1715FleetSociety.com is the Official Website dedicated to researching the history of the 1715 Fleet, its loss, rediscovery, and recovery

1715 Fleet Society History

Florida in the 18th century remained an isolated outpost of the Spanish Empire. Its most important mission was to secure the homeward route of the Spanish New World Treasure Fleets. These fleets had long funded Spain’s now-declining role in European & world affairs. The loss of the 1715 Fleet was another blow to the newly established Bourbon dynasties of Spain. Gold and silver in great quantity was homeward bound to Philip V when a hurricane destroyed his fleet along Florida’s coast. Some recovery in the aftermath still left much to be recovered beginning in the 1960’s and ongoing to this day. Much research remains to be done on the 1715 Fleet and its treasure. The State of Florida has a accumulated a magnificent and yet little studied collection of Fleet material. The 1715 Fleet Society aims to promote public awareness and scholarly study of all facets of the 1715 Fleet disaster.

1715-circle-logo-300About our Logo

The official logo for the 1715 Fleet Society is two Mexican coins minted in 1715 at the Mexico mint located in Mexico City. These coins, a silver eight reale and a gold eight escudo, are actual coins that were chosen by the Real Eight company as Plate coins, the image of which was to be used on their stationery. Real Eight member, the late Lou Ullian, provided a short history concerning how these two coins were actually chosen by Real Eight members:

“The Real Eight Company picked out a gold and silver coin to use on company letterhead. The coins had to have a full date, show the mint mark, show the assayers mark and be well struck with a lot of detail. About fifty coins were chosen. A group of Real Eight members picked two coins. The letterhead used on our early stationery depicted a coin dated 1714. This was before we had many gold coins. We wanted coins dated 1715 since that is when the Fleet sank.”

We thought it appropriate that these two coins should be chosen as our logo.

 

A Concise History of the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet

(Revised August 2018) by John de Bry

With some regularity, two fleets traveled between Spain and the Americas; the Flota de Tierra Firme from Spain to Cartagena and Panama, and the Flota de Nueva España[1] toward Veracruz. Sometimes, these two fleets, or flotas, would travel together all the way to the Caribbean. The return voyage was more dangerous. The galleons were fully loaded with precious cargoes of gold, silver, jewelry, tobacco, spices, indigo, cochineal etc. The crews were tired and often plagued by health problems brought on by tropical diseases, malnutrition, and deplorable hygienic conditions on board. These conditions made ships even more vulnerable to attacks by pirates, but the greatest danger came from an uncontrollable element; the weather. The general weather conditions were more favorable during the summer months. The waters of the Atlantic Ocean were calmer, and the prevailing winds gentler. However, the very warm waters of the South Atlantic contributed to unstable weather, and the then unpredictable rapid development of violent and devastating tropical storms called hurricanes.

As a result of France’s Louis XIV policies of expansionism, Europe was ravaged by two major wars, between 1688 and 1715[2]. These wars disrupted trade between the Americas and the Old Continent, and Spain, highly dependent on the riches of the New World to finance her own policies of expansionism in Europe, suffered greatly. The first of these wars, the War of the Grand Alliance, ended in 1697 with the Treaty of Ryswick[3], but in 1701 another war broke out, this time over the succession of the Spanish crown. Carlos II had died childless, but on his deathbed, had named as his heir Philippe, the grandson of Louis XIV of France. Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor, who wanted to see his son, Archduke Charles, ascend the throne, did not kindly receive this decision. Leopold also wanted to prevent at all cost any close alliance between France and Spain. War broke out, with England and the Dutch on one side, and Spain, France, Portugal, Bavaria, and Savoy on the other.

The seas and oceans became the scene of naval battles and vicious encounters between merchant vessels and privateers. The sea routes between Spain and the Americas were no longer safe, and the vital flow of New World treasure was practically stopped. Things were going badly for young Philip V and his kingdom. In the year 1702 Spain received a tremendous blow when a large English naval force entered Vigo Bay, on the northwestern coast of Spain. An all-out battle ensued, with the English sinking a large number of warships, capturing others and seizing goods and treasure. The English sank another Spanish treasure ship in 1708, capturing another, and in 1711 another one of Philip’s ship was destroyed by a hurricane off the coast of Cuba. The War of Succession came to a close in 1715 by a series of treaties known as the Peace of Utrecht[4]. The treaty between England and France confirmed Philip V’s succession to the throne of Spain, while Philip renounced his rights to the French throne. England was given Newfoundland, the island of St. Christopher, and the Hudson Bay territory. Although the war had ended, the peace was an uneasy one, and much friction remained between the former foes.

