On the Border, Part II

This is the second installment of a two-part series on border disputes in Florida history. If you missed reading the first blog, click here to read it.

Last week, we looked at John Houston McIntosh, a borderland Floridian whose life reflected the tensions that sometimes cropped up along the Florida-Georgia border before Florida was a United States possession. Today, we look at an even more profound border conflict in Florida history, one that took almost a century to settle completely.

When the dust cleared after the American Revolution and the treaties were all signed, the newly created United States possessed the 13 former British colonies between Canada and the southern edge of Georgia. The Spanish obtained East and West Florida in a separate treaty with the British. That left just one problem: What was the legal boundary between Florida and Georgia? As the maps below demonstrate, it depended on who you asked.

Excerpt from Thomas Bowen's Map of North America (1780s). Florida Map Collection - State Library of Florida.

Excerpt from Thomas Bowen’s Map of North America (1780s). Florida Map Collection – State Library of Florida.

Excerpt from Joseph Purcell's map of the Southern states, plus Spanish East and West Florida (1792). Florida Map Collection - State Library of Florida.

Excerpt from Joseph Purcell’s map of the Southern states, plus Spanish East and West Florida (1792). Florida Map Collection – State Library of Florida.

Jean Baptiste d'Anville's "New and Complete Map of the West Indies" (1794). Florida Map Collection - State Library of Florida.

Jean Baptiste d’Anville’s “New and Complete Map of the West Indies” (1794). Florida Map Collection – State Library of Florida.

The mapmakers couldn’t agree, and neither could the statesmen. Considering how few people lived in the area at the time, it might not seem like such a big deal, but keep in mind that in those days the Florida-Georgia border was an international boundary line. Conflicts over the boundary continued between Spain and the United States, until finally the two countries agreed to settle their disputes by treaty. The Treaty of San Lorenzo, also sometimes called the Treaty of Madrid or Pinckney’s Treaty, stipulated that the two governments would appoint a joint commission to survey and mark the official border between Florida and Georgia.

Andrew Ellicott, a friend of Thomas Jefferson and a reputable surveyor and engineer, represented the U.S. on the commission. Captain Estevan Minor represented Spain. The two commissioners met at a point on the east bank of the Mississippi River below Natchez, where they were to begin their work. The Treaty of San Lorenzo called for the line to be surveyed out from the 31st parallel on the Mississippi east to the Chattahoochee River, down the Chattahoochee to its junction with the Flint River, then east to the source of the St. Marys River, then down the center of the St. Marys River to the Atlantic Ocean.

Drawn portrait of Andrew Ellicott, who represented the United States on the joint commission tasked with surveying out the boundary line separating Spanish Florida from the United States (circa 1800s).

Drawn portrait of Andrew Ellicott, who represented the United States on the joint commission tasked with surveying out the boundary line separating Spanish Florida from the United States (circa 1800s).

Sounds simple enough, right? All the instructions were right there, nice and plain. Ellicott, Minor, and their assistants began their work in 1796 and continued surveying the line into the year 1800. When it was time to connect the line with the St. Marys River, the commissioners explored several of the river’s forks and finally agreed upon a point that would be considered the river’s “source,” as the treaty directed. Here, the surveyors erected a large hill of soil, later called Ellicott’s Mound. They determined the latitude and longitude of this location and were thereby able to calculate the correct placement of a line between the mound and the intersection of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, which would be the Florida-Georgia boundary.

Excerpt of a map from Andrew Ellicott's 1803 journal, showing the source of the St. Marys River (1803). The State Library of Florida holds an original printing of this journal.

Excerpt of a map from Andrew Ellicott’s journal, showing the source of the St. Marys River (1803). The State Library of Florida holds an original printing of this journal.

