October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
The saga of Kip Wagner, the first modern American to grow rich from ancient Spanish treasure
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.
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.
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.
Part of what the treasure seekers learned was that at the time of the storm off Sebastian, flotillas like the wrecked one were an old story. For more than two hundred years, at the cost of nobody knows how much death and cruelty, these ships had sailed from the New World to the Old, laden down with treasure. None of this was a secret from the other nations of Europe, which for a long time had been trying, often with success, to do battle with the leaders of the fleets in order to take famous galleons as prizes. Sir Walter Raleigh’s whole life and success were built around his feats of piracy, as were those of other desperadoes of the time. In reaction, the armadas were built stronger each year. “The Bureau of Trade and the Council of the Indies laid down strict rules for fleet admirals to follow,” wrote Wagner, speaking, of course, of official Spanish bodies. “Treasure-bearing cargo ships were to cross the Atlantic in convoys of six to ten, each escorted by heavier galleons and lighter, utility vessels, which served as scouts for the fleets.”By the middle of the sixteenth century the arrangements had settled into a pattern: two armadas were to go every year to the Indies. They were called the Nueva España and the Tierra Firma flotillas. On the trip west they carried supplies for the colonies; clothing, provisions (including wines), glassware, ironware, and mining equipment; coming back they were loaded, as we know, with treasure. They were merchant vessels and their escorts, armed warships. For the voyage home they combined in Havana, then sailed through the Florida Straits and along the New Bahamas Channel, turning to the east between St. Augustine and Cape Hatteras. It was a dangerous voyage, but the best that could be worked out. Usually the commanders tried to set out in June, before the storms got a good start.
Each armada was led by the capitana, a large fighting galleon, heavily armed, which carried treasure but no other cargo. Behind the fleet came a second armed galleon called the almirante —in other words, the captain and the admiral. Both ships carried lots of cannon. Each capitana carried the general, that is, the commanding officer of the fleet, and on each almirante was, as seems fitting, an admiral. He assumed command of the armada in case of pirate attacks. If it seems strange that a general should have accompanied each fleet, well, that was Spanish custom. They had no naval captains: generals took their place.
Of course, out of all the wealth that the ships carried, the Spanish kings and courts claimed their royal fifth, which was as much a grievance to the merchants as the income tax is to us today. The 1715 armada, as it happens, was unusually heavily laden with treasure, since there had been no regular sailings for the previous thirteen years due to the War of the Spanish Succession. Unfortunately, both sections of the combined fleet were unusually slow in getting started, and even after they met there was more delay in Havana. A French ship, El Grifón, had received permission to sail with the flota—ships often did this in the interests of safety from pirates—and it, too, was responsible for more waiting. In fact, it was July 14, long after the safest season, before the armada at last got under way past El Morro. At least it was a beautiful day, with no hint of trouble in the offing, but that is the way with Caribbean weather—it can change very quickly.
The ships, with two thousand men aboard, were a handsome sight —“more eye-catching, however, than practical,” to quote Kip Wagner, because Spanish ships were much less manageable and more difficult to maneuver than their lighter, sleeker English opposite numbers. Still, it was a lovely sight as they sailed across the Florida Straits and then among the Florida Keys.
The first signs of bad weather came on Monday, July 29, when seasoned sailors looked with misgivings at a haze in the sky. Parallel to the fleet, but several hundred miles to the east, a hurricane was boiling up, and on Monday evening it changed direction and headed west, as if deliberately to intercept the flota. Tuesday morning the weather around the ships was ominous even to the greenest sailor—dead calm interspersed with sudden winds, and wisps of clouds that in the course of time became heavy. By Tuesday afternoon it was so dark that the ship’s lanterns were lit. The waves had grown large, and the sailors were battening down the hatches.
It was too late to seek shelter in any cove, as Wagner said, reliving the storm. The fleet was still near Cape Canaveral, and the leading generals knew that the coastline as far as Canaveral was full of natural shipwrecking hazards: shoals and reefs. They had to meet the storm head on.
