No history of the 1715 Fleet would be complete without mentioning the Real Eight Company and the men that formed this group. The Real Eight contribution to the discovery and recovery of the valuable historical coins and artifacts that made up the Treasure Fleet cannot be understated. Much of what we have learned about the Fleet, its history and treasure might never have been recovered but for the men of the Real Eight Company. However, before we focus on the Real Eight Company and its accomplishments a little background is necessary.
In the early morning hours of July 31, 1715, one of the richest Spanish Treasure Fleets ever assembled was destroyed by a catastrophic hurricane that had caught the Fleet in the Florida Straits. Trapped in the channel, the galleons loaded with treasure had nowhere to go. Eleven of the twelve ships in the Fleet, including all the treasure galleons were lost, either capsizing in deep water or tossed upon the reefs and sandy shores off of the Florida Coast. By dawn the next morning, the desolate beach was strewn with lifeless bodies and littered with wreckage. It was one of the worst sea disasters of all time.
When the Spanish Colonial authorities heard of the disaster they responded from Havana and St. Augustine but it was more of an effort directed at salvaging the galleons than rescuing the survivors. Using the limited technology that they had the Spaniards were actually able to recover a large portion of the Treasure. Of course there was some speculation that the Spanish exaggerated the amount of the recovery to deter unauthorized salvage efforts by Spain’s rivals. If that was the case it did not work. Pirates quickly responded to the disaster. The British Governor of Jamaica declared open season on the remaining sunken treasure. In addition to the dangers of actually salvaging the treasure, salvors faced the additional peril of armed raids aimed at relieving them of the treasure that they were trying to salvage. One British privateer, Henry Jennings, was particularly successful. In 1716, with several vessels and a few hundred men, Jennings’ Fleet ambushed the Spanish Salvage Camp forcing the retreat of around 60 soldiers. Jennings made off with an estimated 350,000 pesos.
The Spanish made repeated attempts to salvage the treasure. The first major recovery effort was from September 1715 to April 1716. Thus the Spanish wrecks were open to further pillaging from other sources from early 1716 until early 1718 when the Spanish decided to launch another major salvage attempt. This was the Spaniards last big salvage effort on the wrecks. The second attempt was terminated sometime in 1719.
By the summer of 1717 most of the wrecks were broken up and scattered. After the Spaniards terminated their second major salvage effort in 1719 some minor pilfering continued until the location of the wrecks were essentially forgotten.
As years turned into decades and decades into centuries, time slowly passed and the wrecks of the 1715 Fleet were largely forgotten. Occasionally bits and pieces of the wrecks would show up on beaches, a constant reminder of what lay off the shoreline in shallow water. Local inhabitants from Sebastian Inlet to Stuart were aware of some of the strange items that would frequently wash ashore, particularly after a strong storm or hurricane. Rumors of lost Spanish Treasure Ships persisted and over the years residents would beach comb trying to find their piece of history. However, there was no organized effort to actually research the rumors. However, there was no doubt that “something was out there”.
In 1928 the Urca de Lima became the first of the 1715 Fleet to be discovered in modern times. William Beach located the wreck off of Fort Pierce, Florida. Cannons and anchors were raised from the wreck. In 1932 the state of Florida issued the first salvage permit which allowed permit holders to search for and recover materials from the Spanish wreck sites. Newspaper articles from 1940 reported that wreckage resembling an old Spanish vessel was washed ashore south of Sebastian Inlet together with coins and other artifacts.
William Beach was not alone. There were others. Among the curious was Charles Dana Higgs, a retired astronomer and historian. In 1941, he began to investigate some of the legends and ultimately was responsible for finding an old Spanish Salvage and Survivors Camp that was hastily created after the 1715 wrecks occurred. Higgs was the first modern investigator to connect this site to the 1715 Fleet. He continued to work and search this area which ultimately came to be known as the “Higgs Site”. Further north is the McLarty Treasure Museum which is now located on the site.
For more information see the 1942 article by Charles Dana Higgs titled “Spanish Contacts with the AIS (Indian River) Country.”