Ironically enough, the placement of this line never proved a sticking point between Spain and the U.S. The real fireworks began once Florida and Georgia were both U.S. possessions. One of the first orders of business after Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821 was for the federal government to survey Florida out into townships and sections so the land could be distributed to settlers and local governments. To do this, however, the government surveyors needed to know exactly where the line separating Florida and Georgia truly was. Consequently, the United States Surveyor General arranged for the boundary to be clarified.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, some officials were beginning to doubt whether Ellicott’s Mound was located at the true source of the St. Marys River. Captain William Cone, a resident of Camden County who was familiar with the area, said the source of the river was actually located about 20-30 miles to the south. The state of Georgia appointed a commission to study this issue, as well as a surveyor named J.C. Watson to run, survey, and mark the proper line. When Watson finished his work, his line was not as far south as what Captain Cone had called for, but his line still ended south of Ellicott’s Mound. Georgia stood to gain a great deal of new territory by these findings, and state officials quickly extended county boundaries and state surveys to include it.

After several more rounds of conflicting surveys, Florida officials filed a bill of complaint with the United States Supreme Court, which is constitutionally charged with settling interstate boundary disputes. The suit never reached a final hearing. The state governments of Florida and Georgia ultimately ended up deciding the matter themselves. In 1857, both states agreed to use Ellicott’s Mound as the turning point for the boundary on the St. Marys River. A subsequent joint survey team worked out a line that everyone agreed upon, and the whole package was recognized and confirmed by an act of Congress in 1872. This settlement affected a number of land titles, of course, and these associated matters were eventually decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1887.

Florida and Georgia still have their differences from time to time, as adjoining states often do, but the southern boundary between them has all but ceased to be a matter for comment. The legacy of this near century-long disagreement is, however, still highly visible on state maps. You’ll recall that the land north of the Watson Line was claimed by Georgia all through the process of settling the dispute. By the time the controversy was settled, the land lying between the Watson Line and the real Florida-Georgia border had in many cases been sold and resold so many times that to re-survey it all into the Florida land system would have been very tedious. So, as a result, there is a strip of land across the top of the Sunshine State that belongs to Florida, yet is organized according to Georgia’s system of land description, as this map shows:

An excerpt from a map of Madison County published by the Florida Department of Transportation. The Watson Line is highlighted in red. Notice that the land between this line and the Georgia is not divided into the same system of townships and sections as the land farther south. Florida Map Collection - State Library of Florida.

An excerpt from a map of Madison County published by the Florida Department of Transportation. The Watson Line is highlighted in red. Notice that the land between this line and the official Florida-Georgia line is not divided into the same system of townships and sections as the land farther south. Florida Map Collection – State Library of Florida.

Remember that the State Library & Archives is an excellent source of information on all aspects of our state’s political history – even the obscure bits. We encourage you to visit info.florida.gov and search our catalogs to find more about your favorite topic in Florida history!

On the Border, Part I

Situated as it is between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, you wouldn’t immediately think of Florida as having had many boundary disputes. During the Spanish colonial era, however, the Florida-Georgia border was the setting for a number of dramatic quarrels between the Spanish and their neighbors to the north. These events are reflected in the lives of the people who lived near the border, especially when they had business dealings on both sides.

John Houstoun McIntosh is an excellent example. He was born May 1, 1773 in St. Andrews Parish, Georgia. He married a young woman from a prominent New York family in 1792, and began farming rice and cotton at “Refuge,” a plantation on the Satilla River in Camden County, Georgia.

Portrait of John Houston McIntosh (circa 1790s).

Portrait of John Houstoun McIntosh (circa 1790s).

Like many South Georgia planters, McIntosh was curious about the possibility of obtaining land in Spanish Florida. In 1803, he took an oath of allegiance to the Spanish government and received a grant of land along the Indian River near Merritt Island. He also purchased several parcels of land along the St. Johns River, including all of what is now known as Fort George Island.

Survey play showing one of John Houston McIntosh's parcels of land along the St. Johns River and Cedar and McGirt's creeks (1830). Click to enlarge.

Survey plat showing one of John Houstoun McIntosh’s parcels of land along the St. Johns River and Cedar and McGirt’s creeks (1830). Click to enlarge.

McIntosh made his home on Fort George Island, where he grew cotton and operated a sawmill. In 1808, his daughter Mary died, as did another relative. Both were buried on the island in uniquely shaped crypts, as seen below.

Two 19th-century crypts on Fort George Island, believed to be the tombs of Mary McIntosh and Ann Bayard Houston (photo 1998).