They went, then, through the progressive stages of the hurricane—squalls repeating with mounting fury, and wind and rain battering the ships through the early half of the night, until 2:00 A.M., when the full hurricane was unleashed. Winds of one hundred miles per hour cracked masts and tore loose the secured sails, ripping them into ribbons. Seamen were swept from the decks to be lost in the swirling seas. Each captain tried desperately to maneuver his ship, but the galleons were driven, slowly and inexorably, toward the shore. When they struck at last, some men were thrown straight into the boiling sea; others tried for a while to paddle. There were shattered beams falling everywhere. One by one the ships were hurled to destruction. Not all the men were lost, though both generals were.
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.
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.
To train the group, and make sure that their enthusiasm was more than temporary, Wagner persuaded the men to practice during the summer weekends on a wrecked galleon about twenty miles away. Its location was well known; “it was a kind of proving ground for amateurs.” They bought and repaired a battered launch, which they named Sampan, worked on a sand dredge, and after laboriously shifting ballast rocks on the ocean floor, they began to find pottery shards, cannonballs, and at last, real pieces of treasure—pie-shaped silver wedges. They also found silver coins, one great clump of them that proved to be worth over $30,000. Wagner obtained salvage rights on the site, and the eight men formed themselves into a corporation, named the Real Eight—the old Spanish name for piece of eight—with Wagner as president.
Though Wagner in his unworldliness had originally protested the idea of incorporation, the arrangement turned out to be a good one, and very necessary. The president didn’t yet realize it, but the Real Eight was going to be big business.
During the many stormy days that followed, the divers could not control themselves. They had the habit now, and waiting was hard, so they went every day to the beach even when it was no use hoping for good weather. They couldn’t possibly dive into the murky waters and hope to see anything, but it was a good object lesson as to how so much treasure could have lain hidden all those centuries. The sea bottom, which had been three fathoms deep, was now only two fathoms, and the cannon they had seen before were completely hidden. Obviously the orporation had to invent a new, more efficient dredge against the time when they could get down there again. Besides, now they had begun work on another site.
For the dredge, they tried one thing after another. By spring in 1961 they had a sand pump that worked but went so slowly it wasn’t practical. They manufactured another contraption only to learn one morning in May that most of the sand had got itself swept off the site without their help. Hardly had they got started diving, however, when a new storm put most of the load back on. There was nothing for it but to return to the drawing board, this time to produce a good reliable dredge. This one really worked, so well that they named it “the hungry beast.” Everything—at least everything less than six inches in diameter—was sucked into its maw to be spewed out into a metal basket after passing through a nine-foot-long shaft. In the middle of June they brought up their first coins of the season, thanks to this dredge. They found through experience that the best way to harvest coins was to catch them before they went into the rubber tubing that formed part of the dredge. It wasn’t hard, reported Wagner—the coins floated around in a leisurely way, and you had only to cup your hands to catch them. During the summer the divers brought up hundreds of coins, all silver. “Sometimes we worked all day and only recovered 10 or 15 coins; some days we found none; and on other occasions we found hundreds of them,” wrote Wagner. “Our workhorse dredge also spit out silver buckles, iron ships’ spikes, potsherds and other assorted items. We found, too, about 20 cannon over a 50- to 60-foot area along the reefs.”
When the weather was too bad for work, they returned to the Fort Pierce site—their practice area, where the water was clearer—to look again for silver pie wedges. They had no luck there, but in September, when they were just about ready to call it a season, they made one more find, a small cluster of coins. They now had found several thousand pieces of eight and were willing to pause and take stock. It was time, they agreed, to cash in on some of their findings and use the money for some much-needed improvement in their work conditions. There should be a cabin on the Sampan for one thing, where divers could rest and get warm. They needed new diving suits too. Very carefully, so as not to flood the market, the treasure finders sold a few silver pieces of eight and were delightfully surprised to find how much they were worth—from ten or fifteen to over a hundred dollars apiece. Dated coins in mint condition brought as much as a hundred and fifty, undated ones sold for thirty-five to fifty, and even the worst of them went for ten to fifteen. When they had enough money for their needs, they stopped selling.