Toward the end of this period of hostilities, Spain was in dire need of financial relief. At the King’s order, a fleet was dispatched to America in order to bring back urgently needed gold and silver, which had been accumulating during the war. The eleven ships making up the fleet assembled in Havana in the summer of 1715. The fleet was made up of the Escuadrón de Tierra Firme, which served the South American trade routes out of Cartagena, and of the Flota de Nueva España, which served the trade of Mexico and Manila Galleons, out of Veracruz on the southeastern coast of present-day Mexico. The Griffon, a French warship of the Fourth Rate[5] [6] under the command of Captain Antoine d’Aire[7], on an official mission in Veracruz to collect 48,801 piatres[8] (pieces of eight) from the Duke of Linares, Governor of Veracruz, money due by Royal Decree from the King of Spain to pay for the service of two ships, the Apollon and the Triton[9], was forced to sail with the Spanish combined fleet out of Havana. Now, everyone was busy getting ready for the long and treacherous journey back to Spain. Additional cargo was being loaded. Inventories were taken; fresh water and victuals were placed aboard each ship. After a two-year delay, the mighty Plate Fleet was ready to sail home to Spain[10].

The Storm

The Squadron of Tierra Firme was under the command of Capitán de Mar y Guerra Don Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza[11], and consisted of six vessels. The Capitán de Mar y Tierra was in direct command of the capitana, the flagship, a captured English ship formerly named the Hampton Court, laden with a great number of chests of silver coins, gold coins, gold bars, gold dust, and jewelry, as well as tropical organic products[12]. The flagship of the admiral, the almiranta, was equally richly laden. The Nuestra Señora de la Concepción carried gold coins and gold bars, as well as a number of chests of silver coins. The frigate Señor San Miguel, the El Ciervo (Nuestra Señora del carmen), and a patache, a smaller merchant vessel, completed the squadron.

The five ships of the New Spain Flota were under the command of General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla. Ubilla was himself on the capitana, which carried some thirteen hundred chests containing 3,000,000 silver coins[13]. There were also gold coins, gold bars, silver bars, and jewelry, as well as emeralds, pearls, and precious Kangxi Chinese export porcelain which had been brought to Mexico by the Manila Galleons. The almiranta carried nearly a thousand chests of silver coins, each individual chest containing some 3,000 coins. The refuerzo[14] carried eighty-one chests of silver coins and over fifty chests of worked silver. Another ship, a patache[15], carried some 44,000 pieces of eight. One frigate helped complete the flotilla. The French warship Griffon, commanded by Captain Antoine d’Aire, was forced to sail with the fleet; the Spaniards, although allied with the French, mistrusted them and feared that word of the fleet’s departure would leak out, thus compromising the safety of the richly laden galleons[16]. Captain Antoine d’Aire reported that the fleet’s entire cargo was estimated at 15 million silver piastres (pieces of eight)[17].

The fleet had suffered many delays, and had been sitting idle for nearly two years. Pressure had been mounting for the fleet to sail. The Spanish crown was in dire need of money; so were merchants, unable to make their exotic goods available for sale on the European market. Under this tremendous pressure, Ubilla made the decision to start the long and perilous voyage back to the Old World, even though the hurricane season had long begun. This decision would prove to be fatal, for unknown to the Spaniards a tremendous and exceptionally powerful hurricane was brewing to the southeast of Cuba. The great treasure fleet of 1715 sailed from Havana harbor in the early morning of July 24th, a beautiful and calm day, with a gentle breeze to help the ships find the Florida current which ran north and up the Straits of Florida (the Gulf Stream). Slowly and smoothly the ships of Ubilla’s fleet gently followed the East coast of Florida, staying far enough away from the shore to take advantage of the Gulf Stream, staying clear of the treacherous shoals and reef formations which fringed the Florida coast. For the first five days the voyage was uneventful with the weather remaining good and giving no indication whatsoever of the rapidly approaching killer storm. But on July 29th, long swells started to appear, coming from the southeast. The atmosphere became heavy with moisture with the sun shining brightly through the haze. A gentle breeze still blew and the sea was smooth, but the swells started to make the ship gently dip and roll. Experienced navigators, pilots, and old hands started to be concerned. They knew that these were the early signs of an impending tropical storm.