Two 19th-century crypts on Fort George Island, believed to be the tombs of Mary McIntosh and Ann Bayard Houstoun (photo 1998).

Despite living in Spanish Florida and swearing his allegiance, John McIntosh never relinquished his United States citizenship. In fact, in 1812 he helped lead an effort to wrest control of Florida from the Spanish colonial authorities at St. Augustine. The so-called Patriot Army, made up mostly of Georgians, drafted a constitution and declared Florida’s independence from Spain. They had hoped to enlist the support of Spanish Floridians in their cause, but the movement never really got off the ground. Florida would remain a Spanish possession for nearly another decade before it was relinquished to the United States.

First page of the Patriot Constitution, written up by John McIntosh and other leaders of the Patriot Army for the short-lived Republic of East Florida (1812).

First page of the Patriot Constitution, written up by John McIntosh and other leaders of the Patriot Army for the short-lived Republic of East Florida (1812).

As for John McIntosh, he moved back to Georgia in 1813 and remained there until his death in 1836. His Fort George Island property was purchased by Zephaniah Kingsley through a mortgage foreclosure in 1817. Both men would later go before the United States Board of Land Commissioners to claim parcels of land they had earlier obtained from the Spanish government. These claims are accessible through the Spanish Land Grants collection on Florida Memory.

Don’t forget to look for next week’s Florida Memory Blog, when we’ll look at another famous Florida border dispute!

A Brand You Can Trust

Not everyone thinks of the Sunshine State as being cow country, but in reality Florida has been in the cattle business for about five centuries. When Juan Ponce de Leon arrived on his final mission to Florida in 1521, he brought Spanish Andalusian cattle with him to help provision the growing settlement he hoped to establish on Florida’s Gulf coast. Even after the settlement failed, the cattle remained and multiplied.

By the time Florida became a United States territory in 1821, Spanish, British, and Native American Floridians had all taken part in developing the region’s cattle industry. Most of the cattle raised in Florida were what we would call “Cracker cows” or “scrub cattle. They roamed freely over the open range. When cattlemen needed to round them up, they would go out on horseback and “pop” them out of the woods with the aid of trained cattle dogs and whips.

Sketch of a

Sketch of a “whip cracker” by Bill Simpson (1961).

With no fences separating one cattleman’s territory from that of another, you can imagine that the herds tended to mingle. This could produce some nasty disputes among the owners, especially when one of them believed the mingling might have been “assisted” by a fellow cattleman.

The solution? Marks and brands. A “mark” or “earmark” was a pattern of cuts and crops made on the ears, while a “brand” was a symbol stamped on the cow’s flank using a hot iron.

Old Spanish cattle brands, as drawn by Joe Akerman for his book, Florida Cowman (1976).

Old Spanish cattle brands, as drawn by Joe Akerman for his book, Florida Cowman (1976).

Beginning in the 1820s, each Florida county had an official in charge of recording the various marks and brands used by the cattlemen to differentiate their cows from everyone else’s cows. The State Archives of Florida holds a number of records relating to this practice, including a book of marks and brands from Escambia County dating back to 1823.

Cover of Escambia County's record of marks and brands, 1823-1890s (Series L14, State Archives of Florida).

Cover of Escambia County’s record of marks and brands, 1823-1890s (Series L14, State Archives of Florida).

In the earliest days, the vast majority of cattlemen branded their cattle with one or two letters on one flank or the other, as this record indicates:

Page 1 of Escambia County's record of marks and brands, 1823-1890s (Series L14, State Archives of Florida).

Page 1 of Escambia County’s record of marks and brands, 1823-1890s (Series L14, State Archives of Florida).

 

Later on, some cattlemen became a bit more creative. This was in part to make it more difficult for their brands to be altered or confused. Here we see a particularly fitting brand recorded by William and John Bell in 1866.

Bell-shaped brand recorded for William and John Bell, page 77 of Escambia County's record of marks and brands, 1823-1890s (Series L14, State Archives of Florida).

Bell-shaped brand recorded for William and John Bell, page 77 of Escambia County’s record of marks and brands, 1823-1890s (Series L14, State Archives of Florida).

