Nuestra Señora de La Pura y Limpia Concepcion
Before Mel Fisher found Atocha, Burt Webber's Concepcion was the single biggest Spanish galleon discovery of the modern age
On September 20, 1641, the Spanish treasure fleet set sail for Seville, Spain, from Havana, Cuba loaded with silver from New World mines. Minted into the rough-shaped, famous, Spanish 8 Reale (“Piece of Eight”), the treasure was destined to swell the coffers of the merchants who owned most of the treasure, and the powerful Spanish Empire.
Just seven days before, the fleet had made their first attempt at the voyage. Meeting the full-force of hurricane-season storms, the ships were forced to turn back – returning to Cuba for essential repairs to the battered vessels. Among the damaged ships was the fated Nuestra Señora de La Pura y Limpia Concepcion, flying the flag of Vice Admiral Juan Luis de Villavicencio.
The 600 ton galleon Concepcion, already leaking before the first attempt at the voyage, and with an undersized rudder for her tonnage, was, like her sister ships, loaded to the gunwales with both New World silver, and treasures from the distant, exotic Orient. Tons of silver from the rich mines of Mexico and Potosi were stored in the hold next to indigo, silks, spices, porcelain, and jade – the treasures of the Orient, that had been sent on Manila galleons to Acapulco on the Pacific side of New Spain (present day Mexico), then transshipped overland and loaded aboard the ships of the treasure fleet waiting in the harbor at Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico.
Hurricane season was well under way, and on the second voyage the fleet was hit by a full fledged hurricane. The ships were scattered in a matter of hours. As day broke on September 29th, the damage to Concepcion was apparent. She was left to fight for herself, and drifted under make-shift sails for days, with the hand-powered pumps in operation 24 hours a day.
Weeks later, on October 31, 1641, the hulk of the once-proud Concepcion ran aground amidst the reefs north of Hispañola, the present day Dominican Republic.
Rumors of a vast Spanish treasure lost on a remote reef circulated throughout the Caribbean and made its way to the English colonies in the Americas. In 1687, Captain William Phipps, who would later become the governor of Massachusetts, discovered and salvaged part of Concepcion’s treasure.
And, as decades passed into centuries, many historians, treasure hunters and adventurers attempted to relocate the glistening remains of Concepcion. With time, the legends grew. Whispered tales by firelight told of the now famous “Silver Shoals” where even to this day, a glittering piece of eight just might be found in the tropical waters under clear blue seas.
But the reality of the hunt was a different story. Eighty miles off shore, in an area riddled with ship-sinking shoals, and still in the path of violent hurricanes, more than luck was needed to rediscover Concepcion. From the famous, including Jacques Cousteau, to the infamous, hunter after hunter came up empty handed. What was needed were clues – clues from the historical record of the Spanish and Phipps, and his original salvage efforts centuries ago.
What was needed was famed historian and shipwreck researcher Jack Haskins. Haskins, in his quiet study in the Florida Keys, set out to discover Concepcion. Armed with the sketchy histories found in his documents, Haskins and treasure hunter Burt Webber organized an expedition to Silver Shoals. Using early magnetometers and a team of divers, they scoured the shoals for five months… and came up empty.
Webber arrived home broke and discouraged. Then, according to British author and researcher Peter Earle, Webber “was to have his only real stroke of luck.” Unaware of Webber’s and Haskins’ search, Earle was writing a book on Concepcion and some of his archival information came from a document that had survived from a salvage made hundreds of years earlier. Earle directed them to the Kent Archives at Maidstone, and there, buried in the stacks of centuries past, were the logs of Henry, Phipps’ salvage ship. Hidden in her time-worn pages were entries that narrowed the search field dramatically.
Updated charts in hand, $2,500,000 from 30 hopeful backers, and the deck under their feet, Jack Haskins, Burt Webber and the salvage crew followed in Phipps’ wake, and, at last, on November 28, 1978, rediscovered the remains of Concepcion. Thousands of eight reales were reclaimed from the sea in one of the greatest treasure discoveries of all time. To this day, one-of-a-kind Concepcion artifacts and treasures remain on permanent display in the Dominican Republic National Museums Casas Reales and Faro Colon in Santo Domingo.
But still, more treasure remained undiscovered… and Jack Haskins, and his dear friend Captain Carl Fismer knew it. With the aid of new metal detector technology, and the assistance of enthusiastic backers, Captain “Fizz” led a new expedition to Silver Shoals in 1986. Within days, the sand grudgingly gave up more hidden treasures, and, for the third time, Silver Shoals reef lived up to her legends.
The precious treasures in our exclusive Cannon Beach Treasure Concepcion collections were discovered by Burt Webber, Jr. or Captain Carl Fismer and their crews in 1978 and 1986. Shipwreck treasure coins in general, and especially coins from Concepcion, are some of the last remaining specimens available from these expeditions. They embody the hopes and dreams of generations of treasure hunters and adventurers, and will continue to be a valuable piece of world history for generations to come, when Kings ruled the land, and Pirates ruled the seas.
A Note from Robert: I first met Captain Carl Fismer in 1989, not long after I had returned from my first expedition to the Arctic. As a firefighter/EMT, I had served as medic and photojournalist on my first expedition. Carl was also a former Florida firefighter and paramedic, and he needed a crew member who could document his discoveries. Always ready to share his incredible knowledge, he became my mentor in my early years in the historical shipwreck salvage business. The treasures and memories of his Concepcion expedition were still fresh, and I would often come over to his house to find hundreds of pieces of eight spread across his kitchen table, and a cold beer nearby! Nothing can fire the imagination with pirates and adventure like a cold beer on a tropical afternoon in the Florida Keys and a fist full of Spanish sunken treasure still fresh with the salty tang of the ocean! I spent many years working with Fizz (my wife sometimes calls us “an old married couple”), producing documentaries with him, and he would often pay me in “pieces of eight.” 75 to 80 percent of the coins minted in the Spanish colonies were the large piece of eight, or 8 reales. About 12 percent were four reales. Four reales are now highly prized for their rarity and for the perfect size as a pendant!
To see our exclusive selection of Concepcion coins and shipwreck treasure jewelry here>>>
Watch the Stan Waterman Burt Webber Concepcion Documentary Here>>>