Florida has a long history of attracting explorers in search of treasures of various types. Of the many tales regarding various Florida treasures, perhaps the most long-lived legend is attached to reports of the expeditionary travels of Spanish explorer and conquistador Ponce de Leon. Ponce de Leon is thought to have landed in the area of present-day St. Augustine in 1513, and was the first European to explore the territory that is now Florida. Although his own writings never mentioned it, later authors claimed de Leon was in search of a mythical land known to the native Caribbean islanders as Bimini. This was supposed to be a land of wealth and prosperity, an idea that later became entwined with legends of restorative springs or fountains of youth, stories that have been told across the world for thousands of years. In the era of Ponce de Leon, Bimini was said to lie offshore of Florida to the northwest towards the Bahamas. However, it is also possible that the natives were referring to the Maya civilization in the Yucatan.
Although the Fountain of Youth may be entirely mythical, there are many very real Florida treasures that have been lost and found in the waters off the mainland and the Keys. It is true that Florida did not yield the gold, silver, and jewels that the Spanish explorers were seeking – those were extracted from South and Central America. However, the Caribbean waters between Cuba and Florida, the Straits of Florida along the Keys, and the shores of the Southern Florida coastline all became reliably associated with the presence of vast amounts of concentrated wealth that could be found or stolen. This was due to the strategic importance of these sea lanes as staging areas and transit zones for the heavily-laden Spanish treasure fleets coming up from the Southern Spanish Main. Hurricanes, hazardous reefs, and piracy were the main forces responsible for scattering large portions of Spanish booty across the Florida land- and seascapes, and more than a few of those Florida treasures still remain to be found.
Even within recent years, Florida treasure hunters have been making significant finds. For example, the stretch of coastline around Sebastian on the Atlantic coast of the Florida mainland has earned the name “Treasure Coast” for the gold and silver booty that has been recovered from the waters there. One of the greatest maritime disasters of all time, the wreck of the great Spanish treasure fleet of 1715 to a strong hurricane, left more than 700 men missing and the wreckage of 10 ships and over 14 million pesos in treasure scattered along about 30 miles of the south-eastern coastline of Florida. World famous treasure hunter Mel Fisher made the area famous with his finds of two of the Spanish ships in the 1970s. In 2010, professional salvage operator and treasure hunter Brent Brisben and his father William O. Brisben purchased the exclusive salvage rights to the 1715 Treasure Fleet from Fisher’s heirs. Seventeen days later, they recovered a bronze swivel gun packed with 51 gold escudo coins and 40 silver reales.
Only a month after that, a mother/daughter team of subcontractors from the Brisbens’ company recovered the amazing “Pelican in Piety”, a solid gold Catholic icon valued at $885,000. In July of 2013, a treasure hunting captain working for Brisben’s company came ashore from the waters off Wabasso Beach with 48 gold coins worth an estimated $250,000. On September 1st 2013, another treasure-hunting company working about 150 yards off the coast of the Fort Pierce area salvaged about 60-70 feet of 18th-century gold chains, several Peruvian gold coins of the same era, and a ring estimated to be worth between $300,000 and $350,000.
The solid gold “Pelican in Piety”
The Atlantic waters of the Treasure Coast still hide untold millions of dollars in gold and silver, along with priceless artifacts like the legendary Queen’s Jewels. Commissioned by King Philip of Spain for his new bride, the Duchess of Palma, these jewels were delivered late to the waiting Spanish fleet in Havana Harbor. They were the reason for the final delay that sent the treasure ships into the path of the fatal late July hurricane that sank the fleet. While full details are lacking, it is known that eight chests were stored in fleet commander Captain General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla’s personal cabin. Included in the wedding gift was a 74-carat emerald ring, a heart made from 130 matched pearls, earrings set with a single 14-carat pearl each, and a rosary strung with coral beads the size of small marbles.
The story of the treasure fleet of 1715 and the riches of the Treasure Coast are enough to get any treasure hunter’s heart pumping. But the richest finds ever have been uncovered in the waters off Key West, where the many shallow atolls and hazardous reef passages have been the undoing of uncounted ships of all types. For the story of the largest of all the Florida treasures found to date, catch our next post for the story of Mel Fisher, the man who discovered the largest sunken treasure of all time just 35 miles from Key West.