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.”
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