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From Jacksonville Beach, FL

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Still looking for shipwreck treasure

   Most days on a beach in Florida, you will see enthusiasts hunched over  metal detectors searching for treasures.  Most find only odd bits of metal, drink cans, a few coins, occasionally a piece of jewelry, but what they want to find is buried treasure.  There have been enough such finds to keep hope alive and the searches going.  
    Since before Florida became a territory of the U.S. in 1821, hopeful treasure hunters have looked for the really big hauls in the skeletons of wrecked ships.  Florida has more treasure, off shore in the ocean and buried in the sands than any other state.  While the waters around Florida are not treacherous or rock filled, hurricanes and storms have sunk many ships.  Pirate activity and naval battles account for other shipwrecks.  Florida was a haven for pirates in the past and such notorious names as Lafitte, Gasparilla, Kidd, Rackham, Bowlegs, and possibly Morgan sailed there.
     A number of lucky people have found lost treasure in Florida:  A chest with $25,000 in Mexican gold on Grassy Key; 13 chests of treasure found by a road building crew near Cocoa.  Treasure lore is full of stories about treasures buried by pirates, Lafitte, Morgan, and others.  Maps are available for searching for this treasure, but unless you have lots of free time and a bit of money, you may not find anything, but you'll have fun looking.
    Buried treasure is less costly than an ocean diving expedition, but your chances of success might be better in the ocean.  Check the Office of Coast Survey's web site for a master list of shipwrecks.  More than 750 named shipwreck listings are in the data file.  Information includes latitude and longitude, a history, descriptions.
      Many books have been published about shipwreck locations. Two that have interested me are about wrecks in the waters near my home in northeast Florida: Thirty Florida Shipwrecks (Kevin McCarthy) and Shipwrecks of Florida (Steven Singer). Both are excellent  documentations of shipwrecks of explorers, Civil War vessels and World War II ships.  McCarthy writes that at least 2,000 ship loses are known to have occurred in Florida waters.  
       McCarthy's book details seven wrecks off the Northeast Florida coast and in the the St. John's River and its tributaries.  The oldest is the Trinite near St. Augustine in 1565.  One of the most interesting is the account of the Gulfamerica torpedoed 11 miles off the coast of Jacksonville Beach in 1942.
     Singer's book is a comprehensive listing of shipwrecks in Florida waters.  He lists 235 ships that wrecked off the upper east coast and 139 in the inland waters of the St. John's River and other rivers of northern Florida.  He lists more wrecks in sections of the book devoted to the Civil War and WWII.  Appendices, "Search and Salvage," "Artifact Conservation," and "Rights to Wrecks" are sure to please treasure hunting buffs.
     Highway A1A runs parallel to the ocean from northern to southern Florida.  The stretch running from Fernandina to St. Augustine in northeast Florida is still called the Buccaneer Trail because it was once the land route of pirates and other burly sailors.  Sounds like a great place to start a metal detector search.  
     If you do find shipwreck treasure, know that shipwrecks in Florida waters are protected under the Florida Historical Resources Act.  Check the laws for Florida at this site Treasure Hunting Laws.  
     Personally, I'd just like to find an old Spanish coin lying on the beach sand and that's what you'll see me looking for after a storm.

(Title graphic, JoAnne Young)

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