Photo from the Canton News story and photo of "Coin Beach": S. Singer 2022.
1591 French map with similar name for present day St. John's River.
1897 Florida map showing Pablo (circled) and two Indian mounds (by check mark)
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. As mentioned in my book, many of these are just that, "stories," though some are true or are based on some actual fact.
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. from 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: https://waltonpast2present.com/wp/2022/08/20/after-spanish-gold/?fbclid=IwAR18gsr346Am8bxzMOH5O8cnKFArB4doSRLAZoEwr_Fe_wQta-OCPoraB9I
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 Story – For 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.”
Another Tampa Bay Treasure Story –
A story from an 1882 Florida paper described a treasure buried near the “Espiritu Santo Bay”(Tampa Bay), in Florida. As the story goes, back in the 1700’s, an old pirate who was dying of yellow fever in S. America, was befriended by a Mr. John Gomez, who took pity on the dying man and did what he could to make him as comfortable as he could before his impending death. The old pirate then told Gomez about a treasure in Florida. He had sailed with Morgan and others, and went into detail about a buried treasure that only he knew about as all the others involved were dead. He said that once you entered the bay, keep to the eastern shore until you reach the head of the bay where there is a river (now called the Hillsborough River), and is where you will find a large grove of very old oak trees around ten acres in size. “On a creek beyond this grove, and on the right bank of the creek as you ascend, lie millions upon millions of Spanish gold, diamonds and jewelry.”
Supposedly Gomez made it to Florida years later. He did find the oak grove, but instead of just one creek, he found three creeks. The Second Seminole War had also just started, and soon the oak grove and the right site creek were turned into Fort Brooke. Unable to dig there now, he snuck in when he could to look around the right side creek. He never found anything and the 1882 story says he died “only a few years ago,” so say the 1870’s.
The reporter writing the story goes on to say that only a few days before, a young woman who lived on one of these creeks “now known as Maybee’s Spring,” found an “old Spanish silver comb set with diamonds,” in a freshly plowed field there.
Now Henry Morgan, who I assume is the pirate mentioned, died in 1688. The old pirate who sailed with him say around 1671 (Morgan sacked Panama City in 1671), was likely young so estimate 18 years old. The story says Gomez met the dying man in the 1700's, and it appears Gomez died around the 1870’s. The old pirate would be well over 100 years old for Gomez to have met him when he was a young adult, and Gomez himself would have been well over 100 years old when he died, so a very unlikely story. And the silver comb found? Tampa Bay was a frequent stop for the Spanish, pirates and many other sailors over the years, so that could very well be true.
In my book More Shipwrecks of Florida, in the section on buried treasure, there is a story called Capt. Kidd’s Treasure?, about a search on the Ft. Brooke Reservation in 1893, only now for a supposed treasure buried by Capt. Kidd. They likely had read this story too! The Tampa Convention Center now sits upon where most of the original fort was built. During construction, many gravesites (both Army and Seminole) were discovered and relocated. Artifacts found were donated to museums including the Tampa Bay History Center.
St. Sebastian River Mystery –
The St. Augustine Press in 1882 printed a story about a mysterious excavation near the river. Some workers on Mr. Genovar’s orange grove along the river witnessed something strange on the west side of the river along the bank of some land owned by a Mr. J.F. Whitney, Esq. Three men emerged from the pine woods with a cart and a derrick with a lift. They erected the derrick, and soon lifted something from where they had excavated it, put it in the cart, and “disappeared as mysteriously as they came.” They were too far away to see what was recovered, but could ascertain that it was very heavy. They could only speculate what it was, “whether it was buried treasure or the evidence of some dark crime.” It was mentioned that the area was well hidden and a good place to bury treasure.
