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Determining the Facts

Reading 4: Rediscovering the Treasure Fleets of 1715 and 1733

The Urca de Lima

In 1928, the Urca de Lima became the first of the 1715 fleet to be discovered in modern times when William Beach located the wreck off of Fort Pierce, Florida. More than a dozen cannons and four anchors were raised from the wreck. In 1932 the State of Florida issued the first salvage permit, which allowed the permit holders to search for and recover materials from the Spanish wreck sites.

In the late 1940s, a building contractor named Kip Wagner began finding Spanish coins along the beach near Fort Pierce. Noting that none of the coins was dated later than 1715, he wrote to the director of the Archives of the Indies in Spain and learned that the coins must have been from the 1715 disaster, one of the worst losses of shipping in the history of Spain's maritime empire.

Kip Wagner was granted a search-salvage lease in 1959. The standard policy at the time was that the governor of Florida could grant leases for search or salvage (retrieve artifacts) operations. The cost for an annual lease was $100. The agreement required quarterly reports describing operations and listing everything that was found. In return, the state would receive 25 % of whatever was recovered. Wagner assembled a group and started investigating the known wreck site off of Fort Pierce. The most prevalent feature of the wreck was scattered rock called ballast. Ballast rocks, usually taken from river beds in Europe, were carefully stacked below the cargo holds to stabilize the galleons. The rocks in this ballast site ranged in size from less than one pound to about 50 pounds. In order to uncover any possible treasure, the group decided they would need to move the ballast rock.

In the process of moving ballast rock one by one and clearing sand away with makeshift equipment, the divers uncovered hundreds of pieces of Mexican and Chinese pottery, cannonballs, and other artifacts. They also discovered several wedge-shaped silver bars that fit together to form a pie shape. These probably represented treasure smuggled in the bottoms of barrels to avoid paying taxes. Based on their finds, the group named the site the Wedge Wreck. They did not know at the time that this wreck was actually the remains of the Urca de Lima. At the end of each diving season, the group met with archaeologists from the State who selected 25% of the find for Florida's collection. The State took primarily artifacts while the salvagers kept most of the coins. By the end of 1960, the group had excavated the Wedge Wreck and went on to discover and salvage other 1715 wreck sites.

The San Pedro

The shipwreck sites of the 1733 disaster also lay forgotten until the 20th century. In the 1930s, professional diver Art McKee began diving in the Florida Keys using a large metal helmet, diving suit, and a hose connected to an air source at the surface. In 1937, a local fisherman showed McKee a large ballast mound, which turned out to be the remains of the 1733 fleet's Capitana. He began researching the site and acquired a copy of a map from Spanish archives showing the locations of the 1733 fleet. McKee took artifacts from the site for years and recovered several cannons, more than 1,000 silver coins, statues, religious medals, jewelry, and other items. In 1949, McKee decided to build a shipwreck museum to display the artifacts from this site. McKee's activities led to the discovery of several other 1733 wreck sites.

The site of the San Pedro remained hidden until the 1960s when treasure hunters discovered its ballast mound and cannons under 18 feet of water in Hawk Channel off Indian Key. Some of the ship's rigging, hardware, and pieces of porcelain were found along with silver coins. The ballast mound was picked over and cannons and anchors were removed. Compared to the 1715 Spanish fleet, little treasure was discovered on the 1733 wrecks. This is not surprising since the Spanish salvage efforts had been so successful two centuries before. However, this did not stop modern treasure hunters from thoroughly searching the wrecks with little regard for documenting or preserving the sites.

As commercial salvage excavations continued on various Florida shipwreck sites throughout the 1960s, the State of Florida decided to send marine archaeologists along to officially record and document each wreck site. The marine archaeologists found that because the "treasure hunters" did not use proper archaeological techniques, much evidence that could have provided important information about the treasure fleets had been carelessly destroyed. Ultimately, the State became convinced that commercial treasure hunting and underwater archeology are not compatible and that an important and irreplaceable part of Florida history was being damaged or destroyed. After 1984 the State stopped issuing salvage permits and began enacting laws that prohibit the unauthorized disturbance, excavation, or removal of artifacts on shipwrecks.

No longer worked by commercial treasure hunters, the Urca de Lima's surviving hull structure and ballast mound were carefully studied and recorded. The site's popularity with snorkelers and divers led to its designation as Florida's first Underwater Archaeological Preserve in 1987. Similarly, the San Pedro wreck was mapped and recorded to create a site plan. In 1988, the San Pedro was chosen as the best candidate for a second State Preserve based on its picturesque location, abundant marine life, and the condition of the site relative to other 1733 wreck sites. The San Pedro became Florida's second Underwater Archaeological Preserve and was officially dedicated on April 1, 1989. Today the site is a popular recreational diving spot for tourists and locals.

Questions for Reading 4

1. What role did Kip Wagner play in salvaging the Urca de Lima and other 1715 shipwrecks? What techniques did he and his team use?

2. Why was so little treasure recovered during modern salvage operations of the 1733 shipwrecks? (Refer to Reading 3 if necessary.) What were some of the artifacts found at the wreck site?

3. Why did the State of Florida stop issuing salvage permits? Based on what you have learned, what is the difference between commercial treasure hunting and underwater archeology? Do you agree that they are not compatible? Explain your answer.

Reading 4 was compiled from Robert F. Burgess and Carl J. Clausen, Florida's Golden Galleons: The Search for the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet (Port Salerno, Florida: Florida Classics Library, 1982); Robert F. Marx, The Search for Sunken Treasure: Exploring the World's Great Shipwrecks (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1993); Robert F. Marx, Shipwrecks in the Americas (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1987); Della Scott-Ireton and Barbara Mattick, "San Pedro" (Monroe County, Florida) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001; Della Scott-Ireton and Barbara Mattick, "Urca de Lima" (St. Lucie County, Florida) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001; Timothy R. Walton, The Spanish Treasure Fleets (Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, Inc., 1994); and Robert M. Weller, Galleon Alley: The 1733 Spanish Treasure Fleet (Lake Worth, Florida: Crossed Anchors Salvage, 2001).

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