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The 1715 Fleet: The Archetypal Sunken Treasure

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Caesarea National Park isn’t the only place where divers have found vast riches in living memory. There’s also the 1715 Treasure Fleet (also known as the 1715 Plata Fleet — “Plata” being the Spanish word for silver), which was unearthed by an amateur diver and enterprising Florida Man, William Bartlett. He went down to do what many divers do — check out a shipwreck that is hundreds of years old. What he found was so much gold he had to start packing it into his gloves.

Over the next two days, he and his compatriots found 350 gold coins worth an astonishing $4.5 million. And while other hauls have been pulled out of this shipwreck, this one was the biggest to come from the wreck in decades. 

Where Did the 1715 Treasure Fleet Come From?

Spain to Havana Map Graphic

Map of route from Spain to Havana, Cuba

The story of the 1715 Treasure Fleet is almost the archetype for the American conception of “sunken treasure.” There were 11 ships, totally loaded with treasure, on their way to Spain from Havana in July 1715. The Spanish were badly in need of the gold, as they had just ended the War of Spanish Succession over who would be King of Spain — the French claimant or the Austrian one — and the war badly drained their resources.

Of course, July is prime hurricane season in Florida, then as it is now and the Spanish did not have the advanced meteorological equipment that we have today for early storm detection. As many as 1,500 Spaniards died in the wreck and it was one of the biggest disasters of the entire Spanish colonial era. Some of the men survived and established a camp while they awaited rescue. The Survivors’ and Salvagers’ Camp can still be visited today, on Orchid Island, Florida.

The Spanish sent ships and, to their credit, were able to recover about 80 percent of what was on board the ships. This is astonishing, not just because of the relatively limited technology of the time, but also because of the number of pirates mulling around the area trying to score whatever treasure they could. Indeed, famed pirate Henry Jennings was first accused of piracy because of his lurking about trying to recover the lost gold of the 1715 Treasure Fleet.

But the remaining 20 percent sat in the deep for quite a long time indeed. It took over 250 years before anyone was able to unearth anything that sank during that shipwreck. All told, there were 14 million pesos on the entire fleet.

Mel Fisher and Kip Wagner: Modern-Day Treasure Hunters

Shipwreck. Red Sea.

Shipwreck. Red Sea.

Mel Fisher and Kip Wagner were treasure hunters who teamed up with the intention of getting the remaining bits of treasure still in the deep waters off the Florida coast. Two ships in the massive wreck were located and it took five years of work to uncover all that they could from just those two ships alone. After they moved onto other projects, various salvage crews worked the area until 1983.

The Queens Jewels were allegedly on the ship, though these have not, as of yet, recovered. What’s more, the cargo estimates are based on what was registered with the Spanish crown. There is reason to believe that a far greater amount of riches were on the ship in the form of contraband that the captains and their crew were smuggling back for their own personal enrichment, not that of the Spanish crown.

Unlike some of the other unearthed hoard we have covered here, such as the Hoxne Hoard or the Staffordshire Hoard, there is a clear owner of the shipwreck: Queens Jewels, a salvaging company that acquired the rights to the area in 2010 from the previous owner, treasure hunter Mel Fisher, who came out on top in a long and contentious court battle against the State of Florida. The Spanish government did not attempt to exert a claim on the shipwreck.

For its part, the State of Florida is entitled to 20 percent of any haul, which is then transferred to a museum in Tallahassee. Whatever is left is then split between Queens Jewels and the lucky treasure hunter. It can easily cost $50,000 to even get to the point where you can begin digging around in the ocean for this gold. Anything that washes ashore is the exclusive property of the person who found it. The 1715 Treasure Fleet is one of the reasons the Treasure Coast in Florida is such a popular place for metal detecting, particularly after hurricanes.

Eric Schmitt’s Million-Dollar Score

Rare 8 Escudos Lima dated 1710 recovered from the 1715 Fleet

Rare 8 Escudos Lima dated 1710 recovered from the 1715 Fleet

While Bartlett is one of the biggest scores in recent history, he’s not by any means the only person to strike gold in the deep blue sea thanks to the 1715 Treasure Fleet. Eric Schmitt and his family were able to unearth 52 gold coins and 40 feet of gold chain, as well as 110 silver coins and buttons, which amounted to over a million dollars in value.

Schmitt dives a lot and it wasn’t his first trip down to the Treasure Fleet looking for his fortune. Usually, however, by his own reporting, all he’s able to come up with is empty holes and beer cans. This time, however, it was vastly different. Only 15 feet down, but 1,000 feet offshore, he was able to strike it rich. A gold coin popped out of the sandbank he was working on. It wasn’t the only coin he would uncover and one of them, a very rare piece called a Tricentennial Royal, was worth $500,000.

Back in the old days, people who made coins weren’t terribly concerned with how they looked. The main concern was about how much they weighed and what the overall purity of the precious metal was. The Royals, however, were an exception, as they were presented directly to the king himself and had to be of exquisite quality.

The 1715 Treasure Fleet has seen some exposure in pop culture. A scene in the video game  Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag involved the 1715 Treasure Fleet. The first season of the Starz series Black Sails revolves around the 1715 Treasure Fleet and attempts by pirates to recover the riches that it left on the ocean floor.

It is estimated that there are still $400 million in Spanish gold coins outstanding in the area known as Florida’s Treasure Coast. That’s a lot of gold and silver just sitting around for the right enterprising diver to happen upon it.

About The Author
Sam Jacobs
Sam Jacobs is a man who believes that gold is worth its weight in gold and always keep track of what that value is. His eyes gleam every time he walks by a large deposit of quartz on his journeys across the country. And while he’s never struck gold in the wild yet, he’s a long way from giving up his quest for a bonanza.