Over the winter of 1961, when it was impossible to dive, they simply went swimming offshore, close in when the waves were too rough for boating. One of the men found three or four tops to silver jars that way. The real find was made by a member who had developed a method of searching a nearby coral reef in shallow water by fanning sand and gravel out of its crevices. One day he went swimming with a toy wooden paddle. He hadn’t even brought his scuba gear with him, so he had to duck in and come out very often to breathe. But he kept at it, fanning away, until he saw something bright and round beginning to appear under the sand. At first he thought it was the top of a beer can, but as he worked he realized that it was thicker than that, like a pot lid. At last he nudged it out. It was a battered piece of sculpture, the figure of a moth in silver, evidently the ornamental stopper for a brandy carafe or something of that sort. One thing was certain—it was a Spanish stopper.
Inevitably, the National Geographic found the treasure finders and signed them up for an exclusive story. In their innocence Kip Wagner and his partners did not realize that the contract held them to silence until the Geographic felt like publishing the story in its own sweet time—as things turned out, it was four years later.
That season, in 1962, the members did a little scouting for new wrecks to conquer. They tried an underwater sled, but it came to grief by piling up on a heap of rocks. Two of them got themselves towed by the boat so that they could look around at their leisure: the experiment came to a sudden end when they saw a shark looking at them as if tempted by the moving bait. This incident led to the invention of a shark gun, which worked very well except that one shark took off for deeper waters, the gun spear stuck in his head, and Wagner, who had shot it, had to sacrifice his weapon.
Nevertheless, plain diving was still very productive. They found two muskets that way, as well as a bronze apothecary jar and a gold-plated jewelry box. One of the divers, after sticking his hand inquisitively down the muzzle of a cannon, felt along its underside and found an excrescence of some sort. It was a silver cup and plate firmly cemented to the cannon by coral growth, and it took two of the men three hours of chipping at their prize before they could bring it away. Everyone agreed it was one of the most beautiful of their winnings from the depths of the sea.
The days went by, but there were many stormy ones: indeed, 1962 was an unusually bad year for ocean treasure seekers. One should not complain, sighed Kip Wagner, for after all, if that part of the coast had not been unusually stormy and full of razor-sharp coral reefs, there would have been no wrecks and no treasure ships, but it MXIS a stormy year. He had about decided that there would be no more treasure found until spring. One November day he and his nephew, a nineteen-year-old named Rex Stocker, drove to the beach out of pure habit and started to walk along the sand. Out of habit, too, Wagner carried his metal detector. There had been a good northeaster, and one never knew what would turn up. Sure enough the detector soon gave its signal, and Kip dug up a piece of eight. Fine! The detector led him along, nearer and nearer the water, and he picked up coins at a surprisingly steady pace. In the meantime Rex got bored. He had no metal detector, so he idly climbed the bluff at their backs, near the edge of the high-water mark. Why? Absent-mindedly his uncle wondered, and told himself that there were sure as hell no coins up there. Suddenly Rex jumped up and down and began to shout, “Kip! Kip!”
Rex ran as fast as he could down the bluff and over to Wagner, who now saw that something yellow was wrapped around the boy’s arm. What was it?
“Look what I found up there in the sand!” yelled Rex into his uncle’s ear and handed him a long golden chain. It was genuine gold, there could be no doubt about that, and it was very, very long. Between gasps Rex explained. It had been lying up there on the bluff in plain sight if you were looking, but he wasn’t. The glitter of the sun had flashed into his eyes or he might have stepped straight over it and gone on. What was it doing way up there on the bluff? Kip rubbed his eyes. The chain was knotted and redoubled. At home when they could apply the family tapemeasure they found that it measured eleven feet four and a half inches. The links, beautifully wrought, were shaped like flowers; there were 2,176 of them. In all it weighed nearly half a pound. There was a pendant on the thing, a golden dragon (or possibly, thought Wagner, a grasshopper) about two and a half inches long. The back opened, rather like a Boy Scout knife, into a small toothpick, and its tail was shaped like a small spoon, perhaps an ear reamer. What they did not realize at first, because it was clogged with sand, was that the whole creature constituted a whistle. Later expert opinion has just about decided that it belonged to an admiral of the fleet, which Wagner did not guess.
No rejoicing, it seems, can be completely untouched by regret, and Stocker’s moment of glory was tarnished by a horrid suspicion that he might have passed up another chain. He distinctly remembered that just before he climbed the bluff he felt something twined around one ankle; thinking it was a stalk of waterweed he kicked it off and stepped out of the water. Could it have been another gold chain? Oh well, it might just as well have been a genuine piece of weed. At any rate, a careful sifting of the sands yielded no more gold.
