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  • When Archaeology and History Meet:Shipwrecks, Indians, and the Contours of the Early-Eighteenth-Century South
  • Alejandra Dubcovsky (bio)

On July 31, 1715, eleven ships sank off the coast of Florida. The Florida coast was such a prime location for shipwrecks that the Spanish crown had seen salvaging as a central reason for maintaining a permanent base in the region, even though the colony continually proved economically burdensome. The Spanish Flota de Indias, known as the silver or plate fleet (derived from the Spanish word plata), transported commodities of all types from the Americas back to Spain. Mineral wealth, agricultural products, luxury items, and even enslaved people had made this journey across the Atlantic since Christopher Columbus's very first voyage, though the first flota officially sailed in 1537. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who went on to serve as the adelantado and first governor of Florida, played an instrumental role in developing the Flota de Indias, streamlining the sea routes and improving its defense.1

The 1715 Plate Fleet was part of this transatlantic system that connected Spain and its colonies. A bit larger than most, the 1715 Plate Fleet [End Page 39] was particularly well supplied since it was the first flota to sail back to Spain since the outbreak of the War of Spanish Succession thirteen years earlier. But the fleet never reached Spain. A hurricane ripped the flota apart, sinking all eleven ships and causing the deaths of over a thousand passengers. Ironically, a twelfth ship, the French pilot ship the Grifón, had veered off course, inadvertently sailing farther north and avoiding the inclement weather.

News of the Plate Fleet disaster spread quickly. Within weeks of the flota's sinking, the Spanish established a makeshift salvage camp to recover as much of the fleet's precious cargo as possible. Over the course of four years, the Spanish worked against changing tides, storms, and pirates to recover roughly half the treasure. Salvaging was a dangerous endeavor. Divers drowned, were attacked by sharks, and lived with little protection from the elements. But salvaging was also lucrative. The lure of the sunken treasure was so strong that the Spanish continued their operations on the 1715 Plate Fleet wreck until rough currents pushed the exposed vessels too far from the coast and submerged the cargo too deep to reach. A tremendous loss for the Spanish, the sunken galleons still filled with riches slowly disappeared to the ocean floor. As the years went by, the 1715 Plate Fleet became a distant memory, a fable of lost riches that fueled more dreams than actual salvaging expeditions. A fleeting reference to the Plate Fleet appears on a map in Bernard Romans's 1781 edition of A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida—a clue that treasure hunters pursued fervently for centuries.2

Charles D. Higgs, a retired astronomer and amateur historian, first located the site in 1942. He excavated what became known as the Higgs site (site number 8-IR-24), near Sebastian Beach, Florida. His work garnered little attention until after World War II, when Kip Wagner, a contractor, found some Spanish coins while walking along the beach. Warner had heard reports of sunken Spanish galleons off the coast and decided to try his luck salvaging; he quickly found many valuable pieces of treasure. Hale G. Smith, one of the leading archaeologists who specialized in Spanish missions in Florida, had also followed up on Higgs's findings and formally excavated the area in 1946.3 Smith had [End Page 40] hoped to locate the remains of a mission site in southern Florida. The Spanish had sent several Franciscans to missionize the south of Florida in the 1690s. These missions south of St. Augustine, the main Spanish hub in the region, had proved short-lived, and their sites had (and have) never been properly identified.4 Smith found clear evidence of European presence in the area, but these artifacts did not correspond with those of a Spanish mission.5

Smith grew uninterested in the site and abandoned his efforts in the area. His findings, however, sparked the curiosity of Irving Rouse. Rouse was a Yale University...