Lost Army Gold during the Second Seminole War? –
Some Florida newspapers in the early 1920’s mentions the story of an Army payroll consisting of gold coins believed lost during the Second Seminole War after Fort Dade was built in 1837. An Army paymaster, along with a few soldiers, were travelling from Fort King to Fort Brooke (Tampa) with gold coins for payment to the troops there. Depending on which version of the story to believe, one that said they were carrying $80,000 in Spanish gold doubloons and another that said $25,000 in American gold coins, and as Spanish coinage was the norm being used back then, the first version seems more likely. For an unknown reason, the group did not take the regular route using “Military Road,” but instead used a different route known as the “hen cart road,” which ran from Brooksville to Tampa. They had made camp in an area known as “Williams Hammock,” when they got word (I suppose from a scout), that a large group of Seminoles were on their way to engage their party. To eliminate any possibility of losing the gold, they “buried it at the foot of a leaning tree in the hammock and placed an inverted copper kettle over it” and other versions say inside a copper kettle “and a second one placed over it.” As to the outcome, one version says all the soldiers were killed except one, and another says they all escaped to Fort Dade (in present day Pasco County). Did the Army try to retrieve the gold? May have been a couple of years before it was safe to try, or if only one survived, maybe he forgot where it was buried. Did the Seminoles find it? Who knows.
The story of the treasure re-emerged in the 1920’s when word got out that a search had been made to find the treasure in the last few years. Not long after the Civil War, a young man named C.E. Wells had been out hunting in the area of the Williams Hammock when he stumbled upon a copper kettle partly buried at the foot of a leaning tree. He never gave it much thought until years later when he heard about the story of the lost Army gold. By then he had moved to Tampa, though his brother still lived in the area near the hammock. Soon, he and his brother began an extensive search of the area, but said they never did find it. When exactly the search went on and for how long is not mentioned, though likely not that long before the stories were printed. The area had also changed considerably as one person thought it was buried in an orange grove owned by a Mrs. C.A. Lock, of Dade City. Uncle “Coop” Wells, who had helped his brother in the search, said it was not in the orange grove but in an area that had still not been developed for farm or cattle grazing land or anything else. So, fact or fiction? If true, was it found and kept secret, or is it still buried out there under some farmland, a strip mall, roadway, or something else?
The Cedar Run & Stowe’s Island Treasures
An article published in a Florida newspaper in 1897 titled The Buried Gold of Florida, by E.M Dreux, mentions a number of pirates and stories of treasure around Florida. Some are just that, stories, others may have some basis in fact. Here are two of them.
Supposedly, a long-lost manuscript describing where some treasure buried by some shipwreck survivors, believed to have been pirates or privateers, near Pablo, Florida, was found around 1897 in St. Augustine. These shipwrecked mariners whose vessel wrecked on Florida’s east coast, were then were attacked by a native tribe there. They then sought an area to make a defensive position where, “they made a stand near the mouth of a small creek twelve to fifteen miles south of the river May, and about thirty miles from St. Augustine. Here the impassable swamp came to a narrow ridge, and thus their flanks were protected on the right by the sea and on the left by the aforementioned swamp.” Here they were able to hold off the attackers for two days, during which time they buried the treasure they saved from the wreck consisting of gold coin and bars, “on a ridge between the creek and the swamp, south of an Indian mound near a mammoth pine in a grove of cabbage palmettos.” The second night they retreated along the beach, where many of their group were killed, and only a few made it safely to St. Augustine. After that ordeal, none of the survivors were willing to try and recover the treasure, and all eventually sailed away to wherever, but not before leaving this document which the finders believed was around 200 years old. The article also mentions the St. John’s River was called “May” in the document, which the article says the Spanish had named it back in the 16th century (see attached 1591 French map with similar name), so that helped date the document. They also believed the creek mentioned was Cedar Run, from the description they read.
Another story that may have some validity, was of treasure being found during construction of a shell rock road on Stowe’s Island. A contractor who had been hired to construct a shell road there, had uncovered two barrels buried deeply in the shell, but before anyone else could find out what was in them, “the contractor had vanished that night, kegs, boat, and all, it is reasonable to conclude that they contained a comfortable fortune.” Harriet Beecher Stowe & her husband owned property in Duval County, and wonder if this island was named for that family.
More Florida Folklore
Some more tales that may or may not have some truth behind them.
I do believe treasure has been found near or under the waters of the Suwanee River (see book More Shipwrecks of Florida). Famous explorer/author A. Hyatt Verrill, was involved in looking for treasure in the area and eventually settled there. Another folklore tale of pirate treasure mentions a chest being dug up near Fowler’s Bluff, which is a small community on the river.
Another tale mentions a chest of gold bullion found during the construction of the Baird Hardware building in Gainesville, back in the 1800’s.
© 2023 by Anchorexplorations.com. Proudly created with Wix.com