There remained the delicate question of whose chain it was in actual fact. If finders are keepers, it was Rex’s. But the Real Eight wanted above anything to keep it for their collection, so it was agreed that Rex give it up and take instead forty shares in the corporation. Each member contributed five of his shares to make up the forty.
The Real Eight collection was growing beyond the confines of the corporation vaults. It was the intention of the charter members, when they had amassed a good enough lot of treasure, to set up a museum somewhere not far from the wrecks so that the public could see it all. In the meantime, however, though (as Wagner says) it sounded ridiculous, they were hard up for working capital. To be sure, the intrinsic worth of that gold chain, for one thing, was estimated at anything from thirty to fifty thousand dollars, but it is impossible to make accurate appraisals of such works of art. Anyway, they didn’t want to sell it, or any of their other pretty baubles. The situation was alleviated when another partner bought in, and later, in 1964, the Real Eight acquired two more new partners.
In nature things have a way of hitting an average if only one waits long enough. May of 1963 turned out to be reasonably good for treasure hunting, nothing special but enough to keep the partners from grumbling too much. They were busy as usual on new equipment inventions. But then, early in June, they struck (or were struck by) a period of unprecedented calm and clarity, when it actually seemed possible to see the limits and boundaries of their prospecting area.
“Visibility ranged from fifty to one hundred feet,” wrote Wagner joyfully.
The actual leased site was one hundred by forty feet, but they had been concentrating on a much smaller plot about twenty feet square, which was so rich in finds that they deliberately went very slowly, moving sand off and examining every inch of it. That day, however, it was all so bright and clear that they resolved to look beyond their particular patch, and it was as well that they did, for they found blocks of coins welded together in such regular shapes that they must have been packed in chests at the time of the wreck. A lot of them slipped out of the clumps as they were being carried up to the top of the water, and when the divers went down again to “vacuum” the sea bed, they discovered a handsome silver crucifix as well. Fortunately, the weather stayed calm for several days, allowing the adventures to uncover a new kind of treasure, a cache of K’ang-hsi china cups and bowls, still as carefully packed as when they were stowed on board. There were twenty-eight in all of these perfect specimens, and, of course, many more in the form of fragments. These too were accompanied by pieces of Mexican pottery. Later, when the Real Eight wrote to an authority on pottery, Mrs. Kammar Aga Oglu at the University of Michigan, and described their find, she told them that the china they had found was exported in vast numbers at the time of the Plate Fleet to be sold cheap, like five-and-dime china today. Its value now, of course, is vastly increased. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has declared it priceless. On another day they found a second gold chain hidden in a cannon’s mouth, where it could not possibly have started the voyage. Attached to it was what had once been a miniature painting, the colors and design under the glass cover long since washed away.
Although the success story was exciting, there were two drawbacks. For one thing—though they may not have felt this way: it is probably more my reaction than Kip Wagner’s—what they had found so far, save for the chains, was silver, not gold. For another, at the rate they were going they would never finish their explorations. It was all very well to be thorough, but if they had to leave a large part of their claim unexamined, it was frustrating. Again, the Real Eight never quite voiced their misgivings on this point, but a third party came along at the right time and put it into words. The two points hang together, so let us begin with the entry of Mel Fisher into the story. Fisher was a professional treasure hunter and diver who went anywhere that promised rewards for his peculiar talents. Possibly, however, he made more money out of a shop he opened in California, where divers could buy the latest thing in gear rather than treasure. On a trip to a diving spot near Puerto Rico, he stopped by to meet the Real Eight. Kip Wagner made him welcome and showed him some maps. Fisher thought things over and came up with a proposition: why shouldn’t he hire a team of professional divers to help the Florida men? They would dive on the Real Eight’s leased sites every day instead of only weekends, which were the Real Eight’s only diving days, and in return for permission to do this, they would split the value of anything they found halfway down the middle, after the state had taken its 25 per cent. If the board agreed, he would get busy and sign up the divers. They agreed.
