Gold Rush Off Cape Cod      A Close-up of the 1717 Pirate Wreck off the Cape Cod Coast

By William P. Quinn

“EUREKA!” Archimedes’ classic exclamation fits well in the headlines describing the recent discovery of a fortune in gold and silver off Wellfleet, Cape Cod, by treas­ure hunters diving on what they believe to be the remains of the pirate ship Whydah. As might be expected, the aura of pirate gold, the first ever discovered in this hemisphere, has brought national recognition to the salvage crew and its leader, Barry Clifford, of Tisbury, Massachusetts. But the question is: Can you believe everything you read in the news­papers and see on nightly television?

Media Exposure

Press coverage has played a large part in the Whydah story. For the most part, it carries a built-in acceptance no less glowing than a pirate’s treasure. Some examples:

December, 1984: A Cape Cod newspaper reported that Clifford has revealed “thousands of coins, mostly silver, jewelry and other artifacts. Much more still lies untouched beneath the sea….”.Because Clifford had by this time sold his story for national publication, he was apparently not at liberty to add further details.

Parade magazine, January, 1985: The cover story proclaimed that Clifford and his modern swashbucklers have uncovered “what promises to be the largest sunken treasure ever retrieved off the continental United States…

Barry Clifford and the bronze bell from the Whydah site.

Perhaps his widest exposure came last year when he appeared on the David Letterman late night talk show where he revealed a substan­tial amount of gold and silver and a few artifacts, all of which he tied to the Whydah.

Such exposure is pretty convincing, as far as it goes. But has Clifford really found the infamous Whydah? The artifacts recovered from the ocean floor off Wellfleet probably did come from an early Eighteenth Century wreck, but so far it would seem that the evidence may be circumstantial. A review of the project over the past two years reveals what may be significant discrepancies in the claims being made in the media.

Shown is a portion of a map of “The Sea of New England” drawn by

Cyprian Soushack a few years before the Whydab disaster in 1717. A prominent

mariner of his time, Southack charted much of America’s North Atlantic Coast.

He later added the Whydah notations to the map, soon after his unsuccessful attempt to salvage her treause.


As far back as 1982, news headlines declared that the lost wreck of the Whydah had been found. An admiralty claim was filed in U.S. District Court in Boston and the wreck was legally “arrested.” Divers buoyed the wreck site and Clifford was planning to begin recovery of the treasure sometime in the spring of 1983. Yet the project was greeted with skepticism by some Cape Codders who expressed belief that newspapers had printed ru­mors as news and had possibly inflated the value of the treasure. In July, 1983, two rival salvage companies applied for permits to search for the pirate ship and competition reared its ugly head.


The competition notwith­standing, the Cape Cod Times carried a story on August 6, 1983, with the headline ‘We’ve got it, Clifford says of Whydah Search.” Apparently the initial plot was in error and a more suitable location was decided upon by the salvors. Up to this point, the going value of the treasure was publicly estimated at $300 million and rising.


Local newspapers carried various sidebar articles on the pirate ‘Black Sam” Bellamy and his Cape Cod girl friend, Goody Hallett. Early legends were unearthed; eerie tales circulated that the ghost of Bellamy was guarding his treasure. That September, news reports stated that Barry Clifford’s salvors had discovered another unidentified wreck (the sixth) off the back side of Cape Cod and that Clifford was headed for court to block other salvage groups from the wreck sites.


In June, 1984, it was reported that a fourth group had filed to search for the Whydah. Clifford, meanwhile, filed suit against the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources and two other competitors.


In late July, 1984, Clifford again made headlines; “Clifford Says He’s Found the Whydah.” This was the third time, by news headlines and stories that he had “found” the elusive pirate ship, and now the treasure was reportedly valued at more than $400 million. The story stated that Clifford showed a reporter an “irregularly shaped lump of dark, grainy material that had been broken open. Exposed in the center of the lump was a slightly dented sphere, roughly three inches in diameter. Clifford said it was a cannonball from one of the small swivel mounted cannon used aboard the ship Whydah,” Other artifacts and antique silver coins were

shown. The find was made on the same day that an NBC television crew was on the salvage vessel taping a feature story to be broadcast nationwide.


The Pirate Ship


The saga of the Whydah is well known on Cape Cod. She was driven ashore at Wellfleet in a northeast storm on April 26, 1717, near what is now the Marconi Beach in the Cape Cod National Seashore Park. There were reported to be 146 in her crew; only two survived: Thomas Davis and John Julian. These two came to the house of Samuel Hardings in Wellfleet on the night of the disaster. The next morning, Hardings hitched up his wagon and went to the beach. With the help of the two men, Hardings carted home several wagonloads of goods from the wreck and piled them in his barn before the local wreckers were aware of what was going on. Later, sworn testimony by the two surviving pirates indicated that more than $100,000 in gold and silver was aboard the ship. None of this treasure was ever known to have been found.

The search for Whydab’s bones has covered many miles of ocean bottom off the back side of Cape Cod. Before the discovery of the bronze bell, the name of the vessel was thought to be spelled Whidah.



There are various theories about the storm that caused the wreck of the Whydah. The primary claim of salvor Clifford is that the storm raged for days, with easterly winds and heavy surf, preventing local wreckers from salvaging anything other than flotsam washed ashore by the surf. The ship was supposed to have tipped over, spilling her treasure on the outer bars where the Cape Codders could not reach.

