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Photo from the Canton News story and photo of "Coin Beach": S. Singer 2022.

         More Florida Buried & Sunken Treasure Stories

                             compiled by Steven Singer

     Here are some additional stories not included in my book More Shipwrecks of Florida, which I continually unearth while doing further research. Will be adding more stories as I come across them.


     Matecumbe Treasure - The 1733 Spanish treasure fleet is well known about, and most of the treasure was recovered by the Spanish soon after the fleet wrecked. It wasn't until Art McKee in 1949 started salvaging silver bars, etc. form a wreck off Plantation Key, that interest in the fleet began again. I always wondered if any other keys residents were finding treasure from the fleet prior to 1949 when I came upon a March 1928 article in the Canton Daily News that had a story about pirates of the Florida Keys, and mentions a treasure recovery on Matecumbe Key.     

     A resident of Matecumbe, Bert Russel, was clearing away some brush around some coral rock to plant a lime grove, when he saw something gleaming in the sun. “In a little pocket in the rock he unearthed some thirty pieces of eight of ruddy gold, marked, after the fashion of the time, “Phillip V,-D. G. Hispan et Ind. Rex,” which might be translated from Spanish into English as “Philip V. King of Spain and the Indies, by the Grace of God,” and dated about 1730. Other and apparently older pieces, roughly shaped as though hand-hewn, were marked roughly with the Spanish cross and were of even greater interest.” I can only assume these were left there by a sailor or salvor of the 1733 Fleet, as a few wrecked off the Matecumbe Key area. This is one of the earliest more modern finds I’ve come across regarding the 1733 fleet. “Coin Beach” in the Keys has offered up many 1733 finds, and I wonder how far back people had found coins or other artifacts on that beach. Heard other stories, but nothing definitive regarding earlier finds. With the "wrecking" industry salvaging hundreds of vessels during the 1800's in the same area as the 1733 fleet wrecks, it's possible some of the wreckers may have come across one or more of the 1733 wrecks, but who knows.

The KEY LARGO Treasure Hoax - 

       Most Floridians have heard of the annual Gasparilla Pirate Fest in Tampa celebrating the pirate Jose Gaspar. It’s a fun-filled event that’s been around for over 100 years and the third largest annual parade in the US. What many don’t know is that the pirate Jose Gaspar never existed and was made up by real-estate developers to help promote the Tampa Bay area over a century ago. Did Key Largo attempt to do the same?

       While looking through newspaper archives, I came across some stories in early December 1925 about a treasure trove recovered in Key Largo by a local captain there. The story had been sent by famous author/screenwriter Ben Hecht from Key Largo (he later worked on the movie Gone With the Wind), who supposedly just happened to be in the area when Capt. Bill Lofton and his three partners made an announcement there about finding 25 large earthen jars full of gold and silver coins buried six feet deep in an area off Angelfish Creek, due south of “Haunted Point.” Estimated to be worth a quarter million or more, it was stated the captain had been looking for this treasure for twenty-five years using a treasure map acquired back then from a man who inherited it from a relative who was the keeper of the lightship off there over 100 years ago, and who got it from an old ex-pirate. The story was convincing and named all the people mentioned and gave many details on how the treasure was located.  The main clue to the recovery was a supposed message in old English written on the treasure chart which read: “Due west haunted point triangle, the money will be found.” Haunted Point supposedly used to be called “Caesar Hill”, and after Lofton used a seaplane to look for a triangle west of  Haunted Point just two weeks earlier, is how he finally located the area where the treasure lay buried. The “hoax” was working, as boats from Miami, Palm Beach and elsewhere were now filling up all the anchorage areas around the island, and charter boats were all booked at twice or more the going rental rates as “treasure fever” was in full swing there. “Treasure” maps were now floating around Key Largo, and gullible treasure seekers were scooping them up.  

      More stories continued and most were printed in out of state newspapers reported from Key Largo and Miami. One in early Jan. 1926 reported that Lofton, who had just docked in Miami in his new yacht, arrived “dressed in a silk hat and swallow tail coat.” It also had a copy of an add the captain had supposedly previously taken out in the Miami papers looking for a guide to help him live-it-up in New York, and that he was there to interview those who answered his add. The supposed add had read: “Wanted – First class New York man-about-town who knows gay White Way from stem to stern; who knows leading head waiters, chorus girls, speakeasies and can call Mr. Ziegfeld by his first name. Will pay big salary for him to act as guide for two weeks jamboree. Send answer to Captain Lofton, Box 10.”   

