JOURNAL OF THE PROFESSIONAL TREASURE HUNTER

THE LOSS AND SALVAGE OF THE 1733 TREASURE FLEET

  By Jack “Blackjack” Haskins
(With Permission)

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   This article appeared in the Argosy Treasure Hunting Annual over 20 years ago and is not only good enough for reprint, but is appropriate for the attention the Florida Keys shipwrecks are recently receiving. -- “Frogfoot”.

      Editing protocol used by Argosy was apparently different than that used by Treasure Quest today, and we leave it as it was. -- “Seascribe”.

     Almost every year from the 16th through the mid -18th century Spain sent an Armada to the swampy little town of Vera Cruz.  Twice a year this little Mexican coastal fishing community thrived with activity.  Once when the yearly Armada arrived and again when it departed.  The arriving ships carried mercury for processing the precious metals obtained from the mines.  They also carried a variety of luxury items from the old world such as wines, liquors, ironwork, etc.  The departing fleet was called the New Spain Flota and was loaded with gold, silver, and other fruits of the land.
    Due to unhealthy climate at Vera Cruz, all of the trading and registry of goods was done in the town of Jalapa, located higher up in the interior.  After unloading each arriving Armada, a great Fair was held and the merchants for miles around flocked to it to buy commodities from abroad at exorbitant prices.  A similar Fair was held prior to the departure of each New Spain Flota.
    The arriving ships would tie-off on a small rock fortress called San Juan de Ulua, located out in front of Vera Cruz.  The leeward side of the island faced the city and was steep-sided with very deep water right up close to shore.  The ships of the Armada would ride here with their bows tied to great iron rings embedded in the stone fortress, and in this manner it was possible for a person to go aboard by merely stepping onto the bow.  The stern of the ship was held off by deploying a large anchor astern.  Secured in this fashion, the ships could safely ride out the many storms normal to these waters. [What a place to look the bottom over for old bottles-- RMW]

    On the 25th of May in 1733, the New Spain Flota for this year, commanded by the Chief of Squadron, Lieutenant General Don Rodrigo de Torres y Morales, left this island fortress for Spain.  The fleet was to make a stop at Havana to pick up the Xaribbean Islands’ registry and make last minute provisions.  The Flota was comprised of 17 ships at this point; the three principal ones being the Capitana El Rubi, the Almiranta El Gallo Indiano, and the Refuerzo El Infante.  Each of these three warships carried 60 cannons and their combined registry of treasure was in the neighborhood of 13,000,000 pesos in gold, silver, and copper.  The rest of the ships all carried some amount of registry silver along with other valuable commodities, and each carries some armament to aid in fighting off intruders.  The Royal Scoutship of His Majesty King Phillip the Fifth carried no registry and was named Nuestra Senora del Populo.
    Once out on the broad expanse of the Gulf, the ships slowly worked their way north to the 25th parallel, where they took advantage of the Westerly winds at this latitude to push them eastward.  The approach of the Florida coast was signalled by the shallowing of the water to 30 fathoms.  At this point, the navigators knew they were off the southwest tip of the Florida Keys in a place called Sonda de Tortuga.  From here it was an easy 30 league tack to the south to pick up the Cuban coast and Havana.

   Eighteenth century Havana was the center of commerce for the Spanish in the West Indies.  Merchants came here from all over the Caribbean provinces to trade and load good aboard ships bound for Spain.  It was also a sort of sin city or sailor’s town, even considering the fact that Spanish seamen were much more religiously motivated than their English or French counterparts.  The day prior to departure, the harbor was a hubbub of activity, and the great ships were packed to capacity with last minute registry and provisions.  Great quantities of salted meat and biscuits were lowered into the holds and the water casks were all filled to overflowing.


"Frogfoot" Weller and "Blackjack" Haskins on the site of the Angustias of 1733.

