Pieces Of HistoryBY JANIE GOULD
Here’s a work in progress for you. It’s been close to three centuries since a fleet of treasure-laden Spanish galleons sank off the east coast of Florida, and divers are still seeking more of its riches. And Dr. Eugene Lyon, a historian whose research helped famed treasure salvor Mel Fisher find the site of another wrecked Spanish galleon, says work on the 1715 fleet is likely to go on for years.
Except for one ship that was blown off course and ended up in France, the 1715 fleet of 11 ships went down in a hurricane. Amazingly, some of the crew made it to shore in present-day Indian River County and trudged north on the beach to the Spanish settlement at St. Augustine. Other survivors got word to people in Havana and the race was on to recover the sunken gold and silver. Cuban authorities sent troops, supplies and equipment to salvage the ships, Lyon said. Since the ships had foundered in shallow water close to the coast, the job was easier than deep-water salvage would have been.
“Havana people got there first with the most and they beat out St. Augustine, which had hoped to get rich from it,” Lyon said.
Those early treasure salvagers recovered some but hardly all of the treasure from those doomed ships. For the next two centuries, the ships were mostly forgotten as Spain paled in significance as a global power. Not until the mid-20th century did serious interest resume in treasure hunting off Florida’s east coast. Along came Kip Wagner’s Real 8 company and Mel Fisher’s Treasure Salvors enterprise, and the boom began.
Lyon, a scholar specializing in North American history during the 16th century Spanish occupation, met Fisher in the late 1960s when both men and their families were charter members of Christ by the Sea Methodist Church in Vero Beach. Lyon was working on his doctoral dissertation about the life of Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the founder of St. Augustine, and told Fisher he planned to go to Spain to do research at the Archives of the Indies in Seville, near Menendez’s birthplace.
Fisher needed some research, too. For years, he had been searching for the site of the Atocha, a treasure-laden Spanish galleon that sank in a 1622 hurricane somewhere between Havana and the Florida Keys. He thought the Atocha was near the Upper Keys, but asked Lyon to see what he could learn in the Spanish archives.
“I was going through accounting papers and found a bundle wrapped in a pink ribbon,” Lyon said, and those records indicated the Atocha rested far west of the Upper Keys, near the Marquesas 40 miles west of Key West.
“Fisher immediately moved everything to Key West and immediately found the big anchor from the Atocha,” Lyon said.
That was in the early 1970s. Years went by without discovery of the mother lode. Legend has it that Fisher announced every day at the start of a dive, “Today’s the day.” Finally, a mid-summer day in 1985 actually became the day his crew found the Atocha’s main pile of riches. He and his crew brought up an estimated $400 million in silver and gold bars, silver coins, emeralds and artifacts. They also recovered $40 million in treasure from the Atocha’s sister ship,
There’s still plenty to be learned about the 1715 fleet, Lyon said. A couple of the ships have never been located.
“The Concepcion has not been found. It’s somewhere north of the Sebastian Inlet,” he said. “There are people working there now. The San Miguel also hasn’t been found. It’s believed to be off Amelia Island.”
He said there’s treasure to be found in all the 1715 wrecks, including the Capitan, which rests offshore from the Riomar golf course in Vero Beach. In the last decade, divers have brought up lots of jewelry from the Capitan, he said. They’ve found thousands of gold coins at the Nuestra Senora de Las Nieves, another 1715 galleon that rests off St. Lucie County’s Frederick Douglass Park.
“I think they’ll be working on the 1715 wrecks, like they did this summer, for years to come,” Lyon said.
Lyon is the author of “The Search for the Atocha;” a book about 16th century St. Augustine titled “Richer Than We Thought,” and numerous articles for the National Geographic and other publications. He serves on the board of Fisher’s company, Treasure Salvors, Inc. and Mel Fisher’s Maritime Heritage Society, which operates a museum in Key West.
He’s sure there are hundreds of undetected shipwrecks out there somewhere.
“Thousands of ships sailed and certainly 5 to 10 percent were lost by collision or leaks or hurricanes or some type of military action,” he said. “More were lost in deep water because they did most of their travel in deep water.”
Lyon once owned some gold bars from the Atocha but found them slimy and unappealing. “I thought, so many people have died for these things, and for what?” For him, the fun is in the seeking and finding.
“Who could ever believe you could go to the middle of the ocean and find a shipwreck?” he said. “But you can.”
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