In 1817, after taking over Amelia Island, he was known to have secreted a chest containing an estimated $60,000 in treasure. After surrendering to U.S. forces, he was given only 24 hours to leave the island, and was unable to retrieve this hoard.
• Amelia Island lies on the northeastern coast of Florida and pirate treasure almost grows on trees there. Blackbeard, Kidd, Lafitte and Aury have at one time or another used this island as their center of operations. Approximately $170,000 in treasures has already been found, but this is only a small portion compared to what is still buried. This is a very attractive island for the treasure hunter.
• Ex-pirate Juan Gomez lived on Panther Key, until the ripe old age of 120. On numerous occasions he claimed that lumps of melted gold were hidden under the roots of a tree on the island. (This island is also in the Everglades National Park.)
• Another of Gasparilla’s undiscovered treasures, amounting to several thousand dollars, was buried on Anastasia Island, south of Matanzas Inlet. The site was recorded as being a three-hour walk south of St. Augustine. It has been stated that he never returned for the chest.
• A map in the Spanish Archives shows a large chest from a wrecked ship was buried in the mid-1600’s somewhere in the Murdock Point area on Cayo Costa Island. Located some 100' from the Gulf of Mexico, the Spanish were unable to locate the chest. Also, in Boca Grande Pass on the north end of Cayo Costa an American frigate with $3,000,000 in minted U.S. gold coins sank in 1823.
• There were reports that when they were first dredging the Venice Inlet, a shipwreck was struck with the clam bucket dredge and gold coins were being picked up from the sand piles. A scan of old newspapers might confirm this story.
• After tropical storms, Spanish coins have been washing up on the beach at Stump Pass, just SW of Grove City. The dates are running from l754-l762, and the coins are in good condition. A gold 8 Escudo with a similar date was recovered in the water from the same area.
• Spanish gold coins were found on the beach at Longboat Key near Sarasota, after a dredger pumped in sand from off-shore.
• The area south of the Hillsboro Inlet to the Pompano Beach Pier has yielded artifacts over the years. Cob coins and a 17th-century Spanish cannon have been found here. There are many stories of gold and silver coins having been found here in the 1950's. The coins may have come from one of the 1715 Fleet vessels, or possibly from a vessel that had salvaged the fleet and was returning to Havana. Recently a dredge at the inlet has dredged up coins from the 1715 period.
• Boca Raton, located south of Palm Beach, is the site of two separate treasures. Blackbeard buried $2,000 in casks near the Boca Raton Inlet. These casks may be in submerged caverns. When a Spanish galleon was wrecked near here, the surviving seamen saved a large chest and buried it on the beach at Boca Raton.
• The members of the Ashley gang were notorious bank robbers who terrorized the citizens of Florida, during the early part of the 20th century. They succeeded in stealing over $100,000 in cash and it is believed buried near their headquarters. This was near Canal Point at the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee. All the members of the gang were shot to death, but their loot has never been found.
• DeLeon Springs is the location of a treasure chest lost by unknown persons. In the 1890’s, a chest was seen on the bottom of Ponce deLeon Springs. It soon fell into one of the submerged caves and could not be recovered. The chest has eluded divers ever since.
• Three silver church bells were buried by Spanish padres in 1586, somewhere in the present city park area of St. Augustine, to keep them from Sir Francis Drake. The padres were killed, and the location of the silver bells lost.
• In 1702-1704, the British, under Governor James Moore of Carolina, raid Spanish settlements including a 52-day siege of St. Augustine. The town is captured, but the fort is not. Many of the people buried their valuables, and were later killed.
• In 1894, a merchant named Richard Crowe died in St. Augustine, leaving a will stating he buried $60,000 in gold coins on his property. Searchers were unable to locate the treasure.
• A Spaniard named Don Felipe, is known to have buried the family silver, along with a large amount of gold coins, on his plantation during the Seminole war before he was killed by Indians. Located 2 miles NW of Ocala.
• Eight barrels of English coins amounting to $100,000 were buried near present-day Cross City and State Road 19/98, by two Bahamian traders before they were hung by General Andrew Jackson for selling arms to the Seminole Indians in the 1830's. Reportedly this treasure was buried near the junction of two streams on the northern edge of the town.
• During the dry season in the year 1907, a treasure chest was first spotted lying in a swampy area surrounded by quicksand between the Atlantic Ocean and Indian River. Many treasure hunters since have tried unsuccessfully to retrieve it. Survivors of one of several old shipwrecks lying nearby may have buried the chest. Located on the outer banks close to state A1A, 8 miles south of Vero Beach.