       The story even gets more crazy as a couple weeks later I found this headline (again-these were only in out-of state papers supposedly reported from Miami): “FLORIDA SLICKER CAUGHT IN GAME, ‘Major Harrison’ Was About to Help Captain Spend His Treasure.” Supposedly the man who Lofton hired to be his guide, named Maj. Harrison, was actually a con-man named Firenza, and the cast of characters in this hoax grows. An ex-Pinkerton man, now a hotel detective in Miami named Mooney, had seen the add and said “I wanted to take a look at the bimbo that the old captain hires.” It went on to say how Mooney had been looking for Firenza for weeks, who was also wanted in other cities, and when he went to see Lofton dock at Miami, he immediately recognized the con-man and escorted him the Chief of Police Gene Bryant.     

       While all these out of state papers were reporting the above, a local Miami paper in early January did mention the treasure, but it was in an article whose title was only about former secretary to President Coolidge, C. Bascom Slemp, who had been in Key Largo fishing. No mention of treasure in the title, but it did go on to report that Slemp had been out fishing with none other than Captain Bill Lofton. It went on to say that Capt. Bill refused to say anything about the treasure and would only speak about the fishing trip. It also mentioned that Lofton was being harassed by all the treasure hunters who had recently invaded the island looking for any information where more treasure was buried or sunk offshore. Those original stories had also mentioned that Lofton had other treasure charts and was even going to hire divers to search offshore where treasure had sunk.    

       Also, by late February, a weekly King Features Syndicated play called “The Potters,” by J.P. McEvoy, printed in papers all over the US, had now incorporated the Key Largo treasure story almost verbatim, though with different names, but with most all the same locations.    

       That a Hollywood screenwriter was the first to report on the treasure, and that a syndicated weekly play incorporated it, was my first red-flag. Also a search of the name of the lightship keeper and chief of police confirmed they did not exist, plus a newspaper archive search for that Miami newspaper “add” showed it also never existed. Details on how this all came about can be viewed in an excellent article in the March, 8, 1992 Orlando Sentinel, titled “Ben Hecht’s treasure scam,” by James C. Clark. It explains how a broke screenwriter came up with a scheme with a Key Largo real estate developer to get people to buy up lots there. Miami was going through a building boom at the time, and Key Largo was not that far away, but it was still relatively undeveloped. What nobody could predict though, was the 1926 hurricane that devastated parts of SE Florida and put the brakes on the boom for a while. Those that did buy lots on Key Largo, soon found them relatively worthless after the storm.    

       Something I was not aware of that I learned from searching out this story, was about the bark of the Gumbo Limbo tree being used for medicinal purposes, both topical and as a drink. One would be treasure-hunter returning from Key Largo to Palm Beach who was interviewed said: “We didn’t find any doubloons” happily sipping his fourth Gumbo Limbo potion, “but what are doubloons alongside the waters of the Fountain of Youth? Have another?” It appears that hundreds of these outsiders who arrived in Key Largo had heard that many residents there lived to be well over 100 years old, and that it was attributed to the bark of the Gumbo Limbo tree, which grew abundantly there, many returning with their suitcases filled with the bark. I have a gumbo limbo tree in my yard, though a bit hesitant about boiling any of its bark yet.    

       Prohibition was also in effect in the US at this time, though south Florida was full of anti-prohibitionists or “wets” as the papers like to call them. Rum-runners, moonshiners, and speakeasies were abundant here, and attracted many tourists here due to the lax enforcement of prohibition laws. Famous rum-runner Capt. McCoy was a Floridian, and where the phrase “It’s The Real McCoy” comes from, as he was known not to water-down his booze. Looks like along with the treasure hoax, the Key Largo land developer, and likely the screenwriter, were also enhancing the health benefits of not only the “magic bark,” but also hard liquor. Supposedly some of these would be treasure hunters who had invaded Key Largo also reported on an old timer they had met there named Asa Jackson. Long story short, Mr. Jackson (who likely was also a made-up person to help promote Key Largo land), was born there, escaped pirates, had been drinking hard liquor for over 100 years - the last thirty-five years being mixed with the juice of gumbo limbo bark, and that Key Largo was going to have a celebration with speedboat races and more to celebrate his 115th birthday in March. As with some of these other stories, I only found mention of Mr. Jackson or the upcoming festival for him in out of state papers, so likely just more of the elaborate hoax?   

