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1715 Fleet, east coast of Florida

The Spanish 1715-Fleet disaster was probably the greatest to befall any of the Spanish treasure fleets in terms of casualties and money, with reports of a loss of 14 million pesos (plus an equal or greater amount in contraband) and as many as 1,000 or more lives. The modern salvage of this fleet, begun in the early 1960s and ongoing today, has been the largest single source of gold cobs ever in the numismatic market, turning former rarities and unknown issues into collectible and popular (albeit still expensive) commodities. In typical fashion, the 1715 Fleet was a case of overloaded Spanish galleons foundering in a hurricane after delayed departure, but on a larger scale than anything before. The principal elements of the fleet, known as the Nueva España (New Spain, i.e., Mexico) Fleet, had gone to Veracruz in Mexico to deliver mercury (an essential substance in the refining of silver cobs), sell merchandise, and pick up quantities of Mexican-minted bars and cobs. An unfortunate series of complications kept the fleet in Veracruz for two whole years before it could rendezvous in Havana with the vessels of the Tierra Firme (Mainland) Fleet, bearing the Peruvian and Colombian treasure brought from Panama and Cartagena. After still more delays in Havana, what was ultimately a twelve- or thirteen-ship convoy (depending on which account you prefer) did not manage to depart for Spain until July 24, 1715, well into hurricane season.

The trip back to Spain was to be the routine one: up the coast of Florida on the Gulf Stream, which gradually turns outward into and across the Atlantic at about the location where the fleet was lost. On the 30th of July, the fleet encountered a hurricane, driving the ships shoreward. Some of the ships sank in deep water, some broke up in shallower water, and others ran aground close to the beach, while a lone vessel, the tag-along French ship Grifón, sailed onward without incident. Hundreds of the crews and passengers lost their lives while other hundreds of survivors improvised a camp on shore to await aid from the Spanish fort at St. Augustine, to which a party was sent. Ultimately news of the disaster reached Havana, whence salvage ships were dispatched to the scene.

The Spaniards undertook salvage operations for several years, with the help of Indians, and they recovered nearly half of the vast treasure (at least the registered part), from the holds of ships whose remains rested in water sufficiently shallow for breath-holding divers. Gradually the salvagers enlarged their encampment and built a storehouse on the spit of dune land just behind the beach that bordered a jungle. In 1716 a flotilla of British freebooters under Henry Jennings appeared on the scene, raided the storehouse, and carried off some 350,000 pesos of the treasure to Jamaica. The Spaniards, however, resumed operations until they could salvage no more and quit in 1719. The rest of the treasure remained on the ocean floor until our time.

Modern salvage on the 1715 Fleet began in the late 1950s, when local resident Kip Wagner found a piece of eight on the beach after a hurricane and decided to pursue the source. With the help of a 1774 chart and an army-surplus metal detector, he located the original Spanish salvage camp and unearthed coins and artifacts. Then using a rented airplane to spot the underwater wrecksite from the air and check the location again by boat, Kip found the source of the coins and soon formed a team of divers and associates backed by a salvage permit from the State of Florida. All of this took place over a period of years before it evolved into the Real Eight Company, the origin of whose name is obvious. 

To salvage the wreck, the Real Eight divers originally used a dredge and suction ap­paratus; only later did they adopt the use of a propwash-blower (known as a “mailbox”) developed by their subcontractor Mel Fisher. Eventually they found gold jewels, Chinese porcelain, silverware, gold and silver ingots, and as many as 10,000 gold cobs of the Mexico, Peru, and Colombia mints; and, mostly in encrusted clusters, well over 100,000 silver cobs of all denominations.

The salvaged coins were all cobs, both gold (Mexico, Bogotá, Lima, and Cuzco) and silver (mostly Mexico but also some Lima and Potosi), minted primarily between 1711 and 1715, although numerous earlier dates were represented too, some of the dates extending well back into the 1600s. Many of the dates and types of the 1700-1715 period had been either rare or unknown prior to the salvage of the 1715 Fleet. The gold coins, as can be expected, have been generally pristine, as have been some of the silver coins, but most silver cobs from the 1715 Fleet are at least somewhat corroded, some no more than thin, featureless slivers. Every denomination of cob made in silver and gold, with the exception of the quarter real (which was not minted past the very early 1600s), has been found on the 1715 Fleet, as well as several different denominations of round “Royal” presentation issues. Promotions of the coins by Real Eight and others have spanned the decades, in addition to auctions by Henry Christensen (1964); Parke-Bernet Galleries (1967) and Sotheby Parke Bernet (1973); the Schulman Coin and Mint (1972 and 1974); Bowers and Ruddy Galleries (1977); and even the U.S. Customs Service (2003). The demand for these coins over the years has steadily risen while the supply of new finds has dwindled.

As the salvage operation on the 1715 Fleet reached diminishing returns, some of the associates like Mel Fisher headed for Key West and other areas to search for new wrecks. Do not believe, however, that the 1715-Fleet search is over. As many as five or six of the twelve or thirteen galleons remain undiscovered, search areas are still leased from the state, and even the old wreck sites continue to relinquish a few coins to an insatiable numismatic market. Even the beaches themselves yield fabulous finds (one gold “Royal” 8 escudos—a six-figure bonanza in our day—was found on the beach by a metal detectorist in 1989), especially after direct-hit hurricanes like Frances and Jeanne, which devastated the treasure beaches in rapid succession in the summer of 2004. Much of the finds stays in the hands of locals throughout the State of Florida—divers, beachcombers, and old-time collectors who love their cobs and sell only when they must. The one collector that never sells is also the one with the largest collection of them all—the museum of the State of Florida. Spain lost it all to America, whence it came.

Despite a wealth of publications pertaining to the 1715 Fleet with names of the ships and the known locations of some of the wrecks, there is no universal agreement as to the identity of the vessel at each wrecksite. In many cases, in fact, it is possible that separate wrecksites represent different parts of the same ship. As a result, salvagers over the decades have resorted to nicknames for the sites based on landmarks, local individuals, and even features from the wrecks themselves, such as (from north to south):  “Pines” (Sebastian), “Cabin” (Wabasso), “Cannon” (Wabasso), “Corrigan’s” (Vero Beach), “Rio Mar” (Vero Beach), “Sandy Point” (Vero Beach), “Wedge” (Fort Pierce), and “Colored Beach” (Fort Pierce). (Case in point: In this very catalog you will see items alternately certified as from the “Corrigans site” and the “Regla site,” which are one and the same.) Traditionally the range of sites extends from south of Fort Pierce up to just south of Melbourne in the north, but rumors of 1715-Fleet finds as far north as Cape Canaveral, New Smyrna Beach and even Fernandina Beach (near Jacksonville) may have merit. Regardless of the exact site of origin, a great majority of the coins are sold simply as “1715 Fleet.”

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