- 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
One ship got away. This was the French El Grifón, whose captain kept her clear of the reefs by disobeying orders from on high and sailing a half-point farther northeast than the others. It was thanks to his ship’s crew and their knowledgeable observations that history knows just what happened to the Plate Fleet of 1715, for though there were about a thousand survivors, most of them were too stunned, hungry, and generally fatigued to know what had happened to them; they just lay on the sand and slowly recovered.
Looking around the beach as it is today, peaceful with its family picnics, I found it hard to envisage what it must have been like that long-ago morning after the storm cleared away. The survivors soon became aware of their needs; they had to have food and water if not immediate shelter. The nearest place where these things were to be found was St. Augustine, a good hundred miles to the north. Fortunately at least one longboat had outlasted the storm and was there, close in to the beach. Some of the strongest men were chosen to sail this boat to St. Augustine, carry the news of the wreck, and bring help, while the others waited on the deserted sands.
Typically, some of these men were not so badly off that they could forget the fascination of the treasure. Indeed, they were not permitted to forget it, because all around them on the beach lay scattered parts of it; coins and jewels of a value none of them had ever seen before. Gold and silver twinkled in the sun. Distracted from thoughts of hunger and cold and their generally hard fate, they grabbed baubles and coins and hid them in their tattered clothing and looked around for somewhere to conceal themselves with their loot. Others paid no attention. In the meantime the boatload of handier survivors finally reached St. Augustine, after a combination of sailing and trudging that lasted several days: there they told their story and said that a thousand men at Sebastian were dying for lack of food and drink. A rescue party was quickly organized by the Spanish colonists and sent to the aid of the survivors, but the rescuers, like the deserters, were not so distressed by the human side of the story that they forgot the most important part of it, the treasure cargo of the lost ships. At the same time they were gathering people to help save the sufferers, they notified the proper authorities and told them of the looting. A band of soldiers was immediately sent to Matanzas Inlet, which people coming from the south along Florida’s coast would have to cross, and there the soldiers waited for anyone trying to sneak off with gold, silver, and jewels. To reach St. Augustine was the deserters’ only hope: it was the one gateway to the mainland of Florida. Sure enough, after a fairly long wait the soldiers spied the first deserter, and then another, and then another. Loaded down with heavy precious metal they made their painful way to the stream, where it was easy for the guard to pick them up. Every single thief was caught and later executed, the booty being returned to its rightful owners. But much treasure, of course, still lay scattered on the sea floor among the battered ships that lay offshore.
Don Juan del Hoyo Solórzano was sent from Havana in March, 1716, to take charge of the salvage. He set up a camp, built a fort to hold the treasure, and used Indian divers—considered expendable—for the dangerous work. Guards had to be brought in to fight off pirates.
It was almost four years before all operations on the Plate Fleet of 1715 were wound up. Wagner and Kelso calculated that Spain had recovered about $6,000,000 worth of treasure, less than half of what went down. This was too bad for eighteenth-century Spain but very encouraging to the treasure seekers of the twentieth century, and Kip Wagner went about his search with a refreshed spirit. Now he had something more definite to look for on the beach: he wanted to find the remains, if any, of the campsite and fortress where Don Juan stacked up, however temporarily, the pieces of eight he got from the divers. Wagner bought a good metal detector and started working on the beach, back and forth in a methodical pattern.
At first he had only bad luck. The detector showed him where to dig, over and over, and over and over he uncovered beer cans, bedsprings, and all kinds of other metallic trash. Days passed and he was getting more and more discouraged, when one day he found a depression in a large mound in the sand, a big depression, covered with growth. Obviously it had been there a long time. At its bottom water glittered, and an old dog that had taken to following him on his walks went over and lapped it. Lapped salt water? It was not possible, thought Wagner. He tasted the water himself- yes, it was sweet. This must be a man-made well, he reasoned; it might even be the one dug for the campsite he was looking for. That day of all days, however, he hadn’t brought the detector. No matter; he rah home and got it, and tested the well, and got a strong reaction. He dug, and brought up first a ship’s spike and next a cannonball. The metal detector was screaming excitedly. This was too big for him to tackle by himself, thought Kip Wagner. He measured out the liveliest area (liveliest according to the detector) and found that it covered half an acre. He went home and wrote to the secretary of the South Florida Historical Society, who answered the letter by appearing in person, bringing with him a geologist. They agreed that Wagner’s half-acre must be the site of the old fort. It was gratifying, to say the least. Kip lost no time measuring out his claim and registering it. Interestingly enough, the historian and the geologist made no protest against Wagner’s vandalizing an archaeological site. But then, gold can make people forget such matters.