       One last interesting item I found in a March 1926 Miami newspaper report, was that city engineers in Key Largo had found an ancient man-made coral rock mound that been hidden by gumbo limbo and mahogany trees and other underbrush. Unlike the hundreds of earthen burial mounds found in Florida, they believed this was much more ancient.


     St. Augustine Treasure – A story printed in 1921 mentions buried treasure at St. Augustine during the time the English invaded the town, but does not mention which time they invaded (the English invaded more than once). Sir Francis Drake raided St. Augustine in 1586 and captured the town, burned most to the ground, and plundered most everything of value including a chest of gold coins for the garrison’s pay before leaving. Governor James Moore laid siege to the town in 1702, but retreated in disgrace, and another siege by the English was in 1740, but also ended in retreat.

     The 1921 story says some English ships (likely privateers) had laid siege to the garrison there for a few months and that those in town being afraid they may be overtaken, gave most all the town’s & church’s wealth to three prominent men who then buried it all in a hidden location inland. Goes on to say a Spanish fleet under Admiral Quintana then arrived and forced the English to flee. Once the threat was gone, they found one of the three men had escaped back to Spain, and the other two could not find where they had buried the treasures and were subsequently executed. Story says this is all recorded in Spanish archival records. I don’t put any faith in this story. Can’t find any reference to a Admiral Quintana (a Spanish fleet from Havana did drive Governor Moore to retreat but nobody named Quintana was leading those ships). Also, if story says one of the three escaped back to Spain, why wasn’t he arrested? Likely just another tall tale.


     A Pensacola Treasure? – I came across an 1894 article about a supposed treasure near Pensacola I was not aware of. Did a google search and found this site which already related the interesting story so simply posting the link here:

     Did a little research and looks like Captain Peterson did own land there. Did not find anything more though about any outcome. Was always skeptical about divining rods, etc., until I was at one of the Ft. Lauderdale Shipwreck Symposiums back in the 80’s and saw well known treasure hunter/author Sir Robert Marx hide a gold coin, and witnessed a person with a divining rod quickly find it.


   Another Pensacola Treasure Story - An article in the Pensacola Observer paper in 1867, reported a story of a treasure chest being found while digging a well there, “on a lot in the upper part of the city, belonging to the estate of Joseph Sierra, deceased.” There they found a brick vault, and when they broke into it, found a chest with a rusty key still in it which broke off when they tried to turn it. The chest also had a brass plate on it with some writing, which when translated (believe was in Spanish), had the amount of $340,000. The paper could not confirm the story, but there were enough workers who were there and witnessed the recovery, that they believed the story had some validity to it. Also, other parties who had deciphered that brass plate were additional witnesses that something was recovered. It also stated that four of the workers who had control of the chest, had now disappeared with it.

     BTW, up until the start of the Civil War, Joseph Sierra had been the Collector of Customs at Pensacola, the Superintendent of Lights, and agent of the Marine Hospital there. 

     The “Point O’ Rocks” Treasure StoryFor a number of months in 1926, local residents from the Sarasota area looked on with curiosity and skepticism as a large dredge with professional divers were working an area just south of Point O’ Rocks by Siesta Beach, on a treasure hunt. Avery Wilhelm, President of the Wilhelm Syndicate, had hired this crew to locate a supposed treasure chest loaded with an estimated $4,000,000 in gold bullion. Supposedly, one of pirate Lafitte’s ships was being chased by the English back in the early 1800’s when it anchored off this area and sent the gold laded chest ashore to be buried in one of the boats so the English could not get it, but the boat capsized, and it sank to the bottom in about 4’ of water. They also supposedly placed a round etched boulder on top of the area to mark the spot. Wilhelm also used some sort of new electrical device that used radio waves to locate the spot where the chest lay buried. Another local report reported that one of the divers almost drowned when his air hose got fouled and cut off his air, but luckily he survived. After two or three months, and spending about $20,000 (allot of money back then), he ran out of cash and abandoned the project. The story does not end there though, as local resident Emmett Kessler, who had claimed he had dug up treasure about 60 miles south of there years before, immediately took up the project and continued to work the site that year.

     I found no more reporting from the local newspaper (Sarasota Herald) about this project after October, 1926 though, but the same paper had an article in March 1927 about christening a new oil derrick off the same general area, and had this to say about how it would be christened: “with a bottle said to contain a quart of genuine pre-war (I’ll assume pre-WWI) champagne found in a treasure ship off Point O’ Rocks.”

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