The diving season of 1963 was well under way when they got the news that Mel Fisher was coming, complete with his gang of divers. The advance messenger, Rupert Gates, went out with some members of the Real Eight on a trial run aboard the Sampan: it was a nice sunny day for diving. Almost immediately they found a few pieces of eight and, later, some silver forks. The men had stopped to rest when two of them decided to try out one more spot. And then at last it happened: one of them found “a beautiful eight-escudo piece as perfect and fresh as the day it had been minted.” Needless to say, it was a gold coin. In fact, it was the first gold coin that anyone in the Real Eight had as yet brought up from the ocean floor. The two men who found it said they were working in eight feet of water when all of a sudden the sand slid away, parting like the Red Sea, and it was if someone had turned a flashlight in their eyes. The floor was covered with gold coins. Now they all got busy, forming a circle around the area and working in. (Gates was with them: it was an extraordinary introduction for him to the Florida diving field.) In all, they found twentythree coins before the weather got too rough for diving—doubloons, four- and eight-escudo pieces, all together. One of the men also got a heavy gold ring, which he saw slipping down a sandy slope: he simply stuck his finger under it and let it slide on. Certainly it all lent a fillip to the proceedings. There is nothing like gold to whet the appetite.
Mel Fisher’s team found only just enough to keep them hanging on in 1963, but 1964 brought its reward. One of Fisher’s team had a gadget that had taken him two years to invent and perfect; it was called a “magnetometer” and was more than useful for finding metal in water. Another tool, designed by Fisher himself, was called a “blaster,” for the reason that when turned onto a piece of ground it sent everything flying in a cloud of sand, creating a kind of waterfall down which the detritus slipped. In April, with the blaster as well as the magnetometer, Real Eight’s divers along with Fisher’s team worked a new site and turned up about a hundred pieces of eight. Then on May 8 one of Fisher’s men, working alone, found two golden disks weighing seven pounds apiece. On May 21 they got more than two hundred gold coins, mostly four- and eight-escudo pieces.
On May 24 what Kip Wagner called the big haul was made. Mel’s blaster had cut a hole about fifteen feet by five or six feet. Moe, one of the team, with two other divers went down to see it and were blinded—really blinded—by a bright yellow glow. There, said Wagner, “was a veritable carpet of gold.” Moe grabbed two fistfuls and surfaced.
It was easier said than done. Even under water gold is very heavy, and the golden coins were slippery: they were apt to fall out of a diver’s grip. When this happened it was not easy to find them again, because they were immediatelycovered with a thin layer of sand. The blaster was left going to keep the treasure exposed, but it also fought against the divers, who had to go on kicking and thrashing about just to stay where they were, picking gold like buttercups in a meadow. The old bucket-squad technique was too dangerous on that busy plot of sand. A diver simply picked up a handful of coins, stuffed them into the cuff of a glove he wore on his other hand, grabbed as many more as he could carry, and went upstairs to unload. They got sixty to eighty pieces at a time like that. Afraid the weather might change, nobody paused for coffee or food; they hardly stopped to rest, though it was grueling work. By the end of the day the men’s wrists, where they had stuffed the gold pieces, were raw and bloody, but they had collected 1,033 gold coins. It was a record-breaking day. Next day they found 900 gold doubloons. In a week they recovered about 2,500. Then, as all things must, it came to an end. Evidently the gold had all been found, though a few scattered coins did turn up from time to time. Elsewhere they found a small gold pendant portraying a saint’s head, and gold and silver disks, with mint and assayer’s marks on them.
Hurricanes closed the diving season late in August, but the men were not inclined to grumble. Counting up their winnings for 1964 was a pleasant occupation: more than thirty-seven hundred gold coins, over two hundred pounds of pieces of eight, six silver and six gold disks, the silver bar, sixteen gold rings, eight pieces of golden chain, several pieces of silver cutlery (knives, forks, and spoons), two silver candlestick tops, and two silver plates. There were also a number of interesting artifacts—cannon, cannonballs, sounding leads, pewter plates, musket balls, and various jars, even a sword handle and part of its blade.