For all the mullet connoisseurs out there, this next brand ought to bring out a chuckle. Perhaps the William Murphy who recorded it was also a fan of this North Florida favorite:

Bell-shaped brand recorded for William and John Bell, page 77 of Escambia County's record of marks and brands, 1823-1890s (Series L14, State Archives of Florida).

Mullet-shaped brand recorded by William Murphy in 1879, page 107 in Escambia County’s record of marks and brands, 1823-1890s (Series L14, State Archives of Florida).

This book of marks and brands is just one of many, many local government records held by the State Archives of Florida. If you’re considering a project on a Florida community, try searching the Archives and Library catalogs for relevant holdings, or contact us to learn more. We’ll be glad to hear from you!

Why We Treasure the Treasure Coast

The Treasure Coast is a section of Florida’s Atlantic coastline located roughly between Vero Beach and Miami. Locals could point to lots of reasons why this part of Florida deserves to be “treasured,” but which treasure earned it the name? The miles of white sandy beaches? The once-prominent and lucrative pineapple industry in the area?

It turns out the name “Treasure Coast” is much more literal. Nearly 300 years ago, in 1715, a fleet of 11 Spanish ships was wrecked just offshore between the mouth of the St. Lucie River and Cape Canaveral.

These weren’t just any ships. They were part of what the Spanish called a plate fleet, sent to collect new wealth from the American possessions of the Spanish Empire and transport it to Spain. When they fell victim to the punishing winds of a hurricane, all but one of the ships sank, scattering their valuable cargo over the seafloor.

A map showing Florida's "Treasure Coast," roughly between Vero Beach and Miami.

A map showing Florida’s “Treasure Coast,” roughly between Vero Beach and Miami.

This plate fleet was especially rich, owing to the circumstances of the time. From 1700 to 1714, most of Western Europe was tangled up in a war over who would succeed to the throne of Spain. Plate fleets usually sailed from the Spanish port of Cadiz each year, but the intense European conflict made it too dangerous to make the journey. Once the war was settled, however, the Spanish made plans to collect much needed revenue from their American colonies. The fleet split once it reached the New World, some of the ships heading to Veracruz in New Spain, and others traveling farther south to Cartagena and Portobello. By the time the ships were reunited at Havana, they were loaded down with gold, silver, jewels, and trade items obtained from China.

Drawing of a typical Spanish galleon, similar to those that would have been part of the Plate Fleet of 1715 (1886).

Drawing of a typical Spanish galleon, similar to those that would have been part of the Plate Fleet of 1715 (1886).

The final leg of the trip back to Spain always carried the plate fleet up the Gulf Stream between the Bahamas and the Florida coast. This was a dangerous gamble, because if the ships encountered rough weather, it could push them against the shallower waters along the Florida coast, which concealed a number of reefs that could easily destroy the wooden hull of a ship. Oddly enough, most plate fleet sailings seemed to take place in the midst of hurricane season.

The 1715 plate fleet set sail from Havana on July 24th, caught the Gulf Stream, and began navigating northward. On the 30th, the fleet passed the mouth of the Bahama Channel, where the weather began to turn foul. By the early morning of July 31st, the ships were caught up in the brunt of an Atlantic hurricane, tossed about with no way to steer or resist the massive waves crashing onto their decks. Two ships, La Francesca and San Miguel, disappeared completely, while the others were crushed as the high winds pushed them into the shallow waters off Cape Canavaeral. The death toll is difficult to estimate; one historian has suggested that as many as a thousand may have died in this single incident.

A diorama depicting the activities of the survivors of the 1715 Plate Fleet wreck. The display is located at the McLarty State Museum in the Sebastian Inlet State Recreational Area (circa 1970s).

A diorama depicting the activities of the survivors of the 1715 Plate Fleet wreck. The display is located at the McLarty State Museum in the Sebastian Inlet State Recreational Area (circa 1970s).

Those who did survive made it to the Florida coast and began gathering wood and supplies from the wreckage to erect a camp. The admiral of the fleet, Don Francisco Salmon, sent a small detachment north to St. Augustine to report the disaster to Spanish authorities there. He ordered a boat constructed so that another detachment could go south to Havana for the same purpose. The situation for all involved was grim; survivors reported eating dogs, cats, horses, and even palmetto berries.

