Shipwreck Silver - the Story Behind the Story

Shipwreck Silver - the Story Behind the Story

The story behind the story: Cannon Beach Treasure Company’s Exclusive Line of Empires Collection Shipwreck Silver Jewelry

To our knowledge, we are the only ones who combine silver from four shipwrecks to create our shipwreck silver jewelry:

  1. Atocha, 1622, Key West, Florida
  2. 1715 Fleet, Vero Beach, Florida
  3. Le Chameau, 1725, Nova Scotia 
  4. Santa Leocadia, 1800, Ecuador

Read on, for more information about shipwreck silver and each of these historic shipwrecks. Interestingly, they each share a common trait… their sinking had a profound impact on world history.

When we had our store in Cannon Beach, Oregon, I was often asked, “What’s it like diving on a Spanish galleon and finding treasure?” I couldn’t help but get a wistful glint in my eye, “Diving on a Spanish galleon is one of the most amazing experiences in the world. And when we find treasure, it gets even more amazing! But that is just a small part of what we do to preserve this amazing history.”

 

Finding a shipwreck or buried treasure often begins in the library… sometimes years of research. But if one is fortunate enough to find a treasure, the environment of the world’s salty oceans is extremely detrimental to shipwreck artifacts of all kinds. This is why we work tirelessly to recovered the precious treasures from these wrecks and preserve them for generations to come, rather than leave them on the bottom to literally disintegrate into the ocean floor.

Shipwreck salvaged coins are recovered in varying qualities. While gold survives unscathed in the chilly and dangerous depths of Davy Jones' Locker, silver often doesn't fair so well. The rare, higher quality silver coins (like the picture of 1715 Fleet Pieces of Eight above the headline) make it into museums, collections, or are crafted into fine, heirloom pieces of jewelry like our line of shipwreck coin jewelry.

But what happens to the coins that just don't fair so well through the ravages of time and the constant exposure to the sea?

1715 Fleet Shipwreck Treasure CoinsWell, to understand that, let’s go back to how shipwreck treasure got to the bottom of the ocean in the first place (yes, I know, there was a shipwreck… but just a little before that…)

Many of the Spanish colonial mints were at high elevations, near the sources of the silver or gold. Mexico City is at over 7,000 feet, and the largest New World mine was Potosi in Upper Peru (present day Bolivia), at over 10,000 feet above sea level. After a coin was minted, it had to be transported down to the ocean to begin its long journey to Spain. These trips sometimes took over two months. So the coins were first placed in canvas bags. These bags were then often strapped to mules and transported down the mountain to the harbors where the Spanish galleons awaited them.

Before they were loaded on these ships, the bags were packed in wooden, rectangular, "treasure" chests or money boxes. These chests were then stacked in the hold of the galleons and due to their weight, they acted as ballast, along with the ballast rocks and other heavy goods.

When the ship struck the bottom as she was pushed onto the shallow reefs by storms, these treasure chests were the first to experience the full force of a proud Spanish galleon going aground in a violent storm. Some of the chests stayed intact, while others broke open and spilled their coins all over the sea floor.

Over hundreds of years underwater, salt water and the natural electrolysis of the ocean causes the coins to oxidize.

Patrick Yananton Works the Dredge on the 1733 FleetIn the early 1990s, I used to work “The Fleet” (1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet) off Vero Beach, Florida, and would often spend eight to ten hours underwater each day methodically searching. On the days when I was “lucky” enough to have my detector signal “treasure,” my heart would race! What was it going to be? What condition was it going to be in?

The coins that were buried in deeper sand, or that we found in the cracks between the coquina ledges (hard packed sediment composed of fragments of sand and shells) often were in good or great condition. These high grade coins usually came from the chest that had remained intact for a long time, or from “clumps” of coins that were protected under many feet of sand. The coins that didn’t fair well were those that were scattered along the bottom, in shallow, shifting sands, exposed to the currents and wave action. While some of the silver was intact, the details were literally “sanded” away. We would often call them fragments, Gillettes or “razor blades.”

Over the years, we have acquired many of these coins from different shipwrecks that I, or my old mentor and treasure diving buddy, Carl Fismer, and other salvors have recovered.

Empires Collection of Shipwreck Silver Treasure Coin JewelryWe preserve this silver and then alloy, or “blend” this shipwreck silver with a proprietary non-tarnishing sterling silver to produce our Empires Collection Shipwreck Silver castings of historic coins and jewelry. It is a unique way of producing an amazing piece of history that can fit any budget.

To view our line of Empires Collection Shipwreck Silver treasure jewelry, click here>

Atocha, September 6, 1622

“TODAY’S THE DAY…” The phrase Mel Fisher used to tell his divers every day, for 16 years, while he led them on a search through the waters off Key West, Florida for the elusive Spanish galleon, Atocha. Atocha was the almiranta (rear guard ship) of the 1622 Treasure Fleet, which left Havana several weeks late, causing the vessels to run into the jaws of a hurricane near modern day Key West. Eight ships of the 28-ship fleet were lost; wrecked on the reefs between the Dry Tortugas and the Florida Keys. Only five people survived from Atocha and were saved by another vessel. Not only was the wreck in 55 feet of water, making it extremely difficult for salvage divers to reach her cargo, but the wreckage was scattered after another hurricane hit the site one month later. Thus the Spanish were never able to salvage what was one of the richest galleons ever to sail.

