300-Year-Old Spanish Shipwreck Holds Million Dollar Treasure

Divers found gold in part of a Spanish fleet that was obliterated during a hurricane 300 years ago.

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Some of the gold coins treasure-hunters recovered from the wreck of a Spanish cargo ship that sank off the Florida coast in 1715.

Shipwreck divers have announced quite the anniversary present for the flagship of a 1715 Spanish treasure fleet, the Capitana: 52 gold coins, 40 feet of gold chain, and 110 silver coins and buttons all worth over one million dollars.

The find, made over a month ago on June 17, was kept under wraps until now. The Florida family that made the discovery, led by Eric Schmitt, wanted to wait so their announcement would coincide with the 300-year anniversary of the fleet's sinking off the coast of Florida.

The 11 ships were part of Spain's Tierra Firme and New Spain fleets, regular convoys of vessels that transported gold, silver, and other precious resources from Spanish colonies in the New World to Europe. (Read about another shipwreck that was part of the Tierra Firma fleet.)

The ships sank during a hurricane that hit them on July 30 and 31, 1715 as they sailed past Florida on their way back to Spain. (Read about a cursed warship that sank with treasure onboard.)

Schmitt and his family had been working the 1715 vessels under contract with 1715 Fleet-Queens Jewels LLC, a Florida company with exclusive rights to the wrecks, for several years.

Unexpected Haul

Usually Schmitt and his team come up empty-handed. "Typically we excavate empty holes and find beer cans," the shipwreck diver says.

But this time, in 15 feet (4.5 meters) of water about 1,000 feet (305 meters) off a beach in Fort Pierce, Florida, the divers got lucky.

The day started out like any other, Schmitt says. But around 9 or 9:30 in the morning, a gold coin popped out of the sand he was clearing on the seafloor. The dive team started to shift more sand, and ended up recovering the treasure. "It was absolutely unreal," says Schmitt. He called Brent Brisben, co-founder of 1715 Fleet-Queens Jewels to check out their discovery. "I was blown away," Brisben says. "I was literally shaking."

Brisben and his company's contractors have been working the wrecks since 2010. But the current find "is probably the biggest in terms of volume and rarity," he says. The gold coins included an extremely rare specimen called a Tricentennial Royal worth over $500,000.

Regular coins in those days tended to look a bit rough, Brisben says. Their makers were more concerned about the coins' weight and quality of gold or silver. But "they made a certain number of coins perfect, called the Royals, which they would present to the king."

Splitting the Take

Schmitt and his team have continued to work the site that yielded that million-dollar haul. They've found some more silver coins and buttons and several candlesticks since then. But nothing like that initial find.

All of the artifacts are under the jurisdiction of the United States district court of the southern district of Florida under the care of Brisben's company. The state of Florida is entitled to 20 percent of anything Brisben or his contractors find.

Every year, Florida will send representatives to examine anything the teams find, and put in a request for items they'd like to transfer to museums to the Court. If the Court agrees, the company turns the items over, Brisben says.

With the current find, after the state takes its share, Brisben and the Schmitt family will split the rest evenly.

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