With the Spanish Crown on the verge of bankruptcy, the Spanish Treasure Fleet was ordered to return to Spain with as much treasure as possible without regard to cost or danger. On July 27, 1715 the Fleet consisting of twelve ships, including one Frenchman, weighed anchor at Havana, Cuba. A violent Caribbean storm on July 30 ravaged the fleet—laden with silver, gold, and gemstones. One after another, the ships were driven against the Florida reefs. When the storm finally passed, the Fleet had been destroyed, the treasure was scattered and only the French vessel found its way to Europe. Hundreds of lives were lost, along with millions of pesos in gold and silver (plus an equal amount of contraband). Spanish salvage efforts lasted for more than fifteen years and nearly half of the treasure was recovered and accounted for, but much of it remained under the sand.
Modern salvage began in the late 1950s after silver “pieces of eight” were found scattered on the beaches south of Cape Canaveral, Florida. Kip Wagner, a new resident to the area, decided to look for the source. Using a chart from 1774 and a metal detector, he located the original Spanish salvage camp where he found more coins and other artifacts. The underwater wreck sites were located and those salvage efforts have revealed fabulous discoveries. Although names of the ships that made up the Spanish Treasure Fleet are known, it is not always possible to identify which ship these items are recovered from. Therefore, the coins and artifacts are referred to as “recovered from the 1715 Fleet” sites.
The 1715 Fleet sites have produced more New World “pieces of eight” and “gold doubloons” than any other shipwrecks to date. As a result of Admiralty law and the “Abandoned Shipwreck Acts”, the state of Florida receives a portion and maintains their share of these coins and artifacts in the State Archives in Tallahassee. Recovery efforts at the 1715 Fleet sites continue to produce artifacts annually under Federal and State statutes and regulations.
More in-depth information can be found in Alan K. Craig’s Spanish Colonial Silver Coins in the Florida Collection and Spanish Colonial Gold Coins in the Florida Collection.