One problem that faced them was the discoloration of the silver pieces of eight. Nobody looking at these black or brownish fragments corroded with silver sulfide would think much of them: they had to be cleaned up. The treasure hunters and their wives tried scrubbing them with everything they could think of—steel wool, acid, sand, soda; nothing was satisfactory. It was true that a person could turn out a shining silver coin, but at the cost of the skin on his hands. Finally they rigged up a box that was rotated by electric power, put in some silver coins along with a handful of steel shot and some detergent, and turned it on. Round and round went the box, rattling loudly. At last! After a certain amount of this buffeting, the silver came out bright.
After making their inventory, the divers talked things over. In spite of all that treasure in the vaults, they were hard up. Though they knew it would be unwise to unload too much gold and silver on the market, they decided to try just a bit of it, as a balloon, and some of their prize pieces, accordingly, were sent to a coin auction being held in October in New Jersey. One gold coin, a “beautiful eight-escudo piece,” the best of the collection, was put up for sale first. They had estimated it as $4,000: it went for $3,500. Not a bad guess, Wagner said to himself, and he took heart. Another coin outdid it, going to a Spanish dealer for $3,600—and the buyer was later quoted as calling it a steal.
In all they sold a hundred coins, from which they realized $29,000. When all outstanding debts had been settled and each man’s expenses paid, the rest of the money was divided according to agreement. Some had a few thousand to show for it, one or two only a thousand dollars. It seemed ironic, as Wagner commented, that though they had recovered treasure probably worth millions, they were only able to pocket a few thousand dollars. But presumably it was a temporary state of affairs, one of the small trials of dealing in a managed market where one’s commodity had a scarcity value.
In the end the treasure finders did not lose out, but they were to go through a lot of trials first. Outstanding among these were the activities of a new and voracious collector for Florida’s Internal Improvement Fund, a man aptly named Kidd. Real Eight had carefully complied with the laws regarding leases and claims, not so much out of innate virtue as from caution, but Kidd could not believe that they were within the law, what with all that gold being brought up from Florida waters. He was hungrily determined to find corruption somewhere, somehow to profit from it. Jumping the gun, after the manner of politicians, he jubilantly announced to the public that through the efforts of his department the state had probably been saved two or three hundred thousand dollars that otherwise would have gone into the coffers of Real Eight and the Treasure Salvors, as Mel Fisher’s outfit was called, and that this was just the beginning.
At this point the business-wise boat owner, Harry Cannon, stepped in and threatened to sue the state for a genuine fortune; the sum of $25,000,000 being bandied about just to start with; then the officials came down to earth and stopped issuing statements like Kidd’s. The smoke cleared away and a new contract was signed to clear up the matter. From then on, new treasure hunters could come into the tract formerly leased by Wagner, but the divers of Real Eight had a renewable six-year contract for their particular eight wreck sites, and this, with options, was to run to 1975. No change was made in the arrangement by which the state of Florida received 25 per cent of the value of anything salvaged. In earlier days the kings of Spain claimed only a fifth of the gold mined within her American empire, but as we haveseen they seldom actually got it. Florida had a better deal all round.
At this point, 1964, the National Geographic broke the story of the Real Eight, and fortune hunters crowded into the area. Wagner’s group was kept busy shooing intruders off their claimed sites. The state of Florida set up an Antiquities Commission, tightening the rules on future treasure hunting.
In 1964 the Sampan , never an ideal divers’ craft, was declared unseaworthy, and the men found a replacement in an even more awkward, uglier—but serviceable—scowlike vessel they named the Derelict . They worked on it whenever diving was impracticable, and in the process they invented an improvement for Mel Fisher’s blaster, a powerful machine that could not only blast away sand and mud with terrific strength but also throttle down to a comparatively gentle current that uncovered prizes without hurting them or blowing them away. It was far more effective than they could have hoped: Wagner said it cut years off their salvage operations, but they were not to know that, of course, until they tried it out. All they knew when at last it was ready in April, 1965, was that they had worked harder than could seem possible ever since July, 1964, and that they had sunk $15,000 in it.
