Pirate Gold Recovered at Isles of Shoals
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Dead_pirate_BenavidesHISTORY MATTERS

Forget about Blackbeard, Captain Kidd and the rest. These pirates may have stopped at the Isles of Sholas. Or maybe not. Not a shred of evidence exists. But the crew of pirate John Quelch did step, very breifly, upon our the rocky Star Island. Sorry treasure hunters, the stolen Spanish gold was recovered in 1704. (Read story below)


This is not a Hollywood pirate tale. It is, instead, a tale about a real pirate named John Quelch and his stolen gold. But before we begin, you must cast aside everything you think you know about pirates. They are mostly fantasies, one historian writes, "to tell the children at nightfall".

The historical pirate is dead. He was stabbed in the back in the 1880s by Robert Louis Stephenson in his romantic novel Treasure Island. That was fiction and pirates have never been the same. This is fact.


So forget the cocked hat, eye-patch, peg-leg, striped shirt, and the colorful talking parrot. Forget "Aargh" and "Avast" and "Shiver me timbers" and all that garbage about burying great chests of gold at the Shoals. Forget Captain Hook and Long John Silver and erase your memory of actor Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in the multi-billion dollar Disney movie franchise Pirates of the Caribbean.



Pirates at the Shoals

Despite a lack of evidence, legends of pirate treasure still ooze around the Isles of Shoals like a thick oil spill. Volume after volume insist that the infamous Edward Teach or Thatch (aka Blackbeard) frequented the Shoals and buried treasure or hid it inside a cave there. Most accounts quote popular historians Celia Thaxter, Samuel Adams Drake and Edward Rowe Snow, none of whom offers a scintilla of proof.

Without skipping a beat these same authors report the legend that Blackbeard abandoned his 14th wife (some say 15th) to guard his treasure at the Shoals, then never returned. Her ghost, they say, wanders the island still. It’s all good fun, but historically – it’s baloney.

Pirates like Captain Kidd certainly passed by and likely stopped at the Isles of Shoals. These were very important islands in the 17th and early 18th centuries when sea dogs sailed the Spanish Main and the Atlantic Coast. But the buried treasure part is unlikely. These rocky islands, for one, have almost no topsoil to bury things under and there was even less 300 years ago than today. Most of what could be called "caves" are below the water line and subject to the pounding surf. And although no one lives on the Shoals year round today, the population of fishing families peaked back in the golden age of pirates. It’s hard to imagine a pirate worth his salt secretly stashing treasure on a busy and highly visible island.

Writers often support the Blackbeard myth by citing the equally unsubstantiated story that Captain Sam Haley found four bars of silver at Smuttynose Island a century later. Shipwrecks were common along the Shoals and the Shoalers were notorious for salvaging their cargo. And besides, one old wives’ tale does not validate another.

Ten years ago this writer accompanied the History Channel on a farcical search for Blackbeard’s treasure on Lunging Island. They brought out costumed actors with plastic pistols and plastic gold coins. They towed a fake pirate ship around the cove and took readings with ground-penetrating radar. They even hauled out a giant drill that cut through a granite ledge in search of an imaginary cave.

Lucky for the real pirates, there are real historians like Clifford Beal who know how to dig for facts. Beal was born in New England and has local roots, but lives abroad in Europe. His book Quelch’s Gold (2007) cuts to the heart of pirate tradition. John Quelch, he writes, was hanged in Boston in 1704 after a single year of looting on the high seas. Legend says Quelch and his men deposited their treasure at the Isles of Shoals. Here’s what really happened.



Quelch’s Gold

Captain_Kidd_Hanging_around_LondonThe adventure begins in August of 1703 as the 80-ton brigantine Charles slipped out of Marblehead harbor. Owned by a syndicate of five influential Bostonians, the Charles was on a mission to attack French privateers, government sanctioned pirates, that were harassing British merchant ships in the North Atlantic. The owners did not know, however, that their captain, Daniel Plowman, lay dying in his bunk. Forty hours after the Charles cleared the harbor, Plowman was dead, presumably of natural causes, and buried at sea. Or was it mutiny? John Quelch, the ship’s lieutenant, took command.

The distinction between pirates and privateers, as with patriots and insurgents, is often fuzzy and depends on who is writing the history. Quelch raided enemy ships as ordered by the owners of the Charles. But instead of going north to search for French prey, he headed to South America where his crew captured as many as nine small trading vessels flying the Portuguese flag. Unfortunately for Quelch, soon after his departure from Marblehead, Portugal and England became allies in the war against France and Spain. Did he know that?

