This Was Then: Money digging

Farming for buried treasure.

West Tisbury, circa 1910-20. — Edward Lee Luce

In 1833, newspapers around the country reprinted a story from the New Bedford Gazette titled “Money Digging”:

“A few days since, three young men on the south side of the Island of Martha’s Vineyard were engaged in laboring in a field which was once an orchard — two of them ploughing, and the other picking up stones at a distance. As the plough passed over a certain part of the land, the ploughshare started up two or three pieces of silver coin, which were hastily snatched up by the holder and put in his pocket. His companion observed him stoop and pick up something, and when the plough went over the spot again, seeing him repeat the movement, he desired to change situations with him.

“This was done, and he, too, reaped his crop; when each finding that the other was master of the secret, they proposed a manoeuvre to get rid of the third person, so that they could divide the spoil without his coming in for a share. They therefore declared it best to leave off work that forenoon, as it was nearly 12 o’clock, which was readily acquiesced in. What they obtained no one can exactly state — but it is believed not far from two or three thousand dollars were excavated. This was divided between the two; leaving [out] the man in the field with them.”

As historian Charles Hine later noted, “the story got out in due time.” The original article reported that the treasure had evidently been originally buried in a bag (“ascertained by pieces of cloth adhering to some of the coin”), but a footnote in an 1839 history book by William Dunlap claimed that it was “a pot, containing $1,800, ploughed up in a field upon Martha’s Vineyard,” and attributed the loot to the pirate captain William Kidd.

While the identities of the two lucky men were not reported, the excluded third man was immediately identified as James Athearn Jones (1791–1854) of West Tisbury. Jones was probably the owner of the property in question — he had grown up on, and had recently inherited, his grandfather’s West Tisbury farm. In addition to being an Island farmer, Jones was a widely respected poet, novelist, editor, and scholar. He wrote “Traditions of the North American Indians” (1830), which has been said to be the first compilation of Indian folklore published in the United States. (He credited his inspiration for that project to the Wampanoag laborers he knew on his grandfather’s farm in his youth.) Jones also wrote, among others, the novel “The Refugee” (1825) under the pseudonym “Captain Matthew Murgatroyd”; that book is said to feature the first appearance of New York City in American fiction.

But back to finding that money. Hines noted, “This is said to be the only case actually known where buried gold has been found” on the Island. But that was not for lack of trying. There were lots of stories of pirates and other mysterious strangers visiting the Island to stash their wealth. An 1811 article in the Boston Palladium reported that three men were sighted stealthily landing a longboat on the Island’s south shore at three o’clock in the morning. They spoke broken English and were thought to be Spaniards, and they carried five or six thousand dollars in coins. “Every appearance indicates them to be villains, who have perpetrated crimes of the deepest dye.” They found passage to New Bedford, and vanished before they could be detained and questioned.

A rather fancifully written 1896 Boston Globe story reported that Gay Head residents had “no doubt” that Captain Kidd buried “tons” of gold coins in kettles and oak barrels in the Cliffs and along the shore. When one zealous cliff digger, inspired by a supernatural vision, refused to stop digging when politely requested, “the man was taken bodily from the cliffs and carried down to the water’s edge; this was repeated three times.”

Hine’s 1908 book “The Story of Martha’s Vineyard” is chock-full of fanciful buried treasure tales, like the treasure to be found under the “Money Rock” due north of Indian Hill, and the great flat rock nearby, on the “Mayhew Luce place,” under which pirates are said to have buried loot. Pirate gold is said to be buried at Roaring Brook, too, as well as in the marsh between Quenames and Quansoo. At Beck’s Beach, Rebecca Amos is said to have buried a tin cup full of gold and silver coins in her yard when she saw the British fleet approaching, but alas, she was never able to find her hiding spot again, they say. A pot of pirate gold is buried at the Blue Rock of Chappaquiddick, Hine reports, guarded by no less than a ghost ship full of animated skeletons, according to one witness he cites.

Hines also retold the tale of Aunt Rhody, who lived on the banks of Tashmoo and claimed that two men in a small boat were spotted burying a large bundle by a great rock on the eastern shore of the pond. When questioned, the men claimed that it was the corpse of a crewman who died of smallpox, but a rumor soon circulated that it was actually, well, treasure. It took several years before three local men, armed with lanterns and shovels, found the nerve one night to dig it up. Alas, they only found a set of human bones. One of the diggers “extracted a tooth for a memento.” Hines ends this increasingly unlikely story with a second man striking a chest with his spade, but just as he did, “the earth opened under his feet and he sank with a yell to his armpits, while all manner of uncanny noises came from out of the darkness.” The diggers, Hines reported, immediately fled.

But in reality, it was seldom pirates or mysterious visitors. During Grey’s Raid in 1778, British troops looted Holmes Hole. One witness reported that the redcoats “Dug up the Ground everywhere to search for goods the people hid; even so Curious were they in searching as to Disturb the ashes of the Dead.”

Ironically, some of the looters’ treasure was itself lost into the soil. John Holmes of Vineyard Haven reportedly dug up a number of early 17th-century Spanish coins on his property which he believed had been dropped by Grey’s invading troops.


Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in June 2018.