A serene sunrise at Sebastian Inlet (circa 1937).

A serene sunrise at Sebastian Inlet (circa 1937).

The Spanish attempted to recover their lost horde, but could only do so much, as the constant movement of the sea continued to break apart the ships of the plate fleet and scatter their contents. As word of the disaster spread, small vessels came from far and wide to pilfer and recover what small bits of the great treasure they could locate. Generations later, people still occasionally come across coins or other artifacts. When a 1955 hurricane blew away a portion of the sand dunes near Sebastian Inlet and exposed significant evidence of the shipwrecks, treasure hunters began looking for the wreck sites with renewed interest. Local resident Kip Wagner took up the search as a hobby, and eventually formed a company that found two of the fleet vessels and a wealth of artifacts.

With all the treasure being found in the area, local newspapermen John J. Schumann, Jr. and Harry J. Schultz thought it might make for a good nickname for the region. Florida’s Atlantic coast was already lined with towns by this time, and it could be difficult for any one of them to convey to visitors exactly what made them special. Schultz and Schumann decided that since they had a Space Coast to their north and a Gold Coast to their south, it made perfect sense to turn Kip Wagner’s recent find into a publicity generator and call their area the “Treasure Coast.”

What is your favorite part of the Florida coast to visit? Let us know by leaving a comment on Facebook! Also, search the Florida Photographic Collection for more photos of incredible treasures discovered in the waters of the Sunshine State.

Fountains of Youth

The legend of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon’s quest to find the Fountain of Youth is one of the most popular stories in Florida history and culture. Books, paintings, movies, and even live pageants depict old Ponce as the guy who was convinced he would find a fountain in Florida whose waters would turn back the hands of time and keep anyone who drank from it or bathed in it young. He never found the fountain, of course, or else we’d refer you to him for the full story. We can, however, tell you a bit about Ponce’s exploration of Florida and the fountains of youth his journey has inspired over the years since his departure.

Drawing of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon at the Fountain of Youth (date unknown).

Drawing of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon at the Fountain of Youth (date unknown).

You might be surprised to learn that for all the hoopla about Ponce’s fountain quest, no documents from his lifetime survive to prove that the fountain was the object of his mission at all. Stories of such a fountain had already been around for centuries, sort of like that of the Holy Grail. Ponce would certainly have been aware of these stories, but evidence is lacking that he put much effort into finding out if they were true. The legend of Ponce’s search for the fountain of youth seems to start years after his death, when a chronicler of the Spanish court wrote a history of his expeditions. In reality, the explorer was more likely prodded by the prospect of finding gold and land, as well as the Spanish king’s promise to make him governor of the territory he discovered.

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon (date unknown).

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon (date unknown).

Whatever his motivation, Ponce set out from Puerto Rico on March 3, 1513 to explore. On March 27th the crew spotted land, and after a few more days they went ashore and Ponce claimed the land for Spain. All of this took place during Pascua Florida, the traditional “feast of flowers,” and accordingly Ponce decided to call the new territory Florida. The exact location of his landing is uncertain, although plenty of theories exist. Most guesses have him going ashore somewhere between St. Augustine and the mouth of the St. Johns River. After claiming possession of Florida, Ponce and his ships moved down the east coast, along what is now the Florida Keys, and then into the Gulf of Mexico. Depending on which historian you ask, he then made it as far as Charlotte Harbor or maybe even Pensacola Bay before returning to Puerto Rico.

A man poses as Juan Ponce de Leon during the Ponce de Leon Festival in Punta Gorda (circa 1960s).

A man poses as Juan Ponce de Leon during the Ponce de Leon Festival in Punta Gorda (circa 1960s).

