Searching For Pirate Treasure Ships in the National Archives

To know the “Fizz,” an audacious adventurer who takes friends on enterprising endeavors with unpredictable outcomes, is to love him. He’s Captain Carl “Fizz” Fismer, a highly regarded and successful treasure salvor who makes his home in Tavernier, Florida, when he’s not globe trotting on a covert mission. I’m not saying that his proposal to me was covert, but it had a shade of mystery and a tad of 17th century intrigue that I couldn’t resist.

“You wanna search for pirate ships?” he quipped.

“Do you mean pirate ships with treasure?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he said. “That part of it remains to be seen.”

National Archives

National Archives

The premise was simple, one that I doubt anyone else but Fizz could conjure. His plan was to search through records in the National Archives for pirate ships that were sunk by the U.S. Navy from 1821 to 1835. The Fizz would open a time capsule and take me back aboard venerable schooners of the 17th century. But wait, let me go back a bit.

In the beginning, Fizz and I had only corresponded, exchanging e-mail about shipwrecks, treasure discoveries, hearsay and risqué jokes. We had never met until he came to Washington, D.C. during Veterans’ Week to visit the war memorials. A retired veteran himself, Fizz made 26 jumps with the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division. Fizz had friends who opted for a military career and he was touched when he viewed the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial where the names of all war causalities are inscribed. He recognized the names of some of his friends and the experience made him even more loyal, patriotic and proud to have served his country.

I chose a weekday to leave my home in White Hall, Maryland, and thread my way through traffic on the Baltimore and Capital Beltways for nearly two hours, eager to see what Fizz had up his sleeve. When I arrived, he was waiting at the entrance to the imposing 2,000-room Gaylord Hotel, an architectural wonder in the spectacular National Harbor Resort overlooking the Potomac River.

The venerable captain, with 35 years experience in treasure salvage, sported a close-cropped beard, piercing blue eyes and a wry grin. (Check him out on his website: Spanishmaintreasure.com). After losing our way three times—a common occurrence in our nation’s capitol—we finally found an underground parking garage a couple of blocks from our destination: 700 Pennsylvania Ave., not far from the White House.

Visiting the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is like going through airport security. After our note papers and bag lunches were checked, we filled in an application, showed a photo I.D. and listed our research project: Pirate ships of the 17th Century. We would be using some of the records that are available to the public in many forms such as loose papers, bound volumes, films, tapes, photos, maps and drawings. Our search was unique. We wanted to examine some of the bound volumes of the actual logs written by the ships’ captains. When we moved to the next station, a charming NARA lady took our pictures and presented us with an official National Archives I.D. good for one year.

Our next stop was the records room where Fizz used his wit and stardom to charm Susan Abbott, another charming lady and experienced staffer who knows books and papers as well as Fizz knows gold and silver. In the Volume I Inventory, Record Group 45, she located six categories of vessels including the Mediterranean, Pacific, Brazil, Home, East India and West India Squadrons. The latter was our choice, particularly ships from 1821 to 1835. Miss Abbott seemed quite enthused about our quest and Captain Fismer’s zeal and devotion to ships and the sea. She promised to check out his website.

When Spain sold Florida to the United States in 1821, Congress ordered the formation of the West India Squadron which based its vessels out of Norfolk, Virginia, and Key West, Florida.  All of them were assigned to chase down and sink pirate ships and slavers. Commodore David Porter commanded a force of eight fast-sailing schooners of shallow draft designed to navigate over reefs and banks of the Caribbean. Porter’s squadron worked in cooperation with six warships already in the Florida–Caribbean corridor.

Even though the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1725) was over, lawlessness on the high seas continued as maverick privateers preyed upon heavily-laden merchant vessels leaving ports in New England, the Carolinas, Florida and the West Indies. The plunderers, some of them Corsairs—Mediterranean pirates from the Barbary Coast—left Africa to engage ships off our shores. But they got more than they bargained for from the West India Squadron.

Although official naval records of the sinkings were supposed to be kept, some slipped through the cracks and weren’t recorded. They would, however, be mentioned in the captains’ logs along with the nautical positions of the ships that went down.

We took the elevator to the research room where we would be seeking West India Squadron logs from the Dolphin, Shark, and a third ship Fizz was keeping as a little secret. It was an exciting moment. The massive NARA room had good lighting, long tables, comfortable chairs and a counter where a staffer was available if needed. Pencils were provided for notes and no pens were allowed.

We watched, somewhat awestruck, as one of the archivists pushed a cart packed with dozens of dull gray boxes up to our table and plunked two of them down in front of us.  We were about to open a time capsule and plunge into buccaneer days, a scene that I could barely conjure. The logbooks, elongated and heavy, contained daily records from the captains who commanded the squadron’s vessels. I glanced at Fizz and he gave me a look as if to say, “Where do we begin?” There were dozens of logs and many different captains for each ship throughout the years. We just had to dig in and start reading. There were no categories, no table of contents nor indexes. It was hit or miss. We made sure to record the number of each volume of logs that we examined. Some of the logs, with small and scripted writing, were painstaking to interpret, while others were easy to read. Mundane tasks, plotted courses and daily commands were all logged in.

