A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WRECKS AND SALVAGE EFFORTS
July 24, 1715 The 1715 Fleet Sets Sail from Cuba
A fleet of Spanish ships departed Havana, Cuba, for Seville, Spain. Conflicting records indicate that 12 ships (possibly more, possibly less) set sail, one of which was a French boat, Le Griffon, which was part of the convoy. The 1715 Fleet was responsible for transporting New World cargo, including treasure, to Spain, which had been at war for 12 years and was eager to bolster its economy with wealth acquired in Central and South America. Once the War of Succession, known in America as Queen Anne’s War (May 15, 1702 – September 7, 1714) ended, King Philip V of Spain commissioned the treasure fleet to deliver the stockpile of gold and silver that had been building up. The ships left Cuba, heavily loaded with both documented and contraband treasure, and set their course through the Straits of Florida to follow the Gulf Stream and across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain.
July 31, 1715 A Hurricane Wrecks the Fleet
A hurricane hit and wrecked all but Le Griffon, which had sailed out ahead of the rest of the fleet, against the reefs just off the coast of Eastern Florida in an area now referred to as the Treasure Coast. Some of the ships were purposely run into the shore, sinking in shallow water, which allowed the surviving Spanish to establish camps and salvage what they could for the royal treasury over the next two years. Pirates and boats from other countries likely “fished” the wrecks in years to follow, but eventually the disaster and record of it faded into history.
1928 First Ship Discovered
One of the ships, what is assumed by some to be the Urca de Lima, was discovered by William Beach north of Fort Pierce Inlet and heavily salvaged over the next 50 years. It did not carry any royal treasure, but it did contain private chests of silver. Its historical significance was not understood until later. In the 1980s, Florida stopped issuing salvage permits on the wreck and opened it as the state’s first Underwater Archaeological Preserve.
1941 Survivor Camp Identified
Charles Dana Higgs, a retired astronomer and historian, was discovered a Spanish Salvage and Survivors Camp, the “Higgs Site,” where the modern-day McClarty Treasure Museum is located just south of the Sebastian Inlet. He connected the site to the 1715 Fleet and, during the 1940s, an archaeological survey of the area concluded that the site was very likely a 1715 Fleet survivor and salvage camp, a pirate hangout, or Native American camp that occurred soon after the wrecks as it contained material associated with the wrecks.
1950s to Present Day Clues Connect to Tell a Story
Though Spanish coins had been found on local beaches and what appeared to be shipwreck debris, including cannons, surfaced after storms during the first half of the 20th Century, no successful efforts to salvage the wrecks some locals believed to be just offshore were made until the 1960s. Multiple entities conducted research and held permits to explore, but the most fruitful of these was held by Kip Wagner, who, along with his physician and friend Dr. Kip Kelso and a newly formed company, Real Eight Corporation, discovered and secured leases on six wrecks between the Sebastian Inlet to the north and just south of Fort Pierce Inlet to the south.
Wagner, a construction worker who relocated to Florida from Ohio, and Dr. Kelso worked together to determine if the existing clues pointed to the 1715 Fleet. It was at that time assumed that the wrecks occurred further south, near the Florida Keys. In 1959, Dr. Kelso connected the written work and a 1775 map of Florida found in British cartographer Bernard Romans’s A Concise History of East and West Florida with the area just south of the Sebastian Inlet. A notation here on the map stated, “Opposite this River, perished, the Admiral, commanding the Plate Fleet 1715, the rest of the Fleet 14 in number, between this & y Bleech Yard.” The Bleech Yard was near Fort Pierce Inlet.
Since then, priceless artifacts including gold, silver, and emeralds have been recovered offshore by lease holders and sub-contractors who dive and excavate the wrecks each summer when the ocean is calm enough for shallow water diving. They continue to reveal the story of a tragic maritime disaster during the Colonial Period. The lease was owned for a long period by the Fisher family (Mel Fisher himself contributed to treasure discoveries on the wrecks before and after his famous finding of the Atocha off the coast of Key West in 1985). 1715 Fleet Queens Jewels currently holds the lease to excavate and works with a number of subcontractors to bring up amazing finds each summer. As dictated in the Federal Admiralty lease, the state of Florida receives up to 20 percent of artifacts found on each site after each salvage season for inclusion in museum displays.