Ponce later made a second voyage to Florida, this time equipped to stay for a while. He brought two ships, 200 colonists, 50 horses, cows, pigs, and everything necessary to set up a permanent colony. Florida was no empty territory at this time, however. The fledgling settlement, likely located near Charlotte Harbor, came under fierce attack from the native Calusa Indians, who did not appreciate the Spaniards’ intrusion. Several settlers were killed, and Juan Ponce was badly wounded by an arrow. The expedition decided to cut its losses and retreat. The ships sailed to Cuba, where Ponce died of his wound. His remains were shipped back to Puerto Rico for burial, and it would be several more years before another permanent Spanish settlement was attempted.

 

Statue of Juan Ponce de Leon near the historical marker in Punta Gorda commemorating his establishment of a colony near Charlotte Harbor (photo 1972).

Statue of Juan Ponce de Leon near the historical marker in Punta Gorda commemorating his establishment of a colony near Charlotte Harbor (photo 1972).

While Ponce may not have actually done much searching for the famous fountain of youth, the romantic allure of the story has been irresistable to generations of Florida visitors. Business owners have capitalized on this trend, too. Take, for example, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine. Since the 1860s, the park has delighted visitors with its collection of Old Florida attractions, all centered around a spring reputed to be mentioned in accounts of Ponce’s original landing in 1513.

Fountain of Youth Park in St. Augustine. The

Fountain of Youth Park in St. Augustine. The “Luella Day” who signed the photo was Luella Day McConnell, known locally as “Diamond Lil.” She purchased and enlarged the attraction in the early 1900s (photo 1907).

 

An old water mill, one of the attractions at the expanded Fountain of Youth park in St. Augustine (1946).

An old water mill, one of the attractions at the expanded Fountain of Youth park in St. Augustine (1946).

Another would-be Fountain of Youth appears in this postcard, which depicts the “Tomoka Cabin” near Ormond Beach. Shortly after the Hotel Ormond opened for business in 1888, the proprietors built this small structure next to the serene waters of the nearby Tomoka River. Hotel guests would often bring picnic lunches to this spot and spend the day exploring. The fountain seen here was part of the mystique of the place. At least one visiting group probably wished it was purveying something other than youth or mineral water. Local legend has it that a group of visitors was once stranded here when the hotel staff left them overnight. The weather became so cold they burned the furniture for heat!

A worn postcard depicting the

A worn postcard depicting the “Fountain of Youth” at the Tomoka Cabin near Ormond Beach (circa 1910).

The Gulf Coast has its share of candidates as well. St. Petersburg features a “Fountain of Youth Park,” complete with a fountain fed by a mineral spring.

Postcard depicting the

Postcard depicting the “Fountain of Youth” at Waterfront Park in St. Petersburg (circa 1950s).

To the south in Sarasota County, Warm Mineral Springs has its own Fountain of Youth. The proprietors were quick to note that this was the “real” one. Unlike most of Florida’s springs, this one is quite warm. Each day, about 17,000 gallons flow from the springs every three minutes. The temperature is about 87 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

Promotional literature for Warm Mineral Springs, located near Venice in Sarasota County (1956).

Promotional literature for Warm Mineral Springs, located near Venice in Sarasota County (1956).

We at Florida Memory are convinced that all of Florida’s beautiful springs qualify as fountains of youth. They might not erase wrinkles and sun spots, but they do help roll back the years by providing a place for the entire family to relax and have fun. Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more images of Florida’s many spring systems!

 

Shipwreck of the Atocha

It was June 13, 1971. Don Kincaid, who had been diving off the coast of the Florida Keys, made his way to the surface with a handful of something shiny, coiled up like a small snake. He climbed aboard the work boat Virgalona with the aid of a ladder, and excitedly spread his find out for his colleagues to see.

Kincaid’s boss, shipwreck hunter Mel Fisher, congratulated him and radioed to his other cruiser nearby to join them. Kincaid had found nearly eight feet of gold chain, a sign that Fisher and his team were close to something big. In time, they would learn that they had found the remains of a Spanish treasure ship, part of a fleet lost in a hurricane in 1622. The ship was called Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

The workship James Bay, used by Mel Fisher and his crew to excavate the remains of the Spanish galleon Atocha.

The work ship James Bay, used by Mel Fisher and his crew to excavate the remains of the Spanish galleon Atocha (1979).

