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.



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.



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.




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 Sensational Coins of Treasure Legends

Even though we don’t cut our coins up any more, the practice made an indelible cultural mark. Most of us still know the cost of a shave and a haircut is two bits (occasionally increased to six), and the piratical legend of “pieces of eight” still sounds like treasure. Pieces of eight, bits, and “cob” coins all have one thing in common: they could be subdivided when necessary by simply cutting them into pieces.


Pieces of Eight

7264793792_fd2a04aae4_oThe original silver peso could be cut into eight equal pieces each worth a single real. This made giving change easier in times of low circulation or when the coins were used in remote locations. Silver pesos (commonly called “Spanish dollars”) were one of the most widely-used coins international trade for centuries, due to their superior uniformity and milling standards. Some nations even countersigned the coin, legalizing it for use as local currency. Many coin denominations in Latin America used the silver peso as a base for their own currency, and the modern peso is still a common denomination in many of them. Over 20 nations still have a peso denomination, though the value has decreased over the centuries.


The pieces of eight of pirate legends refer more typically to the coins minted in the Americas and shipped to the Philippines aboard the Spanish treasure fleet. In the Philippines, these coins could be exchanged for Chinese goods, since Spanish silver was the only foreign currency accepted by the Chinese at the time. These coins, upon acceptance by Chinese merchants, would often be stamped with chop marks to indicate the coin had been valued correctly. (The later American trade dollars often ended up with chop marks, too. Read more here!)


A chest of these and other coins are rumored to lie buried under a quiet neighborhood in Philadelphia; a mysterious letter dated May 14, 1716 (verified as authentic) tells the recipient how to find a buried chest of “doubloons, pistoles, reales and pieces of eight.” Since the neighborhood has been built up over the centuries, it is impossible to access to spot where the chest is supposed to be buried. It might still wait to be discovered.



DoubloonAfter Austria introduced the Guldengroschen coin in 1486, other countries began creating their own specie (high purity) coins. The Spanish 8-real coin, the peso, was created in 1497; 40 years later, they began producing the gold escudo, worth 16 reales, or 2 pesos. A later coin, the legendary doubloon, was worth 2 escudos (or 4 pesos, or 32 reales). Since it is also divisible by 8, the doubloon is also a “pieces of eight” coin.


Spanish-American mints also produced gold escudos in denominations of one, two, four, and eight. The two escudo coins were known as “pistoles,” with the eight escudo piece being a “quadruple pistole” or sometimes a “double doubloon.” In time, it became known simply as the Spanish doubloon. Doubloons were currency in Spain as late as the mid-19th century. In 1849, Spain minted its last doubloons; however, several former colonies, such as Mexico and Peru, continued to mint them.


Cob Coins and Creating Currency

17th_Century_Spanish_Treasure_Silver_8_Reales_Cob_CoinIn the British colonies, the word “cob” often referred to Spanish-American coins in either gold or silver, which were crudely shaped during the early years of exploration in the New World (in contrast to the coins minted in Spain, which were much more uniform.) 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 Aztecsl; 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.


continental third dollarBritish 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.
600px-Holey_dollar_coinage_NSW_1813_a128577_01Shortly after its founding in 1788, the New South Wales colony in Australia faced a shortage of coins. Not only was the colony remote from Europe, but most coins left the colony aboard trading ships, in exchange for their valuable cargo. Governor Lachlan Macquarie found an innovative solution: he had the centers punched out of thousands of Spanish dollars which the British government had sent. The inner piece (also called the “dump”) was valued at 15 pence, while the outer circle (colloquially known as the “holey dollar,”) was valued at 5 shillings. Each 614px-Holey_dollar_coinage_NSW_1813_a128577_03section was overstamped with the name of the colony, the date, and the new value of the coin. This not only doubled the number of coins in circulation, but made it almost impossible for them to be taken out of the colonies, since other colonies and countries would not accept the “damaged” coins. The relief was short-lived; the Sterling Silver Money Act passed by Parliament in 1825 ended the use of this uniquely Aussie currency.


Cob coinage faded into obscurity as minting technology and security measures have improved, but these unique coins and pieces of coins form an indelible part of our history.

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.  


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.

This Treasure Could Be Yours, If You Can Find It First!

To celebrate National Scavenger Hunt Day, we’ve created two special scavenger hunts… and there are prizes! The rules are simple: go to www.stampandcoinplace.com and look for the items on this list. The first one to submit a (verified) list of the correct items for each hunt wins!

Now for the important part: the prizes! There are two scavenger hunt lists, and two amazing prizes! For the Treasure Quest, you can win 3 genuine silver Mexican pesos, from the 1930’s.  But if you are the first to complete the Epic Quest, we will send you a small chest containing a silver 8-real coin and replica gold coin from the legendary Atocha shipwreck. (Certificate of authenticity provided as-is.) That’s right: you can win ACTUAL SUNKEN TREASURE.


Rules for Both Quests:


  1. All items MUST be found within our store site. Links to eBay will not be counted.

  2. Each item on the list must have a URL attached so we can verify that you have found the correct item.

  3. The items may be from any section in our store: bullion, coins, currency, or stamps. No items have been pulled from the S&C Etc page, but you are welcome to look through it anyway! (There are some real gems there.)

  4. The first winning entry submitted for each list, according to our clock, will be the winner. If no entry is completely correct, we reserve the right to choose the entry that we believe fulfills the rules the best.

  5. You may submit entries for both lists, but you may only win one. Your first entry received will be the first counted.

  6. International entries welcome!



To enter, send your completed list(s) to elizabeth @stampandcoinplace .com The email must contain the correct URL for each item on the list.



Treasure Quest

Prize: 3 genuine Mexican silver pesos


A kiwi from 1942

A panda that sells for over $1300

A lucky penny with two metals

3 bronze condors

Musical instruments in gold

A five-pound octopus

A harp from 1947

A set of seven butterflies

A bunch of grapes

A blacksmith with hammer and anvil



Epic Quest

Prize: A small chest containing a silver 8-real coin and replica gold coin from the legendary Atocha shipwreck. (Certificate of authenticity provided as-is.)


A gold springbok

A blinded cornucopia

One of the wonders of the world with the sun overhead

Two rabbits on one item

A palm tree from 1954

A coin with a hole and a crown from 1909

A triangle of wheat

A double queen in blue

Three waving lions

A muscly moose

A face in red, on its side

A golden spaceship

A silver wedding in blue

A ram from 1939

A holey bill



Head to our site, and happy hunting!


UPDATE: Congratulations to our winners, Bart Ingraldi and Stephen Gagen!

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.


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.)


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


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.




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

Treasure Week!

One of the most enduring legends of the Americas is the legend of lost treasure. We tell stories about everything from lost Incan and Aztec gold to sunken Spanish galleons to swashbuckling pirates.
In honor of National Maritime Day (May 22) and National Scavenger Hunt Day (May 24), it’s Treasure Week on Past and Present! Look for posts all week long, with a special event on Tuesday: the Stamp and Coin Place Scavenger Hunt. You can win your very own treasure!


Stay tuned for stories of pirates, treasure fleets, and lost gold!