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.

A Prickly Tale: The History of Pineapples in Florida

Cube it, slice it, shred it, juice it, grill it, cook it. Pineapples are a delicious treat or compliment to any dish. Today, many people think of Hawaii as the pineapple capital of the United States, but did you know pineapples were cultivated in Florida before Hawaii was even a U.S. territory?

Florida pines

Florida pineapples

The earliest pineapple cultivation in Florida started in Key West in the 1860s. Benjamin Baker, known as “King of Wreckers” for his engagement in the business of salvaging ships, grew pineapples on Plantation Key, typically shipping them by schooner to New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Around the same time, a Mr. Brantley was producing pineapples on Merritt Island.

Pineapples being transported on a sailboat.

Pineapples being transported on a sailboat (Between 1890 and 1910)

By 1899, the industry had expanded rapidly, thanks in part to the southward extension of the Florida East Coast Railway. Pineapple plantations could be found across Florida, including in Lee, Volusia and Orange counties. Despite freeze issues, there were an estimated 1,325 acres of pineapple plantations in Florida, producing 95,442 crates of fruit.

Pineapple field in Winter Haven (Between 1880 and 1900)

Pineapple field in Winter Haven (Between 1880 and 1900)

 

Pineapples in transport - Volusia County, Florida (191-)

Pineapples in transport – Volusia County, Florida (191-)

Though the industry seemed to be on the rise, troubles began around 1908. Although Florida growers produced over 1.1 million crates of pineapples that year, Cuba produced 1.2 million crates and flooded the market. Cuba could also ship pineapples at a cheaper rate than Florida.  And there was more…

In 1910, portions of crops along Indian River plantations began to show signs of failing. A “red wilt” was rotting the roots of the pineapple plants, causing them to die. The disease quickly spread to entire fields. Add to that a lack of proper fertilizer due to World War I in Europe and freezes in 1917 and 1918, and the industry seemed to have disappeared.

R.A. Carlton, an agricultural agent for the Seaboard Air Line railway attempted to revive pineapple production in Florida in the 1930s, but the industry was never able to fully recover.

 

George S. Morikami and Al Avery holding prize pineapples

George S. Morikami and Al Avery holding prize pineapples (1966)

What is your favorite way to enjoy a delicious pineapple? Tell us about it by leaving a comment!

In Plain Sight: Secrets Beneath the Sands of Higgs Beach

Even in its most picture-perfect settings, the Florida coastline harbors many secrets about the past. At Higgs Beach in Key West, for example, visitors enjoy the sparkling blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico only yards away from one of the most unique cemeteries in the United States.

A view of Higgs Beach in Key West (May 5, 2006).

A view of Higgs Beach in Key West (May 5, 2006).

The cemetery, which only recently received proper investigation and recognition, originally contained the remains of nearly 300 Africans brought to Key West after they were confiscated by the U.S. Navy from ships engaging in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Although slavery was still legal in much of the United States in 1860, the international slave trade was not. Consequently, when the American-owned vessels Wildfire, William, and Bogota sailed into the Caribbean attempting to deliver their human cargo to Cuba, they were seized, along with more than a thousand African men, women, and children.

The slave deck of the bark

The slave deck of the bark Wildfire, one of three brought to Key West after being seized by the U.S. Navy in 1860 (Harper’s Weekly, 1860).

Drawing of Africans being brought from the ship

Drawing of Africans being brought from the ship Williams, one of three vessels captured by the U.S. Navy in 1860 (drawing 1860).

The African refugees arrived malnourished and weak from their long trans-Atlantic voyage, and hundreds died while awaiting their fate in Key West. As many as 14 died in a single day – many were children. Scrambling to accommodate these unexpected arrivals, the U.S. marshal at Key West, Fernando Moreno, erected housing and a hospital for the Africans. Officials called the structure a “barracoon,” borrowing terminology used by slave traders operating on the African coast. The building was divided into nine large rooms so the sexes and children of different ages could be separated.

A print from Harper's Weekly depicting the

A print from Harper’s Weekly depicting the “barracoon” in which the African refugees were housed while awaiting their fate (1860).

While the Africans were at Key West, Moreno and other federal personnel guarded them vigilantly. Even with the illegality of the slave trade, these individuals were considered highly valuable in a region where slavery was still legal. Officials were concerned that someone might attempt to kidnap some of the Africans, or that they might attempt to escape. The guards mounted artillery pieces to defend against potential attacks, and deployed a police force consisting of Marines and local citizens.