It would take a professional archaeologist, Dr. Hale G. Smith, to actually do an archaeological search of the area. In 1946, he took a team to the Higgs Site accompanied by Higgs in order to survey the area. In 1949, Smith summed up the results of his research in an article wherein he concluded that:
“considering all the data, it seems very likely that the Higgs Site represents materials from the plate Fleet of 1715 and / or the pirates hangout of the following year. It also must be born in mind that Indians, possibly AYS, were associated with the Site, probably drawn there by the wrecks”. (Hale G. Smith, “Two Archaeological Sites in Brevard County, Florida,” Florida Anthropological Society Publications, No. 1 Gainesville: University of Florida, 1949).
A very colorful and interesting individual named Captain Steadman A. Parker was also familiar with the rumors and legends of Shipwrecks and Treasure that had circulated even when he was a young child. In 1907, his father reportedly showed him some wreckage that refutably came from a Spanish galleon near Sebastian Inlet. In 1949, Captain Parker obtained an exclusive exploratory lease from the state of Florida for a large section of coastline which gave him the exclusive right to explore the near shore waters of his lease for treasure and salvageable material. It was Steadman A. Parker that introduced the treasure bug to a middle-aged contractor who would go on to become the central figure in the rediscovery and recovery of the 1715 Fleet Treasure……Kip Wagner.
Kip Wagner was born in Miamisburg, Ohio in 1906. His father was a contractor and it was Kip’s ambition to follow in his father’s footsteps. As a young man he would visit Florida on a number of occasions and eventually, after World War II, he moved his family to Wabasso, Florida on a permanent basis. Little did he know that his life was about to change forever. Little did he know that one day that he would become a legend.
It all started on a rainy afternoon when Wagner met up with Captain Steadman (who at that time was Wagner’s building partner) at a pub. The foul weather had made it impossible for them to carry on their construction work so they decided to have a few beers. Steadman told him about coins being found on the beach after rain storms, particularly strong storms. Wagner was totally unaware of the treasure stories that Steadman, who grew up in the area, heard of all of his life. So, on his own, the unassuming Kip Wagner began searching the beaches looking for any sign of this “lost treasure” that he had only recently been introduced to. Thus started a whole new chapter in Kip Wagner’s life. From that point on he became fascinated (and maybe even a little obsessed) about the treasure that might be lying just a few hundred feet off shore.
For the next decade Wagner formed friendships and partnerships with individuals that shared his dream of finding lost treasure. Most of his efforts to find the lost treasure came up short. He did manage to accumulate a respectable number of Spanish coins but he could never seem to find the source of the treasure. What he did discover, however, was that none of his coins were dated after 1715. This, he felt, meant something. Just what it meant eluded him.
Wagner then began researching old Spanish shipwrecks along the eastern coast of Florida. One night he was scheduled to have an insurance physical exam. The Doctor performing the exam was Kip Kelso. Dr. Kelso just happened to be fascinated about the prospects of lost treasure and from that point on they formed a lasting friendship. They pooled their respective resources and began to research old Spanish records about shipwrecks in the area.
October 24th, 1958 letter to the Old Spanish Treasury, St Augustine, Florida from Kip Kelso requesting archival information regarding the minting of Spanish Colonial coins.
Finally in 1959 they got the break that they needed. Dr. Kelso came across a short monograph on Spanish treasure fleets written by Irving Rouse, a professor of anthropology at Yale University. In his monograph he quoted, among his sources, a book called A Concise History of East and West Florida written in 1775 by Bernard Romans, a cartographer. In the book was a map that said:
“Opposite this River, perished, the Admiral, commanding the Plate Fleet 1715, the rest of the Fleet 14 in number, between this & y Bleech Yard”.
This was the exact location where Wagner was finding his coins. “X” literally marked the spot.
June 22nd, 1959 original letter from Irving Rouse, professor of Anthropology, Yale University, to Kip Kelso with source material including information on Bernard Romans.
