From Brevard County, Florida: A Short History to 1955   by John M. Eriksen

  Florida Shipwrecks and Buried Treasure 

 Florida’s Gold and Silver

 Without the aid of the chronometer (not perfected until 1759) early Spanish navigators hugged the Florida shore to avoid the uncharted shoals and coral reefs along the Great Bahama Bank and Little Bahama Bank.  Consequently, any hurricanes or storms they encountered increased the chance of beaching on Florida's coast or any of the dozens of shoals that dot its Atlantic seaboard, particularly from the Gilbert Shoal near Stuart to the Southeast Shoal off Cape Canaveral.  According to Robert Marx, the author of Shipwrecks in Florida Waters: A Billion Dollar Graveyard, the first documented loss occurred in 1530 "near Cape Canaveral."   Other wrecks noted in the Spanish archives include: "1551wrecked near Ais ; 1554ship of Farfan sank near Ais; 1556the Indians of the King of Ais have taken more than a million pesos in gold  and silver and much jewelry near Cape Canaveral."  

 The Summer of 1715

     The year 1700 marked a period of rapid decline for the Ais .  At the same time, Spain's use of the Bahama Channel along the Ais coast was abandoned.  The Spanish Empire was suddenly disrupted after King Charles II died in 1700 without an heir to the throne.  While a struggle for power erupted in Europe, the traditional flow of treasure shipments ceased.  The War of Spanish Succession (1702‑1714) rearranged Europe, and when the newly defined Spain emerged in 1714, she eagerly awaited the resumption of the treasure imports.  A vast assortment of treasure had accumulated during the twelve years of war.  Awaiting transport were over 14,000,000 pesos worth of riches from the Americas and the Orient.  A peso at this time was worth roughly one troy ounce of silver.

On July 24, 1715, a Spanish flotilla of eleven ships left Havana Harbor for the two-month journey to Spain.  It was one of the largest shipments ever transported from the Spanish colonies.  A few days later, a powerful hurricane  wrecked all but one of the ships in one of the worst sea disasters in history.  The Florida coast between St. Lucie and Matanzas was littered with wreckage. Over 700 lives were lost in the pounding surf.  However, about 1500 survivors were swept ashore and made camps on the dune to await rescue.  The Ais  were known to be unpredictable so hasty preparations were made to send lifeboats to St. Augustine and Havana.  To the surprise of the Spanish, the Ais offered fresh seafood and taught them how to gather sea grapes, palmetto berries, and cabbage palm hearts.  

Much of the treasure settled just off a future Brevard coast between Sebastian  and the Indian River Inlet (today's Ft. Pierce ).  Spanish salvors established camps and worked diligently to recover roughly one‑third of the submerged riches.  Besides small amounts taken by pirates, the balance of 14,000,000 pesos lay scattered just off shore for the next 245 years.

Incredibly, this huge fortune was overlooked and eventually forgotten for centuries.  The British historian, Bernard Romans, gave a good account of the wreck and place in 1775, but it remained buried in the pages of his lengthy Florida history.14  The event became more myth than fact.  Some research and archaeological digs were done in the 1940s in areas where Spanish artifacts were found.  But solving the mystery remained for someone with the intense curiosity and willingness to translate miscellaneous Spanish archives, read out‑of‑print histories, and most importantly, go out and look at the ever‑changing ocean floor.


Kip Wagner

Kip Wagner  had the initiative to do all this and more.  In 1949, the former building contractor closed his office and became a dedicated treasure hunter.  For the next ten years he prowled the beach between Sebastian  and Ft. Pierce .  Finally in January 1961, some of the fabled treasure momentarily emerged from the shifting submarine sands.  Over the next several years, Wagner and others recovered much of what the salvors of 1715 could not reach.  Although many artifacts have been recovered over the years, lost treasure, such as gold , silver and jewelry is still being found.  The best exhibit of authentic 1715 artifacts is the Mel Fisher  Treasure Museum in the town of Sebastian. The McLarty Museum, a National Historical Landmark south of the Sebastian State Park, was built in the area of an original salvor's encampment and also contains many displays and artifacts of the period.15

The sinking of the 1715 fleet  was the last major event of Spain's first tenure and control of this area.  The peninsula continued to be known as La Florida, however, the Spanish "continent" of Florida began to erode in the years following the Mayflower landing in 1620.  The thirteenth British colony, Georgia, was settled in 1733.  Continued British expansion produced a Florida boundary similar to present.  Local place-names on Spanish maps at the time included Rio de Ais  (Indian River), Santa Lucia, Cape Canaveral, Los Musquitos (today's Ponce Inlet), San Sebastian  River, and Palmer de Ais.  Only one of these names could accurately describe the entire area.  The whole of east central Florida was known as Los Musquitos, with various spellings, from the 1500s until 1844

Question: Are metal detectors allowed on the beach at Sebastian State Park?
Answer: Yes, metal detectors are allowed but only as described below:
1. In that area between the waterline and toe of the dune on the ocean beaches.

If you have any additional questions, please contact the park at 321-984-4852.


Burgess, Robert F.  Gold, Galleons, and Archaeology.  Indianapolis: The Bobbs‑Merrill Co., 1976.

Burgess, Robert F., Sunken Treasure: Six Who Found Fortunes, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1988.

Eriksen, John M. Brevard County, Florida: A Short History to 1955. Melbourne, Florida:, 2008.

Marx, Robert F.  Shipwrecks in Florida Waters: A Billion Dollar Graveyard.  Chuluota: Mickler House, 1985.

Romans, Bernard.  A Consise Natural History of East and West Florida. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1962. [Reprint of 1775 edition]

Rouse, Irving.  A Survey of Indian River Archeology.  New York: AMS Press, 1981.

Wagner, Kip.  Pieces of Eight by, as told to L.B. Taylor, Jr., 1966.  

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