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The Search for Pirate Gold

In April 1717, a vicious storm off Cape Cod sank the famed pirate ship Whydah—along with its dazzling cargo of stolen treasure. More than 250 years later, one man set off on a determined quest to find the long-lost riches.

The year 1717 began very well for a pirate named Sam Bellamy. He and his men had been prowling the waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Their prey was ships traveling between the Caribbean islands and England—ships laden with gold and silver and silk and spices. Bellamy had 145 men in his crew and a fleet of five stolen ships. Their best ship was the Whydah, which Bellamy and the crew had recently taken from English slave traders. The ship was big, fast, and sturdy. Terrified ship captains surrendered quickly when they saw the Whydah on their tails, its black flag raised, its huge cannons ready to fire. They expected Bellamy and his men to steal their ships and kill them all.

But Bellamy wasn’t a murderer. He was a thief, and a very successful one. In just one year, Bellamy and his men had looted more than 50 ships. By April 1717, the Whydah was filled with plundered treasures, including 180 bags of gold and silver coins. It was time to head to their hideaway: an island off the coast of Maine. There, they would divide up their booty and head their separate ways.

“The ship was big, fast, and sturdy.”

As the fleet sailed north, Bellamy ordered the Whydah to make a stop on the shores of Cape Cod. He had a girlfriend there, a farmer’s daughter named Maria Hallett. Some say the blue-eyed Maria and the black-haired pirate planned to marry, and Bellamy wanted to delight his future bride with a glimpse of his new treasures.

Whatever lured Bellamy to the Cape, he never made it. On April 26, when the ship was just 500 feet from the shores of the Cape town of Wellfleet, a vicious storm swept in. Thirty-foot waves crashed over the Whydah’s decks. Howling, 70-mile-per-hour winds tore apart sails and toppled men like toy soldiers. The pirate crew struggled to keep the ship under control and away from the rocky shore. But suddenly, a monstrous gust of wind took hold of the Whydah and sent it slamming into a sandbar. The ship broke apart. Hammering waves finished the job. Men tumbled into the sea as massive cannons and wooden masts came crashing down over them. One hundred and forty-four men drowned, including Sam Bellamy. Within days, the ship’s wreckage had slipped off the sandbar and settled at the bottom of the ocean.

Powerful lamps and metal detectors helped divers find treasures buried under 30 feet of sand.

A Treasure Hunt

Growing up on Cape Cod in the 1950s and 1960s, Barry Clifford had heard all about the Whydah. His Uncle Bill knew every detail about Bellamy and Maria, the bags of gold, and the killer storm. Barry’s mind filled up with Uncle Bill’s fascinating stories. As young Barry built sand castles on the wide beaches of Cape Cod, he often gazed at the water. What happened to Bellamy’s treasures? he wondered.

Some people insisted that the treasure was gone. They said that in the days after the storm, local people had swum out to the wreckage and stuffed their pockets with gold and silver coins.

But Uncle Bill disagreed. He thought the treasure was still out there, waiting. Barry believed him. And when he grew up, he decided to prove his uncle right.

Barry was 36 years old when he began his search for the Whydah. He was an experienced diver, and he knew the waters of Cape Cod. But he needed help. Finding sunken treasure is complicated and difficult. Barry needed money—hundreds of thousands of dollars—and special equipment. He would also have to get permission from the state of Massachusetts. A treasure hunter is not allowed to just jump into the water, search an ancient wreck, and fill a sack with gold coins and priceless gems. He or she must get permission first and then follow strict rules. Shipwrecks are historical treasures—underwater museums—with much to tell us about the past. If he found the Whydah, Barry would have to prove that he would safeguard the artifacts so others could learn from them.

X Marks the Spot

Barry’s first step was research. He needed to find out exactly where the Whydah had sunk. He searched local libraries for historical records and maps of the area. It was a frustrating task, but here Barry had his first stroke of luck. He discovered that in 1717, a man named Captain Cyprian Southack had been on Cape Cod soon after the Whydah sank. In the days following the storm, Southack had tried to salvage the treasure himself. He failed, but he left behind many detailed maps of the coastline.

Barry covered the walls of his home with copies of Southack’s maps. There was no X marking the spot where the ship and her treasure lay buried. But Barry believed that Southack’s maps contained clues to the wreck’s location.

Finally, after many months of lonely work, Barry had gathered enough information to win permission to begin an underwater search. His exciting story attracted investors, people willing to help pay the costs of his project.

In May 1983, Barry and his crew began exploring a small slice of ocean just 500 feet from shore. Using special metal-sensing equipment and detailed maps, they crept through the waters in a small boat. They found tons of metal, including unexploded bombs from World War II and steel rods from America’s first wireless telegraph towers, which once stood on Cape Cod’s shore. They searched until September, when the Cape’s cold weather and rough seas made it too dangerous to continue. Their money was running out. The mood of his crew turned grumpy and discouraged. Some quit the project completely. Maybe Uncle Bill was wrong after all.

