Article
Illustration by Gary Hanna
The Search for Pirate Gold

An amazing true story of a famous pirate and a treasure hunter who wouldn’t give up

By Lauren Tarshis

Learning Objective: This narrative nonfiction article describes the 20th-century search for a pirate ship that sank in 1717. As students read, they will identify the sequence of events that link them.

Lexiles: Starter, 500L-600L, 600L-700L, 800L-900L
Guided Reading Level: N
DRA Level: 30
Think and Read: Sequencing

As you read, think about the order of events involving Sam Bellamy and Barry Clifford.

In early 1717, a pirate named Sam Bellamy and his men prowled the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. They were there to rob passing ships full of gold, silver, silk, and spices.

Bellamy was a very successful pirate. He had 145 men on his crew. In just one year, they had robbed more than 50 ships.

That April, Bellamy and his crew were sailing north on a big ship called the Whydah. They were going to their hideaway off the coast of Maine. The Whydah was filled with treasure. This included 180 bags of gold and silver coins.

Along the way, Bellamy ordered his men to stop on the shores of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He had a girlfriend to visit there.

But Bellamy never made it. On April 26, the Whydah was just 500 feet from shore. A vicious storm swept in. Thirty-foot waves crashed over the ship. Howling winds tore apart sails. They toppled men like toy soldiers.

The Whydah broke apart. Men tumbled into the sea. Sam Bellamy drowned. He was one of 140 men who died that day. The ship’s wreckage settled at the bottom of the ocean. That was more than 300 years ago.

Barry Clifford grew up on Cape Cod, at the tip of Massachusetts. When he was a kid, his Uncle Bill loved telling him the story of a pirate who lived in the 1700s. That pirate’s name was Sam Bellamy. Bellamy sailed a ship called the Whydah. He had a crew of 145 men with him. They would rob the ships that passed by. They’d steal gold, silver, and spices.

On one April day, the Whydah was filled with 180 bags of gold and silver coins. But then a bad storm hit. Waves crashed over the Whydah and broke the ship apart. Sam Bellamy died. So did most of his crew. The ship sank to the bottom of the ocean.

But what happened to the gold and silver?

In 1717, a pirate named Sam Bellamy and his men sailed the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. They were there to rob the ships passing by. They stole gold, silver, silk, and spices.

Bellamy had 145 men on his crew. In just one year, they had robbed more than 50 ships.

That April, Bellamy and his men were sailing on a big ship called the Whydah. They were going to their hideaway near Maine. The Whydah was filled with treasure. This included 180 bags of gold and silver coins.

Along the way, Bellamy told his men to stop on the shores of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He wanted to visit his girlfriend.

But Bellamy never made it. On April 26, the Whydah was just 500 feet from shore. A vicious storm swept in. Tall waves crashed over the ship. Howling winds tore apart sails. They toppled men like toy soldiers.

The Whydah broke apart. Men fell into the sea. Sam Bellamy drowned. He was one of 140 men who died that day. The ship’s wreckage sank to the bottom of the ocean. That was more than 300 years ago.

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.

BRIAN J. SKERRY/National Geographic Creative

The Right Equipment

Barry Clifford’s team used powerful lamps and high-tech tools to find treasure buried under 30 feet of sand.

A Treasure Hunt

Barry Clifford grew up on Cape Cod in the 1950s and 1960s. He heard all about the Whydah from his Uncle Bill.

Uncle Bill knew every detail about Bellamy, the bags of gold and silver, and that killer storm. Young Barry often stared out at the ocean. He wondered: What happened to Bellamy’s treasure?

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

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

Barry was an experienced diver, and he knew the waters of Cape Cod. But first he had to figure out where, exactly, the Whydah had sunk.

A Treasure Hunt

Some people said that the gold and silver was gone. They believed that people swam out after the storm and took the coins.

Uncle Bill believed the treasure was still at the bottom of the ocean. Barry agreed with him. When he grew up, he wanted to prove that Uncle Bill knew what he was talking about. He wanted to find the treasure.

First Barry had to figure out where the Whydah sank. He studied maps of the area. He asked the state of Massachusetts to let him explore the ocean. The state said yes. Then he got special equipment and a crew. This cost a lot of money. People heard about Barry’s search and helped him pay for it.