• In 1865, Captain John Riley and a detachment of Confederate troops were sent from Kentucky with a half ton of gold bullion to be transported to Fort Mead, Florida, and then on to Havana, Cuba. As Union troops advanced through Florida, the Confederate band fled into the Everglades, buried the gold at the last camping place, and continued their flight.
In September, 1944, it was reported that State Game Officer L. P. Harvey led a small party into the Everglades and located what they believed to have been the last camping place of the Confederates, almost hidden by undergrowth but identified by Confederate relics found there. The site was described as being located at the point of an angle formed by a line 40 miles due west of Ft. Lauderdale, and another line due northwest of the Miami City Hall until it met the first line. This would place the treasure on a Seminole Indian Reservation in west central Broward County.
• Down in Key West, there lived in the 1870’s a middle-aged man of German extraction. His name was Homer Ludwig, and while most of his younger years had been spent at sea, it is said that he “jumped ship” at Key West, and became one of the town's handymen. For the next 20 years he eked out a bare living, by doing odd jobs, and spent his spare time studying the history of the Island City. One day in early 1890’s Homer bought a small and decrepit sailboat and began to spend his spare time patching it up. To those who took the trouble to ask why he wanted a boat, he would explain that he intended to go treasure hunting. He claimed to have learned the location of a money chest removed from a vessel wrecked on a reef. He would talk at length about how the captain of the doomed ship had carried the money ashore, and buried it in the sand for safe keeping, intending to return with another vessel and reclaim the treasure. The captain never returned.
Several weeks later, Homer set sail in his little catboat and was never seen at Key West again. A fisherman had seen the old fellow on the beach of Big Pine Key, and a little later a yacht had sighted a man of Homer’s description at Matecumbe Key. A year later a couple of Key Westers met Homer on the beach at Key Largo. The old man had build himself a shack of driftwood and palm fronds, and he seemed fit and hard as nails. The old man was living on Key Largo about five years when it was discovered how he was getting money. A fellow who ran a general store in Miami said that Homer was selling old gold and silver coins, a few at a time, to a coin dealer on Flagler Street. He’d get maybe 50 or 100 dollars for the coins and then go buy what he needed. Then he would sail back to Key Largo. One day in September 1909, old Homer got into his boat and started hoisting the sail. A couple of fishermen told him he’d better stay ashore, because a bad storm was building up. The old fellow wouldn’t listen, and he shoved off and headed north. He was probably making another trip to Miami, but he never got there. That night the storm came howling up the Keys, and Homer was never heard of again. The secret of where the treasure was hidden went with him. Somewhere on Key Largo the rest of that old Spanish treasure is waiting for a second finder.
• A man lived on Elliot Key and boated to Miami for supplies. One time a storm came up and he beached on a very shallow reef to pick up ballast rocks to help his catboat. He docked at Biscayne and 79 St., which was known as Sea Ray boat docks. He piled the ballast on the dock, and it sat there 6 months. One day he scraped one to discover they were encrusted silver bars. He died without finding where he found them, but the area suspected was the Dry Rocks off Upper Elliot Key.
• Florida in the 1830's was a battleground with the U. S. army engaged in a war against the Seminole Indians. It was not a place you would have expected to find a young inventor from Paterson, New Jersey, promoting his products. His name was Samuel Colt and he was selling guns.
Colt felt that his 8-shot revolving-cylinder carbines would find instant favor among men armed with single-shot rifles. But his success was limited. He sold a few handguns to officers, but his only quantity order was from Gen. Thomas S. Jessup for 50 carbines and more than half of them may be in a Florida swamp today, awaiting some lucky treasure hunter with a metal detector.
In a letter dated November 8, 1850, Col. Harney of the 2nd U. S. Dragoons reported; “Gen. Jessup ordered the purchase of 50 and they were placed in my hands . . . they were the first ever used or manufactured. Thirty of them were lost at Caloosahatchee . . .”
Stories vary as to just how the carbines were lost. One persistent version has it that the arms, still in their oak, zinc-lined, grease-filled cases, were lost when the canoes in which they were being transported were capsized during an Indian attack. If this is so, it's likely the guns may be in good condition today. Harney Point is part of present day Cape Coral.
Spain was the first nation to benefit from the discovery of the New World. The Spanish conquered Mexico, Central America and South America, and their investment is these newly acquired countries began to pay off with interest. Silver and gold were discovered, and shipments of these precious metals were soon on their way back to Spain. In a few short years, Spain became the richest country in the world.