   On the morning of the 13th of July, there was great excitement throughout the city; the Flota was leaving for Spain!  A rosy sunrise greeted the ships as they worked their way into the open sea, where a fair southeast breeze met them.  Don Rodrigo de Torres’ flagship El Ruby, swathed in new red paint, and with cross emblazoned sails, led the fleet up the Bahama Channel.  This swift waterway, known today as the Gulfstream, would give the ships an extra four knots speed up to the 32nd parallel, where they planned to turn eastward for Spain.  However, a fast circulating weather system a few hundred miles to the southeast had other plans for them.
    A letter written by the Naval Commissioner, Don Alonso Herrera Barragan, to the President of the Council of Trade at Cadiz, best describes what happens next.  He writes from the Capitana El Ruby: “...the 14th we discovered the land of the Keys of Florida.  At 9:00 that night the wind began to rise out of the north.  It continued to freshen to the point where we all knew a hurricane was imminent.  We found ourselves close to the expressed Keys, with the wind and seas so strong we were unable to govern ourselves, and each new gust came upon us with renewed major force.  On the 15th, signs were made (among the ships of the fleet) to try to arrive back to the Havana, but we were unable to do so for the wind went around to the south without slacking its force or lessening the seas.  By 10:30 that night we had all grounded in the expressed Keys at a distance of 28 leagues in length.  This Capitana grounded on the one called Cayo Largo, two and one-half leagues from shore.  I make assurance to Your Lordship that it was fortunate that we grounded for if the contrary had occurred we would have all drowned because the hold was full of water and we were unable to pump it out...”

   One ship of the Flota escaped from the storm with little or no damage; the 60 gun warship Senor San Joseph, alias El Africa.  This newly built whip which joined the Flota in Havana, managed to weather the storm with only the loss of a top mast, a few spars, and some rigging.  After the storm eased up a bit, the Africa slid in close to the reefs off of Key Largo, where she anchored to effect repairs to her storm-battered rigging.
      After settling back on two storm anchors dropped in 40 fathoms of water, some of the crew aloft in the rigging spied two wrecked ships inshore.  The one was still afloat, but the other was sunk up to the top of its roundhouse or poopdeck.  The ships were later determined to be the Adviceship of His Majesty [and] Nuestra Senora del Populo.  After gathering what they could from these ships along with their crews, the Africa set about to make the necessary repairs in order to continue her journey to Spain. A t this point, it is interesting to note that the crews of these ships knew nothing of the fate of the rest of the Flota.  They ran across some nomadic Indians who said they had just come up from Key West, but had seen nothing of the rest of the Flota.


Jack's 36-foot Trident returning to dock in the evening...after locating the site of the Angustias.