Barry and his crew started looking for treasure in May 1983. They dove down to the bottom of the ocean. They used their equipment. At first, they found a lot of junk. After months of searching, they had to stop. The water was too cold and rough.

In July 1984, the men were ready to quit. But one of the divers found what looked like a large rock. Barry tapped it. It broke. What was inside? A sparkly silver coin. It was part of the treasure!

A Treasure Hunt

Barry Clifford grew up on Cape Cod in the 1950s and 1960s. He heard all about the Whydah from his Uncle Bill.

Uncle Bill knew all about Bellamy. He knew about the bags of gold and silver. He knew about that killer storm. Young Barry often stared out at the ocean. He wondered: What happened to the treasure?

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

Uncle Bill did not agree. He thought the treasure was still out there, waiting to be found. Barry believed him. And when Barry grew up, he wanted to prove that his uncle was right.

Barry was a strong diver, and he knew the waters of Cape Cod. But first he had to figure out where, exactly, the Whydah had sunk.

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.

BRIAN J. SKERRY/National Geographic Creative

The Search Team

Here are Barry and his crew on their boat. It’s tiny compared with a pirate vessel like the Whydah!

Where to Begin?

Finding sunken treasure is difficult. Barry’s first step was research. He searched local libraries for records from long ago. He studied coastline maps from 1717. He wanted to find clues to the ship’s resting place.

After many months of lonely work, Barry was ready to search underwater. First he got permission from the state of Massachusetts. He also needed special equipment and a crew. This would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. People heard about his goal and helped pay for the search.

In May 1983, Barry and his crew began exploring. They went out only 500 feet from shore. They used equipment that would sense metal. They found plenty of metal, including unexploded bombs from World War II. But they didn’t find any treasure.

They searched for four months. That’s when the cold weather and rough seas made it too dangerous to continue. The crew became grumpy and wanted to give up. Some quit.

Maybe Uncle Bill was wrong after all.


Where to Begin?

Finding sunken treasure is hard. Barry had to do research. He searched local libraries for records from long ago. He studied coastline maps from 1717. He wanted to find clues to where the ship sank.

After many months of lonely work, Barry was ready to search underwater. First he asked the state of Massachusetts whether he was allowed to search. He also needed special equipment and a crew. This would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. People heard about his goal and gave him money for the search.

In May 1983, Barry and his crew began exploring. They used equipment that would tell them if there was metal. They found plenty of metal. But they didn’t find any treasure.

They searched for four months. That’s when the cold weather and rough seas made it too risky to continue. The crew became grumpy and wanted to give up. Some quit.

Maybe Uncle Bill was wrong after all.

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.


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.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

Close to Shore
Barry and his crew focused their search on a spot just 500 feet from shore.

A Surprising Discovery

Barry and his crew started their work again in May 1984. Day after day, divers searched the freezing waters. But 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 was on the boat. The tired crew was in no mood to dive, but the reporter insisted. So Barry sent a crew member into the water. No one expected to find anything.

The diver came back to the surface quickly. He had a strange look in his eyes. He ripped off his mouthpiece and yelled, “Hey, you guys! There are 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.

Within the hour, the crew had brought up what looked like a large rock. Gently, Barry tapped it. A piece broke off. Inside, like a sparkly shell, was a silver coin that Barry recognized. It was a Spanish coin from 1688.

Barry looked up and smiled. He wished his Uncle Bill were there too.

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


A Surprising Discovery

Barry and his crew started their work again in May 1984. Day after day, divers searched the freezing waters. But all they found was junk.

By the middle of July, Barry and his crew wanted to give up. Barry had only enough money to continue the search for another week.

On July 20, a TV reporter was on the boat. The tired crew didn’t want to dive, but the reporter insisted. So Barry sent a crew member into the water. No one expected to find anything.

The diver came back up quickly. He had a strange look in his eyes. He yelled, “Hey, you guys! There are three cannons down there!”

Barry felt his heart racing. But there had been so many times over the past year that started off exciting, then ended in disappointment.

Soon the crew had brought up what looked like a large rock. Gently, Barry tapped it. A piece broke off. Inside was a silver coin that Barry recognized. It looked like a sparkly shell. It was a Spanish coin from 1688.

Barry looked up and smiled. He wished his Uncle Bill were there too.

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

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.

BILL CURTSINGER/National Geographic Creative