Each year, large fleets of Spanish galleons were seen voyaging back and forth between Spain and America. These treasure ships carried millions of dollars in gold, silver, platinum and precious stones. Often, hurricanes cut the voyages short and left the galleons on the ocean bottom. In many cases, everything was lost including men, galleons, and treasure. Although the men and galleons have long since disappeared, the treasure may still remain.
Two fleets sailed every year from Mexico and South America, and were accompanied by two warships. The two war galleons were called the Capitana and Almiranta, and each carried about $2,000,000 in treasure. The fleet that sailed from Mexico was called the New Spain Armada, and the other one that sailed from South America was known as the Tierra Firme Armada. Each Armada would first sail to Havana, and then on to Spain. Sometimes, both armadas would combine at Havana before leaving for Spain.
After leaving Havana, the treasure fleets would sail along the coast of Florida before turning eastward. At this point in the journey, many of the galleons were sunk by hurricanes. Today, the remains of these galleons are being found regularly, and their treasures are gradually coming up to the surface. Although many of these galleons have already been discovered, there are dozens that have not.
Below are listed both discovered and undiscovered shipwrecks* off the Florida coast.
• In 1555, only one ship, the “Santa Maria Del Camino,“ 200 tons, commanded by Captain Alonzo Martin Morejon, was dispatched to Nombre de Dios in Panama to pick up all of that year's treasures from South America. She took on 1.8 million pesos in gold and silver in Panama and then an unspecified amount of gold, emeralds and pearls in Cartagena, Colombia. A hurricane drove the ship ashore and it was dashed to pieces near St. Lucie Inlet on the east coast of Florida. Indians massacred most of the survivors, but kept some of them prisoners until they were rescued several years later by Spaniards from Havana, who were searching for ambergris.
• In 1563, the 250 ton galleon, “La Madalena,” commanded by Capt. Cristobel Rodriquez, was returning to Spain from Veracruz, Mexico and Havana. She was cast up on a shoal during a bad storm and of the 300 odd souls aboard her, only 16 survived in the small-boat. At the time she carried over 50 tons of silver in bullion and specie (coins), 170 boxes of worked silver (like candle sticks, plates, etc.), 1,110 pounds of gold in small ingots and jewelry, plus other valuables belonging to passengers. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, all of her cannon were bronze. This makes finding her more difficult as a magnetometer can only detect ferrous metals. Hopefully she went down with some of her iron anchors still aboard. The good side is that bronze cannon from this period, depending on the amount of ornamentation and markings on them, can bring as much as $30,000 each and she carried 28 of them. Six months after being lost a salvage vessel was sent up from Havana but failed to find any traces of her or her cargo. A shrimp boat snagged into a bronze cannon in the general area she was lost and the gun just happens to date from this period. The gun was sold to a private collector for $15,000 but could have netted twice this amount if sold to a museum or in an auction. Another bronze cannon was also accidentally brought up in a shrimper's net within two miles of the other, but it dated from the mid-1770's and was from another wreck. Within five miles from where both guns were found, a chest of some 3,000 Spanish four and eight real coins, dating between 1748 and 1751 were also accidentally brought up in a shrimper's net.
• In 1571, two galleons, the “San Ignacio,” 300 tons, Capt. Juan de Canovas, with 22 iron cannon; and the “Santa Maria de la Limpia Concepcion,” 340 tons, captain's name unknown, were wrecked during a storm with almost a total loss of lives on both ships. Between them they carried over 2,500,000 pesos in treasure but the documents didn't specify how much gold and silver made up this total. A “peso” was not a coin in those days but a unit of monetary value, equaled to 1 1/8 ounce troy of silver. The gold to silver ratio was 16:1. Both were very rich ships when lost. All salvors found were wooden fragments of one or both wrecks up on the shore when they reached the area several months after the disaster. The survivors reached St. Augustine in two longboats.
• In 1589, for protection against an English squadron, which was known to be waiting for the returning Spanish ships from the West Indies, at the King's orders, the Armada and Flota de Tierra Firme and the Flota de Nueva Espana joined together in Havana, forming a very large convoy of about 100 ships which sailed from Havana on the 9th of September. Soon after entering the Bahama Channel, the convoy was struck by a hurricane. Shortly after the hurricane began, the Almiranta of the Flota de Tierra Firme, “La Magdalena,“ 650 tons, commanded by Captain Antonio Jorge Laden with over 1.25 million pesos in treasure, developed a bad leak and fired cannon for assistance. The galleon went down north of Miami in very deep water, and all but three of the 700 people aboard drowned before any aid could reach them. While running before the hurricane up the Bahama Channel, three merchant naos also sank in thirty fathoms of water in about thirty degrees of latitude. Only the names of two of them were given in the documents: “Santa Catalina,“ 350 tons, Captain Domingo Ianez Ome, owned by Fernando Ome, coming from Mexico; and the “Jesus Maria,“ 400 tons, Captain Francisco Salvago, owned by Domingo Sauli, also coming from Mexico. There is no mention of what their cargoes consisted, but it is certain that the Almiranta, at least, was carrying treasure.
