This Was Then: Buried treasure

A tall tale from the South Pacific has an ending on the VIneyard.

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"A Cove at West Chop, Mass." Courtesy Chris Baer

In gale winds and heavy seas in the fall of 1850, the bark Missouri of New York, loaded with a cargo of Indonesian pepper and $25,000 in silver dollars, was wrecked on the northwest coast of the island of Sumatra. Samuel N. Dixey, 23, of Marblehead was in command, having taken over the voyage after the death of the original captain.

“Before it could be got out,” reported the New York Daily Tribune, “the natives began to fire muskets from the beach at the crew who fled to the boats alongside, leaving Capt. Dixey upon deck alone. At night the natives came off, robbed the vessel of the money, tied Capt. D.’s hands and feet together and fastened him by the neck to a gun. Ship Sterling was in the immediate vicinity, and the crew of the Missouri proceeded to her. Capt. Pitman of the S., with both crews, went to the wreck next day and released Capt. D.”

Only this was a lie. When the Sterling arrived at the scene of the wreck, its 29-year-old captain, Henry Pitman, proposed an idea to Captain Dixey of the Missouri: Steal the coins and concoct a story about a theft. Dixey agreed, and they secretly transferred kegs full of Mexican pillar dollars (popularly known as “pieces of eight”) into sacks, hid them aboard the Sterling, and smuggled their treasure back to the United States the following winter. Captain Dixey spent his share on a lavish European tour. Captain Pitman chose to play it safe, and to instead bury $8,000 on the beaches of a laid-back little harbor known as Holmes Hole (renamed Vineyard Haven in 1871).

So Pitman and his second mate went ashore at what is now Vineyard Haven Harbor, “on the point, in a creek near the boathouse,” and buried 13 bags of silver coins. Pitman measured the distance to the boathouse with his feet, and made a mental treasure map: 10 feet east and 24 feet south of the boathouse. Time passed.

In February 1852, Captain Pitman sent his brother William to the Vineyard to fetch his silver. William befriended 25-year-old Clifford Dunham of Holmes Hole and paid him $400 to help him locate and retrieve the coins, and then to sail him to Falmouth in an open boat at 2 o’clock in the morning. Dunham borrowed a neighbor’s boat and made the crossing in the dark, but grounded before they could reach the beach. Pitman was forced to wade the through frigid, waist-deep February waters to reach the shore of what is now Falmouth Heights. Freezing, he sloppily reburied the silver in the dark upon Great Hill Beach, removed his wet boots, and ran barefoot two miles to the train station in Falmouth. Dunham sailed home and slept through the next day, exhausted. When he awoke, Dunham told his story to Thomas Bradley, the local justice in Holmes Hole, and surrendered his $400 payment.

William Pitman was arrested that afternoon at the New Bedford railroad depot by U.S. Marshals, his hands and feet badly frostbitten, carrying a carpetbag containing 16 pounds of silver dollars. Soon both Pitman brothers and Captain Dixey were all under arrest. The charges against William were dropped on a technicality (he had been charged with “plunder” when the crime was declared to be “embezzlement”), but Captain Henry Pitman and Captain Dixey were both found guilty. Dixey was sentenced to five years in Dedham jail, Pitman to three years in Salem jail. In 1854, two years into Pitman’s sentence, however, and for reasons that remain unclear, U.S. President Franklin Pierce took an interest in Pitman’s case and granted him a full presidential pardon. He went on to have a long and prestigious maritime career in California. Clifford Dunham of Holmes Hole went on to become a captain of his own ship — the bark Scotland, of Boston — but died in Havana of yellow fever in 1854 at the age of 28. His gravestone can be found in West Chop Cemetery.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.