Inspired by this new information, Kip Wagner began searching for the main Spanish campsite. He believed that if he could locate the campsite he would have a “marker”, so to speak, from which he could start looking for the wrecks. Equipped with a $15.00 war surplus military mine detector and an old hound dog he found the campsite. He leased the land from the state and, using a bulldozer, cleared the land and began to excavate using a shovel and screen. When he was not excavating the site, Kip would swim in the surf, opposite the campsite, and investigate the reefs lying in the shallow water. On one occasion he discovered several large cannons and an anchor. Undoubtedly, he had found his first wreck site. Following this discovery he obtained from the Internal Improvement Fund of the State of Florida a nonexclusive salvage lease agreement for a 50-mile area from Sebastian Inlet to Stuart, Florida. Having discovered the campsite, the wreck site and procuring a lease, Kip had it all…..except the means for doing the actual salvaging. How was he going to get the treasure from the sunken ships? He needed experienced divers who shared his passion. This dilemma was the genesis of the Real Eight Company.
The Real Eight Company consisted of eight members including Kip Wagner. The original members were Kip Wagner, Dr. Kip Kelso, Col. Dan Thompson, Henry Cannon, Del Long, Lou Ullian, Erv Taylor and Lisbon Futch. How they all got together as a team, however, is a story unto itself. The one person who probably played the biggest role in bringing everyone together was Lou Ullian…..although he didn’t know it at the time.
Lou, an ex Navy man, started working at the Air Force Missile Test Range at Cape Canaveral in 1959 as an ordinance engineer. He was also a diver interested in treasure (this, from a boyhood fascination with pirates and sunken Spanish galleons). His love of diving led to a friendship with Del Long who operated a shop at Patrick Air Force Base. Del was also a diver and when they met they discovered that they had mutual interests. Del was president of a diving club and Lou joined, There he met Erv Taylor, another diver. Lou told his new friends about his interest in sunken treasure and Erv told Lou about a man he knew…..Kip Wagner. Erv arranged for Lou and Del to meet Kip. During the winter of 1959-60 Lou, Del, Erv and Kip would meet regularly. Their discussions focused on salvaging the sites that Kip had already found. They pooled their resources and developed a plan to begin work in the spring of 1960. They needed divers and equipment. The rest of the Real Eight team was about to be found.
Dan Thompson was a Colonel in the Air Force and a native of Savannah, Georgia. He was also one of Lou Ullian’s bosses and in addition, an expert diver. Lou approached him about joining the team and Dan Thompson eagerly agreed. The group now had sufficient divers but lacked a boat. Lou and Dan came up with the solution….Harry Cannon.
Lieutenant Colonel Harry Cannon worked for Dan Thompson. A native of Gainesville, Florida, Harry Cannon had just what the team of explorers needed……a boat. Although not a diver, he had vast experience in communications and electronics and had an aptitude for handling business and financial matters. With the addition of Harry Cannon the nucleus of the Real Eight Company was formed. Each member brought to the table certain skills and abilities that were needed for the group to function collectively. Lisbon Futch was a handyman, an expert boatsman and knew the channels and waterways of the Sebastian area. Del Long and Erv Taylor were knowledgeable in all things mechanical. Dan Thompson and Lou Ullian were expert divers (in addition to Del Long and Erv Taylor). Dan Thompson also had a good legal mind and organizational talent. Dr. Kip Kelso’s expertise was Spanish history and archaeology. And, of course, Kip Wagner was the glue that held the team together.
As 1960 began, the group made some exploratory runs to a wreck site north of Fort Pierce. It became obvious that they would need a boat large enough to hold them, their equipment and salvage gear. Through the efforts of Lisbon Futch, a 40 foot launch was found in Norfolk, Virginia. Dubbed the “Sampan”, this boat was to be their first real salvage vessel. During that first year of exploration the group found cannonballs, pot shards, porcelain chips, timbers and nails, but no treasure. With their patience and enthusiasm almost gone the team finally got lucky. In August they found eight silver wedges that, when placed together, formed a perfect silver “pie”. The group was reinvigorated. There was treasure out there. It would just take time and more experience to find it.
With renewed hope, Wagner decided to lead his team to another, more promising wreck site further north. It was then, on January 8, 1961, that their fortunes were changed forever. On that day the persistent group located and recovered between 3,500 and 4,000 silvers coins…most of which were fused together in two large clumps, one weighing an estimated 77 pounds and containing approximately 1,500 to 2,000 coins. On their next trip to the site in mid February they found another clump containing about 2,000 coins with an estimated value of $30,000 to $40,000. They were truly on their way. But, with fame and wealth potential problems can develop, even among the best of friends. It was this concern that lead to the creation of the Real Eight Company.