Another theory is given in Pirates of the New England Coast, 1630- 1730 by Dow and Edmonds (Marine Research Society of Salem, 1923). There is a description of a group of vessels under the command of Bellamy; one was a pink called the Mary Anne, which carried a cargo of wine. The pink was wrecked in the same storm as the Whydah but eight miles to the south, near what is now the town of Orleans on a small island called Pochet. On the following day, the book relates:

“At ten o’clock in the forenoon two men, John Cole and William Smith, came out to the pink in a canoe and carried them all (the crew) to the mainland.” Thus, the theory that a storm was raging in Wellfleet, while eight miles to the south men were able to go to sea in a canoe, casts doubt on Clifford’s theory.


Captain Cyprian Southack was sent to the Cape by Governor Shute to recover goods from the Whydah wreck. He arrived about a week after the fact and found no trace of the cargo. He searched some private homes and commandeered some of the salvaged goods. It was legal at that time, as an early law in the Colonies provided that goods picked off the shore were to be reported to town officials. They, in turn, would advertise for owners; if no one claimed the goods after a year, they were returned to the finder. It is next to impossi­ble to believe that the Cape Cod wreckers did not recover some or most of the valuables aboard the wrecked ship as she lay on the outer bar. Even if a heavy surf prevailed, the knowledge that a pirate treasure might be aboard would be a further incentive to those on the beach to go to further risks for greater rewards.


Archaeological Evidence

Yet it may be that Clifford’s group has found the remains of the Whydah. The artifacts recovered so far could lead salvagers to the rest of the ship and further evidence to substantiate the claim. In his book The Treasure Diver’s Guide, John S. Potter, Jr., in a chapter on wreck identification, states:

“The subject is the old wooden ship, sunk a century or more ago, whose wreckage seems on first investigation to be nothing more than a junk pile, Yet the same junk pile holds numerous clues which can be ferreted out and placed in a pattern which will usually reveal the ship’s nationality and approximate date of loss, often the class of the vessel, and sometimes, even, details right down to the name-” But, after 268 years, no one is likely to find a quarterboard or any other piece of wood with a name on it.   More historical investigation is required to remove all doubt.

Is it possible that the artifacts brought forth so far are not from the Whydah? There could be another wreck on the bottom with silver and gold coins and a number of cannon. There are, unfortunately, several hundred wrecked hulls along the outer coast of Cape Cod that have piled up there since the mid 1600’s. Under the circumstances, let us review a hypothetical merchant ship, loaded with cargo and specie, and headed for Salem. She is hit offshore by a northeast storm and wrecked at sea with the loss of all hands. The vessel becomes a derelict; her cargo fetches up on the outer bars off Cape Cod at night. Later, she capsizes, spills her buoyant cargo, and sinks without ever being discovered until now. The record books are full of lists of ships that sailed never to be heard of again. These ships were lost at sea. No one knows where or when.

The summer of 1985 was the time to substantiate the claim and positively identify the wreck being worked off Wellfleet. Clifford spent that summer trying to obtain a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use a cofferdam at the wreck site. Much time was lost trying to surmount the red tape. Developments to late October, 1985, revealed nothing positive to identify the material’s brought to the surface.


The Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources has, to date, not verified the wreck as the Whydah, concluding the cannons, silver coins, weapons and other artifacts reported to have been found could have come from any merchant vessel of that era. However, on October 7, 1985, a bell, apparently bronze, was recovered from the site. Clifford said the bell would positively identify the wreck. Three weeks later, in a carefully orchestrated press conference, he revealed the bell after some of its encrustations were removed. The letters which circled the top of the bell were: “The Whydah Gally 1716.” Photographs were published in the newspapers the following day; television news stories were broadcast nationwide. It was perhaps a solid clue.

The bell, if authentic, may satisfy the critics and silence the skeptics.

Since the salvage effort began, Clifford’s team claims to have brought up about three thousand silver coins, several navigational instruments, seven cannon, various tableware and a few pieces of gold. Clifford estimates its net worth between $10 and $15 million. He claims that most of the valuable treasure is still on the bottom and visible: ‘Gold, sparkling all over the ocean floor,’ Clifford said in one news story.

The validity of the Whydah claim will be proven sooner or later, though the amount of gold to be raised may or may not approach the value reported by Thomas Davis and John Julian back in 1717. If Barry Clifford finds his $400 million no one will doubt his claim; if not, the local people who may have “got there first” will have outsmarted the modern day salvors and upheld the traditions of the early Cape Cod wreckers.


Bill Quinn is a well-known New England author of maritime history who has been documenting shipwrecks with his pen and camera for well over twenty years. His books about shipwrecks off the New England coast have made an im­portant contribution in preserving maritime America.


The following two stories, “Gold Rush Off Cape Cod” and “The Whydah Is For Real” cast a detective’s eye on one of the most famous shipwreck discoveries of the 1980’s “Black Sam” Bellamy’s Eighteenth Century pirate galley, Whydah. But wait. Is the ship being excavated off Wellfleet, Gape Cod, really what it appears to be? Massachusetts writer and historian William P. Quinn says he’s not so sure. Quinn says it will take a lot more detective work to get the fingerprints and a foolproof “make” on this ancient vessel. Meanwhile, the detective on the scene, archaeologist Bob Cembrola, says Quinn is up a blind alley. Cembrola says he’s got the fingerprints and a smoking gun that points straight to “Black Sam” and the Whydah. Seafarers presents both cases. You be the judge.



 Reprinted with permission from Seafarers,
 Journal Of Maritime Heritage Volume 1

 An Official Publication of The Atlantic Alliance For Maritime Heritage Conservation
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Key West, Florida 33041-1528

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