April marked the beginning of the new diving season. They went out full strength, augmented by three youngsters, Rex (he who had found the eleven-foot gold chain), and two companions. There was plenty of work for all, they agreed; both the cabin site, as they called their second working place, and the one at Fort Pierce kept yielding steady supplies of gold and silver in the shape of coins. Finally Bob Johnson, one of the divers, quit his weekday job to be master of the Derelict; to finance this venture, Real Eight sold more of their coins and borrowed from the bank, putting up doubloons as collateral. The Derelict was put to work on April 22. The first finds made off her deck were merely two silver coins and part of a silver candelstick, but everyone took this rather skimpy prize as a good omen, and Bob Johnson nailed one of the coins to the cabin wall as a hopeful sign of better things to come.
Day after day, for nearly a month, the Derelict sailed out with her three young divers and her master, to anchor near known wrecks wherever the weather seemed propitious. It meant a good deal of wandering around: a mild spot might give way to a stormy one in the space of a few minutes. On May 19 they were near the Fort Pierce wreck, after a day in which nothing had been found. It was almost time, thought Johnson, to call a halt, especially when their least experienced diver, Bob Conkey, complained that it was inky black underwater and he couldn’t see anything. The other two agreed. But even as they talked, Johnson as ship’s master thought he saw a break here and there in the blackness, and he got ready to dive once more, just to be sure.
“Keep on trying,” he told the youngsters. “Find clear spots and work them there if you can.” Obediently they dived again. It was Conkey who came up waving a gold doubloon triumphantly in his fist, and everybody went at his work again with new enthusiasm. That day they found nineteen gold coins, and during the next few days they salvaged more, with pewter plates, cannon, and two anchors.
One could never be sure, emphasized Wagner, that he had encompassed the whole area of a wreck. The violence of that fatal storm and the rough wave action that followed sometimes spread a ship’s remains far and wide. The site where the young divers found all those doubloons was a long way from Mel Fisher and his Salvors, but they were all working profitably on the same ship nevertheless. It was, too, a matter of luck, said Kip. Some people have it and some don’t. One of his divers, Del Long, had luck. Whenever he had a hunch, the others, if they knew what was good for them, followed it. He had just such a hunch one Sunday when all of them were together.
“I’ve got a feeling,” he said, “that we’re going to hit it big again soon- right over there,” and he indicated a place about nine hundred feet south of the spot where they were diving. Johnson and two of the others followed his directions and dived—and found a hundred and thirty golden coins four fathoms down. This was enough for them to agree that they should all dive next day even though it was Monday, not a usual day for activity en masse.
“We sailed at 8:48 A.M., and anchored a little over an hour later, about 1,000 feet offshore,” wrote Wagner. “Within 20 minutes Conkey came up with a gold doubloon. He had opened the floodgates to the most fantastic single day we have ever recorded. ” Wagner lately had suffered from a bad back and was taking it easy, but that day he could not resist joining the others. Visibility was good, forty or fifty feet in all directions. Conditions were perfect. The sands were dazzlingly white.
“And then I saw it—a sight every man should see just once in his life. The blaster had cut a hole about 30 feet in diameter, and there, in this vast jacket of the ocean floor, lay a carpet of gold; believe me, a carpet of gold! It was the most glorious picture one can imagine. … Off to one side, against a rock-coral formation, the coins, so help me, were even lying in neat stacks of three and four. The water magnification made it seem as though the entire bottom was lined with gold.”
The divers were all motionless for a space, overawed. When at last they moved, it was not to grab at the gold immediately: they went up to the Derelict and called down their friends, making sure everyone could see it before it was spoiled. There were so many coins that they scooped them up by handfuls, and loaded buckets to the brim with them. They were in mint condition, and most of them were the big eight-escudo size. All day long the divers poured a steady torrent of gold onto the deck of the Derelict .
“We were one tired bunch of divers when we finally knocked off at 5:20 that afternoon,” wrote Wagner, “but we had the comforting knowledge that we had recovered more treasure in one day than anyone in history—in recorded history at least. ” The total count, when they had made it and were finger-sore, with dazzled eyes, was 1,128 coins including 518 eight-escudo pieces, which in those days were valued at from one to three thousand dollars apiece.
