- 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
Dr. Kelso, another friend of his, who was also called Kip, refused to believe this theory. The coins had been there all the time, he argued, buried in the sand, and that was why they showed up after storms. The sand on top of the treasure simply washed out to sea in rough weather. Kelso was director of the Health Department, a man of education who shared Wagner’s interest in the coins and their origin. The men first discovered their mutual interest when Dr. Kelso dropped in one evening to give Kip a physical examination for an insurance policy and found the Wagner couple kneeling on the floor, studying maps of the East Coast. Kelso knew more than a little about the history of the state and the Spanish fleets that had once sailed Florida’s seas. He proved to be a stimulating and encouraging friend, and they had many discussions on the subject of wrecked treasure. It was during such a conversation that Wagner mentioned a peculiar fact he had noticed: not one of the coins he had found carried a date later than 1715. It was an odd little observation to be filed away for future reference.
One day after a particularly ruinous storm, Kip was the first on the beach. He found everything so stirred up it was almost unrecognizable, but he made one important discovery—a bright piece of silver dated 1714 that differed from any he had yet found. Surely it had been washed ashore just the night before from a wreck! Dr. Kelso refused to admit the significance of the find. It too, he said, had been buried on shore, undoubtedly: all they had to do was dig up a portion of the beach and Wagner would find that he was right, because there would be innumerable coins under the sand. The argument waxed hot. To prove his point, Kelso rented a ditchdigger, and the men dug three trenches seventy-five feet long and several feet deep, which criss-crossed each other so that no important part of the beach was left unturned. They found no coins, and Dr. Kelso now admitted that he might have been mistaken and that there was only one other explanation. The coins were indeed washed ashore from a hidden cache underwater. But what could it be? The answer, thought Kip Wagner, must lie in Spanish history, and he set to work to find out what had happened in 1715 or after—but not too long after.
It did not take long to learn of a flotilla, or flota to use the Spanish word, wrecked (according to local lore) in a hurricane off Cape Canaveral in 1715. There had been some survivors of the disaster, and a good deal was known about it. The sailing of the flotilla was an annual event; it was known as the Silver Fleet, or Plate Flota, and the 1715 ships were supposed to be carrying a cargo of treasure worth $14,000,000 in gold, silver, and jewels (emeralds and diamonds) when it was wrecked—at Cape Canaveral, according to the legend, but Wagner soon ran into confusion on this point. He sent his shiny silver 1714 coin to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C., with a letter asking if it could possibly have come from the 1715 flotilla that sank off Cape Canaveral. He addressed this letter quite properly to the curator of armed forces history, a man named Mendel Peterson, who replied that the silver coin could not possibly be from the Silver Fleet because that flotilla had been wrecked not at Canaveral but two hundred miles away, off the Florida Keys. Peterson was very downright about it, and poor Kip Wagner was downcast, not to say confused. How could there have been two Silver Fleets wrecked in one year? There couldn’t. Yet how could the locals be so mistaken? Clearly more research was indicated.
Aided by Dr. Kelso, the untrained Wagner got to work on all the books in all the available libraries, looking for the Silver Fleet. The task was enormous because of the great number of shipwrecks for which the Florida coast was notorious. How to sort them out? It was a task that had to be done, and the friends worked for a long time before they had a stroke of luck. Or perhaps it is unfair to call it luck. Dr. Kelso was a persistent researcher, and he found the clue. On a motoring vacation, Dr. Kelso’s family camped in their trailer near Washington, D. C., while he looked into what might be pertinent to the subject in the Library of Congress. In a book called Armada Española by Césario Fernandez Duro, published in 1900, he found a good deal about the Silver Fleet of 1715. Then he looked carefully through an article written by a Yale professor, Irving Rouse, about Spanish fleets. Here he hit on one of the professor’s references, a work by an English cartographer named Bernard Romans, published in 1775. If Professor Rouse had found it useful, reasoned Kelso, there was possibly something about Wagner’s lost fleet in it. He tried to find it, but was first told that they didn’t have it in the library; it was very rare. After a careful search, however, the librarians did find a copy of the work, in the rare-book section.