No human eyes saw the treasure again for over 300 years. In 1969, Mel Fisher and his crew began their 16 year search. Pieces of her King’s ransom in precious cargo began to show in 1971. Then, on July 20, 1975, six years into the search, Mel lost his eldest son, Dirk, Dirk’s wife, Angel, and crew member Rick Gage when their salvage vessel, Northwind, capsized. But that wasn’t the only hardship Fisher and his crew had to endure. Before he “hit the mother load,” but after Fisher started pulling up smaller amounts of treasure, the state of Florida tried to claim the treasure, but after eight years of expensive legal battles, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Fisher on July 1, 1982. But Atocha’s “mother load” still eluded the salvors, and through it all, Fisher and his crew persisted with dogged determination.

Then in July 1985, ten years to the day after the Northwind tragedy, Dirk’s younger brother, Kane, radioed Mel’s headquarters in Key West. "Put away the charts; we’ve found the main pile!" July 20th was “They Day!” Mel Fisher’s words rang true! He and his crew discovered the “mother load” of Atocha’s vast treasure, by some estimates, worth over $400 million!

Atocha is now hailed as the most famous Spanish galleon of our time!

1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet, July 31, 1715

Robert Lewis Knecht films on the 1733 FleetI began my treasure diving career working the 1715 and 1733 Treasure Fleets off Florida.

On July 24, 1715, the combined Nueva España (New Spain) and Tierra Firme (Mainland) Spanish Treasure Fleets left Havana, Cuba and began their two month journey home to Spain. Delay after confounding delay had caused the fleet to set sail long after hurricane season had begun.

Manufactured goods such as tools and other everyday items as well as Spanish colonizers were transported from Spain to the West Indies. The fleets, like the 1715 Fleet, returning to Spain, were general purpose cargo fleets used for transporting a wide variety of items, including agricultural goods, various metal resources, lumber, luxuries, spices, sugar, tobacco, and other exotic goods from the Spanish Empire in the Americas. But their most valuable cargo was the silver, gold, gems and pearls taken from New World mines and resources.

The fleet of 11 Spanish ships carried over 14 million pesos in silver and gold. By July 30, off present day Vero Beach, Florida, the treasure laden galleons found themselves fighting 20 knot winds, as the sky turned black, and the humidity thickened. By 2 A.M. the galleons were in a fight for their lives - some vessels sank in deep water, others began grounding on the jagged reefs, and a few more were driven onto shore. By dawn,July 31st the entire fleet was scattered along the mid-Florida coast, south of Cape Canaveral. For two years the Spanish salvaged The Fleet, several times their poorly armed crews suffered attacks by pirates looking for an easy score.

This disaster has been made famous in the movies The Deep, Fools Gold, the TV series Black Sails and the video game Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. The coins and treasures that have been recovered from it have greatly increased our knowledge of the Spanish colonial era.

Le Chameau, August 28, 1725

By the morning of August 28, 1725, the destiny of Colonial French Canada lay scattered in great jagged pieces on the rocks off of Cape Lorembeck, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The day before, what now amounted to tons of debris had been the pride of the French naval Fleet – the 48-gun, 600-ton Le Chameau (Camel), loaded with supplies, soldiers, settlers, and perhaps most significantly for France’s colonial future, key French Aristocrats selected to be the leaders of France’s new world colonies, and several year’s worth of funds to support those colonies.

Among the approximately 316 people who lost their lives were the new Intendant of Canada (the man destined to be the chief administrator of Canada) and the Governor-Elect of the Three-Rivers, a territory vital to French trade. In fact, the 1st class passenger list is a “Who’s Who” of French political powerhouses and aristocracy. Leading citizens destined for new lives in Quebec and the new French provinces, important religious leaders and promising military officers all met their fate along with the soldiers and sailors of Le Chameau, some as young as 14.

Most of the coins recovered from Le Chameau were the U.S. silver-dollar sized French Ecu. The Ecu was worth 6 Livres. As a point of reference, in 1700, an unskilled laborer earned 1 Livres for a 10 hour work day, a skilled laborer earned 3 Livres per day and a high ranking official earned 12 Livres per day. Total documented losses consist of approximately 1.5 million livres, most of which has never been found.

The wreck of France’s Le Chameau is, indeed, one of the most significant of the early European maritime disasters of the New World. In a very real way, it impacted the destiny of Canada, Mexico and the United States.

Santa Leocadia - November 16, 1800

Under the command of Captain D. Antonio Barreda, the 34 gun Spanish frigate Santa Leocadia departed Lima, Peru’s port of Callao on November 7, 1800 bound for the Ministers of the Royal Treasury of Panama. Her hold was loaded with over two million pesos in gold and silver, mostly Spanish “portrait” dollars minted in Lima.

By the night of November 16, Leocadia had made it halfway to Panama. Her pilot, Don Gaspar de Bejarano, made a critical navigational error, and she struck a shoal about 8:30 PM near Punta Santa Elena, Ecuador and took her king’s ransom of treasure to the bottom. She was only 100 yards from shore. Ironically, she sank not far from where another Spanish galleon, Santa Maria de la Consolacion, met her fate and ran aground on the reefs off Isla de Muerto in 1681 while trying to evade pirates.

Within weeks the Spanish began salvage efforts and recovered about 90% of her precious cargo. In the late 1980’s famed treasure salvor Capt. Carl Fismer secured a salvage lease from the Ecuadorian government and recovered thousands of the “portrait dollars” that the Spanish had left behind.

To view our line of Empires Collection Shipwreck Silver treasure jewelry, click here>

You can see some examples of freshly salvaged coins of all qualities in this video of us diving the 1733 Fleet off the Florida Keys.

 


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