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Seeking Blackbeard’s Pirate Treasure

Actor playing Blackbeard at the Isles of Shoals  (c) J. Dennis Robinson /

No Virginia, there is no pirate treasure on the Isles of Shoals. But yes, people keep looking and hoping. In this archived episode, we ride with the HISTORY CHANNEL to search for pirate gold at Lunging Island. A behind-the-scenes look at the making of a less-than-swashbuckling TV documentary in Seacoast New Hampshire.




MORE ON the Isles of Shoals 

SEE ALSOL Pirate John Quelch's Gold on Star Island 

Each time Disney releases another pirate blockbuster film, I get a flicker of letters from people asking where, exactly, did Blackbeard buried his booty at the Isles of Shoals. I should just offer to send them a treasure map for $29.95, but I’m too polite to take advantage of idiots. Instead, like an idiot, I try to educate them with a little history. But people with new metal detectors care little for history. They want gold.

Popular view of Blackbearch aka Edmunc Teach / SeacoastNH.comThere isn’t any gold buried on the Shoals, unless Blackbeard was carrying the kind of machinery that bores into solid rock. There isn’t enough topsoil on most of the islands to bury a large dog, let alone a treasure chest. But facts rarely get in the way of pirate stories.

That reminds me of the time a few years back that I got a call out of the blue from Mindy Pomper from Digital Ranch in Los Angeles. She asked if I might join her TV film crew in search of Blackbeard's treasure on Lunging Island.

I've heard it all before. Legends of pirates abound in these parts, although precious little documentation exists. In fact, all the legends I've heard talk about pirate treasure buried at Star, Appledore and Smuttynose, never at Lunging. The best documented story says old "King Haley" found three or four bars of silver on Smuttynose in the early 1800s and used the income to build the breakwater between his island and nearby Malaga. Everybody knows the tale, but nobody I know has seen any proof that the bars existed.

There is a fair chance that an errant pirate was arrested on the Shoals in the 1700s, but that’s as good as it gets.

The source of the Lunging claim comes from Prudy Crandall Randall who owns the only summer home on the island. She's been inviting friends and me out for years to visit her famous "Honeymoon Cottage" on Lunging, but it's impossible to reach her isolated cove without a boat and a good tide. Now in her 80s, Prudy told her tale to local producer Richard Baron, who pitched it to Mindy, who got the green light to include an episode on the History Channel called "History's Mysteries."

"I want to find out the truth once and for all," she told me. Prudy grew up hearing the Blackbeard story from her father who bought the island in the late 1920s. "If there's no silver bars buried here, I can stop thinking about it," she said.

The History Channel apparently doesn't spare the horses; this was a full-fledged expedition. By 6 am a team of geologists with high-tech equipment in silver cases were already on board the rented fishing boat in Rye Harbor. A Boston-based camera crew arrived and, as if on cue, the orange sun appeared on the horizon. The geologists pretended to get back on the boat for the benefit of the cameras. Then Cap'n Pete Reynolds steered the MV Uncle Oscar expertly through the six miles of hefty rolling waves to the tiny private island.

Prudy Randall outside Honeymoon Cottage on Luncing Island at the Isles of Shoals (c) J. Dennis Robinson /

Lunging, once called Londoner's Island, is dumbbell-shaped with a narrow rocky neck connecting two small clumps of land. The natural cove was a godsend for fisherman of the London Company (thus the name) who reportedly used the island as a base camp for their fishing operations as early as 1615. With nothing but a teeny floating dock, the cove was less than welcoming as fierce white breakers exploded on the rocks to our right and left. It took five trips in a gray flat-bottomed skiff to get all the bodies, paraphernalia and snacks ashore. As the day wore on, the great pile of canned soda, chips, fruit bars, mixed nuts, peanut butter sandwiches and bottled water became the center of activity.

During high tides the two halves of Lunging are separated by a foot or two of seawater that rises over the exact spot where Prudy Randall says Blackbeard left his treasure and his thirteenth wife - never to return. There was a cave there, she believes, that has since collapsed or been covered somehow by nearly 300 years of storm and tide. After the Great War, she explains, the US Government was looking for buried treasure and spotted the hidden cave by air using some sort of sonar device. Later in the 1950s perhaps, a man from a quarrying company did some tests and indicated that a cave or buried ingots were possibly hidden there. Exact details are hard to pin down.


Isles of Shoals Pirate Search  (continued)

Honeymoon cottage on Lunging Island (c)

Anticipating the encroaching flood, the team from Hager-Richter Geoscience quickly cordoned off the treasure search zone with little red flags. One member wearing a back-pack-like device wheeled a cart over the area in measured rows, while others watch for signs of hidden silver bars beneath the rock and sand. A barge with a drill rig was due in from Rockland, Maine the next day to make a small test hole through what appeared to my untrained eye like a whole lot of solid rock that hadn't moved since long before human beings were pond scum. But no one was complaining. The geophysicists were happy as clams to be on the most beautiful island on the Shoals. It's a far cry from the hazardous waste dumps, landfills, highways and airports where they usually work.

The film crew wasn’t missing any of the action. The camera panned right to take in the Randall's historic shingled summer home that has grown around a 150 year old fishing hut. "Uncle" Oscar Laighton, poet Celia Thaxter's brother, actually owned the island for a time. Oscar died just shy of his 100th birthday and Prudy remembers him well. The camera panned left over Square Rock to the little hut and the old outhouse on the far side of Lunging toward the lighthouse on White. The camera continue around catching the side of the Oceanic Hotel on Star, the two buildings on Smuttynose, then over to Appledore. The Laightons owned all of it at one time, and any legend that attracted more summer tourists to their summer island retreats was a good legend indeed.

