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Gary Hanna
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.

By Lauren Tarshis
Lexile: 890L, 510L
Guided Reading Level: U
DRA Level: 50
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UP CLOSE: Persistence

Persistence means not giving up, even if you face setbacks. In this story, look for how Barry Clifford showed persistence.

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.

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.

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. They were searching for ships traveling between the Caribbean islands and England. The

ships were carrying 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. They had recently taken it from English slave traders. The ship was big, fast, and sturdy.

The Whydah terrified ship captains. The captains gave in quickly when they saw the Whydah’s black flag and huge cannons. They expected Bellamy and his men to steal their ships and kill them all.

But Bellamy wasn’t a murderer. He was a thief. Bellamy and his men had looted more than 50 ships in just one year. By April 1717, the Whydah was filled with plundered treasures. It was carrying 180 bags of gold and silver coins. It was time for Bellamy’s crew to head north. They would go to their hideaway on an island near Maine. There, they would divide their booty and go their separate ways.

The fleet set sail. Bellamy ordered the Whydah to stop on the shores of Cape Cod. He had a girlfriend there. She was a farmer’s daughter named Maria Hallett. Some say Bellamy wanted to impress Maria with his treasures.

But Bellamy never made it to Cape Cod. A violent storm swept in on April 26. The ship was just 500 feet from the shores of the Cape town of Wellfleet. Thirty-foot waves crashed over the Whydah’s decks. Seventy-mile-per-hour winds howled. They tore apart sails. They toppled men like toy soldiers. The pirates struggled to keep the ship under control. But a huge gust of wind took hold of the Whydah. It sent the ship slamming into a sandbar. The ship broke apart. Pounding waves finished the job. Massive cannons and wooden masts came crashing down. Men tumbled into the sea. Sam Bellamy and 143 of his men drowned. Within days, the ship’s wreckage had slipped off the sandbar. It settled at the bottom of the ocean.

BRIAN J. SKERRY/National Geographic Creative

INTO THE DARKNESS

The swirling, muddy Cape Cod waters made it almost impossible for Barry Clifford’s team to see the wreckage. Powerful lamps and metal detectors helped them home in on 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.

Barry Clifford grew up on Cape Cod in the 1950s and 1960s. He had heard all about the Whydah. His uncle Bill knew every detail about Bellamy and the killer storm. He told Barry all sorts of colorful stories about it. As young Barry built sand castles on the beaches of Cape Cod, he often gazed at the water. He wondered what had happened to Bellamy’s treasures.

Some people believed that the treasure was gone. They said that 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. 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 who knew the waters of Cape Cod well. But finding sunken treasure is difficult. Barry needed help. He also needed hundreds of thousands of dollars and special equipment. And he would have to get permission from the state of Massachusetts. A treasure hunter is not allowed to just start searching for treasure. He or she must get permission first and then follow strict rules. Shipwrecks are underwater museums. The artifacts inside are treasures from history. They teach us about the past. If Barry found the Whydah, he would have to prove that he would protect the artifacts.

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’s first step was research. He needed to find out exactly where the Whydah had sunk. He searched libraries for historical records and maps of the area. Here Barry had his first stroke of luck. He learned that a man named Captain Cyprian Southack had been on Cape Cod soon after the Whydah sank. 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 of the buried treasure. But Barry studied Southack’s maps anyway. He believed the maps held clues to the wreck’s location.

Many months passed. Barry had gathered a lot of information. He finally won permission to begin an underwater search. His exciting story attracted people who would help pay the costs of his project.

In May 1983, Barry and his crew climbed into a small boat. They rode out just 500 feet from the shore. The men used special metal detectors and detailed maps to explore a small part of the ocean. They crept through the water. The crew found tons of metal, including unexploded bombs from World War II. The crew searched for the Whydah until September. Then cold weather and rough seas forced them to put the project on hold. Barry’s money was running out. The crew became grumpy. Some men even quit. Maybe Uncle Bill was wrong after all.

BRIAN J. SKERRY/National Geographic Creative

A GRUELING SEARCH

Barry and his crew scoured the freezing-cold waters of the Cape for months, focusing on a narrow spot just 500 feet from the shore.

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.

Barry learned some surprising facts about pirates during the search. Like Bellamy, many pirates had once been English sailors. The sailors were fed up with the rough conditions on military and trade ships. Their work was long and hard. There was little food. And their captains were often cruel. Sailors could be beaten for making small mistakes.

But pirates followed a clear set of rules, called “the articles.” These rules made sure that all pirates got an equal say in ship matters. Treasure was split equally among the men. A pirate captain was elected by the crew. He could be fired if he treated his men badly.

Some pirates were cruel and ruthless. But many were decent men. Many pirates were Africans freed from slave ships. Like other men, they became pirates to have an independent life at sea. Plus, pirates had the chance to become mighty rich.

A Surprising Discovery

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.

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

The crew’s spirits were low by the middle of July. Barry had only enough money to search for another week. On July 20, a TV reporter and camera crew had come along on the boat. Barry’s tired crew was in no mood to get into the water. The reporter insisted. So Barry sent one of his men down for a dive. It was just for the cameras. Nobody expected to find anything.

The diver soon came back up. He had 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. There had been so many moments of excitement followed by disappointment over the past year. Were the diver’s “cannons” just more sea junk?

Within the hour, the crew had brought up a piece of wreckage. It looked like a large rock covered with hardened sea minerals. Barry gently tapped the rock. A piece broke off. A shiny silver coin was inside. Barry recognized the markings right away. It was a Spanish coin called a piece of eight, from 1688.

Barry looked up and smiled. He wished 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. 

Barry’s crew has gathered more than 200,000 artifacts from the Whydah. They brought up thousands of gold and silver coins. They discovered gold jewelry, gold bars, pistols, plates, and pewter dishes. They also brought up shoes and stockings worn by the pirates. They even found the bronze bell with the ship’s name on it. In 1998, they found the ship’s wooden hull. Barry believes many 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 owns all of the treasure. It could be worth as much as $400 million. Barry could sell the treasure and become a very rich man.

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

Barry says that finding the Whydah was never about money. It was about realizing a childhood dream. It was also about proving his uncle Bill right. Barry thinks Sam Bellamy would approve of his decision.