Silver Cobs

In the mid-1500’s, additional silver deposits were discovered in the colonial territories and there was a pressing demand to export it to Spain. Starting in the reign of Philip II, the mints produced irregular coinage called cobs. Instead of rolling out a bar of silver into a sheet of a specific thickness that could then be cut into smooth round planchets; a bar of silver was simply cut into chunks of the appropriate weight. These small sliver clumps were then treated as if they were finished planchets and got hammer struck between crude dies. The size, shape and impression of these cobs were highly irregular but they were the proper weight, cobs were quite thick and disfigured with large cracks. The uneven clumps made poor planchets and it was common for only a small portion of the image on the die to be impressed on the silver. If a cob was overweight the minter simply clipped a piece off, further disfiguring the coin. During the seventeenth century a few full sized finished coins called “royal or presentation strikes” by present day collectors were also produced but it was only the crude cob that was mass produced.

With intention of easily being able to ship to Spain, these crude but accurately weighed cobs were produced. In Spain the cobs would be melted down to produce silver jewelry, coins, bars and other items. Cobs also circulated as coinage, with many cobs making their way to the English colonies where they were used both as coins in commerce and hoarded for their silver content. The cobs’ unusual shape and sizes made it quite easy for colonials to clip off some silver and then pass the coin off at full value. Furthermore, because of their crude design it was easy to make lightweight counterfeit cobs using the clipped silver. Many clipped and lightweight Spanish cobs were melted down in Boston to make the Massachusetts silver coinage.

Cobs were produced in denominations of one, two, four and eight reales under Philip II Coin2 (1)(1556-1598) and Philip III (1598-1621). A half real cob was added under Philip IV (1621-1665). Cobs continued to be produced through the reigns of Charles II (1665-1700), Philip V (1700-1724 and 1725-1746), Louis I (1725), Ferdinand VI (1746-1759) and Charles III (1759-1788). The obverse of a cob displays the crowned Hapsburg shield with the mintmark and assayer initial to the left and the denomination to the right of the shield. The legend, although frequently missing from the planchet, was some variation of the name of the king with DEI GRATIA (By the Grace of God). The reverse displays the arms of Castile and Leon within a quatrefoil design. Starting in the seventeenth century most cobs were dated but this information was added to the obverse legend and was usually not picked up in the stamping of the coin.

The first mint in the Americas was established in Mexico City in 1535. A royal decree authorized Herman Cortes to “melt, cast, mark, and put aside the royal-fifth”  of the precious metals taken from the Aztecs; he set up the foundry in the palace of Axayacatl. The Casa de Moneda was officially established when the Queen of Spain signed the Viceroyalty of New Spain into existence on May 11, 1535. The mint began operations in April of 1536.

British colonists were usually prohibited by law from minting coins (with a few exceptions), and colonists often found themselves using Spanish coins. During the Revolutionary War, the new nation tried to implement paper currency, which quickly collapsed. (For fans of the musical “Hamilton,” this is referenced when the young aide-de-camp sings, “Local merchants deny us equipment, assistance, they only take British money, so sing a song of sixpence.”) Spanish dollars continued to be used as reliable currency; when cut into eight pieces, each 1-real piece was referred to as a “bit.” The United States established its own currency in 1792, with the creation of the US Mint, but the terms “two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar” have remained in our vocabulary for over 200 years.

Dating and locating a cob can be difficult. If an assayer’s initials are present and the mint Coin1 (1)is known then some dating parameters may be determined, as the dates of appointment are available for many assayers. Also, particular details on the obverse shield differ for each ruler so some examples without other clues can often be dated to a specific king, if the shield is distinct. If the mintmark is missing the reverse cross may assist in identifying the mint. Such as, a Jerusalem cross with a ball at each extremity denotes the Mexico mint. A variety of other specific details may assist in making attributions; consultation of regional studies may allow one to narrow the possibilities, especially if a coin can be assigned to a specific time period.

Unparalleled Exploration: How New World Treasure Fueled Spain’s Empire

Exploration and currency are inextricably linked; as explorers moved around the globe, they took their coins and other wealth with them. As trade was established, these coins began to move along the trade routes.

 

1024px-Map_of_HispaniolaAlthough the Vikings (and possibly other Western civilizations) had visited the New World, formal discovery with the addition of trade was not established until the late 15th century. The Spanish Empire’s influence on the Americas began in 1492 with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus; Spain would eventually control most of North, Central, and South America. Regardless of danger and a high death rate, by 1500AD, there were nearly a thousand Spanish settlers in the Hispaniola region (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic.)