"What do you think about the Blackbeard story?" one of the scientists asked me as the camera crew moved off toward the distant rocks for some heavy surf shots. Prudy was not due in until the 11 am boat, so as the ranking amateur historian on the island, I offered my expert opinion.

"It's a good story all right," I said, shrugging. "But it ain’t history."

After days of research, I had not found an authorized account of Blackbeard at the Isles of Shoals. In the window of the New England Pirate Museum in Salem, MA I once saw a diorama of Blackbeard burying treasure at the Shoals. The model looks a lot like Smuttynose. Students who visit the museum are told decisively that the treasure is at Lunging. I called museum owner Nancy Hurrell at the time and asked where that story came from. She referred me to a book by Robert Ellis Cahill called "Pirates and Lost Treasure."

Cahill, a former owner of the pirate museum and author of 27 small self-published books on New England lore gets very specific. According to his book: "Blackbeard's treasure is buried at the landing side of the beach facing the Star Island Hotel, halfway across the halfmoon stretch of beach." That's precisely where the crew was digging, all right, exactly the same spot pointed out by Prudy Randall. After leaving his 13th wife to guard the spot, Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, sailed off to the Carolinas. There he blockaded Charleston with several ships and 700 men, was pardoned by the king, then settled down in Bath, North Carolina with Mary Ormond, the 14th Mrs. Blackbeard. Teach was betrayed by a southern governor who had been sharing in his booty and died with 20 knife and five gunshot wounds soon after. Asked where he buried his treasure Blackbeard reportedly said that only he and the devil knew. Cahill's book is full of great pirate details, but does not mention where he got his Lunging Island data. In all my preparation, I couldn't find any corroborating data. With the History Channel cameras pointed in my direction, I said exactly that. And guess what? They chose not to air my anti-Blackbeard sound bites.

By noon, with the water rising, half the scientists were stranded on the cottage side of the island. The rest of us were left sitting in the glaring fall sun on the food and outhouse side. The MV Uncle Oscar returned with Prudy Randall, field producer Richard Baron and four local actors with pirate costumes in drycleaning bags. Captain Peter, like the ferryman on the River Styx, continued rowing the population to and from each side of the island. The actress playing the ghost of Blackbeard's wife stood next to me in a diaphanous gown.

"She should say -- "He will come back! He will come back!'" I told director Tom Jennings. That's the legendary line, and the same line summer guests shout at each other each time the ferry leaves the Isles of Shoals.

"I like it," Tom said. "That's good."


Isles of Shoals Pirate Search  (continued) 

Actress portrays Blackbeard's wife (c) J. Dennis Robinson /

Tom Jennings announced that it was time for the pretend Blackbeard to pretend to abandon his pretend bride on Lunging Island. But Mrs. Blackbeard had disappeared inside Honeymoon Cottage and was talking to Prudy Randall.

"That's okay," the director said amiably, moving on to another shot. He decided to save the ghostly wife scene until sunset to make her look spookier, and went back to the shots on the boat. Blackbeard's pirate lackeys – wearing well ironed puffy shirts -- look decidedly nonthreatening, even with their plastic cutlasses and eye patches. They look to me, less like they had been living at sea for years, and more like they were about to break into a song from "Pirates of Penzance". I mentioned this to one of the actor pirates and apparently hurt his feelings. He never spoke to me again.

The entire crew crowded into the tiny boat that looked more Viking, to me, than pirate, but having towed it for six miles and rented it for the day, the director pressed on. The sound man was forced to hide under a blanket on the ship to get the authentic pirate sounds while the cameraman barked orders from the shore using a radio phone. To get the illusion of movement, Cap'n Pete towed the pirates who pretended to row. Meanwhile, the falling tide made it possible for the geophysicists to resume their sonic treasure hunt.

In exchange for lunch and a free ride to Lunging, I promised Mindy not to reveal what the treasure hunters did or didn't find until the show aired. I kept my promise and now can say that they found nothing. There were the usual anomalies in the ground penetrating radar that allowed the narrator to offer the possibility that some cave might still exist under the rock. The drill rig seemed to prove otherwise, but people love to hope. The hour-long episode focused on finding treasure. Our segment ran less than seven minutes. I didn’t make the cut.

When it was all over I manage to get the phone number of author Robert Cahill who had just moved from Salem, MA at age 69 to a new retirement home in Florida.

"There's certainly evidence, though circumstantial, that Blackbeard went to the Isles of Shoals and spent some time there. You can count on that," Cahil told me from Florida. He said he brought enough books from New England to fill three libraries, but he's retired now from the story-telling business.

Cahill remains convinced that the Shoals was a "pirate bank", a safe location where ships could be hidden, offload their booty and entrust the locals to guard it in exchange for a cut of the action. The Shoals, he admits, is an unlikely treasure spot. There is hardly a tree or soil to hide things under. Pirate Captain Jack Quelch, Cahill says, was captured while hiding gold nuggets on Smuttynose. That, he says, is documented.

But what was his source for the Blackbeard story? It's a "very very fuzzy legend," Cahill admits.

"I got that from Prudy Randall," Cahiill explains at last. "She had told me the story because we both lived near each other in Massachusetts. I didn't bump into her again until 'Unsolved Mysteries’ came along a few years ago. I came rowing into her island one day and she recognized me and said -- 'Bob Cahill, what are you doing here?"

What goes around comes around. Bob Cahill's authorized source is none other than Prudy Randall, and her source is a childhood memory and a deep 80-year faith that her private island is home to buried treasure. The lack of any evidence seems not to have dampened her hopes. I remain 100% skeptical about Blackbeard at Lunging. But now that I have visited Prudy and her private island home, I can report with authority that her treasure is the island itself.

Copyright © 2006 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. May not be used without permission. .

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