The Charles Wilson Treasure; A Legend Buried in Shifting Sands

The treasure buried by Charles Wilson would be worth ten million dollars today–ten chests filled with precious gems, silver and gold bullion that have never been found, despite that Wilson wrote explicit directions to the stashed riches.

As alluring as that hidden cache is, however, the fortune may never turn up; it probably doesn’t exist. Still, for die hard treasure hunters, there’s always a glimmer of hope that untold wealth lies just beneath the surface, because even though evidence for Wilson’s booty is tenuous at best, there are other troves still to be found near the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

The Wilson legend, patched together from several unofficial sources, goes something like this: Wilson was an 18th century American sailor-turned-pirate whom British officials jailed and hanged about 1750. Before meeting his great reward, Wilson wrote a letter to his brother–intercepted by authorities and never delivered–giving clear directions to the ill-gotten treasure he’d acquired over his short career as a buccaneer.

“There are three creeks lying 100 paces or more north of the second inlet above Chincoteague Island, Virginia, which is at the southward end of the peninsula. At the head of the third creek to the northward is a bluff facing the Atlantic Ocean with three cedar trees growing on it, each about 1 1/3 yards apart. Between the trees I buried in ten iron-bound chests, bars of silver, gold, diamonds and jewels to the sum of 200,000 pounds sterling. Go to the Woody Knoll secretly and remove the treasure.”

Wilson was presumably referring to Assateague Island, the long barrier island of wild pony fame shared by Virginia and Maryland. The instructions Wilson left seem easy enough, and at first glance fabulous wealth appears no harder than taking a shovel to what’s now Assateague Island National Seashore.

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But hold off before calling the boss and telling him with a few choice words you won’t be in anymore. And not only because treasure hunting at Assateague can land you a big fine and jail time. Mostly, the whole Wilson Treasure, once you dig just beneath the surface, is a bit hinky.

I spoke with John Amrhein, Jr., author of The Hidden Galleon: The True Story of a Lost Spanish Ship and the Legendary Wild Horses of Assateague Island and Treasure Island: The Untold Story. In the extensive research he’s done on Assateague Island and maritime history in general, he has brushed up against the Wilson story a number of times. “I’m 99.9% sure that the Wilson Treasure is a hoax,” he told me. “There’s no documentation. I went through indexes of British newspapers from the time and there was nothing on a Charles Wilson.”

So the first obstacle one must overcome before locating what Wilson buried is a rather daunting one–his very existence. But that’s hardly the only roadblock to this vast fortune.  Because even if Wilson was, indeed, genuine and he happened to bury treasure on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, it’s not clear precisely where that spot would be now. Many assume the place Wilson’s letter referred to was due east of South Point, Maryland–what is today the entrance to the National Seashore part of the island. Others disagree and say it’s farther south, or that it’s not even on Assateague Island at all.

Assateague GM

But no one can be a hundred percent sure because of the very nature of barrier islands. Assateague, and all the islands that shield the Eastern Shore from the Atlantic, are constantly in a state of flux. Sands shift. Winds and waves fill in inlets or carve new ones. What is the shoreline today may move fifty yards east or west after a good storm. A woody knoll that bears the brunt of a healthy nor’easter might not be so woody or knolly afterward.

So if the treasure is there, and that’s a big if, there are no modern landmarks one can reliably use to gauge the location. For all anyone knows it could be far out to sea.

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A woody knoll and an inlet. There are many like these on Assateague Island.

We’re getting pretty far into ifs now…if Wilson existed and if he buried treasure and if somehow that “Woody Knoll” made it through two-and-a-half centuries of hurricanes. And still there are the trees. You’ll have little luck sniffing out Wilson’s “three cedar trees” because chances are high they’re long gone. The Wilson letter reputedly dates to the mid-18th century. The average lifespan of an eastern red cedar (juniperus virginiana), the species that grows on Assateague Island, is 150 years. Even if (yet another one!) those three managed to make it to the species’s maximum of 300 years, it seems likely one of the dozens of treasure hunters who’ve struck out after Wilson’s cache would have found these remarkable specimens.

Amrhein pointed out to me, too, that three old trees growing together that closely (four feet, according to Wilson’s letter) was improbable–the cedars would crowd and choke the life out of one another. And burying ten chests in between them and having all survive for long is even unlikelier still.

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A lone cedar

So where did the Charles Wilson Treasure originate? Amrhein thinks it awfully suspicious that the letter was “discovered” right about the same time that developers carved up lots on Assateague Island.  There was, in fact, a significant effort to sell residential and recreational real estate on Assateague in the mid-20th century, the same time the letter is claimed to have appeared in London.

Investors acquired fifteen linear miles of Assateague and eventually sold 5,850 lots. Radio promotions offered up to $1,000 toward a down payment on a piece of Assateague for listeners who could name mystery tunes. Developers paved a road, named “Baltimore Boulevard,” down the center of the barrier island and erected numbered street signs. The General Assembly approved construction of a bridge linking the island to the mainland. Only a devastating storm in 1962 kept Assateague from becoming a gridded and blacktopped vacation resort.

I stumbled on an interesting clue about the treasure from right around the time that the project’s backers were beginning serious efforts to develop the island. Chesapeake Bay architect and historian Frederick Tilp, referring to Wilson’s letter, claimed in a September 1948 issue of The Chesapeake Skipper that “the cedar trees are still there, the inlets are still there, so is the Atlantic Ocean, so it is supposed that the treasure’s still there. Let’s all go.”

How likely is it those trees and inlets were in the same place two hundred years after Charles Wilson chose them as landmarks for a buried treasure? Alternatively, did some 20th century author see them and think they’d be identifiable markers for an elaborate hoax?

I want to be clear here–I’m not suggesting Tilp was at all involved with any scheme. He was a respected and prolific historian. Perhaps in his short blurb about the Wilson Treasure he might have unknowingly repeated nothing more than a fabrication someone else devised to generate interest in the development of Assateague. No telling, though. Like all those who might have had firsthand knowledge of the true nature of the Wilson Treasure, Tilp carried that information to the grave.

If you’re heartbroken that Wilson’s treasure is a pipe dream, don’t give up hope yet. There are at least seven other legendary treasures nearby. I dug these up in a Washington Post article from October 5, 1984. Perhaps one of these will make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams, since Wilson’s loot probably won’t:

-Cape Henlopen, Delaware is the site of over 50 shipwrecks, some of which contained large amounts of coinage.

-Confederate Captain John Mosby reputedly buried a treasure in Culpeper, Virginia.

-A landowner might have hidden $60,000 (in 18th century money) in gold and silver coins on a farm in Fauquier County, Virginia.

-The banks of the Monacacy River south of Frederick, Maryland holds $100,000 in gold coins.

-Petersburg, Virginia might be home to large caches of money stashed during the Civil War and never recovered.

-A British frigate sunk just offshore Rehoboth, Delaware in the Atlantic sending 240,000 pounds sterling in gold coin to the bottom.

-A stash of paper currency and $20 bill plates supposedly resides underground near a creek bed in Warrenton, Virginia.

There’s also, of course, the Beale Treasure, which has enticed not only fortune seekers but cryptologists for many years.

Happy hunting…

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About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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