Tales of a fabulous treasure in lost Spanish gold have long echoed in the marshes and inlets around the mouth of the St. Marks River.
The purported burial site is a “money pit” about three miles from the old Spanish fort of San Marcos de Apalache. The vicinity is now part of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and treasure or artifact hunting is prohibited by Federal law and punishable by severe fines and imprisonment.
The story of the St. Marks treasure has been told since around the time of the War Between the States (or Civil War). The most detailed version was attributed to Florida Secretary of State H. Clay Crawford in 1908:
History relates that this amount [i.e. $5,000,000] was paid in gold from the mint at New Orleans, and was loaded on a Spanish gunboat at New Orleans. The boat became disabled near St. Marks. In fear of pirates, who infested the coast, the captain with several of the crew landed and buried the gold, then returned to the gunboat. They drifted for days, and the crew was finally picked up by a vessel bound for Peru. During the voyage the scourge broke out on the ship and the officers and many of the crew died, those who survived landing, penniless, at Peru. – The Morning Tribune, August 5, 1908.
The $5,000,000 in gold was supposedly a payment received by Spain from the United States in 1821 in exchange for the cession of Florida.
As the story goes, no one locally knew of the hiding of this treasure until more than 40 years later when a mysterious man appeared in St. Marks during the troubled times of the War Between the States:
…Many years afterward a sailor named Bell landed at St. Marks. He was an old man, feeble and ill, and was kindly cared for by a man named Smith, whose home he reached in his wanderings. He lingered several months and then died. When he found that he was about to die he told Mr. Smith the story of his life. He was one of the crew of the ill-fated gunboat that carried the Spanish gold from New Orleans. He told of the burying of the money after the boat became disabled, and of the crew being carried to Peru. He said he had spent his life trying to get back to St. Marks, where the gold was buried. Before he died he gave Mr. Smith a chart by which the spot could be located, then he died and was buried at St. Marks. This was in the last year of the war, more than forty years after Florida was purchased from Spain. – The Morning Tribune, August 5, 1908.
Bell appears to have arrived in St. Marks prior to the Battle of Natural Bridge. How he was able to slip past the Union blockade ships in Apalachee Bay is not explained in the story.
Mr. Smith now found himself in possession of Bell’s secret chart and decided to head out in search of the treasure with two enslaved African-Americans:
…Smith set out in a small sail boat with two negroes to search for the buried treasure. He made a careful inspection of the coast and located, as he believed, the exact spot described by the chart. This chart described three trees which grew at a certain spot, in one of them an iron spike was driven. Smith found what he believed to be the trees mentioned in the chart. On one was a peculiar knot. He cut into this and found an iron spike driven into the tree, over which the knot had grown. – The Morning Tribune, August 5, 1908.
The treasure map specified that the gold would be found a certain number of paces from the tree with the iron spike. Smith now stepped off this distance and began to dig, but encountered so much difficulty that he decided to go back to St. Marks for more help and better equipment.
The war now intervened however and Union troops invaded Florida by way of Apalachee Bay and the St. Marks Lighthouse. They were defeated at the Battle of Natural Bridge on March 6, 1865, but the end of the war was in sight and Mr. Smith was left penniless by its outcome. He died soon after, “believing firmly that [the treasure] was buried near the tree with the spike in it.”
The port of St. Marks soon reopened to commerce and it was not long before a man named Ballou appeared there, also bearing a copy of the mysterious treasure map:
…He also was an old man and of very secretive habits. He fitted out a boat, bought picks, axes, spades and supplies and disappeared. At intervals he would return for supplies. When his funds were exhausted he taught school during the winter, hoarding his earnings like a miser, and spending them for supplies on his trips in the summer. Finally exhausted from labor and the hardships he had endured, Ballou became ill and died at the military hospital at St. Marks. – The Morning Tribune, August 5, 1908.
A search of Mr. Ballou’s papers revealed that he was also a surviving member of the gunboat crew that had supposedly buried the gold. The map in his possession was found to be identical to the one in the effects of the first sailor.
Several expeditions were launched to find the treasure over the years from the end of the War Between the States in 1865 until the establishment of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in 1931.
One of these collapsed in a drunken brawl, but another led to a deep excavation:
…The late Col. Sluesser and Mr. George Lamb, Mr. Register and Mr. Hall, at different times sought to locate the gold. The greatest difficulty they encountered was in quicksand. It was necessary to wall up the excavation with lumber and keep a pump going to keep out the water while they worked. – The Morning Tribune, August 5, 1908.
This latter effort is reminiscent of the search for gold that continues to this day at Canada’s famed “Money Pit” of Oak Island.
The marshes of St. Marks proved too much for Sluesser, Lamb, Register and Hall. Their dig was within three miles of today’s San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park but conditions deteriorated into a battle against mud, water and swarms of mosquitoes. No gold was found.
Is there really a treasure in the marshes of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge? It is impossible to say but there are some problems with the story. The U.S. Mint at New Orleans, from which the gold supposedly came, did not begin operations until 1838, seventeen years too late to have provided $5,000,000 in gold coins for the payment to Spain.
There is a mention of U.S. payments of up to $5,000,000 in the Onis-Adams Treaty that transferred Florida from Spain to the United States, but these payments were not to be made from one country to the other. The United States instead agreed to indemnify citizens of Florida for losses suffered at the hands of American-backed insurgents during the first two decades of the 19th century.
These facts do not necessarily disprove the possibility that a treasure of Spanish gold is hidden in the marshes. The story of the St. Marks treasure is simply another one of those legends that add color to the Florida coast.
The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is a treasure of a different type. Known for its history, wildlife, birds and Monarch butterflies, it generates millions of dollars in economic impact each year for Wakulla and neighboring counties. Gold definitely comes from the beautiful marshes and ecosystems of the St. Marks, it is just in the form of tourism dollars.
More information on the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge: www.fws.gov/refuge/St_Marks/
More Information on San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park: www.exploresouthernhistory.com/sanmarcos1.html
Please click here to enjoy Two Egg TV’s presentation of “Milly Francis: Life & Times of the Creek Pocahontas.” Her story took place in part at San Marcos de Apalache, the Spanish fort mentioned in this article: