Shipwrecks and Sunken Treasure

The treasure of sunken ships seems the stuff of glory gone by, told in swashbuckling stories around the world to a captivated audience. These tales talk of gold and silver beyond your wildest imagination.

For a few lucky people, these sunken treasures came within their grasp.

When one talks of lost treasure, one thinks especially of Spanish galleons, where much of sunken treasure comes from. Some estimate that a third of Spain’s ships full of treasure never made it all the way across the sea.

Spanish colony mints produced gold and silver coins called “cobs”, believed to be a simplification of the name “cabo de barra” (“end of the bar”). Each of these coins had their own unique features as each was created individually; each coin is its own treasure. Unfortunately, the coins struck in the colonies were often shipped back to Spain then melted and re-struck as Spanish coins.

The mid-18th century brought milled coinage, including pillar dollars, which showed two pillars and two globes, and bust dollars showing the portrait of the Spanish king. Coins were minted in 8, 4, 2, 1, ½, and ¼ silver “reales” based on weight (though they often ended up underweight). These were commonly called “doubloons”; the dollar silver coins were “pieces of eight”. These words weren’t just for pirates!

A Spanish Galleon ship.

A Spanish Galleon.

From the 15th century to the 19th, Spain shipped treasure from the Caribbean, Mexican and South American colonies, as well as from South and Central America, back to Spain.

Coins shipped between other countries lie in the ocean too, including coins from Dutch, English, French and Portuguese ships that sunk in the process of journeying from Europe to the Orient.

Silver coins lying underwater will have corroded from salt water and erosion after being stuck in the ocean for 300-400 years. But gold coins usually remain unaffected by the saltwater and are found in great condition.

A lucky few have found treasure at the bottom of the ocean. In 2013, one family of treasure hunters found $300,000 worth of treasure from a 1715 wreck of a ship sailing from Havana to Spain. Plenty of treasure from famous wrecks now lies at the bottom of the ocean for people to discover — if they’re lucky! (We wrote about one such discovery from the wreck of the El Cazador.)

What would you do if you found treasure at the bottom of the ocean?

How a Shipwreck Changed History, Part II: The Treasure

Discover how a fishing boat found the treasure of a lifetime…

Last week, we learned about the shipwreck that changed history, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and indirectly causing the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the United States in size.

But what happened to the ship and its contents – namely the 400,000 silver reales on board?

The famous scene from Treasure Island where the huge treasure trove is discovered.

The famous scene from Treasure Island when the treasure is discovered.

One lucky fisherman found out on the fateful day of August 2, 1993. Jerry Murphy was fishing on a boat ironically named “Mistake” when his trawler got caught in something on the floor of the ocean. At first, they thought it was rock or debris, but when they pulled the net up a shower of silver coins appeared instead.

Murphy had come upon a stash of hundreds of Mexican silver coins, all dated 1783.

Immediately realizing the potential he had hit upon, Murphy marked the spot with a plotter and went to make a few calls.

First he called up his uncle Jim, partial owner of “Mistake”, and told him the news. They could hardly believe their luck.

Then Jerry called a lawyer, and in three days, they gained legal rights to the shipwreck.

They also hired a researcher of maritime history who extensively researched the wreck.

If you’ve read Part I, you know the rest: the wreck was found to be that of El Cazador, the ship that sank and lost its hundreds of thousands of coins to the bottom of the sea.

A Spanish piece of eight from 1803.

A Spanish piece of eight from 1803. (via Jerry “Woody” on Flickr)

The coins found in the shipwreck included Pieces of Eight, the coin famous for its inclusion in classic adventure novels. Also known as a Spanish 8 Reales silver coin, the 8 Reales was the first U.S. dollar used in commerce and trade. It was used as legal currency until 1857.

Today, pieces from the El Cazador are available for sale from The Franklin Mint, offering the chance to hold a piece of history in your hands.

What would you do if you found treasure at the bottom of the ocean?