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  Treasure Of The Atocha
by R. Duncan Mathewson III
Archaeological Director Of The Search For The Nuestra Senora de Atocha

Introduction


 Mel Fisher was the leading force in the search for the treasure of the 1622 galleons. His struggle to find the lost treasure has been a costly one, both financially, and personally. But the search continues, this mound of silver bars and coins are a small portion of what has been found. Excavation of the motherload site is expected to continue for several years.

Marquesas Key's Florida, July 20, 1985:

“Put away the charts! We found it!’’ Kane Fisher’s voice crackled out of the radio at the Key West office of Treasure Salvors, the salvage company owned by his father1 Mel Fisher. The announce­ment set off an instant, nearly riotous. celebration.

Kane Fisher spoke from the deck of the Dauntless, a salvage boat which had been combing the ocean floor off Key West for the wreckage of a Spanish galleon, Nuestra Senora de Atocha. Today’s the day that treasure Salvors I6-year search finally yields the solution to a 350-year-old mystery. The silver ingots---over 1,000 of them stacked like a cord of wood-mark the resting place of the bulk of the cargo of the Atocha, which sank during a hurricane in 1622.

During that 16 years, Mel Fisher often encouraged his divers by telling them, Today’s the day” He even had the phrase printed on t-shirts And that hope kept them going through times when there was no money to pay their wages, through the weary months between the tantalizing finds of a single silver ingot or a scrap of jewelry.

Ironically, today is also the day, July 20, marking the tenth anniversary of the death of Mel’s oldest son, Dirk, Dirk’s wife, Angel, and crewman Rick Gage. The three drowned when the company’s salvage tug Northwind capsized. three days before his death, Dirk had located a pile of bronze cannons. Those cannons confirmed that the scattered artifacts the divers had been finding for the past four years were part of the long-lost Atocha.

Now, a decade later, the fervent optimism of Mel Fisher, and the skill of a dedicated band of archaeologists, scientists, historians.

sailors, and divers had finally uncovered the scene of one of Spain’s most financially disastrous maritime accidents.

The hurricane that wrecked the Atocha was no more fierce than the forces spawned by Fisher’s monomanical search.

In addition to the loss of lives, the search consumed 58 million dollars-profits from Fisher’s earlier salvage of a fleet of galleons sunk in 1715 plus the funds of hundreds of investors.

In the treasure business, success can be more difficult than failure. During the 16 year search Fisher had to wage battle in court with the United States Federal Government Land the State of Florida for ownership of the Atocha‘s great wealth.

In ruling against the United States and for Treasure Salvors in March 1978, Judge Walter P. Gewin of the U.S. Court of Appeals wrote:

  

“This action evokes all the romance and danger of the buccaneering days in the West Indies. It is routed in an ancient tragedy of Imperial Spain, and embraces a modern tragedy as well. The case also represents the story of triumph, a story in which the daring and determination of the colonial settlers are mirrored by contemporary treasure seekers.”

Judge Gewins’ ruling hints at the adventure of treasure hunting treasure is an almost universal human dream. While the stories of pirates that inspire the wistful longing for the bright gleam of gold chains, the dull lustre of fine silver, and the brilliance of a well crafted emerald may be fiction, they have a firm foundation in fact.

For most of us, those stories remain dreams. But not for Mel Fisher, and not for the people who are Treasure Salvors, Inc. They fought the sea, the government, even modern day pirates, to recover the wealth of the Atocha  In their search, they adapted every useful instrument of modern technology, following through with sweat in a dogged physical struggle with the capricious ocean. In the salvage of the Atocha, for the first time, the work of commercial salvors was guided by a team of historians and archaeologists. Despite the disparagement of other professional archaeologists who claimed the archaeological work done on the Atocha was useless because it was carried out by a commercial salvage company, the innovations and knowledge gained in the operation proved conclusively that shallow water shipwrecks in the New World could be uncovered with the same meticulous attention to detail exercised on -sites on dry land. With details patiently pieced together from the rotted timbers and crushed jewelry and information gained from worm eaten documents, the divers, historians, and archaeologists were able to add enormously to what is known about Spain’s New World Colonies in the 17th century.

What follows is the story of an extraordinary group of men and women who followed their dream of locating underwater riches and succeeded where the power of Imperial Spain, Dutch warships, and English pirates failed.

 

 

   

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