 

Expeditions quickly moved inwards as more ships arrived from the European mainland. Nueva Cádiz was founded in 1500 in Venezula, followed by Alonso de Ojeda in Colombia. Cumaná, in modern-day Venezuela, was the first permanent European settlement, though  it was destroyed by the indigenous peoples several times before its final re-building in 1569.

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One of the most famous—and ruthless—of the Spanish explorers was Hernán Cortés. His forces, with help from the Tlaxcala and other indigenous allies, overthrew the Aztec Empire in just a few years, between 1519 and 1521. The Viceroyalty of New Spain was created in 1535 by Charles V, who appointed Don Antonio de Mendoza as viceroy.

 

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In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and his troops, including indigenous warriors, took the Incan Emperor Atahualpa prisoner, beginning a war that raged for years. It took four decades for Spanish forces to conquer the strongest empire in the Americas. The Spanish encountered the Inca during a time of unrest and civil war, and were able to use the political situation to their advantage, despite smaller numbers of armed soldiers.

 

In the 16th century, over 200,000 Spaniards had made their home in the Americas, with the number swelling to 500,000 in the 17th century. Even after the American Revolution, Spain controlled California through the missions until 1833, when Mexico passed the Secularization Act.

 

While exact numbers are not available, sources indicate that the indigenous population of Caribbean prior to the arrival of Columbus was about 6 million, with several million more in Mexico and South America. These populations declined by up to 90% in many areas by the early 17th century. In addition to coins and trade, the Spanish explorers brought diseases against which the native peoples had no natural resistance. The hard labor and other punishments of the Encomienda system also had an effect.

 

Some of the gold, silver, and other precious items valued by the explorers originally took the form of religious items, which were melted down prior to the voyage to Catholic Spain. It is unknown how many archeological treasures were destroyed in this process.

 

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While Columbia and Brazil produced gold, the main metal coming out of the New World was silver. During the 300 years of Spanish dominance in the Americas, a peso had approximately 25 grams of silver. A Spanish treasure ship could carry as many as two million such coins. According to Timothy R. Walton, “The modern approximate value of the estimated 4 billion pesos produced during the period would come to $527,270,000,000 or €469,839,661,964 (based on silver bullion prices of May 2015).” These coins did not stay predominantly in Spain, but were sent to their allies and trading partners for imports, military supplies and expenses, and other trade expenses. The wealth of the Americas was the foundation for the might of the Spanish Empire.

 

 

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As the Spanish crown insisted on receiving ⅕ of the wealth collected, more and more ships and crews began smuggling unregistered coins and other goods. This makes it difficult to know the exact contents of shipwrecks and other lost treasures, as official records may not show all goods on board.

 

 

 

The Spanish Empire eventually began to decline, and their presence in the New World weakened. But the coins and other goods still circulated the globe, following the trade routes of the legendary sea-faring nation.

The Treasure Fleet That Ruled the World

 

Locations like the Caribbean and the Spanish Main can bring to mind romantic images of clear blue waters, chests of gold, and massive ships loaded with treasure. These waters were once part of some of the busiest trade routes in the world.

 

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From the 1500s through to the early 1800s, fabulous amounts of wealth passed through the Spanish Main on its way to Spain: gems, precious metals, spices, hides, and other items were loaded onto the ships from all over Mexico, and Central and South America. Trade ships from the Far East delivered their goods to Acapulco, which were then brought across the mainland to the Pacific ports.

 

The Silver Fleet

The Spanish empire established the silver fleet (a common nickname for the Spanish treasure fleet) to act as a convoy between Spain and the New World from 1566 to 1790. Despite the romantic name, the fleet carried an assortment of goods, including precious metals, but also lumber, pearls, sugar, tobacco, and other goods the Empire needed. People and goods went the other way, too; by 1500, there were up to 1000 Spanish settlers in Hispaniola, and the numbers continued to grow as trade increased.

 

1280px-16th_century_Portuguese_Spanish_trade_routesWhile many ships and explorers had ventured to and from the New World, the Spanish fleet maintained the first permanent trade route across the Atlantic.The convoy system was established in response to French privateers sacking the city of Havana in the 1560’s. The route over the Atlantic, sailed by the Caribbean Spanish West Indies Fleet (Flota de Indias), departed from Seville and stopped at ports like Veracruz, Cartagena, and others, before rendezvousing in Havana to make the journey back to Spain. The Pacific route, sailed by the Manilla Galleons (Galeón de Manila), joined the Philippine Islands to Acapulco. From there, the goods were loaded onto mules and taken overland to the Atlantic ports to be shipped to Spain.

