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Pirate Gold Recovered at Isles of Shoals


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.


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