- 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
Wagner rented a bulldozer and cleared the area of all scrub; then, with a shovel and screen, he began the long job of sifting through the surface soil, two feet deep. It was slow work, but almost never fruitless. There were Peruvian and Mexican potsherds. There were the hopper and shaft of a small coffee mill, fragments of olive jars, musket balls, a bullet mold, and sheets of lead. It all fitted into life as it must have been lived in a Spanish encampment. As the days went by, and realizing that he could hardly do it all himself, Wagner hired a man to help with the digging. One day, a few inches beneath the surface he found a pair of cutlasses, the blades nearly rusted away. Soon after that find his detector led him to three blackened rough rectangles that turned out to be made of silver; he had dug up three pieces of eight. As if this were not enough, the detector next led him to a golden artifact, a ring set with a diamond, the metal so soft and pure that the diamond was halfway down in the prongs. This was a large stone of two and a half carats: set in the band were six tiny diamonds as well.
Now and then Wagner took a rest from the hard work of digging and sorting by going for a swim in the surf not far from his campsite, just lazily paddling around, as he put it. He usually took with him on these expeditions his little son, who played on the beach while Daddy played in the water. Kip had a homemade face mask for diving (scuba-diving equipment was not yet generally available) and, sometimes, an old rubber tube. These things did well enough for hit-and-miss snorkeling, but he finally made a better toy, a surfboard with a hole cut in it at one end in which he fitted a pane of glass.
He found it surprisingly effective. So much so, indeed, that one day as he was floating about, looking down, he made an important (and very large) find: four or five ship’s cannon each eight or nine feet long. They were in only eight or nine feet of water. Galvanized, he kept diving and poking around until he uncovered a huge anchor. “Without doubt this was a wreck site,” he wrote, “the first I’d found.” It made sense. The campsite had been constructed deliberately close to as many wrecks as possible. Thrilled, Wagner carefully marked the spot by clearing the shore with his bulldozer into a wide arrow pointing directly at the wreck in the water. Why had he taken so long to find it? Because, he realized, he hadn’t known just what to look for. In his imagination, a wrecked Spanish galleon was just like a sailing galleon, with hull intact and masts erect, except that it would be lying on its side on the ocean floor. Actually, all the wood of the ship, or nearly all of it, would have vanished, eaten away by the teredo, or shipworm, years earlier; not only the wooden hull and masts would have vanished, but so would treasure chests and barrels made of the same material. Teredo spares wood only in freshwater lakes or places like the Baltic Sea, where the water is too salty for them. What a treasure seeker should look for are cannon, anchors, and/or heaps of ballast stones.
Wagner was aware, however, that even a wreck site, complete with cannon and ballast, is not necessarily the remains of a treasure ship. There are many other dead ships on the ocean floor—warships and others. Just the same, he felt in his bones that this wreck, his first, was one of the 1715 treasure galleons, and he was excited. So was Doc Kelso, who, to celebrate, bought his friend a complete diving outfit with flippers, regulator, and air tank.
With his new diving equipment, Wagner found some silver coins at this site and then located a second wreck.
Much of the ship was guarded by great heaps of ballast stones. Preparing for that longed-for day when he could actually get to work moving them away, Wagner applied for and got a salvage (nonexclusive) search lease that covered a region extending from the center of the Sebastian Inlet to a point south of Fort Pierce. He also got exclusive pinpoint leases on the two wrecks he had already investigated, thus proving that though he pictures himself as a greenhorn, he was at least an intelligent greenhorn.
It was 1959–60. By this time, word of Wagner’s discoveries had spread, and several men turned up who shared his enthusiasm for treasure hunting. Of the first four, two were expert divers. Very soon they were discussing ways and means, because, as Wagner said, they were all salaried men, raising families, who had no money to throw around. One of them had a friend who worked at Canaveral and owned a twentyone-foot pleasure boat that seemed right for their purposes. One introduction led to another, until they had an eight-man team, each of whom had some useful skill. Four were expert divers, and soon the others were learning the art. One of the original divers was handy with explosives and electronics, another was trained in law. The boat owner had a good business head. Doc Kelso was their expert in Spanish history and underwater archaeology, and Wagner himself, as he modestly said, had experience in a variety of trades, a strong back and a tough pair of hands, as well as the enthusiasm to weld the group together.