JOURNAL OF THE PROFESSIONAL TREASURE HUNTER

FIRST FIND: A 1732 SPANISH PILLAR DOLLAR!

By Joe Shepherd

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  It had been a long bouncy ride to the wreck site some five miles off shore, long enough to do a bit of daydreaming on the way. We were going to spend the next six hours doing salvage work on the capitana of the 1733 Spanish treasure fleet, El Rubi Segundo. There was a lot of history wrapped up in this wreck site; fortunes had been made and lost, books had been written, and television coverage of salvage work on this particular ballast pile had been world-wide. I felt very fortunate to be taking part in what must be considered everyone's dream of sunken treasure
  Before leaving dockside, the rules had been carefully explained by Joe Kimbell, our boat captain, rules that I paid close attention to. The water wasn't very deep - about sixteen feet- where we would be moving the sand off the top of the ballast. The rules of safety were fairly simple: "Don't panic; you could be your own worst enemy on the bottom if you do." Line signals were explained: "One pull means 'Are you O.K.?; two pulls, "Do you want to move?; three pulls 'Stop blowing'; and four pulls, 'Come on up NOW!" There were other rules, most of which are second nature to the salvage divers.
  Once statement that kept coming back as our boat neared the outer reefs where the capitana was located, "You get to keep the first SILVER coin you find." At the time, it was explained that once a statement like that had been made, and a diver found a GOLD coin on his first dive. The boat captain kept his word that time, but ever since it was made clear that he meant SILVER. Maybe I was mesmerized by the thought that I could actually find a coin on my first trip tot the salvage site, but that thought somehow kept rattling around inside my mind. It was still there as we prepared to drop anchor.
  The other divers in the boat were probably just as eager as I was to get in the water. We were all keyed up, and looking through the gin-clear water at the ballast pile below we must have looked like kids out of school. As we fumbled through the process of getting our gear on, I looked over at Kimbell and he smiled back. I think he must have sensed what we were feeling. Here we were on an "honest-to-goodness treasure wreck", about to take our first look, and the anticipation must have been like a beacon on our faces. Somehow I couldn't shake that one thought that was rattling around..."You get to keep your first silver coin. "Before this day was over it would change a good part of my life.
  I have always been intrigued with lost treasure since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Jesse James, the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine, the Money Pit, all have fascinated me. I had my first taste of treasure in 1995 when I met Bob "Frogfoot" Weller, a salvage diver who had been working the 1715 Spanish Treasure fleet near Sebastian Florida. It changed my interest from dry land treasure hunting to sunken ships and Spanish gold and silver. That's what dreams are made of. I had been pushed along by something I found while rummaging through some second hand furniture and household goods I had purchased. In a box full of odds and ends was a video called "Hurricane Treasure". It was about treasure found along the beaches between Sebastian Inlet and Fort Pierce Inlet on Florida's east coast after a hurricane, or just a good northeaster.
  Included were maps of various locations where treasure could be found when the storms moved the sand off the beaches, and coins as well as artifacts lay exposed on the hard marl bottom. According to Florida law, anything recovered on the beach after a hurricane belonged to the finder. Out in the water it was a different story, a salvage lease was required. But on dry land the treasure belonged to anyone fortunate enough to swing a detector over it. I was hooked! That video seemed to turn on a light at the end of the tunnel. My dream was to hunt the beaches between Fort Pierce and Sebastian Inlet. Here is where the treasure galleons of the 1715 treasure fleet had disintegrated as a savage hurricane drove them onto the ragged reefs a few hundred yards off the beach. Knowing there were scatter patterns of eleven treasure galleons here was like waving a red lantern in front of a raging bull. It certainly helm my attention, and the opportunity came more quickly than I had imagined.
  I needed a metal detector and a reason for heading south to Florida's east coast. Almost as I began to lay plans for a trip south, Mother Nature stepped in and gave me a push. I had just purchased a White's Electronics metal detector, and within two weeks I felt confident that if I came even close to a buried coin I would find it. Hurricane Erin announced itself along the Florida east coast, coming up fast out of the Leeward Islands. As I watched its progress, I saw it aiming 100-mile-per-hour winds at Vero Beach dead center of the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet! One of the easiest decisions I ever made was calling the airline ticket office and taking the first flight south.
  The nearest airport to Sebastian was in Melbourne, about halfway down the east coast of Florida. It was noontime, and within minutes I was driving south along Interstate 95. I had planned on stopping at the McLarty Museum about two miles south of Sebastian Inlet, and then check out the beach in front of what was known as the "Cabin Wreck". Here is where the 1715 almiranta, the San Roman, came ashore, a wreck site that became famous when Kip Wagner formed his Real Eight Corp. team of salvage divers and worked the site in 1961. It was the start of a treasure stampede that hasn't stopped, or slowed down, since.
  Somewhere along I-95, I changed my mind, don't ask me why because even today I still don't know probably some kind of intuition but in any case I kept heading south past Sebastian and didn't stop until I reached Fort Pierce. Here, about 2-1.2 miles south of the Fort Pierce Inlet lies the ballast pile of the Nieves, the supply boat of the 1715 Spanish fleet. It was here that Mel Fisher became a legend in his time when his team of salvage divers recovered over 3,500 gold coins during the month of May in 1964. In fact, they changed the name of the east coast of Florida to the "Gold Coast" because of this recovery. Somehow I felt that if there were gold coins to be found on the beach, it would have to be here.
  I found a motel that looked decent and checked in. I'm an elementary school teacher with the entire summer off, and my plans were to spend at least five days checking the beaches out. Simple enough unless I found a chest full of gold doubloons. Fat chance!

