Did pirates bury their treasure? Did pirates really make maps where "X marks the spot?

October 5, 2007

Dear Cecil:

Everyone is familiar with the idea of buried pirate treasure, and maps where "X marks the spot." But is there any evidence of such a practice? Were there ever any pirate treasure maps as described?

Cecil replies:

With Talk Like a Pirate Day still fresh in memory and Halloween coming up, now seems a reasonable time to clear some pirate questions off the books. Next week we'll discuss other piratical behavior; today we'll stick to Jimmy's concerns.

Did pirates ever bury treasure? It'd be strange if not — everyone else was doing it. For much of human history, if you had some covetable stuff you hoped to hang onto, couldn't or didn't want to put it in a bank or the equivalent, and owned a shovel, burial was Plan A. (That's why, for instance, rural Britons still find pots of long-buried Roman coins.) Those who'd obtained their valuables under sketchy circumstances — say, while holding a cutlass to the previous owner's throat —  were only more likely, I'd imagine, to employ such DIY security measures. As one obvious requirement for this practice is a burial site that others aren't likely to stumble on but you yourself can find again, it makes sense that pirates, who as seafarers dealt with maps regularly, might jot down reminders of where they left the goods.

But it's tough to prove they did. Another element crucial to burying treasure is the need to keep the whole business squarely on the QT. For this reason or another (maybe simply a reluctance to let loot out of one's sight), the history shelves contain few solid cases where pirates buried treasure, and practically none involving maps. Privateer Sir Francis Drake is known to have buried the proceeds after raiding a mule train in Panama, for instance, but he left guards behind and didn't stay away long. A rogue English captain named Stratton buried six chests of silver near the mouth of the York River in Chesapeake Bay, but an associate turned him in before he could recover it. John Rackham (nom de piraterie: Calico Jack) once buried some plunder on a Caribbean island, but no one mentions his making a map, or even a return trip.

Though it's not where the premise first appeared, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island was instrumental in planting the treasure map concept in the popular consciousness. Some suggest a model for the title locale was Cocos Island, off Costa Rica's Pacific shore; discovered in 1526 and noted for its coconuts, the island became a stopover for merchantmen, naval ships, and pirates. Cocos lore is bursting with primo pirate-story material: several vast hoards, vividly described and valued today in the high nine figures, that supposedly were buried there circa 1820 by captains William Thompson, Bennett Graham, and (my favorite) Benito Bonito; deathbed instructions from the principals on how to retrieve the stuff; cryptic diagrams etched into boulders; and so on. Efforts to locate the treasure, though, turned up nothing. An 1850s expedition brought along one Mary Welch, who'd sailed with Graham and had a map purportedly showing the site of his trove. Key landmarks, however, had apparently disappeared in the intervening decades, and the search came up dry.

The pirate most associated with buried treasure is probably the 17th-century captain William Kidd. With the authorities in pursuit, Kidd left chests containing 100 pounds of gold and silver plus other precious sundries with a guy named Gardiner, who reputedly interred it on an island he owned off Long Island's eastern end. After Kidd was jailed in Boston in 1699, Governor Bellomont of Massachusetts Colony tracked the booty down, though its recovery was hardly the stuff of legend: he tricked Kidd into admitting Gardiner's involvement, then applied mild pressure to Gardiner, who folded. The haul turned out to be worth the equivalent of $4.2 million today. Kidd was said to have buried more elsewhere, and in later years alleged Kidd maps surfaced on occasion, but at least one was exposed as a fake; anyway none panned out.

In 1945 a buried-treasure find was covered in the Chicago Tribune, though admittedly the article is pure stenography, relating the protagonist's account without a scrap of independent evidence. (Here I considered a dig at 1945 journalistic standards, but recalling pivotal WMD reportage I thought: nah.) It's a good story, though: While gathering book material, writer Edward Rowe Snow heard (from a source who soon died mysteriously) about treasure left by a pirate turned lighthouse keeper in Boston Harbor. Hidden in an abandoned house on a harbor island he found an old volume written in Italian. A rare-books librarian noticed pinpricks marking certain words, which proved to convey coded directions to a Cape Cod site; there with metal detector and spade Snow finally unearthed a small chest of antique coins worth (then) about $2,000. No fortune, but more than anyone got from that Oak Island debacle covered here a while back. (See The Straight Dope: What's the scoop on the mysterious buried treasure at Oak Island?)

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