- 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 found in this volume far more than he had dared to hope. There it was, written out: “Directly opposite the mouth of the St. Sebastians happened the shipwreck of the Spanish Admiral, who was the northernmost wreck of fourteen galleons, and a hired Dutch ship, all laden with specie and plate; which by [action] of northeast winds were drove ashore and lost on this coast, between this place and the bleach-yard, in 1715. A hired Frenchman fortunately escaped, by having steered half a point more east than the others.” It continued: “The people employed in the course of our survey, while walking the strand after strong eastern gales, have repeatedly found pistareens and double pistareens, which kinds of money probably yet remaining in the wrecks, are sometimes washed up by the surf in hard winds. This Lagoon stretches parallel to the sea, until the latitude 27:20, where it has an outwatering, or mouth; directly before this mouth, in three fathom water, lie the remains of the Dutch wreck. The banks of this lagoon are not fruitful.”
A map accompanied this passage, and when Kelso looked at it, all doubt vanished. There was the San Sebastian River, there was Cape Canaveral, and there was not Sebastian Inlet, because it didn’t exist at that time. Sandspits are apt to change. A note said, “Opposite this River, perished the Admiral, commanding the Plate Fleet 1715, the rest of the fleet 14 in number, between this and, ye Bleech Yard.”
“The River,” said Wagner, had to be the Sebastian Creek, as it is now known. There could be little doubt now in the minds of Dr. Kelso and Wagner: their wrecked fleet was there, not off the Keys nor Cape Canaveral nor anywhere else.
To double-check, Dr. Kelso went on to New York and had an interview with the president of the American Numismatic Society, Henry Gruenthall. Kelso was armed with a number of photographs of the coins he and Wagner had found. Gruenthall, impressed by the pictures, was excited and enthusiastic. He made various helpful suggestions, and Kelso moved on to the Spanish-American Association of New York, where people were equally helpful, referring him to librarians in Havana and Mexico City. Kelso and Wagner wrote to these people, but here they struck a snag: neither the Cubans nor the Mexicans seemed inclined to help them. Perhaps they were suspicious of North Americans on principle? Well then, what about Spain? Wagner had heard that the General Archives of the Indies, in Seville, was full of information. He obtained the name of the curator and wrote to him, first taking the trouble to have his letter translated into Spanish. But the reply, when at last it arrived, was disappointing; Dr. Don José de la Peña was guarded, telling the Americans nothing they did not already know.
The treasure seekers were not to be discouraged. A friend of theirs, a woman they knew well, was about to visit Spain, and they commissioned her to go and visit Dr. Peña in person, show him some pieces of eight, and find out what the trouble was. Much to her surprise, when she spoke to the archivist face to face and showed him the coins he burst into tears, explaining that he had simply not been allowed to answer questions about the fleet: his superiors thought they smelled a rat. Most likely they had hoped somehow to grab the treasure for themselves.... After all, back in 1715 it had been Spanish, and one feels that their claims, if any, had some justification. But there was no immediate possibility of their defying the United States and entering Florida waters, and Dr. Peña assured his visitor that though he was forbidden to answer her questions directly, after she left Spain he would mail her copies of the relevant papers. She returned empty-handed but hopeful, sure, she said, that the doctor would carry out his promise. And so he did, within a few days: a package containing three thousand feet of microfilm arrived from the Archives in Seville.
Even now their problems were not settled. The microfilm contained a large number of manuscripts, letters, and the like, but they were written in archaic Spanish, with a number of words spelled phonetically, as they had been in the eighteenth century. All the following year Dr. Kelso and Kip Wagner worked on their prize, until, as Wagner put it, pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. They learned a lot about those seventeenth- and eighteenth-century silver fleets. They learned their names, what cargo they carried, and the names of captains and crews. They were delighted to learn from this reading that less than half of the fleet’s treasure had been brought up.