Some of the logs recorded “sightings.” One captain, George Cook of the Dolphin, wrote on March 21, 1821: “Cruised two inlets, harbor. Search for obscure bays, bights, lagoons, coves for hidden ships. Encountered sudden squalls, but sky cleared, seas calm. Back at sea. Lookout spotted ship in the distance within long gun range.  Scope picked up full sail, no flag. Order given to load, ready to fire. Possibly a slaver. They desire no confrontation. No chase…we dare not leave coast unprotected.”

John Nottingham, master of the Three Sisters, a 620-ton, 38-gun man of war, spotted and chased down an unnamed 18-gun privateer off South Florida. Nottingham logged: “Ready to engage. Brigantine heavily outgunned. Not of force sufficient enough to defend. Immediate surrender. Pirate captain giving up himselfe, (sic) men and ship together with what effects there unto: cargo of 10 casks water, 100 casks bread, spare rigging, two quoiles (sic) of rope, hawser cable, 100 pounds dry goods, three barrels peas, pork and tallow.  Mainsail and topsail torn but sailable to port by my men. Took 40 prisoners. Will continue to use utmost endeavors to seize and apprehend every pirate, those suspected of piracy or of being abettors therein. Orders relating to pirates or privateers will be followed and they will answer to their perils of the utmost rigor and severity of the law.”

Fizz and I took a break in our research and walked the corridors of the elegant building. When we returned, time flew by as we meticulously perused the heavily bound logbooks. We found logs from the Dolphin, Alabama, Desmond and the Three Sisters. By the end of the day Fizz revealed his “secret” ship, the Alligator, a man of war with a rich, exciting and treasure storied past.

The Alligator captured several slave running ships before joining the East India Squadron. Her hunting grounds were off Florida and Cuba. In November, 1822, she captured a pirate ship near Matanzas, Cuba. The Fizz theorizes that the Alligator, sleek, fast and well manned, sank some unrecorded pirate ships before she ran aground and sank on Carysfort Reef, Florida Keys. Alligator Reef and lighthouse are named for this successful West India Squadron warship.

We didn’t find logs from the Alligator or the Shark, but Fizz promised to return to Washington for future research. It might take weeks, maybe months to find what we’re looking for, but even then there’s no guarantee the man of war sank a treasure ship that wasn’t listed in the official records. Yet, research is what treasure seekers thrive on. Fizz is a seeker of treasure and all the knowledge leading up to it.

We had quite an adventure, the salty old dog and I—the senior member of this two-man crew. Did we get lost returning to the hotel? Of course we did, but it didn’t matter. We still had our “sea legs” and were unwinding from some rough waters and responsible commands. I can’t wait to return and search again for pirate ships and their treasures.

If You Visit NARA

You don’t have to be a history buff, but it helps when visiting the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. or College Park, Maryland. With its motto: Guardian of the Nation’s Memory, NARA’s records cover three centuries of documenting the origins and evolution of the U.S. Government and the history of the American people. The records include everything from loose papers, bound volumes and motion picture films to videotapes, recordings, photos, maps and drawings.

Research rooms are large, bright and attractive. The staff, courteous and helpful, is available at central location desks where guides and catalogs offer additional help in planning your research. When examining records, it’s important to keep them in their original order. Research staff will provide special paper tabs to mark items for copying and cotton gloves for handling film and photographs. There are special research rooms for microfilm and directories to help you locate the microfilm publications you want to use. Some microfilm, being rare or in popular demand, might require an appointment for use.

Self-service photo copying is allowed. Staff will review what you wish to copy and advise you accordingly. In the special media research areas, you can make your own copies of unrestricted films, tapes and pictures using your own or NARA equipment. Personal equipment must be approved and tagged before use in a research room, where audiovisual carts are provided. Bound volumes and oversized documents can’t be copied unless special equipment has been provided in the research room. It’s important to call ahead if you’re going to need the use of any NARA equipment.

NARA is a friendly place and its staff wants you to be successful in your endeavors. For details about exhibition and research tours, go to: www.archives.gov or call toll free: 1-866-272-6272. For a free brochure entitled Guidelines for Using Historical Records in the National Archives, write to: Brochure Request, National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C. 20408-0002

About Ellsworth Boyd

Ellsworth Boyd, Professor Emeritus, College of Education, Towson University, Towson, Maryland, pursues an avocation of diving and writing. He has published articles and photo's in every major dive magazine in the US., Canada, and half a dozen foreign countries. An authority on shipwrecks, Ellsworth has received thousands of letters and e-mails from divers throughout the world who responded to his Wreck Facts column in Sport Diver Magazine. When he's not writing, or diving, Ellsworth appears as a featured speaker at maritime symposiums in Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, New York and Philadelphia. "Romance & Mystery: Sunken Treasures of the Lost Galleons," is one of his most popular talks.
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13 Responses to Searching For Pirate Treasure Ships in the National Archives

  1. Julie Ross says:

    I’m not too far from the National Archives in Washington and your article has inspired me to take a stab at doing some research on a shipwreck that I’ve had interest in ever since I dove it years ago. Thank for your interesting article and helpful hints on how to maneuver around the archives. I will let you know how I do.