     Early the next morning I was on the beach swinging my White’s metal detector, listening for the beep that would mean my first treasure coin.  The beach was wide, with a berm that rose three or four feet and tangled mangroves shielding highway A1A  some several hundred yards away.  No one else was on the beach that morning, and waves whipped by the passing of Erin still rolled white water right up to the berm.  I did get “hits” on the metal detector, not right away, but soon enough to know that my detector was working.  And, you guessed it...nails, nails, and more nails.  That’s the way it went for about five hours.

 I’m dedicated (it says here in fine print), and about the time my frustration was beginning to show I did get a “beep” that sounded different than the nail hits I was becoming familiar with.  It also sounded a bit deeper than the other signals, and at about eighteen inches down, I came up with a square piece of lead with small nail holes around the edge.  I wasn’t quite sure of what I had, but it looked old and I put it in my goodie bag.

    

    Not more than a few steps further I spotted a what at first appeared to be the bottom of a coral shell.  I picked it up, turned it over, and was surprised to see a cobalt blue design of flowers on the other side.  I did a double-take on what had to be a piece of K’ang Hsi  porcelain, part of the cargo of the Nieves and an import from China.  In the research I had been doing, I had seen photos of intact cups and bowls of this rare chinaware. An intact piece was worth several thousands of dollars, and even a small shard, like the one about three inches square that I held in my hand, had to be worth several hundred dollars.  This was heady stuff and the adrenaline was really pumping!
  Now the hunt was getting exciting.  My attention moved up about three notches as I swung the detector back and forth, probably a bit more slowly now so as not to miss anything.  Patience had overcome frustration, and before long I came up with a piece of white plaster, possibly K’ang Hsi, and another piece of the cobalt blue flowered porcelain.  I thought I was on a roll!  Then, like all good fortune, the recoveries ended.  It was like I waited for the next shoe to drop, and it never did.  That ended the day, but after all...it had been a great day for me.  I had come to Florida to search for  treasure, and I found some on my first shot at tit.  I decided to spend another day on this beach.  If treasure was this easy to find on my first day, guess what I might turn up on my second day!

  The next morning found me swinging the detector even before the sun had a chance to stir the sand fleas out of their holes in the beach.  It would be a long day for this beginner’s luck to set in.  Once you break the ice, and the treasure fever has a grip on you, the rest never comes easy.  I was to find this out as I searched for several miles in both directions along the beach.  The day become hotter than I remembered it the day before, probably because I wasn’t finding anything.  I didn’t come up empty though, if you can call eleven cents a fulfilling day of treasure hunting.

   I decided to drive north about thirty miles to the McLarty Museum on A1A.  I had to show my “treasure” to someone who could appreciate what I had found.  The kindly lady behind the counter got my full attention.  I laid them out for her to “Oooohhh and Aaaahhhh” about, making me prouder than I had been in some time.  She advised me that I was certainly fortunate indeed to have found the K’ang Hsi.  “people have walked the beaches for years, and many never find a single piece.  We have several shards inside, and some whole cups as well.”
    I bought a ticket and was inside looking the artifact cases over, marveling at the variety of treasure that had been recovered directly in front of the museum, when my next stroke of luck tapped me on the shoulder.  It was the off-season, a time when few visitors were doing the same thing I was doing, lollygagging over Spanish recovered treasure.
    Two men had entered the museum and were engaged in a discussion near one of the display cases.  It wasn’t long before the nice lady that had given me some inspiration by complimenting me on my finds, was standing next to me saying, “I want to introduce you to a couple of salvage divers that have been finding some great treasures.”  I followed her over to the tow men, and found myself being introduced to Bob “Frogfoot” Weller and Jim Smith.

  Frogfoot was a famous salvage diver, as well as an author, and I held up the pieces of porcelain for him to inspect.  In his time Bob had found a quantity of the K’ang  Hsi like I was showing him, some intact pieces as well as shards, and I was pleasantly surprised as he looked them over very carefully and then complimented me on the finds.  I told him where I had recovered the, and he nodded, daring he had worked the Nieves site for fifteen years before moving north to the “Cabin Wreck” site in front of the museum.  The square lead piece turned out to be either a toredo worm patch or the lining of a small box, possibly a jewelry or coin box.  This pumped me up even more.  Here was another piece of treasure that I had recovered, not really knowing that it had come from a 1715 galleon.