It goes without saying that they found it impossible to go out the next few days: June 3 was the earliest they could dare the elements, and then they found only a few more gold coins—six, and five on June 4. So it went until they concluded that they had cleaned out the wreck of that particular hoard, which, they agreed, had almost certainly all been contained in one chest. Theorizing further, they decided that the place they had made the incredible find probably represented a portion of the ship that had broken away and been flung into the crevice between the first and second coral reefs. Cannon had been found nearby, but there was no ballast. No, the rest of the wreck was the site where they had found their first gold coins, the K’ang-hsi china, and the pieces of eight, among the ballast rocks. The divers worked out a chart of where the main part of the wreck might well be and then set to work to locate it with the magnetometer. A few days later, working by the chart, they anchored the Derelict over the deeper spot where, with luck, it would be found. Triumph! Within nine minutes the divers on their first trip brought up more silver wedges like those found in 1960: there were three of these. Nine more were found that day, as well as three clumps of silver coins, several hundred other pieces of eight, and ten silver disks of varying thickness, weighing from 44 to 105 pounds apiece.
In addition they salvaged a mystery object, a round-bottomed bottle, still sealed and still containing some sort of liquid. But it was the amount of silver they now found that made the location remarkable. They had recovered less in all of 1960 and 1961 than they now carried out of the sea bed in one day. The tally on the following day was several thousand loose silver coins. On June 14 there were so many that they simply weighed instead of counting them—665 pounds of coinage. There were also twelve more silver wedges, eight more of the heavy metal disks, two silver “biscuit-shaped chunks,” and a clump of coins.
From then on, as Wagner said, it got damn near ridiculous. In about a week they had brought up nearly a ton of pieces of eight alone. There were so many that Bob Johnson told the boys to skip picking up loose coins and concentrate on finding bars, disks, wedges, and other large items. It was a long time since Kip Wagner had excitedly found his first black piece of eight on the beach.
It was time, the Real Eight decided, to apply scientific principles to their new site, at least as scientific as possible. They used a grid system and mapped out the territory, marking each square once it had been carefully investigated. More and more finds were made. They called in Mel Fisher and his Treasure Salvors to help bring up the silver, and all of them moved, slowly, patiently, and perhaps inexorably, across the chart. They even began to feel bored as the torrent of silver kept clanking down on deck. (The ship, they felt sure, was the capitana of the Silver Fleet, captained by Ubilla).
One day Rex Stocker came up unusually quickly. “Mr. Johnson, there’s a chest of silver down there,” he reported.
Practical joking was the crew’s favorite pastime, and Johnson refused to be drawn. “If you say so,” he replied. “Go on down and bring it up.”
Nobody had ever seen a wooden chest in the wreck sites. Wood from the Fleet was unknown, the teredo worms having long since eaten every scrap. But Rex insisted that he was telling the truth: there really was a chest down there, full of silver. He was persuasive enough, at last, to get Del Long to come down with him for a look, and Long came up almost immediately, saying that it was true: there really was a chest down there, just as Rex had said. After that, of course, everybody went to have a look—”a blackish-colored wooden container,” Wagner described it, “about three feet long, a foot or so wide, and about a foot deep.” One end of the lid was missing; otherwise the chest seemed intact, which was amazing. And it was, indeed, full of silver. The divers went into a huddle and agreed that every effort must be made to bring the chest up undamaged. It probably weighed in the neighborhood of two hundred pounds and would, of course, need careful handling. First the chest had to be worked loose, ever so gently, of the sand that had covered it and preserved it from the teredos. This took four hours. When that was completed, a piece of plywood was slid carefully underneath and the whole arrangement was lifted with lines, a man watching every corner in order to protect it. As soon as the chest was landed safely on deck, it was immersed in a tub of water. Otherwise, explained Wagner, the sun would dry it out of shape and even rot it. It was lined with lead. The pieces of eight were clotted in clumps, fused together like so many others, but the number was estimated at about one thousand.
The 1965 diving season soon came to an end with a hurricane, but the divers were satisfied with their year, and with good reason.
The Real Eight eventually built the Museum of the Sunken Treasure to house their incredible trove, and Emily Hahn went to visit there in 1979. It had by then suffered two robberies, and the collection included imitations or photographs of many of the original treasures. Still, the underwater scenes, with gold coins shining in the sand, and the original chest full of silver coins (still protected in freshwater) are awesome. “Phony or not,” Hahn says, “there was something about all that glitter. …”
Kip Wagner, the first modem man to grow rich on the lost treasure of Spain, died in 1972—a millionaire.