A sketch made from a daguerreotype of an African refugee at Key West in 1860. This young woman was given the title of

A sketch made from a daguerreotype of an African refugee at Key West in 1860. This young woman was given the title of “princess” by whites who visited the Africans, on account of her “fine personal appearance and the deference that seemed to be paid to her by some of her companions” (1860).

As Moreno and the federal agents at Key West grappled with the difficulties of maintaining such a large group of guests, the United States government investigated ways of getting the refugees back to Africa. Ultimately, the U.S. negotiated a contract with the American Colonization Society to take the Africans to Liberia, a country on the west African coast founded with support from the U.S. as a resettlement location. The first group left Key West for Africa on July 3, 1860, with another group following about two weeks later.

According to a report published in the New York Times, many of the Africans asked not to be returned to Africa, but this may have been a mistaken interpretation. It was more likely the trans-Atlantic journey itself they most feared, and with good reason. Many had died on the voyage from Africa to the Caribbean, and hundreds more would perish en route to Liberia.

A barricade protects a section of Higgs Beach believed to be the site of the cemetery where hundreds of African refugees were buried in 1860 (photo 2006).

A barricade protects a section of Higgs Beach believed to be the site of the cemetery where hundreds of African refugees were buried in 1860 (photo 2006).

Not long after the last African refugee left Key West, the Civil War broke out, deflecting attention to other matters. The scores of graves at Higgs Beach were mostly forgotten, save for a few references in histories of the island. Over time, the construction of new military installations and roads in the area greatly disturbed the burials, further obscuring their story. Local researchers began a movement to properly identify and recognize the cemetery around 2000. The Florida Department of State erected a historical marker for the site in 2001, and archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar to locate at least nine distinct graves the following year. In 2012, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The cemetery is particularly unique because its inhabitants were African, yet they never served as slaves, nor were they free. As researchers have explained during the course of the investigation, there are few if any sites of this kind in the Americas.

Historical marker indicating the approximate location of the African refugee cemetery in Key West (2006).

Historical marker indicating the approximate location of the African refugee cemetery in Key West (2006).

What secrets lie beneath the sands of the Florida coastline near you? Share with us by leaving a comment below!

 

 

Early Views of Key West

It’s that time of year again…

As cool winter breezes penetrate deeper into the Florida peninsula with each passing cold front, mainlanders begin to yearn for something a little more tropical.

For a lucky few, Key West has become part of the winter routine. Those with the wherewithal to venture down to the southernmost city during the colder months may be unaware of the island’s early history, when Key West was plagued by everything from malaria to water shortages and fire to hurricanes.

The images below are some of the earliest renderings of the island known to the Americans as Key West, long before it became a tourist mecca in the days of Flagler and Hemingway.

Sketch of Key West by William A. Whitehead, ca. 1838, reproduced in Jefferson Browne, Key West: The Old and the New (St. Augustine: The Record Company, 1912)

Sketch of Key West by William A. Whitehead, ca. 1838, reproduced in Jefferson Browne, Key West: The Old and the New (St. Augustine: The Record Company, 1912)

These two sketches (above and below), drawn by William A. Whitehead, portray Key West as it appeared from the cupola atop A. C. Tift’s warehouse in the late 1830s. William and his brother John were prominent citizens in the small island community. William served as customs collector from 1830 to 1838. He left Key West in 1838, never to return, because the town council refused to institute an occupational tax he supported.

Sketch of Key West by William A. Whitehead, ca. 1838, reproduced in Jefferson Browne, Key West: The Old and the New (St. Augustine: The Record Company, 1912)

Sketch of Key West by William A. Whitehead, ca. 1838, reproduced in Jefferson Browne, Key West: The Old and the New (St. Augustine: The Record Company, 1912)

The image below is believed to be one of the oldest landscape daguerreotypes of Florida. It dates to about 1850 and was likely taken from an observation tower in the vicinity of Front and Simonton Streets. Visible near the horizon are First Baptist (left) and St. Paul’s Episcopal (middle) churches.

The steeple of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church helps date this item to circa 1850. St. Paul’s, built in 1839, was destroyed by a hurricane in 1846. It was rebuilt in 1848, but burned along with much of the city in the fire of 1886. In 1909 and 1910, the church again suffered damage from powerful tropical weather. The present Gothic Revival-style structure, constructed of steel and concrete, held its first services in 1914. According to an early historian of Key West, First Baptist Church on Eaton Street (upper left) was built in 1848.