  The salvage of the wrecked ships began within a few days after the storm.  Three of the ships were re-floated with little difficulty: the ship of Murguia (Nuestra Senora del Rosario y Santo Domingo), the ship of Sanches Madrid (El Gran Poder de Dios), and a small Balandra bound for St. Augustine under the protection of the convoy (La Balandra el Santander).  There is a good possibility that the ship of Chavez (Nuestra Senora del Carmen) was also refloated, but the documents are contradictory over this point.  Two of the ships of the Flota met absolute disaster: the ship of Don Christoval de Urquijo (San Ignacio) and the Fragata which was bound for St. Augustine witht he payroll for the Prsidio.  The San Ignacio came apart out in front of present-day Marathon, (cayo Vaca del Oeste), and oly 12 or 14 of those aboard survived.  The Frigata (El Floridano) crashed across the reef known today as Coffin’s Patch and only one man lived to tell the tale.
   It would be extremely difficult to say who was the first of the modern day salvors to find the 1733 wrecks.  The local fishermen have been fishing on them for years and have always, understandably, kept the locations to themselves.  One of these local fishermen deviated from this practice one day in 1948 and showed Arthur McKee, Jr., the location of a tremendous ballast mound.  The Conch fisherman’s name was Reggie Roverts and his sons Jack and Earl were out with Art one day when they ran across the pile, right where Reggie had said it was.
    After finding the Capitana, Art ran across a map which showed the locations of the 1733 Flota, and he set out to find more by comparing the ancient map with a modern one.  He managed to find the Infante, Herrera, Chaves, San Pedro, and last, but no the least, the San Joseph.  But Art was primarily interested in the Capitana and so he concentrated on this and reaped the harvest in gold, silver, and artifacts.  He was so successful that he applied to the State for some protection of his finds and they issued him an exclusive lease covering hundreds of square miles, and they even appointed him the first Acting Underwater Archeologist for the State of Florida.  However, the area was too big to control, and the inevitable happened: others got bit by the treasure hunting bug and followed his footsteps.  Since that first day in 1948 when Art revisited the Capitana he has been bringing up treasure from it.  In fact, he brought up so much treasure that he had to build a museum to house it all.  He erected it like a great stone castle.  Each year thousands of visitors travel down through the Keys and stop in to view these remnants of 18th century living.  The great stone faces structure stands today on Plantation Key, boldly facing the sea and the Capitana which Art dug for so many years.
    During and shortly after the Second World Ward, when iron was scarce and bringing a premium price at the scrap yards, some of the old Miami and Keys’ salvors set about gathering all the iron cannons they could find.  They visited many wrecks, including many of the 1733 Flota and quickly left them, realizing only a pittance for their efforts.  Later, more enterprising men followed, equipped with airlifts, hydrojets, and other modern excavation equipment and gathered up the fortunes that the scrappers had rejected in their haste. 
   The salvage of these rich wrecks has not been without its more tense moments.  When Art first found the Cap8itana, claim jumpers plagued him constantly.  Most of them were poorly equipped and only a nuisance.  However, one group from Miami came down with a big boat and achored it squarely over Art’s wreck.  They proceeded to tear into the Capitana with eight inch airlifts, spewing sand, stones, and artifacts in all directions.  Art managed to drive them off after a confrontation in the water with spearguns and antishark 12 gauge shotgun powerhead.  “It was like something out of a scene from “Thunderball”, Art reflected.  But in all the years that modern day treasure hunters have been working these waters no one has actually killed another salvor, something the fishermen of these waters, unfortunately, cannot say.
   One of the more interesting wrecks of the 1733 Flota is the San Joseph y Las Animas, revisited by Tom Gurr and his associates back in 1968.  The resulting notoriety and furor over the treasure they brought up caused Florida officials to p-lace a moratorium on treasure hunting in the Florida Keys which lasted for over a year.  From this point on, all treasure hunters realized that if they were going to work wrecks in Florida waters, they would have to enter into a contract with the State.
   Other significant finds were made and each brought a flurry of new faces to the Keys.  From those early days in 1948 when Art started his modern salvage efforts on the 1733 wrecks, the interest in treasure hunting has spread throughout the Keys.  It attracts men from all walks of life, not unlike the old California Gold Rush Days.  Each new tale of a rich rind would spread through the Keys like wildfire, little resembling its original context by the time it reached maturity.  One-by-one the 1733 Flota was being revisited and the rich history within these old ships was being brought to the light of day for all to see and enjoy.  The treasure hunter, out of sheer necessity, was scouring not only the sea, but also the world’s archives for clues to the ships’ locations.  Provably the treasure hunter has contributed more to the enlightenment of lovers of sea history that any other group or profession.
   To date, most of the 1733 Flota has been revisited by modern salvors; only a few remain untouched.  These ships are as follows: the Royal Scoutship Nuestra Senora del Populo [since found and salvaged by Fredericks, Ward, Harding, and McKay], the merchant ship San Fernando [still not located], and the rich San Ignacio [scattered across Coffin’s Patch off Marathon].  The last two are located in areas presently under contract with the State of Florida, and concentrated efforts are being made to find them.  The Populo, no doubt, lies somewhere near Legare anchorage off Elliot Key, in about 25 to 30 feet of water, according to the documents.  It would take a lot of Federal pull to get in there and search for her, as this is part of a Federal seapark known as Biscayne National Monument.  But it could be worth the effort.
   The author had the privilege of being one of the first to revisit one of this famous Flota back in 1972.  This was merchantman, Nuestra Senora de Las Angustias.  The remainder of this article will be devoted to the tale of this discovery.