• In 1600, an unnamed 200 ton ship commanded by a Captain Diego Rodriquez Garrucho, coming from Mexico and Havana, was wrecked due to faulty navigation and only seven men and a boy made it ashore on pieces of wreckage. She was carrying over 700,000 pesos in treasure, including 245 chests of valuable goods from the Orient. These goods would have been brought over on the Manila Galleons and consisted of Chinese porcelain, beautiful worked pieces of gold and jewelry, precious stones, etc. Salvors located the site in 1602, and raised three bronze cannons off her, but nothing more as her cargo had already been buried. Another attempt was made in 1603, but no trace of her was found.
• In 1611, on the 2nd of June the Santa Ana Maria del Juncal, owned by Bernardo de Torres sank off Cabo de Apalachi. It was carrying several million pesos in silver bullion and specie. The ship was one in the convoy of the New Spain Flota commanded by Captain General the Marguis de Cadereyta. Some salvage was undertaken, but very little was salvaged as the ship broke up quickly.
• In 1624, the Spanish galleon “El Espiritu Santo El Mayor,“ 480 tons, commanded by Captain Antonio de Soto, owned by Juan de Olozabal, was lost in the Bahama Channel. She was one of more than forty ships of the Tierra Firme treasure fleet under the command of Don Antonio de Oquendo. The fleet sailed from Havana, and as it entered the Bahama Channel, a sudden squall struck. When the fierce storm was over, the “El Espiritu Santo El Mayor“ and her cargo of 2.2 million pesos had disappeared without a trace in deep water. Also lost, the “Santissima Trinidad,“ Almiranta of the Tierra Firme fleet, Captain Ysidro de Cepeda, 600 tons.
• In 1622, the Tierra Firme flota of twenty-eight ships left Havana bound for Spain. With it was carried the wealth of an empire; Silver from Peru and Mexico, gold and emeralds from Colombia, pearls from Venezuela. Each ship carried its crew, soldiers, passengers, and all the necessary materials and provisions for a successful voyage. The following day, the fleet found itself being overtaken by a hurricane as it entered the Florida straits. By the morning of September 6th, eight of these vessels lay broken on the ocean floor, scattered from the Marquesas Keys to the Dry Tortugas. On October 5th, a second hurricane came through, and further destroyed the wreck of the “Atocha.“ For the next 60 years, Spanish salvagers searched for the galleon, but they never found a trace. The “Atocha“ was loaded with a cargo of 24 tons of silver bullion in 1038 ingots, 180,00 pesos of silver coins, 582 copper ingots, 125 gold bars and discs, 350 chests of indigo, 525 bales of tobacco, 20 bronze cannon and 1,200 pounds of worked silverware. To this can be added items being smuggled to avoid taxation, and unregistered jewelry and personal goods. The “Santa Margarita,” sank off the Dry Tortugas with $1,000,000 aboard. The “Rosario,” sank off the Dry Tortugas. The wrecks are located west of the Florida Keys, and some have been found and salvaged by Mel Fisher.
• In 1683, the 700 ton galleon, “Santissima Concepcion,” alias “El Grande,” commanded by Admiral Manual Ortiz Arosemena, heading for Spain after taking on treasures at Porto Bello, Panama; Cartagena, Colombia; Veracruz, Mexico; and making a stop at Havana, was totally destroyed after striking a shallow during a hurricane somewhere below the “Cape.” Of the 500 or more souls aboard her only four reached the coast on debris and made it to St. Augustine with great hardships. She was carrying over 1,800,000 pesos in treasure, the majority of which was silver bullion and specie. Her total gold consisting of bullion, specie and worked gold only weighed at around 1,500 pounds. However, gold was the most common object being smuggled and she probably carried ten times this amount as contraband. She also carried 77 chests of pearls, 49 chests of emeralds, 217 chests of “goods from the Orient,” and other valuables belonging to private persons (passengers). Repeated attempts to locate her were made almost yearly up until 1701. The only treasure ever found was a chest of clothes that washed ashore right after the disaster in which “some 1,500 pesos in unregistered gold jewelry” was discovered by soldiers sent down from St. Augustine. All her cannon were bronze.
