Three Hundred and two years ago in the early morning hours of July 31, 1715, one of the
assembled was in trouble. Carrying a fortune in gold, silver and jewels from Spain’s New World Empire, the Fleet was trying to outrun an ominous storm pursuing it up the Florida Straits. The bulky treasure-laden galleons were not fast enough. By 2 a.m. 100 mile per hour winds, torrential rains and mountainous 30 foot waves broke over the Fleet. A category 4 or 5 hurricane had caught the Spanish Treasure Fleet in the Florida Straits. They were trapped in the channel. They had nowhere to go.
Eleven of the twelve ships in the Fleet, including all the treasure galleons were lost, either capsizing in deep water or tossed upon the reefs and sandy shores off of the Florida coast. More than one thousand five hundred men and women, crew and passengers perished with the ships in the fury of the hurricane.
When the Spanish Colonial authorities heard of the disaster, they responded from Havana and St. Augustine, but it was more of an effort directed at salvaging the galleons than rescuing the survivors. As September rolled around, some survivors were still at the camp, which the Spanish authorities had turned into a base of salvage operations.
Using a clever system for salvaging ships in shallow water, the Spaniards were able to recover large portions of the treasure. There is some speculation that the Spanish exaggerated the amount of the recovery to deter unauthorized recovery efforts by Spain’s rivals. If so, it did not work. Pirates were almost as quick as the Spanish in responding to the disaster. Yet much was never recovered.
The modern day hunt for the 1715 Treasure Fleet began in the 1950’s, when a retired Florida contractor wondered why gold and silver kept washing up on a Florida beach near his home. Kip Wagner used to go beach-combing along the Florida coast looking for decorative pieces of driftwood. What he found, instead, was treasure. Kip noticed that none of the coins that he found dated past 1715. Consequently, he started to research shipwrecks from that era. He also had a neighbor and good friend, Dr. Kelso, who was an amateur Florida historian. They teamed up. Their big break came in 1959 when Dr. Kelso found an authentic 18th Century map of Eastern Florida. The map was published just fifty years after the 1715 Fleet disaster. On the map, next to the Sebastian River, as specific notation stated “Opposite this River, perished, the admiral commanding the Plate Fleet of 1715....” This was the exact spot where Wagner was finding his coins. Wagner became convinced that a vast treasure in gold and silver lay scattered on the reefs just off Florida beaches.
This brings us to today and our Treasure Hunters are still finding treasure to this day and as of this blog there are still two Spanish Galleons waiting to be found and I will be out there searching for them, but that is another story.