By Kathleen Hardee Arsenault
April 12, 2021
” . . . reported by the Jacksonville Journal on December 1, 1928. Wilhemina, the 4-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. W. H. Schreck of Old Town, was making mud pies in their back yard when she brought a small can of coins to her parents.”
Generations of treasure seekers have dreamed of finding buried riches in Amelia’s sandy soil. Among them were “scientists” pretending to be excavating the Island’s Indian mounds, Palm Beach “sportsmen and playboys,” and generations of ordinary folks who grew up with stories of gold doubloons found on the beaches or scratched out of yards. Some have been just lucky, including a 4-year-old girl making mud pies in Old Town and a legendary FBHS and University of Florida football player who found a handful of doubloons while walking on the beach. Some have been cheated, many disappeared abruptly, and a few were rumored to be killed. Serious treasure hunters keep their secrets.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish galleons loaded with gold, silver, and jewels from Latin America returned riches to the king of Spain each year. One of them, the San Miguel, flag ship of the annual treasure fleet, probably sank offshore in a hurricane in 1715. So far, this rich prize, estimated at $2 billion, has not been precisely located, although some gold doubloons embossed with that date have turned up on the South End beach.
Doug Pope of Amelia Research and Recovery LLC and the crew of the specialized salvage vessel the Polly L are determined to find the big prize. Salvaging such ships requires considerable capital, not to mention deep pockets for historians and archaeologists and lawyers and accountants to deal with claims from the State of Florida about taxes due, the Environmental Protection Agency’s concerns about damage to the sea floor, and the general legal matters of a successful business. Pinpointing the San Miguel is but the first challenge for Mr. Pope and the Polly L.
Most treasure hunters, however, dream of less glamorous finds, perhaps a gold or silver coin or two found on the beach or riverbank or in their own backyards in the older sections of town. But some are more ambitious. They know that Amelia in the 18th and early 19th centuries was a tumultuous island, and its deep-water location between Spanish Florida and the colony of Georgia made it a magnet for smugglers, slave traders, revolutionaries of several varieties, and even real pirates! Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, and Calico Jack, along with the famous Mary Reed and Anne Bonny, are believed to have ventured into the Island’s rivers.
The most likely chest of gold, however, may have been buried by the less well-known Louis-Michel (Luis) Aury, a successful privateer for the French Navy active in the early 1800s until his resignation in 1811. (Privateers are basically pirates chartered by a government to harass enemy ships.) Aury then took his prize money and bought his own ship. He later dedicated his privateering skills to helping the cause of independence in the Spanish colonies of Mexico, Texas, East Florida, Caribbean islands, and Columbia. In 1817. Aury sailed into Fernandina to assist Gregor MacGregor’s independence efforts. Along with a few armed troops, they raised the flag of the revolutionary Mexican Republic over Fort San Carlos. Their republic was short lived: by Christmas 1817, they had surrendered to Americans led by Commodore J.D. Henley and Major James Bankhead, who promised to transfer the island to the United States.
In the midst of his revolutionary efforts, Aury was not averse to a bit of smuggling or other opportunities that arose. Off the coast of Fernandina, he captured a Spanish slave ship and illegally sold its cargo of 95 unfortunate enslaved Africans to a Georgia citizen for $60,000. Aury ran afoul of American authorities at the end of his brief time in Fernandina, and many are convinced that he had to abandon his ill-gotten gains as he quickly fled his arrest. His hastily buried riches, presumably, still await a lucky finder. In spite of this misadventure, Aury continued his liberation efforts in the Caribbean until his death in 1821.
Old timers told children stories of how to find pirate treasure: Look for a chain hanging from a tree but be sure to take your shovels with you because the chain and tree often mysteriously disappear. Just as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in Treasure Island, pirate chiefs are said to kill one of their crew so his ghost will protect his riches. You’ll need to take a trusted friend along to read from one of the five Books of Moses to banish the unruly spirit. If this sounds too scary and troublesome, you can just watch where you walk—you may be stepping on gold or silver! One lucky man in the early 1930s did just that: he stumbled across a gold bar on the beach by Nassau Sound!
Or perhaps a stranger will arrive in town and offer you an old Spanish map. Two early guides to caches of treasure were noted in a yellowed unattributed 1897 clipping from the collection of Suzanne Hardee. The first find was by a group of men who sailed in on the Gopher, posing as researchers studying the Island’s Indian mounds. Actually, they were treasure hunters, who, it was said, had an old Spanish map. Apparently, it was authentic, for they departed with $6000 in gold, worth $185,000 in current dollars! The other find was also based on a Spanish map owned by one Edward Gause, who took a local man named Hall as a partner and hired George Pinkney, an African American laborer, to help with the project. They unearthed a fortune in gold doubloons, then valued at $39,000, buried 12 feet deep beneath an ancient cedar tree. Sadly for Mr. Hall and Mr. Gause, the treasure disappeared, along with the Mr. Pinkney! Despite the efforts of lawyers, policemen in three states, and even Florida Governor William Bloxham, neither George Pinkney nor the treasure nor the map were ever seen again. Perhaps Mr. Pinkney, while digging the 12-foot hole, was plotting the perfect crime!
Another story, was reported by the Jacksonville Journal on December 1, 1928. Wilhemina, the 4-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. W. H. Schreck of Old Town, was making mud pies in their back yard when she brought a small can of coins to her parents. The Spanish coins, mostly copper and silver, bore dates from 1683-1772. Mr. Schreck then improvised a miner’s sluice gate using his garden hose. He eventually found 17,000 coins, mostly silver, as well as grape shot, arrow heads, cannon balls, and human bones. The brief article does not reveal whether the Governor claimed the State’s legal share.
More gold, silver or gems surely lurk under the sand for the lucky or the determined. Imagine the Old Town Spanish dons or their ladies carelessly dropping coins from their pockets, a passing pirate ship crew member deciding to bury his small stash of gold under a distinctive tree, or even the dread pirate Black Beard possibly hiding his legendary treasure chest. Think of homeowners protecting their silver, gold, or jewels in the years 1812-1821 when the Patriots, the Green Cross of Florida, and the Mexican rebellion flags were flying, attracting Spanish or American forces, or simply another heavily armed group of ne’er-do-wells. Consider the reasons that an absent-minded husband or wife might squirrel away a small box of US silver dollars or gold $20 liberty coins in their backyard, never to be seen again. We can be sure that treasure is out there—just remember that property owners don’t take kindly to people digging up their front yards.
Editor’s Note Kathleen Hardee Arsenault is a native of Fernandina. She currently lives in St. Petersburg, where, until her retirement, she served as dean of the University of South Florida Poynter Library.