  We talked a bit, and Bob suggested following him over to the place where he was staying for the salvage season, and he would show me what he had recovered so far that summer.  It was a bad diving day, the ninth in a row due to the hurricane and some windy weather, and Bob and his crew were feeling a little landlocked.  After looking over the coins and artifacts Bob and his crew had found, he invited me to take a ride on his salvage boat Pandion.  He had been doing some work on the engine and had to make sure it would be ready to head for open water as soon as the weather settled down.  It was a heady day for me, one that I wouldn’t soon forget.  It was a day that somehow let me feel that I was headed in the right direction, a direction that someday would lead me to Spanish treasure.
   And so here I was, several months later, over the site of the 1733 capitana off Tavernier Island in the Florida Keys.  J&Js Lady was a 39-foot salvage boat the Captain Joe Klimbell used to work the site, and on this day I was a guest diver.  A guest diver that had been promised to “keep the first SILVER coin I found.”  The underwater visibility that day was in the 100-foot range, too good to be true.  The surface was a bit choppy, making ths shadows on the bottom dance a bit.

  The sand covering the ballast pile was several feet deep, and it meant using the blower, or “duster” on the stern of J&Js Lady to move the overburden away.  It meant hanging on the stern and watching the sand billowing away like a small twister over a dusty plain.  After several minutes, when the hole seemed to materialize out of nowhere, the ballast stones and wooden rives or planking appeared at the bottom of the hole, and Joe cut back on the engine.
   Dropping down along the sloping edge of the hole that now seemed eight or nine feet deep, I began swinging my detector back and forth along the side of sand which had a mind of its own, as it spilled downward.  The first indication that we were in a treasure hole was a pair of silver cuff-links.  The hit wasn’t much, a slight” beep” that I almost missed, but it caused me to concentrate for a few more moments in one spot.  As I fanned away the sand, the signal grew stronger, and before long the sulfided object was uncovered and I held it in  my hand.  It felt heavy, and I was sure it was silver.  I headed for the surface, and handed the artifact up to Joe as he leaned down from the boarding ladder.   He nodded his head, “Yes, it was silver, and probably something pretty nice.”  It was a good way to start the day, but the best part was to come when the day was almost over.

  We had moved the boat several times during the day,  We were now working an area possibly fifty feet from our first hole.  The bottom had been full of ballast stones, wooden  ribs, and more ballast stones.  We had recovered several olive jar pottery shards, some other odds and ends, but no coins.  Near one of the rives I had gotten a decent hit on the detector, but it was pretty deep.  I couldn't fan the sand away without more sand filling up the void.  I needed Joe to move the boat a bit to help uncover the hit, whatever it was.  I surfaces and asked Joe if he would move the boat, and Joe indicated it was “time to go home.”  I asked for just a few minutes more on the bottom, and he nodded “go ahead”. 
     I was back on the bottom as Joe moved J&Js Lady a few feet, then started up the engines.  The sand billowed away, and I kept the metal detector on the hit, reaching my arm into the sand as far as I could.  Soon I had hold of something, something fairly large!  I wondered if whatever I had hold of was all iron, and this was why I had been able to detect it in deep sand.  Whatever it was, I was soon able to pull it out of the side of the hole, and yet, I was sure it was iron.  It was about 2-1/2 feet long, and about 6 inches wide, with a sort of hump in the middle.  And stuck tot he edge of the hump was...a ROUND coin!
     I struggled to the surface with the artifact, almost losing my mouthpiece on the way.  I was excited, no doubt about it.  As I grabbed for the diving platform I suddenly had all kinds of help reaching down to help me lift the artifact up out of the water.  Then the excitement really began.   The piece of iron I had headed up was the trunnion strap that held a cannon to its mount, and Joe Kimbell, and experienced salvor and museum owner, quickly identified the coin as a rare and very valuable “Pillar Dollar”.  The first screw-pressed coin made in the New World.  Because it was the first round milled dollar to come from the New World mints in 1732, and because the galleons carrying the coins were all sunk in a hurricane, the only source for these highly sought by collectors were these recovered from the 1733 fleet.  I had found a winner.
    On a personal level I can tell you that I’m a pretty happy guy.  I have always wanted to hunt for sunken treasure, and to be a successful treasure finder means a lot to me.  I’ve got a direction in my life that I didn’t have a few months ago, one filled with excitement and anticipation.  Sure, I’ll go back to teaching because I have to feed a hungry family.  But I need to fill the hunger of the hunt I feel inside.  It’s one of the last frontiers, and I’m standing on the edge of it.  I’ll never look back.                                     Joe Shepherd

 

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Reprints of "The Best Of Treasure Quest Magazine" are used with permission from a series of stories in Treasure Quest Magazine by Bob "Frogfoot" Weller,  Ernie "Seascribe" Richards and other
 great modern day treasure hunters.
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