************************

  After spending four months at the Archives of the Indies in Sevilla, Spain, and a few other institutions in Madrid during the Spring of 1972, I was ready to tackle the 1733 Flota.  For the past four years I had been searching for the 1622 galleon Nuestra Senora De Atocha, but my research finally convinced me that Mel Fisher down in Key West had, in fact, found it about 8 or 9 miles west of the Marquesas Keys.  So I decided to concentrate on the 1733 Flota.
   The ships that interested me the most were the San Fernando and the San Ignacio, but unfortunately the area where these ships lay was under contract with competitive salvage groups, and I would have to bide my time with these, hoping that the contractors would give up the area (which they eventually did).  The next best thing, excluding the Populo, which was in an area destined to become a Federal Park, was the merchantship Angustias.  A lot of clues told us of her whereabouts, including sic different maps drawn by contemporary eighteenth century salvors.  It had to lie about midway between Long Key and Conch Key, according to our best calculations.
    My business partner for the search was Dick MacAllaster of Marathon, Florida.  He flew to Tallahassee and made all of the arrangements with the State Division of Archives, History, and Records Management and secured the necessary
Exploration Contract under the name of Peninsular Exploration and Salvage Corporation.  The final stage was now set; all we had to do now was to find it.
    I was going to use my 38’ Matthews cabin cruiser to perform the actual search.  This 1929 vintage survey vessel was filled with electronic gear, like a surplus U.S. Navy ASQ-3 magnetometer which was used during World War II to find German submarines.  This device is capable of detecting any iron object at a considerable distance and since most of the old sailing ships are anywhere from 10% to 20% magnetic material, it would prove to be a good target for the “mag”.  Most of these ancient ships were put together with iron spikes and rods, and were adorned with a number of iron cannons for defense.  In addition, the ships’ rigging and ballast are good magnetic targets.  It matters little whether the ship lies out in the open or beneath tons of sand and silt; the “mag” will still see it.  It is little wonder that this ingenious electronic device has gained the reputation as the “open sesame” of the treasure hunting world.

    While my partner, Dick Mac Allaster, was up in Orlando visiting his wife’s favorite doctor (he was close to becoming a daddy), Jimmy Jones and I started up the survey operation.  We had my boat docked at the Toll Gate Inn on Lower Matecumve, which is about 15 miles to the northeast of our search area.  We had spent the past week getting the boat and equipment ready for the job and on the morning of 21 September, we set off down the Hawks Channel for Long Key Viaduct.  About half way there the ship’s engine started acting up.  I flung open the engine hatch and groaned at the sight of a water pump squirting salt spray all over the V-6 Buick unit.  We could always juryrig a Jabsco 12-volt electric pump and limp home, but we were determined to do or die that day.  It took us about an hour of cussin’ and sweatin’ to fix the unruly brass fixture, but we did it, and once more the R/V Trident’s bow was slicing water toward the swift current of Long Key Channel. 

   It was a beautiful day with just a light chop on the water and with crystal clear seas; ideal “magging” weather.  We reached our area at about 11:00 and we spent the next half hour carefully studying the grid lines I had constructed on an 851 series Coast and Geodetic Chart.  The plan was to start at about the middle of the area of prime suspect and expand the survey on all sides.  We took careful bearings on the bridge and maneuvered to the point we had marked as the center.  Jimmy worked his way out onto the bow of the boat, which was piled high with brightly colored spar buoys.  As I directed the R/V Trident along the initial grid, he methodically flipped the buoys over the side at a regularly-spaced intervals until we had made up a grid path 400 yards long.  We then turned to seaward and proceeded to put the magnotometer tow head or “fish” into the water.  This was, in itself, a task, for the head weighs over 200 pounds and if a sea of any size is running, the operation becomes tricky. 


The anchor ring of the Angustias frames a friendly angel fish.

Fortunately for us, this day the seas were running less that one foot.  As Jimmy eased the boat into gear, I played the cable astern until the “fish” trailed us by about 100 feet.  Next the drop buoy was run out.  This float/weight combination is designed to ride on top of the water just aft of the towing head.  When an anomaly of any significance is detected, the likne is released and the weight falls into position very close to the “hit” and the buoy remains atop the water to guide the boat crew back.
   Jimmy lined the boat up for our first run along the grid lines, and I made sure the magnetometer was well tuned up and running steady.  I told him to make the first pass about 15 feet off the spar buoys.  Ahead the fluorescent colored spar buoys bobbed gently on the surface in nearly perfect alignment.  The mag head trailed smoothly behind the boat, lurking beneath the sea like some great white fish.  It was riding about five feet off the bottom and was controlled at the helm by means of a fathometer located in front of the helmsman.  It slid quietly past the first colored spar buoy.  Inside, I watched the paper roll of the mag recorder.  The resulting inked line was steady, indicating normal behavior of an area void of magnetic material.  I marked the paper to signify the end of the first run just as the head flashed by the last spar buoy.  Jimmy continued the run for another hundred yards then put the helm over to start a slow turn back toward the grid line.  This time we would run to seaward on the other side of the spar buoys.