The storm was traveling north, almost due east of the convoy, but still many miles away. The storm had reached alarming intensity with winds at the center of the storm now reaching one hundred miles per hour[18]. By nightfall the hurricane had made a drastic change in course, suddenly veering directly to the west. On the morning of July 30th, along the east coast of Florida, just south of Cape Canaveral, winds had begun to pick up and by midday had increased to well over twenty knots and the sea was rapidly building up. By late afternoon winds had increased to over thirty knots and the waves were reaching twenty feet. Ubilla’s fleet was relentlessly driven closer and closer to shore. The General gave the order that all ships head into the wind in order to stay well clear of the reef and shoals, but the attempt was marginally successful. The velocity of the wind kept increasing, and by midnight, the ships were barely under control. Around 4 a.m. on July 31st, the hurricane struck the doomed ships with all its might, driving one ship after another on the deadly jagged reefs. The ships broke up like wooden toys. Ubilla’s capitana disintegrated, crushed on the reef like matchsticks. Almost all aboard were killed, including Ubilla[19]. The entire fleet was lost, and of the some twenty five hundred persons aboard various ships, well over one thousand perished. The only ship to survive the storm was the French warship Griffon, Captain Antoine d’Aire having chosen to head towards the northeast and into the storm; arriving in Brest on the coast of Brittany on August 31st, 1715[20], d’Aire was unaware of the fact that all the Spanish ships had perished[21].

For those who had miraculously survived, the ordeal was just beginning. They were stranded in an inhospitable land, infested with disease-carrying mosquitoes, rattle snakes, wild animals, and hostile Indians, far from any settlement, without food, fresh water, or badly needed medical supplies. When daylight came on that dreadful morning of July 31st, 1715, the full extent of the disaster could then be seen. The beaches of la Florida were littered with wreckage and bodies, and the survivors of this human tragedy were trying to comprehend what had happened to them. They were attempting to find their actual location. As the ships had wrecked at different locations, and were separated by sometimes several miles, it was impossible for the survivors to fully assess the extent of the disaster. Stranded in this inhospitable land without food, water, or medical supplies, many were dying each day, adding to the already devastating number of casualties. Admiral Don Francisco Salmon undertook to immediately survey the extent of the damage. After deducing that all ships had been wrecked, he decided, on August 6th, to send Nicolas de India, Ubilla’s pilot, and 18 men, in a launch toward the island of Cuba, to give the alert, and to send a personal message to the governor, Vicente de Raja[22]. It took eleven days for the small boat to reach Havana. The alert had been given. However at least three ships were missing, including two vessels that were lost from sight, according to survivors, some 36 hours before the sinking of the fleet[23]. Among the three was the Santa Rita y las Animas aka la Marigaleta, bought in Havana by General Juan Esteban de Ubilla from her owner Felix de Acosta Hurtado on 15th of July 1715[24].

Within a few days several ships were leaving Havana harbor, loaded with emergency supplies, salvage equipment, government officials and soldiers, on their way to the east coast of Florida. Salvage was to begin as soon as the relief expedition reached the survivors camps. Success came early as salvage sloops dragged the ocean floor for wreckage and quickly brought up chests of coins, as well as jewelry and gold. The Havana salvage flotilla was soon joined by Florida ships sent from St. Augustine to help in the recovery effort. By early September such was the success of the salvage team that Admiral Salmon wrote the governor asking him to send 25 soldiers and ammunition to guard the King’s treasure as well as private properties that had been salvaged from the various shipwrecks.

By the time the weather and sea conditions had become unsuitable for continuing salvage, in late October of the same year, over 5,000,000 pieces of eight had been recovered along with gold and jewelry, and a great part of the King’s treasure. Although salvage was essentially completed, efforts continued well into 1718. News of the disaster had swept the Americas and Europe much like the news of the Market crash would some 220 years later, and privateers, pirates and looters converged toward Palmar de Ays (near present day Sebastian, Florida) like ravenous vultures. Early in January 1716, pirate Henry Jennings aboard his well-armed sloop, the 40-ton Barsheba, and John Wills aboard his 35-ton Eagle, both having been commissioned by governor Hamilton of Jamaica, attacked the Spanish salvage camp at Palmar de Ays, and detained the defenders (no casualties were reported) while looting the camp. They made off with some 120,000 pieces of eight and other valuables, as well as two bronze cannon and two large iron guns. When the Spaniards abandoned the salvage camp in 1718, great treasure still remained on the ocean floor. Some of the wreck sites were clearly marked by portions of the ships structures which could be observed protruding above water at low tide. For years after the official completion of the salvage operation, merchant ships sailing these waters would “fish” for treasure.

Little by little the sites faded from memory and the great 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet would eventually be forgotten and left undisturbed for nearly 250 years. In 1960 the modern age of treasure hunting was ushered in by Real Eight Corporation. Their recoveries from the 1715 fleet are told in Kip Wagner’s Pieces of Eight[25].