 

Pirates and Privateers

Naturally, these prolific trade routes, full of ships heavy with goods and gold, were a tempting target for pirates and privateers. Many countries participated in privateering. One of Canada’s most popular modern folk songs, “Barrett’s Privateers,” recounts the story of a young Canadian man whose privateering in the Caribbean goes badly awry. Only marginally more legal than outright piracy, privateers (sometimes called buccaneers or corsairs) were private individuals commissioned by a government to attack and raid ships from foreign governments, and bring those ships in as prizes. These battles rarely resulted in sunken ships or lost treasure, since the goal was to capture a ship and cargo intact; most such losses occurred during harsh weather rather than battles at sea.  
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In the two hundred and fifty years that the flota operated, it was only captured once; Piet Hein successfully captured the ships in 1628, bringing the cargo and ships to the Dutch Republic. The crews of the ships were deposited on the Cuban cost with enough supplies to march back to Havana; Hein collected 11,509,524 guilders of loot from the fleet.

 

 

Robert Blake attacked the flota in 1656 and 1657, but only made off with a single galleon; the Spanish officers preserved most of the silver on board the other ships. The Atlantic fleet was destroyed in 1702 in Cadiz, Spain, during the War of the Spanish Succession, but little cargo was lost; most of it had already been unloaded. While losses did have a heavy impact on the Spanish economy, the fleet was one of the most successful and lucrative maritime operations of all time.

Amazing Sunken Treasures of the Caribbean

 

The greatest loss of Spanish treasure happened during storms, the worst of which took place in 1622, 1715, 1733, and 1750. Many of these sunken treasure ships have been salvaged; though some treasure is still unaccounted for.

The Nuestra Señora de Atocha, 1622

The Atocha was late reaching the rest of the fleet in Havana in late 1622; it had taken two months to load the unusually large mule-carried treasure from the Pacific fleet. The convoy, numbering twenty-eight ships, suffered other setbacks, and was not able to depart until September 4, 1622. This put the ships six weeks behind schedule, and in danger of bad weather.

Atocha gun

Cannon from the Atocha

A hurricane struck the Atocha on September 6, and she ran into coral reefs nearly forty miles west of Key West. Her hull crushed, the Atocha sank quickly; only three sailors and two slaves survived. When the remaining ships returned to Havana with news of the wreck, five more ships were sent to salvage the Atocha and another ship of the fleet, the Santa Margarita. While the Santa Margarita had simply run aground, the Atocha was lying on the seabed in over fifty feet of water. An October hurricane complicated the situation, and scattered the wreckage of the Atocha even more. While salvage commenced quickly on the Santa Margarita, the wreck of the Atocha could not be located.

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Silver ingots from the Atocha

In 1985, American treasure hunter Mel Fisher and his crew found the wreck of the Atocha; however, the sterncastle of the ship was missing. Since the most valuable items would have been stored in this part of the ship, in the captain’s cabin, it is believed that many valuable items are still waiting on the ocean floor.

After a battle with the state of Florida, Fisher was awarded title to the wreck. Many of the coins salvaged from the wreck were minted in gold and silver, between the years of 1598 and 1621; since some of these coin types and dates were rare prior to the salvage, the Atocha has a great deal of historical and numismatic significance.

One last treasure from the Atocha emerged in 2011: divers found an emerald ring that likely came from the treasure hoard of the sunken ship. Its estimated value is $500,000.
The Santa Margarita

Sister ship to the Atocha, the Santa Margarita was part of the doomed fleet of 1622. She carried 166,574 silver peso (the legendary “pieces of eight”) coins, ingots of gold and silver, as well as indigo, copper, and precious jewelry. She was wrecked near the Marqueses Keys, off the coast of Florida.

Salvage operations commenced almost immediately; Spanish captain Gaspar de Vargas sent for pearl divers to search the ocean floor for treasure. Spanish authorities worked salvage operations at the site of the Santa Margarita for years, using slaves in a newly-invented brass diving bell to reclaim the treasure. The first slave to locate treasure from the ship won his freedom. Needless to say, this salvage work killed many men, but was deemed effective by the Spanish government; salvage ship captains simply wrote dead slaves off as a business expense.

While salvage operations continued for several years, eventually the Santa Margarita slipped from memory. However, the records of salvage attempts survived, buried in archives in Spain. A portion of the ship was discovered in 1980, but some of the wreck-and the treasure-remained lost. Recently, the salvage company Blue Water Ventures has begun to recover more of the goods from the bottom of the ocean; it is estimated that they have recovered up to $16 million to date. One extraordinary discovery was a lead box, containing over sixteen thousand natural pearls. Some of the artifacts are on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum in Florida.