Shortly after their latest discovery, Harry Cannon called Kip and wanted a meeting. Once assembled the idea of forming a Corporation was introduced by Harry Cannon. At first Kip resisted the idea believing that a man’s word and handshake should be good enough. But, after fully discussing the matter, it was decided that a corporation should be formed. When the question of what to call the new company was brought up Kip suggested “Real Eight”, which he automatically associated with pieces of eight. And so, the Real Eight Company was born.
On April 17, 1961 another meeting was held at which time officers of the new corporation were elected and shares of stock were distributed. Kip Wagner was elected president and Dan Thompson was elected executive vice-president and treasurer. Harry Cannon was elected secretary.
What follows is an unsigned copy of the Articles of Incorporation of the Real Eight Company Inc. The company was incorporated in 1961. From our research it appears that the incorporation occurred in the early part of the year. Although the original Real Eight Company had eight members there were only seven incorporators. Kip Kelso, an original member of the group, was not one if it’s incorporators.
The company originally issued 1000 shares which were divided as follows:
Kip Wagner 145 shares
Kip Kelso 145 shares
Dan Thompson 120 shares
Harry Cannon 120 shares
Delphine Long 120 shares
Louis Ullian 120 shares
E.W. Taylor 120 shares
Lisbon Futch 110 shares
March 7th 1961 letter from Mendel Peterson, Curator of the Smithsonian Institution, to Kip Wagner about coins he received from Kip Wagner to study.
May 1, 1961 letter from numismatist Robert I. Nesmith, Curator of Foul Anchor Archives, to the Real Eight Company rendering his opinion as to the authenticity of silver coins (“cobs”) found by Real Eight off the Florida coast. He also comments on the historic significance of these coins.
Undated letter from Harry E. Cannon Secretary of the Real “8” Company, Incorporated describing “Cob” coins of the Mexico City mint.
November 7, 1961 Contract for Exploration between the State of Florida (the Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund) and the Real Eight Company for a six year extension of it’s lease together with a description of the leased area. This lease extended a prior lease which was set to expire on March 10, 1963. This is one of many leases executed between the State of Florida and the Real Eight Company.
November 12, 1962 letter from Kip Wagner sent to a client who purchased a silver eight reales. Wagner describes the coin in detail and sets forth his opinion to why he chose this particular coin to send to his customer. A picture of the coin described in this letter has been superimposed on the bottom of the page. Also included is a letter from his client dated March 14, 1967. The letter is from Mexico and reads as follows:
“To whom it may concern:
The pieces of eight reales in my possession are part of the treasure recovered by the Real Eight Corporation from the 1715 Plate Fleet wrecked off the coast of Florida, opposite my home in Sebastian, Florida; and were received from Dr. Kip Wagner in exchange for various artifacts of Spanish and Indian origin which are presently on display in the Real Eight Museum at Satellite Beach Florida. These coins were minted in Mexico city during the years of 1712, 1713 and 1714 and are the only ones in existence of these years coinage due to the fact that all ten of the galleons were wrecked and practically no appreciable amount was recovered in subsequent by the Spanish. The total number of 8 reales recovered by Dr. Wagner is approx. 150,000 Eight Reales in silver and 5,000 Escudos in gold.
Homer M. Cato”
A January 16, 1963 letter to a friend commenting on a meeting Kip Wagner had with Henry Christensen before the October 1964 Christensen auction.
May 20, 1963, agreement between Mel Fischer and the Real Eight Company. This contract has historical significance because this agreement helped to launch Mel Fisher’s career in Florida as a major player in the recovery of shipwreck treasure. The circumstances surrounding the execution of this agreement and what happened after the agreement was signed is outlined in Kip Wagner’s famous book “Pieces of Eight” published in 1966.