Barry and his crew scoured the freezing-cold waters of the Cape for months.

The Truth About Pirates

As Barry was searching for the Whydah and its treasure, he learned some surprising facts about pirates who lived during Bellamy’s time. Many pirates, including Bellamy, were former English sailors who were fed up with the harsh life they faced on military and trade ships. On those ships, work was long and brutal, food was scarce, and captains were often cruel. Common sailors could be whipped or beaten for making small mistakes.

Pirates, however, ran their ships according to a clear set of rules, known as “the articles.” These rules guaranteed that all pirates got an equal say in ship matters. Treasure was split equally among the men. A pirate captain, like Bellamy, was elected by the crew. If he treated his men badly, he could be fired.

There were certainly some cruel and ruthless pirates. But many were decent men—including many Africans freed from slave ships—seeking an independent life at sea. Pirate ships offered that. And, of course, unlike regular sailors, pirates had the chance to become mighty rich.

A Surprising Discovery

Barry Clifford and coins from the Whydah.

Barry and his crew took up their salvage work again in May 1984. Day after day after day, they combed the ocean. Divers searched the freezing waters. All they found was junk.

By the middle of July, spirits were low. Barry had only enough money to continue the search for another week. On July 20, a TV reporter and camera crew had come along for the ride. The tired crew was in no mood to get into the water that chilly day, but the reporter insisted. Reluctantly, Barry sent one of his men down for a dive—just for the cameras. Nobody expected to find anything.

But no sooner had the diver gone down than he resurfaced with a strange look in his eyes. He ripped off his mouthpiece and yelled, “Hey, you guys! There’s three cannons down there!”

Barry felt his heart racing. So many times over the past year there had been moments of excitement followed by terrible disappointment. Was it possible the diver’s “cannons” were just more sea junk?

Within the hour, the crew had brought up a piece of wreckage. It looked like a large piece of rock covered with hardened sea minerals. Gently, Barry tapped the rock to chip away at the hardened growth. A piece broke off; inside, like a glistening shell, was a silver coin. Barry immediately recognized the markings. It was a Spanish coin called a piece of eight, from 1688.

Barry looked up and smiled, wishing his Uncle Bill were there with him.

“I think we’ve found a pirate ship,” he said.

A Dream Come True

Since then, Barry’s crew has salvaged more than 200,000 artifacts from the Whydah. They brought up thousands of gold and silver coins, beautiful African gold jewelry, gold bars, pistols, plates and pewter dishes, as well as shoes and stockings worn by the pirates. They even found the bronze bell with the ship’s name on it. In 1998, they discovered the ship’s wooden hull. Barry believes thousands of gold coins and other treasures are still waiting to be discovered.

The Supreme Court of Massachusetts awarded Barry and his company complete control of the Whydah and its artifacts. This means Barry legally owns all of the treasure, which could be worth as much as $400 million. If he chose to, he could sell the treasure and become a very rich man.

But Barry has kept the collection together so people can understand the Whydah’s history. Many of the artifacts are displayed at the Whydah Pirate Museum on Cape Cod.

Besides, Barry says, finding the Whydah was never about money. It was about realizing a childhood dream and proving his Uncle Bill right. Sometimes, when the ocean is calm and the sun is warm, Barry says he can feel in his heart that the pirate Sam Bellamy would approve of his decision. 

The Loot

Riches from the Whydah have given us a peek at the fascinating—and surprisingly fashionable—world of pirates.

The Weapon

No decent pirate would be caught without a pistol. Fancy ones like this could cost a year’s earnings

The Fashion

Pirates usually went barefoot but wore stylish leather shoes like this for special occasions.

The Bling

Pirates showed off their newfound riches by wearing flashy jewelry, belt buckles, buttons, and cuff links.

The Bell

No clock? No problem. The ship’s bell rang every half hour to help the crew tell time.

Continue the Learning Journey

Imagine you’re a pirate who’s buried a treasure. Choose a place to hide it around your house, and then create a series of clues to lead treasure hunters on a journey to find it. You can even create your own treasure map! Challenge a family member or friend to search for your treasure, and see how long it takes for them to find it! 

Barry Clifford worked hard toward reaching his goal of finding Sam Bellamy’s sunken ship. What goal do you want to achieve? Set a goal and make a dream board for it. (A dream board is a collage of images and words representing a person's wishes or goals). You can include inspirational words, images, photos, drawings, or other symbols. When you’re done, hang your dream board on a wall you look at often.

This article was written by Lauren Tarshis for Scholastic Storyworks magazine.

Image Credits: Gary Hanna (Header); BRIAN J. SKERRY/National Geographic Creative (Barry Searching); BRIAN J. SKERRY/National Geographic Creative (Ship); BILL CURTSINGER/National Geographic Creative (Coins); BILL CURTSINGER/National Geographic Creative (The Weapon); Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images (The Fashion); Richard T. Nowitz/AGE Fotostock (The Bling); Al Behrman/AP Images (The Bell)