- Historic Sites
The saga of Kip Wagner, the first modern American to grow rich from ancient Spanish treasure
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
The stretch of sand that runs along for miles at the margin of Cape Canaveral was irresistibly reminiscent, I thought, of Cape Cod. But then one sandspit is very like another, except for the temperature surrounding it. That day the sea was remarkably peaceful though not very blue: it reflected a gunmetal sky. Here and there a family party sat on the sand and ate, but the place was by no means crowded, if you didn’t count the seagulls, and nobody seemed eager to go into the water. It was not easy to believe that this dull, peaceful surface covered, possibly, any number of decaying broken spars, old bones, and silver and gold coins. But it does—perhaps. On a shallow sea bottom like that one never knows, and nothing stays the same under the water, though I always thought it did until I read Kip Wagner’s book, Pieces of Eight.
Wagner was a builder. Not a metallurgist, not an adventurer, not a geologist, but a building contractor from Ohio who moved to Florida because he liked it. He and his family lived in a hamlet called Wabasso, about 120 miles north of Miami, near a larger town called Sebastian on the Sebastian Inlet and not far from Cape Canaveral, or Cape Kennedy, depending on your preference: Cape Whichever not much later was to be the home of the space experiments. (The first sky shot was in 1950). One of Wagner’s temporary partners on a job mentioned one day in 1949 that it would be a good time to go out looking for coins on the sand. They were taking shelter after a brief but busy storm, during which breakers had pounded the beach.
“What coins?” asked Wagner, and the other man, hardly able to credit such ignorance, explained. Every so often after a storm, he said, the sea cast up on the beach strangely shaped pieces of metal that were, in spite of their dark appearance, made of genuine silver and came from old Spanish wrecks. They were, in fact, the legendary “pieces of eight” mentioned so often in Treasure Island and got their name from the fact that they had been worth eight reals (a Spanish monetary unit) apiece. Their strange shape was due to the way they were made: not minted piece by piece, but cut off a silver bar and then stamped. Naturally they were so irregular that no two pieces were alike.
Fascinated, Wagner began looking on his own for these coins whenever he had a chance to stroll on the beach. He talked to friends and neighbors and heard a number of mouth-watering stories, learning that lucky people might even find gold coins among the silver. The village was full of treasure lore. One man, it was said, had built into his fireplace an extremely heavy brick he found near the sea, and the brick melted the first time he built a fire. It must have been gold, the legend went, or at least silver. Wagner saw his first genuine piece of eight when a drunken assistant took him to the beach and showed where he had accumulated a cache of seven of the things, black and roughly rectangular. So that’s what they looked like! Wagner realized that he had probably seen them before many times but had dismissed them as worthless fragments because the sulfated silver was black, not bright and glittering as one would expect. Though he didn’t yet realize it, he was captivated, hooked, by the thought of treasure seeking.
The same partner who had introduced him to the subject of castaway coins now took him further by suggesting that they investigate a wreck that had become visible off the beach: Wagner learned to call it a “wreck site.”
With some companions, Wagner spent the summer investigating this wreck. It was good practice, but their methods were crude and they didn’t find anything. To their dismay, they realized they had spent all their money, $12,000.
The next spring and summer the old fascination returned. One day Wagner went out with a metal detector, determined to find at least one piece of eight, until at last his stubbornness was rewarded. After that he found more; once, after “a lively northeaster,” he picked up five of them. Some of the coins were not pieces of eight, but golden. After a time he had amassed thirty-five or forty gold coins, carefully stowed away in a chest belonging to his wife because he was not sure if he was permitted to keep them or not. The silver coins, however, Wagner gave away or made into crude jewelry for children. Where did they come from? Why did they escape his eyes one day and then pop up in the same place on the next? Wagner had an idea that the storms probably loosened and washed out the earth of the bluffs in which they were hidden, and that waves kept them from drifting out to sea, but after a while he changed his mind. Noticing that most of the coins were found at the foot of the bluffs after storms, he was forced to believe that they were washed ashore whenever the wind was high. Yes, there must be a source out there under the water. With a friend he tried some primitive snorkeling, but he never got a coin from that.