Where are the Missing Shipwrecks?

We now know that at least three ships were never found by the Spaniards; General Juan Estban de Ubilla’s small frigate he bought in Havana on July 15th, 1715, the Santa Rita y Animas; and two ships believed to have been part of Echeversz’s Tierra Firme Fleet[26]; the El Señor San Miguel and the French Prize known as El Ciervo. If we take out one of those ships from the equation, then two ships salvaged by the Spaniards were never found in modern time. In the French Prize thought to be El Ciervo, one of Echeverz’s son was on board as well as Captain Juan Alonso de Figueroa, and two important passengers from Guatemala, the other people onboard remain unknown[27]. It should be pointed out that there also was a Concepción in Ubilla’s fleet, the Santissima Trinidad y Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, which tends to confuse historians[28]. Treasure hunter and author Robert “Frogfoot” Weller assigned names to known 1715 Fleet shipwrecks, but it should be emphasized that his naming of those wrecks is not based on any physical evidence, just personal opinion and the amount of treasure found on each wreck, thus the names assigned to those ships cannot be seriously considered[29].

The main salvage vessel operating out of Cuba was the El Principe de Asturias, and the man in charge of the salvage operation was the Marquis Don Fernando Chacón[30]. All archival documents seem to say that all shipwrecks were from Cape Canaveral to the south with an emphasis on Ubilla’s capitana sunk at Palmar de Ays, across from the Ays River known today as the Sebastian River (see pp. 17-18) [31].

As mentioned above, not a single known 1715 Fleet shipwreck has been identified securely. Names have been attributed by treasure hunters, mostly one, based on the amount of gold, silver, jewelry, and other artifacts[32]. The questionable identification has been repeated by other writers and amateur historians. The only shipwreck that can be identified with a certain degree of accuracy is the Cabin Wreck, about two miles south of the Sebastian Inlet. Designated by the State of Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research (FBAR) as 8IR23, it is the first 1715 Fleet wreck discovered and salvaged by Kip Wagner and his Real Eight Company. This tentative identification is due to three major factors; (1) a map drafted by Bernard Romans in 1774 and published in 1781, showing the Sebastian River with a notation that “opposite this River, perished the Admiral commanding the Plate Fleet 1715, the rest of the Fleet 14 in number. Between this & ye Bleech Yard.” Directly below this notation a place-name is indicated by the name “el Palmar” with small drawings of five palm trees[33]. (2) numerous archival documents found in Spain and Cuba indicate that General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla died aboard his capitana across from the Sebastian River, then called the Ays River, and (3) the amount of silver coins, mostly minted in Mexico, found on this particular shipwreck by the Real Eight Company in the 1960s, indicating a warship, in this case a capitana of the New Spain fleet.

Of the eleven ships making up the 1715 Fleet, one managed to get away, le Griffon captained by Antoine d’Aire, all the Spanish ships sunk, but two that were salvaged by the Spanish from 1715 to about 1718 were never found in modern times, and at least two were lost at sea with all souls. Those ships are thought to be El Señor San Miguel and the French Prize known as El Ciervo (renamed Nuestra Señora del carmen, but referred to as El Ciervo, i.e. The Stag, to avoid confusion). On El Ciervo one of Echeverz’s son was on board as well as Captain Juan Alonso de Figueroa. We come to this conclusion based on a single document found in Spanish archives that indicates that (1) the Señor San Miguelle trago el mar,” which means “the sea swallowed it,” and the “French Prize” because the document mentions that “se decir (sic) [se dice] recorrío la misma fortuna que el registro porque no parece,” which translates  to “it is said that it encountered the same [mis]fortune as the registro[34] [Señor San Miguel] because it has not appeared.” The document further states that “on board the Señor San Miguel known persons were Captain and Pilot Don Joseph Corto de Melo, Don Domingo and Don Thomas Moynos, both residents of Cádiz, and Don Joseph Tamorlan,” and aboard the French Prize (Nuestra Señora del carmen) “were the known persons, a son of Cheves (sic) [Echeverz], Captain Don Juan Alonso de Figueroa, two passengers from Guatemala, the rest are unknown.[35]” It is unlikely that Echeverz’s Concepción can be listed as missing because the same document mentions that this particular Concepción had one hundred thirty (130) casualties making it clear that there were survivors and the location of the shipwreck was known. As for the Santa Rita aka Marigaleta, thanks to on-going research by my colleague Jorge Proctor, we now have reason to believe that it could be the Douglass Beach Wreck south of Ft. Pierce and mistakenly identified as the Nuestra Señora de las Nieves.  The fact that neither ship was ever heard of does not mean they floundered and sank in the open sea, it simply means that the ships might have sunk close to shore, far to the south or north, like the other ships in the fleet, and that there were no survivors.