 The bridge was getting fairly close and the recorder needle began an erratic wander.  At first I attributed it tot the turn, but when I saw it was persistent, I immediately become suspicious of junk iron thrown off the bridge by its builders years ago.  I put it out of my mind as we lined up for the next pass.  The next two runs were without incident, other than the persistent “tickles” I would get when closing with the bridge.  On the turn for the fourth run, however, I noticed the recorder out of the corner of my eye.  We were on our bridgeward turn again and this time, instead of “tickles”, the needle swung rapidly to the right and stayed there.   I released the buoy instinctively.  I had to take a look at this junk, no matter what it was.  Jimmy pulled the boat up to the bobbing orange drop buoy float, and I slipped over the side and into the water.  At first all I could see was an array of purple sea fans and big black basket sponges, then I noticed and object that nature had not put there.


The 60-foot Research Vessel Geosearch out of Rio Hondo, Texas, from which Haskins and crew salvaged Angustias.

It was a clump of Spanish firebricks of the type I had often noticed on some of the 1733 wrecks.  Then I spotted some scattered ballast rocks and an occasional iron fitting.  I scrambled back toward the boat and climbed aboard. 
    In the meantime, Jimmy had been doing a little looking around from the top of the cabin.  “Let’s hurry up and pull the anchor,” he said with a funny look in his eyes, “I’m going to put you right on something.”
   Once the ship was underway again, and the mag streaming astern, I looked ahead to where he was headed.  A long brown streak marred the blue-green water just a few hundred feet ahead.  I glued my eyes on the recorder, with the drop buoy line held tensely in my hand.  The needle was drawing a fairly smooth line, popping occasionally to one side or the other as it had done in this area the past three runs.  Then it started a slow drift to the right, increasing speed until it was pegged against the side.  I waited until it made a rapid transit to the other side and released the drop buoy.  Back aft, the buoy slid astern, bobbin in the ship’s wake and beneath it was the same brownish streak that I had seen before. 

    This time we both jumped in after setting the anchor.   It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.  We both exploded to the surface with a whoop, thumping each other on the back and hollering like madmen.  We hurried back to the boat to put on some scuba gear, so that we could stay down and look around.  Below, mossy c9olored brown and green egg-shaped river rock lay in a mound three of four feet high and about 100 feet long.  At one end, four anchors lay crisscrossed on a hard coral bottom.  Several cannon lay nearby, and we didn’t have a chance to swim around the wreck more than once to realize this wreck had not been touched by salvors in modern days.  A 400 pound jewfish lay next to the largest anchor.   He seemed completely  oblivious to the intrusion of these two odd beings who dashed madly about, blowing air periodical in a trail of bubbles.  The whole wreck was covered with fish of all sizes and descriptions, and it was a tropical fisherman’s paradise.
    Over the moths to come, we were to get familiar with each of these fish and to call them by name.  As I swam around, I noticed the largest barracuda that I had ever seen, lurking menacingly next to a colorful coral head; we later dubbed him “Herman”.  The water that day we found the wreck was clearer than at any other time I can remember.  I peered to seaward through the deep blue underwater gloom--I had seen a shape, long and dark, but it was gone now.  I knew this particular channel well and I also knew that it hosted some of the biggest and nastiest hammerhead sharks ever seen.  I put the bad thought out of my mind and continued my revelment over the new-found joy.


Eight-foot iron cannon from the Angustias site being raised aboard the R/V Geosearch.