Rare and Historic Real Eight Company Contract
August 8, 1963
This is the original “second contract” between the Real Eight Company and three individuals named Don Neiman, Bruce Ward and Frank Allen. The contract called for the Real Eight Company to search a special location where Neiman and Ward had found some gold coins. It is referred to as the “second contract” because the first agreement (prepared the same day) failed to mention where the actual treasure hunting was to take place. So, they quickly drew up another agreement (the “second contract”) with the required information. This contract called for the Real Eight Company to salvage a shipwreck (now known as the Nieves). This is the “working copy” original of the agreement. As a result of this agreement the Real Eight Company sublet the site to a friend from California…..Mel Fisher! And, as they say, the rest is history. On May 24, 1964, just before they were about to give up, Fisher and his crew found 1.033 gold coins. From that point on Fisher stayed in Florida and went on to bigger and better things. This document and the story behind it are displayed below.
STATEMENT OF DON NEIMAN
February 18, 2005
Around mid-summer in 1963, I was driving my beach buggy down the beach from Ft. Pierce to Stuart looking for glass floats, ambergris, bottles and any other interesting “artifacts.” At a point just North of the “Colored Beach” access road as it was referred to then, I noticed a large fragment of reddish orange material and upon further examination I recognized this as terra cotta…my prior knowledge gained from reading. I knew that terra cotta pottery was associated with Spanish shipwrecks. Later that week, I returned to that area taking along my old Fisher M-scope metal detector just to check it out. That same area contained black soil because of the mineralized sand. Within several minutes of working the edge of the “cut away” area of the beach, I found a heavily oxidized silver coin that appeared very old. More research into the known wrecks of the Spanish galleons and looking at pictures of “old silver coins” made me realize that it might just be possible that these coins were coming from an unknown wreck.
Within about a month, going every day or two to this same area, I found many silver and copper coins, small fragments of lead sheathing, more terra cotta pot shards, several gold coins, and a couple of silver rings and one cross. About June or July I was again metal detecting the area and noticed a man walking toward me with a metal detector. Eventually we met, introduced ourselves (his name was Bruce Ward) and swapped treasure stories from Indian relics to old bottles. Neither of us mentioned Spanish coins or treasure. We both decided to quit for the day and walked together back to our vehicles. As we were walking we were swinging our metal detectors in a very hap-hazard manner. Within a minute or two my detector gave a loud beep as I was crossing a small narrow washed out area. I back tracked my steps, zeroed in on the reading and about three inches under the sand I found an 8 escudo with the full date of 1714! My newly met acquaintance let out a holler of joy and I did too. Before we got to our cars, we both had divulged the finds we had made at this area and agreed a wreck must be nearby. Bruce had found a few silver coins as well.
Within another week we met again and decided (as a team) to rent a boat and search for ballast. However, neither of us had the funds to rent a boat and scuba gear. Bruce knew how to dive and I was familiar with boats. Consequently, we decided if we could find someone to finance our hunt by offering a partnership, we just might be able to locate underwater evidence of a wreck. I had heard of a coin collector by the name of Frank Allen who lived near Orlando that might be interested in this venture. He informed us that he had the money to invest with us and definitely wanted in as an equal split partner for anything that might be found in the water. Frank was not able to participate in any of the physical activities as he was busy teaching school (I think) and taking care of a newly inherited grove.
Bruce and I made many trips to the site but failed to find anything but several ballast stones under the water. We both realized, however, that the “good stuff” was probably buried under the sand. We decided we had gathered enough hard evidence from the surface to estimate the general direction of the wreck by triangulation. We knew it would be scattered and under the sand due to the violent manner in which the ship sank during the 1715 hurricane.
Bruce, Frank and myself formed a verbal partnership formally when all three of us met to eat at a little restaurant just North of Vero Beach. At that same time we agreed to take all the coins and artifacts to a man known to have knowledge of Spanish shipwrecks…Kip Wagner. Bruce entrusted me with some of his coins and along with all of my material I made an appointment with Kip Wagner. He was amazed with what we showed him and within 30 minutes agreed it was a 1715 wreck. As president of the Reale 8 company he initiated a contract right then and there with Reale 8 doing the “digging.” We discussed the terms and I wrote up the first contract but an omission of the location was left out. Consequently, Kip’s wife wrote the second document immediately correcting this. We all agreed to the second contract and signed it. As it turned out Kip, without our knowledge, sublet the digging to a friend in California (Mel Fisher) who had nothing to do with our initial contracts.
The foregoing statements are true to the best of my recollection. There could be errors or omissions as the happened 42 years ago.