• In 1715, a fleet of 12 ships sailed from the harbor of Havana, Cuba en route to Spain. Their plan was to follow the Gulf Stream north along the east coast of Florida continuing northward until they would eventually turn eastward to sail toward Spain. Five of the twelve ships were the New Spain Flota commanded by Captain General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla and six ships were the Squadron of Tierra Firme commanded by Captain General Don Antonio de Echeverz y Subiza. The twelfth ship, the Grifon, was a French ship which just happened to be sailing when the others were leaving and it received permission to sail with them. During the night of July 30th the Fleet was struck by a hurricane on the east coast of Florida along the section which is now between Fort Pierce and the Sebastian Inlet. Eleven of the ships were wrecked and sank with only the Grifon escaping because it had sailed ahead of the others and somehow missed the worst of the storm. Over 1,000 people were killed but almost 1,500 survived although some of the initial survivors died due to thirst, hunger or exposure before help arrived from Cuba and St. Augustine. In the mid-1960's, Real Eight Company found some of the shallow water wrecks between Sebastian Inlet and Ft. Pierce. In later years, Mel Fisher also salvaged these wrecks, and they are still bringing up artifacts. Over the years, treasure hunters have been finding pieces-of-eight and gold doubloons along the beaches after storms. It is believed that some of the galleons sank in deep water and could not be salvaged by the Spanish. A large quantity of gold and silver may still lie in deep water off our rocket pads at Cape Kennedy.
• In 1733, a terrible disaster struck the Spanish Armada. In July of that year, the New Spanish Armada was hit by a hurricane of such force that 20 galleons were sunk in the Florida Keys. The Spaniards wasted no time in getting up salvage operations, and they succeeded in raising $12,000,000 in treasure. After three years of work, only $4,000,000 in gold and silver remained in the wrecks. Many of these galleons have recently been found by Scuba divers, but only a small portion of the treasure has come to light. The following are wrecked galleons of the 1733 Armada: 1. “El Aviso,” a dispatch boat and is located on the south end of Pacific Reef. 2. “El Infante,” was a 60-gun galleon and the position is on Little Conch Reef. 3. “San Jose,” is thought to be the Capitana and is on Crocker Reef. 4. Seven merchantmen were sunk between Upper Matecumbe and Long Key. 5. “Almiranta,” a 58-gun galleon and is off Long Key Point. 6. “San Fernando,” another merchantmen, and is somewhere off Grassy Key in 40 feet of water. These are most of the 1733 shipwrecks, and all are in comparatively shallow water (10 to 40 feet). Any one of them could hold a large amount of treasure.
• In 1755, a period when no Spanish ships were available to carry treasure to Spain, as Spain and England were at war, a French ship named “Notre Dame de la Deliverance” disappeared without a trace somewhere between Havana and Cadiz. Her cargo consisted of 1,170 pounds of gold bullion carried in seventeen chests, 15,399 gold doubloons, 153 gold snuff boxes weighing 6 ounces each, a gold-hilted sword, a gold watch, 1,072,000 pieces of eight, 764 ounces of virgin silver, 31 pounds of silver ore, a large number of items made of silver, six pairs of diamond earrings, a diamond ring, several chests of precious stones, plus general cargo consisting of Chinese fans, cocoa, drugs, and indigo. (Update: This ship may have been found off Key West in 2002.)
• Many years ago a fisherman was cruising over the outer reef off Boca Raton Inlet and saw what appeared to be an ancient ship partly covered with sand. After telling the story to his friends, a company was formed and a diver engaged. There, lying on the bottom of the sea in about 60 feet of water, they located the wreck of an old ship, undoubtedly uncovered by the hurricane of the previous fall. The diver went down and chopped a hole in the hull of the ship and brought up what appeared to be a bar of iron, reporting that the wreck was filled with those bars. A more careful examination proved that the bar was pure silver. Additional equipment was secured and plans made to remove the entire treasure, but severe weather prevented immediate return and they were forced to wait for a calm sea.
When the old ship was finally located once more, it had sunk deeper in the sand. Dynamite was used in an attempt to break up the wreck, but this blast only caused it to sink deeper and it was finally swallowed up and no more silver was obtained. All traces of the wreck have long since disappeared, and unless it may be uncovered by another storm, somewhere off Boca Raton, buried in the depths of the ocean, is a fortune that may never be recovered.
*Shipwreck Source - “Spanish Treasure in Florida Waters,” by Robert F. Marx.
Note: Since this article was first written in 1964, much of the sunken treasure has been found and recovered from the 1622, 1715 and 1733 fleets.