    We needed a big boat to work off in order to salvage this wreck.  We got together with Jeff Burke and Donald George of Rio Hond, Texas, and hired their 60 foot shrimper for the R/V Geosearch for the occasion.  During the next few months we were all busy working the wreck whenever the weather permitted.  We were fast accumulating a whole museumful of artifacts in Dick MacAllaster’s backyard, but so far we had not found much in the way of coins.  We had several silver cobs and a gold two escudos piece, however, the wreck just did not have the profusion of coins that I had hoped for.  We did find some nice things though; a silver bell, dozens of crosses, hundreds of gemstone rosary beads, an emerald, a small jade Buddah, a large enigmatic box-shaped thing which weighed 236 pounds, some cord grinding tables (metates) with their rollers, and just literally dozens of assorted odds and ends of antiquities.
    One weekend when Dick was with us and free from his duties with the State of Florida Department of Transportation, he and Jimmy were working on opposite sides of the ballast.   Jimmy was carefully digging cannonballs out of the rocks and was engaged in trying to loosen a particularly stubborn one.  In fact, he was so busy at this task that he scarcely noticed MacAllaster beside him.  Dick motioned Jimmy to follow him around to the other side of the pile, and when he did so he came face to face with the muzzle of an eight foot cannon.  The cannonball on the other side which had proven so stubborn was actually the cascabel at the breech of the cannon, and very much attached to it. 
 Working this wreck was unique since being on bedrock with little, or no sand around it, required some unusual excavation techniques.  We had to dig out the potholes in the bedrock systematically and a small airlift was employed while the digger hand-fanned the hole.  In this fashion, the digger could keep the sand and silt sucked away, and observe his work as he carefully worked his way to the bottom of the hole.  One day I was working on a small, fairly deep pothole, when I noticed a small fluttering object way down on the bottom.  By stretching my hand and fingers to the limit I was just barely able to secure the object in my fingertips.  I slowly retracted it and stared in disbelief at the thing in my hand.  It was about the size of a fifty cent piece and had an engraved portrait of Phillip the Fifth on one side.  I wasn’t sure what I had at first, but when I saw the date 1732, I knew what it was.  It turned out to be a four escudos 1732 gold Portrait coin, one on the first struck on the screw-type press in the new world.  Similar coins in silver, which are much more common, bring $3,000 on the world market today.  I hastened to the boat, protectively clutching my new-found prize.


Four-escudo gold coin of Mexico City with the portrait of King Philip V and dated 1732, recovered from Angustias by Haskins.

     Jimmy, and Larry Murphy, our State of Florida Field Agent, were there to greet me.  They were duly impressed, and after we had talked about it for a while, and I had regained my breath, I went back down to try and find another one.
   Then Jimmy and Larry did one of those funny things that treasure hunters do in similar situations, they planted the coin in the peanut butter jar in the galley and then screwed the cap back on the jar.  They were waiting for John Berrier, who was still below, to come up for lunch and to go, as he usually did, straight tot the peanut butter jar.  They didn’t have to wait long, for soon he climbed over the side, slipped out of his dripping gear, wiped off his face, and strolled forward to the galley.  But instead of going to the peanut butter jar, he mad up a ham sandwich.

  Jimmy couldn’t stand it any longer.  “Why don’t you have a peanut butter sandwich?” he blurted out.
   “What, and see that gold coin Jack found that you put there?” was Johnny’s casual reply.
   You could have knocked the boys over with a feather.  No one to this day knows how Johnny knew about the coin.  Jimmy swears he is some sort of Nostradamos reincarnated.  We all figured that Jimmy’s eagerness, coupled with the fact that I had found another gold coin just prior to that, had prompted Johnny’s actions.  Jimmy sill doesn’t buy this rationale, however.
   While working through the ballast one particularly murky day, I spotted the base of a china cup.  Since we had found hundreds of china shards prior to this, I wasn’t unduly impressed.  Slowly, I removed the rocks around it.  The more rocks I took off, the more of the cup I could see.  Pretty soon I had the whole cup exposed and lying there in the silt.  I reached down in disbelief, and plucked to cup out of the mire...it was absolutely intact without a scratch or nick.  This fragile china teacup had withstood the slamming and pounding of a hurricane, and the grinding chaos of a ship coursing its way across the bottom, and complete burial under hundreds of tons of ballast.  It was truly a miracle.
   The 1733 Flota disaster has been a great windfall to the modern treasure hunter, and there is by no means an end to this tale, for there are other ships of that Flota to be found.  Historically, treasure hunting, wrecking, or salvage has been an integral park of the culture of the people of the Florida Keys.   Early Keys history is filled with the colorful accounts of this hardy free enterprising breed.  This field is probably one of the last frontiers of free enterprise in America and it still provides a great challenge to the man or woman who would dare the seas and endure the numerous hardships and disappointments of this ancient and honorable trade.

--”Blackjack”

 

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Reprints of "The Best Of Treasure Quest Magazine" are used with permission from a series of stories in
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