[1] Nueva España was the Spanish name for Mexico.
[2] Le Petit Larousse Illustré, Larousse, Paris 2007.
[3] Larousse, op. cit.
[4] Philippe kept the crown of Spain but renounced his eligibility to the crown of France. Louis XIV gave up several places, such as Tournai, Ypres, etc., to the United Provinces (Holland), and recognized the Protestant succession of England, and the Elector of Brandburg as King of Russia. England received important naval bases such as Gibraltar, Minorca, Nova Scotia, and Acadia.
[5] Archives nationales de France, MARINE B/5/3.
[6] 500-ton, 69-gun frigate built in Lorient in 1705.
[7] AnF, MAR/C/1/160 and AnF & AE/B/I/222, fol. 132-136v, d’aire or DAire (Antoine) – Son of Jean Daire and Anne Martin ; married on 25 August 1691 with Marie-Thérèse Lamordière, five children; died in Toulon on 12 December 1734. Former Guard in the Marines (Toulon 1 March 1674), ship’s lieutenant (1 January 1682), galiote lieutenant (1 January 1684), galiote Captain (1 May 1688), artillery captain (Brest, 1 March 1692), hip captain (Toulon, 1 May 1694) ; retired with 2,000 livres tournois from the Navy and  1,500 livres tournois disability following being wounded off of Spain between 1704 and 1715.
[8] Archives nationales de France, MARINE 1 B1 1, folio 53 v.
[9] Ibid.
[10] The word “Plate” is derived from the Spanish “plata” for silver.
[11]Don Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza, Capitan de Mar y Tierra of the Tierra Firme fleet, the son of the richest man in Panama (Pérez-Mallaína & Ramírez 1987:317).
[12] Florida’s Golden Galleons: The Search for the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet, Robert F. Burgess & Carl J. Clausen, pp. 34-35, Florida Classics Library, Port Salerno, Florida 1982.
[13] Archivo General de Indias, Consulados 854.
[14] A refuerzo was a military ship, strongly armed as backup for the protection of the merchant ships.
[15] A patache was smaller, fast ship, often used as a dispatch vessel to bring urgent news and orders.
[16] In his 1975 book, “The Funnel of Gold”, historian Mendel Peterson estimated the value of the registered cargo of the combined fleet at 7,000,000 pieces of eight, clearly an underestimation.
[17] Archives nationales de France, Marine B7 101, pp. 593-594.
[18] Hurricanes of the Caribbean and Adjacent Regions, 1492-1800, by José Carlos Millás, Case 13, pp. 172-173, Academy of the Arts and Sciences of the Americas, Miami, Florida 1968.
[19] Armada Española, Fernández Cesáreo Duro, Vol. VI, p. 125, Impresadores de la Real Casa, Madrid 1900.
[20] Archives nationales de France, MARINE B/1/1
[21] Archives nationales de France, MARINE B/2/242
[22]Archives nationales de France, MARINE, B1 1, folios 156 verso, 157 recto.
[23]Ibid., folios 156 verso.
[24] Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Protocolo Notarial de Junco, fol. 192 recto – 194 recto.
[25] ­Pieces of Eight, Kip Wagner & L.B. Taylor, Jr., Dutto 1966 & ­National Geographic Magazine, Drowned Galleons Yield Spanish Gold, by Kip Wagner, Photographs by Otis Imboden, pp. 1-35, January 1965, Vol. 127, No. 1.
[26] Fleet from South America
[27] Archivo General de Indias, Consulados 855, fol. 136-137.
[28] Archivo General de Indias, Consulados 854, fol. 1-107.
[29] Sunken Treasure on Florida Reefs, Robert “Frogfoot” Weller, ISBN 0-9628359-1-9, 1987.
[30] Archivo General de Indias, Consulados 854, fol. 975 recto to 1925.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Sunken Treasure on Florida Reefs, op. cit., pp. 6,16, 24, 30, 52, 58.
[33] National Geographic Magazine, op. cit. p. 9.
[34] A registro is a ship that has been registered to be part of the fleet, indicating that both ships were merchant ships.
[35] Archivo General de Indias, Consulados 855, Relación de los navíos que se perdieron en la costa de Florida. 31 de julio de 1715, folios 136 recto to 137 recto.