 

The Nuestra Señora de Encarnación

The Encarnación left the port of Cadiz, Spain, in January of 1681, as part of a fleet headed to the New World. In November, the fleet was caught by a storm, near the Chagres River in central Panama. The ships were ordered to weigh anchor in the shallow water; most of the ships survived the storm, but the Encarnación struck rocks, and most of the crew was lost. (While the fleet did arrive at their destination, several ships were lost due to the storm and other circumstances.)

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Chagres River, Panama

The Encarnación now sits on the ocean floor under forty feet of water; the wreck is incredibly well-preserved, and does not appear to have been plundered or disturbed in over three hundred years. The cargo of the ship includes swords, nails, cloth, horseshoes, and pottery, all bound for the Spanish Main. (To see photos of the shipwreck, visit this National Geographic story.)
The Capitana

Capitana

Diver investigating artifact from the Capitana

The Capitana (El Rubi), flagship of the 1733 fleet, sank off the Florida Keys during a hurricane. Only three men were lost during the storm, and most of the treasure was recovered immediately afterward. The Capitana was the first of the 1733 to be located in 1938; salvage operations have occurred during several periods, with gold recovered as recently as June of 2015.

 

 

Treasure Hunting or Looting?

The line between treasure hunting and outright looting can get blurry, especially when the goods of another country are involved. Modern treasure hunting is complicated by the fact that many indigenous peoples have spoken up in defense of cultural treasures taken from their people by invading Europeans. Professional treasure hunters endeavor to make sure that their searches are legal and valid by current law. Some treasure recovery efforts are headed by individuals or very small companies, working in shallow waters without a massive undertaking. Others are large companies funded by investors, or professionals funded by collectors. Treasure hunters must abide by the relevant salvage and antiquities laws. Many modern companies have begun investing in archaeologists and marketing, hoping to placate both preservation concerns and public opinion. While some protest that treasure hunting disturbs the artifacts and destroys archaeological evidence, the companies insist that without their efforts, many artifacts and historical objects would be lost to time and the forces of nature.

 

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You can WIN a silver coin from the wreck of the Atocha! Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for details on May 24!

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 I

In 1784, a Spanish warship called El Cazador sank to the bottom of the ocean…

…And caused the United States to double in size, forever changing history.

It all concludes with coins at the bottom of the ocean, but let’s start at the beginning.

The Territory

In the 1700s, Spain won the battle over control of North American territories by gaining the biggest plot of land: almost a million square miles in North America, the Louisiana Territory.

It was a big prize, but the port of New Orlean’s economy started to fail in the 1760s and ’70s and paper currency began to lose its value.
It didn’t help that scheming New Orleans revolutionaries created counterfeit bills that were useless to the Spanish Crown.

A Spanish four dollar bill for "The United Colonies", issued by the U.S. Continental Congress.

A Spanish four dollar bill for “The United Colonies”, issued by the U.S. Continental Congress.

Spain had to come up with a plan to appease the colonists in Louisiana, especially those near the vital shipping port of New Orleans. Carolus III, Bourbon King of Spain, made a key decision to exchange paper bills for silver coins, which would provide actual value to their currency.

Carolus III would send the coins to the New World, supplying New Orleans with a solution for the troubled economy.

El Cazador means “The Hunter” in Spanish.

The Plan in Action

The ship El Cazador was sent off from Spain, destination Vera Cruz, Mexico. After stocking up on more than 400,000 Spanish Silver Reales in Mexico in January 1784, the ship left for the New Orleans port.

Who knows what happened next: maybe a strong storm or pirates took over, but either way El Cazador never reached the shore of the New World, instead finding itself at the bottom of the ocean.

The ship was declared missing in June of the next year.

The loss was devastating to Spain and Louisiana’s economy, and though Spain dispatched more coins, the Spanish Crown began to wonder at the value of the Louisiana territory. They were never able to stabilize its economy.

The Territory Changes Hands

In 1800, the king of Spain finally agreed to give up Louisiana to France. But France was also having economic trouble, and soon afterward, Napoleon sold the territory to Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase.

The shipwreck of El Cazador led the Louisiana Purchase, the treaty that doubled the size of the U.S. and changed the fate of the world forever.

There’s a Part II to this story, centuries later in 1993, when a vessel named “Mistake” found itself in the same waters as the shipwrecked El Cazador.

But that’s another tale to tell: don’t forget to check back for the story next week!

Sources:

How Stuff Works

El Cazador

Hats off to you, Wikipedia