  2. Oh good, I’m glad that my article inspired you. Review the helpful hints I offered at the end of my article. (“If You Visit NARA.”) Call ahead and make sure the hours are still the same. Be sure and take proper I.D. Let me know how you make out and good luck! Best regards, Ellsworth

  3. Andrew Yates says:

    Suffering with insomnia at 1am in the early hours in the UK….i stumbled across your article via the NUMA website and found it interesting and informative – and it didnt lull me to sleep!!…keep up the good work

  4. Many thanks! It’s nice to hear from viewers in other countries. If you ever get over here I think you might enjoy a visit to the National Archives. It holds a lot of interestng world history. Watch for my April column. It will be about the Titanic and the 100th anniversary of its demise. Thanks again. Best regards, Ellsworth

  5. Alison Whitty says:

    I live in Silver Spring, Maryland, not far from downtown Washington. When you return to the National Archives, would it be possible for me to accompany you? I want to do some shipwreck research and I think you would be a big help in steering me in the right direction. I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks for your consideration.

  6. Yes! By all means, I would be happy to accommodate you. Interestng that you asked because Dirk Cussler e-mailed me and said that he would love a personal tour of the Nat’l Archives if he gets in this neck of the woods. I wish that everybody who is interested in shipwrecks could visit the archives. It’s a case of: “You gotta see it to believe it.” It’s so drenched in history and when you can sit there and read the actual logs written by these captains of ships that sailed the seas searching for pirate ships, it’s rather mind-boggling. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s tons of other historical documention of every dimension available to the public for research or general interest. Send me your e-mail and I will let you know about my next visit. Yes, you are even closer than me. You can get to downtown Washington in about 30 minutes. Thanks for writing. Best regards, Ellsworth

  7. Oh and one more thing about the Natl Archives. If you by chance get to downtown Washington and have enough time, go ahead and register and get your I.D. card. I have mine. That will save some time in the future. Best regards, E.B.

  8. Fred Szenasi says:

    Your article was interesting. I have tried to find info about an ancestor who was captain of a blockade runner operating out of Mobile, AL, during the civil war. His ship was confiscated by the US Navy at the end of the war. Although I don’t think a shipwreck is involved, could you give me some guidance about where to look in the NARA records? NARA seems like a huge warehouse of information and I don’t know where to start.

    Thanks

  9. Hi Fred: Without a name, it won’t be easy, but not imposible to find your ancestor’s ship. Call the Nat’l Archives at: 1-800-234-8861. Ask for Archivist Susan Abbott. IF you find her, mention my name. I haven’t spoken to her since Capt. Fizz and I were there three years ago, so I don’t if she’s still there. If not, just ask for an archivist and see what he/she says when you explain what you are seeking. In your search, first you must get a list of the Civil War blockade runners. Then see if it says where they sailed from, and in your case you are hoping to find one or more ships that sailed out of Mobile. There are other avenues you can travel as well. Look up the websites and phone numbers for the following and contact them: Confederate Naval Museum, Columbus, GA, North Carolina Division of Archives & History, Raleigh, NC, The Navy Museum, Washington, D.C., North Carolina Maritime Museum, Beaufort, NC, Dept. of Archives & Historical Preservation, Columbia, SC and the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology at Un. of South Carolina, Columbia, SC. The captains of the vessels are often listed, some of them having more than one captain over the course of their service. That’s when you can look for the name of your ancestor. Let me know how you make out. If I think of any other possibilities I will contact you. Best regards, Ellsworth

  10. GS test demo says:

    Searching For Pirate Treasure Ships in the National Archives | National Underwater and Marine Agency

  11. Some viewers have asked if Capt. Fismer (the “Fizz”) and I have returned to renew our search for pirate treasure in the National Archives. We had planned to meet one more time, but meanwhile the Fizz got side-tracked on a Spanish galleon discovery in waters off Central America. Since he has some shares in the comany that found it, he has been spending much time on this project. We haven’t given up our idea of a return to the archives. I shall keep everybody posted on the results if we do return.

  12. Jack Chew says:

    Interesting article Ells, your powers of description are without equal, transforming a library trip into an adventure is an impressive accomplishment.

    I’m sure that you have inspired more than the few who have commented on this posting to get off the couch and go to Washington.

  13. Thank you for your kind words. I’m ashamed to admit that I do not get over there to the National Archives as much as I should. It’s such a fascinating place. For those who haven’t been, please make it a point to go soon. You won’t regret it. For shipwrecks and/or anything else historical, it is like being a kid in a candy shop. You never want to leave!

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