Despite the romantic legends, pirates rarely found gold. Quelch’s first five captures off the coast of Brazil yielded the typical spoils – fish, molasses, lumber, some crockery, sometimes enslaved Africans, rarely cash. But the next capture was the jackpot. When Quelch returned to Marblehead in May of 1704, he was carrying 960 ounces of stolen gold dust and gold and silver coins, worth about $2 million today.

As soon as the Charles arrived back in port, the crew quickly took their cut and dispersed, leaving Quelch to carry the gold by horseback along the dangerous roads from Marblehead, to Beverly, Lynn, Charlestown and into the heart of Puritan Boston to settle up with his sponsors.

Quelch, by now, certainly knew he had broken the law by raiding a Portuguese ship, so he devised a "cover story". He told the owners that the gold came from Indians who discovered it in a Spanish shipwreck. But the treasure included a number of Portuguese "souvenirs" taken by the crew. The jig was up. Quelch was arrested for piracy and tossed into a bleak Boston jail. In order to curry favor with the King, Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley decided to make an example out of Quelch and his crewmen.

Fearing the worst, a band of Quelch’s men fled to Salem. Then they hopped a boat to the rugged Isles of Shoals, a lawless fishing outpost at the turn of the 18th century. Samuel Sewall, one of the judges at the infamous Salem witch trials, took off in hot pursuit. Sewall commandeered a fishing shallop and, without cannon, managed to sneak up on the pirates at Star Island.

"Without striking a stroke or firing a gun," historian Beal tells us, Sewell convinced the pirates to surrender. They confiscated 46 ounces of gold dust, but did not search the island. Author Clifford Beal cannot resist stirring up one of the most popular Shoals legends when he writes: "But had Major Sewall recovered all of the treasure the pirates carried? Had more of it been left on Star Island, hidden or left with someone for safekeeping?"



Traitor or trader?

Things did not go well for Captain Quelch. With only a portion of his gold recovered, Gov. Dudley and his son Paul, the attorney general of Massachusetts Colony, instantly put the accused pirate on trial. They did not see fit to indict the five prominent owners who employed Quelch.

quelch_book_linkWorking from the original transcripts, author Beal recounts Quelch’s trial like a modern courtroom drama. Quelch was convicted of piracy by the Massachusetts court and sentenced to be hanged. He did did not hang alone. Twenty of his crewmen were caught and convicted and six were selected to die.

The seven condemned men stood together on a wobbly plank at a gallows constructed between the high and low tide marks in a mud flat outside Boston Harbor. Quelch was unrepentant. He bowed to the enormous cheering crowd that gathered on land in hundreds of small boats to watch the execution.

"They should also take care," Quelch shouted in warning to those gathered, "how they brought money into New-England, to be hanged for it!"

The plank was withdrawn and the twisting men slowly strangled under their own weight. Their bodies were left, by custom, to rise and fall with three high tides before they could be cut down and deposited in unhallowed ground.

The hangings, without benefit of a jury trial, were considered illegal by many, both in England and in the Colonies. Author Clifford Beal even suggests that the public reaction to this act of judicial homicide helped kindle the spark that became the American Revolution. Although the Dudleys were native-born New Englanders, their actions represented the Crown, and thus angered the citizens of Boston. British lawmakers were also displeased and saw Joseph Dudley, who was also royal governor of New Hampshire at the time, as taking too much power into his own hands.

Even the wealthy Boston syndicate that blew the whistle on their own Captain Quelch was unhappy, since the Dudley’s court confiscated their gold, the brigantine Charles and all its cargo. Then the Dudleys used the gold to pay themselves handsomely for one of the most expensive trials in early American history.

And what about the rest of the stolen gold? No one even considered returning it to its Portuguese owners. It was shipped, instead, to England where it was melted down and cast into currency by the master of the British mint, Sir Isaac Newton, the same man who discovered the Theory of Gravity. Quelch’s Gold by Clifford Beal is both good history and a thrilling pirate story. The bizarre plot twists and turns like a Hollywood movie -- except this one is true.


Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. History Matters also appears biweekly in the Portsmouth Herald. Robinson is the editor and owner of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this article can be found online. Robinson is currently completing two books on privateering including a text for children due in 2011.