Bird's eye view of Key West, ca. 1850

Bird’s eye view of Key West, ca. 1850

The map below, created by the Monroe County Commissioners in 1874 from city property records, shows Key West as it appeared in the late 19th century. During the 1860s and 1870s, Key West hosted a large contingent of Cubans fleeing from the Ten Years War (1868-1878) in their homeland. This conflict served as a precursor to the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898), during which Key West again played a vital role for the exile community.

Cuban businessmen in exile, including Vicente Martínez Ybor, transplanted their cigar rolling operations to Key West during the Ten Years War. Ybor later moved his factories to Tampa and started the community that now bears his name.

"Map of the City of Key West, Monroe County Florida..." Compiled and Drawn by Order of the Hon. Board of County Commissioners (July 1874)

“Map of the City of Key West, Monroe County Florida…” Compiled and Drawn by Order of the Hon. Board of County Commissioners (July 1874)

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Author Ernest Hemingway, born on this day in 1899, is perhaps the most famous former resident of Key West. Only one of his books, To Have and Have Not (1937) was set in the southernmost city, but Hemingway logged many hours perfecting his craft at his Whitehead Street home. An avid fisherman and boater, Hemingway enjoyed all that Key West had to offer.

Ernest Hemingway with bill fish, Key West, 1940s

Ernest Hemingway with bill fish, Key West, 1940s

Cat in front of the Hemingway House, Key West, 1993

Cat in front of the Hemingway House, Key West, 1993

Florida and the Civil War (April 1863)

There Goes the Judge

On April 18, 1863, Judge William Marvin wrote President Abraham Lincoln of his wish to resign his position as “District Judge of the United States for the Southern District of Florida.” Marvin had held his office since 1847, but he now wished to resign to recover his health “in a more northern climate.” Judge Marvin’s resignation may have only received brief notices in the Northern and Southern press, but his official career in Florida had been anything but brief or inconsequential.

William Marvin, 1865

William Marvin, 1865

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First Train to Key West (January 22, 1912)

On this date in 1912 the first passenger train arrived in Key West, marking the completion of Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad from Jacksonville to the Southernmost City.

Detail from Rand McNally’s 1912 map of Florida showing Flagler’s East Coast Railroad through southeastern Florida and the Florida Keys

Detail from Rand McNally’s 1912 map of Florida showing Flagler’s East Coast Railroad through southeastern Florida and the Florida Keys

Awaiting the train…

Awaiting the train…

Greeting the train…

Greeting the train…

Henry M. Flagler disembarking the first passenger train to Key West

Henry M. Flagler disembarking the first passenger train to Key West

Parade celebrating the arrival of the East Coast Railroad in Key West

Parade celebrating the arrival of the East Coast Railroad in Key West

Key West Junkanoos

Florida’s close proximity to the Caribbean islands has introduced a variety of rich cultural celebrations to the state. In this podcast we explore some of the music that grew out of the Bahamian Junkanoo parades as we listen to the Key West Junkanoos.

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Employed by the City of Key West, the Junkanoos were led by bassist Bill Butler, pianist Lofton “Coffee” Butler, and featured percussionists Charles Allen, Kenny Rahming, Joe Whyms and Alvin Scott. They appeared often at the Florida Folk Festival from 1977-1991.

Key West Island Junkanoos peforming at the Florida Folk Festival: White Springs, 1983

Key West Island Junkanoos peforming at the Florida Folk Festival: White Springs, 1983

The origin of the name Junkanoo is a matter of debate. Some say it is derived from the name of 18th century African Gold Coast leader John Connu. Others have looked to similar sounding phrases such as the French for “masked people,” gens inconnu. Bahamian Junkanoo parades can be traced back to the 1800s when African slaves would gather, don masks, and celebrate with music and dance on Christmas Day. The parades have evolved to become huge tourist attractions and occur in two stages or rushes: the first on Boxing Day (December 26) and the second on New Year’s Day. This tradition was carried to Key West and Miami by Bahamian immigrants of African descent.

The Key West Junkanoos have distilled the sounds of the parades’ marching bands into their own repertoire of original material, as well as performing classic Calypso tunes such as “The John B. Sails,” “Island in the Sun” and “Yellow Bird.” The recordings in this podcast are from the Junkanoos’ performance at the 1983 Florida Folk Festival’s Main Stage.