After writing the above article it was brought to our attention that we had erroneously identified the “first contract” (shown below) as the “second contract”. We have corrected our error and provided a short narrative written by William A. Pearson, President, Forecastle Treasures, explaining the interesting history behind the “first contract”.
Note the striped appearance of the document which resulted from discoloration when another document was placed over it in a frame.
October 10, 1963 Letter of agreement between Universal Salvage Company and the Real Eight Company (designated Real “8” Company Inc.) for the purpose of salvaging shipwrecks along the east coast of Florida. Note the handwritten comment on the bottom left of the agreement that says “This agreement expires Aug 1, 1965 when another agreement may be made if agreeable to both parties.”
July 13, 1964, letter from James T. Williams, Chief of the State Land Office Section of the Trustees of the Internal Development Fund to Kip Wagner President of the Real Eight Company Inc., enclosing a fully executed Lease Agreement No. 1329-A bearing a date of June 30, 1964.
The lease agreement sets forth in specific detail the areas leased by the State of Florida to the Real Eight Company together with site numbers, longitudes and latitudes.
August 1, 1964 letter from the firm of Person and Zirilli, Auditors, to the Real Eight Company Inc. enclosing an inventory of coins and artifacts found by the Real Eight Company. The auditors were appointed by the State of Florida to inventory Real Eight Company findings to ascertain the State distrubition of 25%. The inventory itself, dated July 21, 1964, consists of ten pages.
Real Eight Company Gallery of Spanish Treasure
In the fall of 1964 the Real Eight Company made a decision to create their own museum. On May 1st 1965 the museum was opened next to the First National Bank of Satellite Beach about 35 miles north of Sebastian, Florida. In July 1968 the Real Eight Company moved their museum to a larger facility located at Cape Canaveral Florida. The “Museum of Sunken Treasure” displayed many of the gold and silver coins, jewelry, priceless Chinese porcelain and other artifacts recovered by the Company. The museum also had a gift shop where visitors were able to buy replicas of treasure coins as well as jewelry.
The following photographs depict images of the Real Eight Company Museum of Sunken Treasure. According to former Real Eight member, John Jones, the museum opened in 1968 and closed in 1974.
Real Eight Company Gallery of Spanish Treasure
These historic archival brochures are from the Real 8 Company Gallery of Spanish Treasure. Although undated it is believed that these brochures were used from the late 1960’s to early 1970’s . Courtesy of Frank Noga.
September 2nd, 1970 letter from Robert Williams, Director of the Division of Archives, History and Records Management to the Real Eight Company with a contract of exploration awarded to the company by the Department of State.
August 26th, 1971 letter from Real Eight Company member Dan Thompson to Treasure Salvors Inc. for the delivery of a Magnetometer. Note that the letter was received by and signed by Mel Fisher on August 27, 1971.
1970 Annual Report of the Real Eight Company. This Annual report to the stockholders of the Company outlined the status of the Company. The report indicates that the principle activities of the Real Eight Company, Inc., encompassed the recovery of sunken Spanish treasure from Florida coastal waters and other locations. Another principle activity of the Company was to operate the Museum of Sunken Treasure which became a very popular tourist attraction in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Report also includes financial statistics regarding the viability of the company. Kip Wagner, founder of the Company and Chairman of the Board, reached retirement age and officially retired at the end of the fiscal year. Harry E. Cannon was elected Chairman of the Board and John P. Jones was elected President of the Company on August 13th 1970. The Company also reported to its stockholders that it successfully eliminated its dependence on treasure hunting by establishing itself as a manufacturer and distributor of sophisticated underwater vehicles, underwater cameras and lighting systems, oceanographic instrumentation, electro-optical devices and closed circuit tv systems through Real Eight Ocean Systems Inc., formally known as Rebikoff Underwater Products, Inc.
1971 Annual Report of the Real Eight Company. This annual report was not as optimistic as the 1970 report. The letter to the stockholders indicates that “new management responsibilities, new accounting systems, new auditors, company consolidation and reorganization and a multitude of other internal and external factors have caused inordinate delays and excessive efforts.” Despite this cautionary comment the stockholders were given some optimism in that it was believed that “Our company is in a far better posture than ever before and our future has never been brighter.” It should be noted that the letter to the stockholders was issued later in the year than was expected.