Trail of the Pirates is a travel series exploring maritime history, culture and lore between Key West and St. Augustine on the east coast of Florida.
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is a must-see for any Key West visitor.
My journey following the trail of pirates began on the island of Key West, the southernmost point in the continental U.S. at the tip of Florida. What brought me here was the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, which isn't exactly devoted to pirates, but that which pirates sought -- Spanish ships loaded with gold, silver, emeralds, pearls and other treasures from the New World that passed through Florida straits on their way to Spain.
In 1622, a Spanish fleet of galleons shipwrecked relatively near the Florida Keys because of a hurricane. One of the ships, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, held incredible treasure. Mel Fisher, Florida's most famous treasure hunter, began looking for the Atocha in 1969; he found three silver bars in 1973 and struck the motherlode by 1985.
Today, you can see artifacts from the Atocha and her sister ship, the Santa Margarita, at the museum. These include not only jewels and coins, but also cannons, anchors, navigational tools and even everyday objects such as pewter plates and cups.
Is it any wonder why pirates would lust for treasure? Take a look at what was on board the Atocha:
For the 1622 return voyage, Atocha was loaded with a cargo that is, today, almost beyond belief -- 24 tons of silver bullion in 1038 ingots, 180,000 pesos of silver coins, 582 copper ingots, 125 gold bars and discs, 350 chests of indigo, 525 bales of tobacco, 20 bronze cannon and 1,200 pounds of worked silverware! To this can be added items being smuggled to avoid taxation, and unregistered jewelry and personal goods; all creating a treasure that could surely rival any other ever amassed.In today's popular culture, we tend to think of pirates as fearless attackers, chasing galleons in the high seas. But pirates were also practical. They weren't interested in killing people. In fact, they'd raise the Jolly Roger flag in hopes that the captain would surrender the booty. And when they weren't sailing, they'd lie quietly waiting to ambush ships seeking safe refuge from storms in a harbor or inlet. Easier yet: they'd simply perform their own "salvage" operations on a shipwreck. It's hard to imagine, but back in the day, even before GPS and satellite phones, word would get around quite quickly when ships would wreck. Pirates were tuned in to that grapevine.
Although we have no proof that pirates plundered the 1622 fleet, keep that in mind as you tour museum. We know for certain such pirate activity happened further north on the east coast of Florida ... more on that later.
I had a chance to interview Corey Malcom, chief archeologist at the museum about the finds. Corey gave me a private tour of the lab upstairs; they are still cleaning up objects from wrecks. The process is painstaking.
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is a non-profit organization devoted to conservation of underwater archeological artifacts and public education. Mel Fisher's salvage company did donate many of the items on exhibit, but technically, it's a separate business entity. However, there's a Mel Fisher Treasure Store in the museum where you can buy beautiful coin pendants from the Atocha if you have a few thousand to spare. More affordable reproductions, made from the wreck's silver, are also available.
Wear a piece of history. Three grand and change will get you this pendant; it's less without the setting.
I also interviewed Mel Fisher's daughter, Taffi Fisher-Abt, on my Indian River County leg of the journey. More to come!
RANDOM FUN STUFF
Pirates and BBQ pork go hand in hand at this charming, rustic eatery.
If you go to Key West, stop at Porky's Bayside BBQ in Marathon. Not only is the BBQ delicious (try the North Carolina hot pepper pulled pork), but also the restaurant is filled with pirate-themed decor. Rocketman, a musician who "always wanted to be a pirate," plays at Porky's and Captain Pip's regularly every week. A source told me he claims to be Katy Perry's uncle.
Key West is home to a pirate festival each year. Check out Pirates in Paradise.
Special thanks to Annie's Costumes, the beautiful Westin Key West Resort, as well as the great folks at Florida Keys and Key West and Visit Florida, for supporting this portion of the trip.