The Spanish government sent treasure fleets periodically to its New World possessions to collect gold, silver, precious stones, and trade goods that had been mined or produced there. The ships then returned to Spain to deliver their holdings into the coffers of the Spanish monarchy. The Atocha had been recently built at Havana, Cuba for one of these missions. The name Nuestra Señora de Atocha honored the Virgin of a shrine near Madrid. The ship was 600 tons.

An example of a Spanish galleon similar to the Atocha, on display at McKee's Museum of Sunken Treasure on Plantation Key (1972).

An example of a Spanish galleon similar to the Atocha, on display at McKee’s Museum of Sunken Treasure on Plantation Key (1972).

When the 1622 treasure fleet left Spain in April, it carried wine, cloth, ironwork, and books to distribute to Spanish settlements in the Americas. It also carried around half a million pounds of mercury, which would be used to extract silver from ore mined in what is now Bolivia. When the fleet reached the New World, the ships began trading their goods for the riches of the Americas. They took on silver from Peru, gold bars and silver coins from New Granada, tobacco, indigo, and tons of Cuban copper.

Fleet officials were already getting nervous; hurricane season had started. The oppressive tropical summer heat was intense, and workers cursed and sweated in the baking sun as they loaded cargo and tended their ships. The Atocha and its sister vessels remained docked at Havana while their captains awaited the new moon, which they believed would provide fairer sailing weather until they could get past the dangerous Florida coast. On September 4th, the fleet finally put out to sea.

 

Map showing the approximate location of the wreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha.

Map showing the approximate location of the wreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha (indicated by a red circle).

Less than two days later, a powerful hurricane passed over the fleet near the Dry Tortugas, snapping masts and scattering the ships. Two of the ships, Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita, sunk within sight of one another after running aground between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. Only five people from the Atocha survived, one sailor, two ship’s boys, and two slaves.

The loss of the treasure of the Atocha and the Santa Margarita was a significant financial blow for Spain. The Spanish government needed this money to run the country, especially the military, which was involved at this time in the ongoing Thirty Years’ War plaguing Central Europe. The Spanish sent salvage ships to the supposed site of the wreck, where indigenous slaves dove to the sea floor with the aid of a diving bell to search for the lost cargo. Eventually, the Spanish recovered about half of the treasure lost from the Santa Maragrita. One Spanish recovery mission found the location of the Atocha, but the water was too deep for divers to reach it. The Spaniards had little choice to abandon the wreck and its treasure in the churning waters of the Florida Straits, where it would remain for over 300 years.

Treasure hunter Mel Fisher viewing items recovered from the wreck of the Atocha (1978).

Treasure hunter Mel Fisher viewing items recovered from the wreck of the Atocha (1978).

That is, until Don Kincaid swam to the surface to show his shining discovery to shipwreck hunter Mel Fisher. After nearly two years of additional searching, Fisher’s crew began unearthing large amounts of treasure from the sea floor. On one day in May 1973, the divers brought up around 1,500 coins. They nicknamed the area the “Bank of Spain.”

 Gold coins from the wreck of the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Gold coins from the wreck of the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

The treasures kept coming. Swords, cannonballs, gold bars, a rosary, the navigator’s astrolabe – treasure after priceless treasure emerged from the deep. Some were sold to pay for the costs of the hunt, including payments to people who had invested in Mel Fisher’s expedition. Many artifacts from the Atocha are now on display in museums around the Florida Keys.

Treasure from the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Treasure from the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Cannons taken from the wreck of the Atocha (1975).

Cannons taken from the wreck of the Atocha (1975).

Astrolabe from the wreck of the Atocha (circa 1980s).

Astrolabe from the wreck of the Atocha (circa 1980s).

What secrets lie beneath the waters near your Florida community? Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more photos of shipwrecks and the treasures they have yielded over the years.

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine

Every Sunday, worshipers belonging to the oldest Catholic parish in the United States file into the St. Augustine Cathedral Basilica, where mass has been celebrated in some form or fashion for nearly 450 years. As timeless as this sturdy building may appear to the visitor, however, its history bears witness to many instances of warfare, disaster, and change that have shaped the city of St. Augustine.

This is an engraved, hand-colored map drawn by Baptista Boazio in 1589, depicts a raid on St. Augustine by the English navigator Sir Francis Drake. Boazio lived in London from about 1585 to 1603, illustrating accounts of English expeditions and campaigns.

This engraved, hand-colored map drawn by Baptista Boazio in 1589 depicts a raid on St. Augustine by the English navigator Sir Francis Drake. Boazio lived in London from about 1585 to 1603, illustrating accounts of English expeditions and campaigns.

In this zoomed portion of the Boazio map, notice the location of the parish church, marked "O" in the original and indicated with a green arrow.

In this zoomed portion of the Boazio map, notice the location of the parish church, marked “O” in the original and indicated with a green arrow.

St. Augustine was established in 1565 by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles. He had carried with his expedition four priests who immediately began preparing to minister to the Spaniards who would settle in the new outpost. The map above shows the location of the first parish church at the southeast corner of the old plaza.

Depiction of the first mass celebrated in St. Augustine on September 8, 1565. This painting, dated 1919, is an exact copy of the version that hung on the wall of the St. Augustine Cathedral for many years before the building burned in 1887.

Depiction of the first mass celebrated in St. Augustine on September 8, 1565. This painting, dated 1919, is an exact copy of the version that hung on the wall of the St. Augustine Cathedral for many years before the building burned in 1887.

In addition to serving as the principal port and administrative center of Spanish Florida, St. Augustine was also the headquarters of the Catholic Church’s effort to minister to the Native Americans living in the surrounding area. Two lines of Franciscan missions extended outward from the town, one heading west as far as Tallahassee, and another stretching into present-day South Georgia as far as St. Catherine’s Island.

Read more »

Gregor McGregor (Part Two)

McGregor settled in on Amelia Island after capturing the Spanish town and blockhouse at Fernandina.

After Gregor McGregor captured the small fort and block houses at Fernandina on Amelia Island in June of 1817, he sent the Spanish prisoners to St. Augustine. McGregor planned to continue his invasion of North Florida, but delayed at Amelia Island to set up a government of his own. He established a postal delivery system, acquired a printing press for a local newspaper, issued his own currency and flew his own flag, a green cross on a white background.

Gregor McGregor's flag

Read more »

Gregor McGregor (Part One)

In July 1817, McGregor devised a plan to capture part of Florida and sell it to the United States.

Gregor McGregor was born in Scotland in 1786. After serving in the British Army for eight years he sold out of the army in 1810, having attained the rank of major. In 1812, McGregor sailed to South America to join the colonial revolution against the Spanish. He married a relative of Simón Bolivar and campaigned against the Spanish in South America and the Caribbean for several years.

In 1817, he left South America for North America to campaign against the Spanish in Florida. McGregor devised a plan to capture part of Florida and sell it to the United States. He obtained financial backing from an American mercantile company from Charleston, South Carolina, recruited veterans of the War of 1812, and invaded Amelia Island in North Florida.

Map from the Unconfirmed Spanish Land Grant of John McClure on Amelia Island, showing the location of Fuerte San Carlos (upper left) overtaken by McGregor on July 9, 1817

Map from the Unconfirmed Spanish Land Grant of John McClure on Amelia Island, showing the location of Fuerte San Carlos (upper left) overtaken by McGregor on July 9, 1817

Quotation below from Narrative of a Voyage to the Spanish Main in the Ship Two Friends (J. Miller: London, 1819), 87-88.

“On the 9th of July (1817), the little band of McGregor, attended by two schooners and a few row boats, passing the shores of Cumberland island, at the entrance of the river St. Mary’s, anchored in the Spanish waters of Amelia, disembarking in all about 60 muskets, under the very guns of the fort of Fernandina, and two block houses intended as a defense for the rear of the town. McGregor, assisted by Colonel Posen of the United States Army as second in command, led his little band over a swamp, which divided the point of debarkation from the town, plunged up to their knees in mud, exposed to the means possessed by the Spaniards of totally annihilating them… The garrison… did not offer a single coup de canon of resistance from the fort, and only one gun was fired from the Block house and that without the orders of the commandant.”