Dennis Flynn takes us on an adventurous romp around Newfoundland and Labrador, chasing down leads on pirates and rumours of their buried treasure.
The road from Deadman’s Bay is behind me and a stiff breeze blows cartwheels of green sea foam that kiss the strand before retreating to the ocean. It is a wild old day when I run into the legendary Cat Cove pirate Billy Murrin, who was most famous in what is now the Cape Freels and Lumsden area of Newfoundland and Labrador. He regards me with cold eyes beneath a hat that would make Long John Silver proud; a brace of ornate daggers and a menacing pistol adorn a belt crossing his chest. His ruby-hilted sword stuck into a treasure chest at his foot punctuates the premise that whatever loot he plundered he intends to keep, so come near at your peril.
Fortunately, he’s only a lifelike statue in the overly romanticized style of piracy popularized in Hollywood movies, placed outside Rich’s Convenience Plus by shopkeeper Richard Parsons. The legend of pirate Billy Murrin has been told in Richard’s family for generations, and he and his wife recently decided to give him more of a profile in town.
“Of course, this statue looks a bit more like a Captain Morgan ad or something from the movies than the real Billy Murrin, but we wanted something to be a symbol,” says Richard, who explains they bought the statue from a seller in Kensington, PEI. “The story is that nobody knows where the real Billy Murrin came from sometime in the mid-1880s, and he was a quite a mystery as a bit of drinker and a salver [an old expression for one who salvages ships], and was supposed to have a large treasure of some kind, perhaps taken from fellow pirates, hidden somewhere. One of the local folks who looked after Billy in later years, perhaps hoping for some financial reward before he died, was chatting with him one evening and Billy asked her, ‘Can you keep a secret?’ She grew very excited, thinking he was about to reveal the location of the treasure, and said, ‘Yes, I can keep a secret, Mr. Murrin!’ To which Billy replied, ‘Aye, and so can I.’ So whatever the treasure was, he never told and it is still here to be found. There were so many shipwrecks in the Lumsden area, with all the storms and shifting sandbars and hidden reefs, so who knows what the sea may reveal in the future.”
This holds true all over the province. Go into almost any outport and linger for a day or so chatting with locals. They may share a story of shipwrecks or salvation from the sea, or lost travellers taken or legendary tasks tendered, but there can be no more fantastic and captivating tales than those with a hint of pirate treasure.
The enormous popularity of books, movies and even the History Channel TV series “The Curse of Oak Island” (now in its seventh season) attests to the universal appeal of the search for hidden riches. While “The Curse of Oak Island” follows brothers Rick and Marty Lagina as they attempt to crack the Oak Island mystery that has puzzled adventurers for over two centuries and reach a treasure believed to be buried on the small island off the coast of Nova Scotia, similar lesser-known tales abound in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Most hard evidence of any pirate-related treasure in the province is lost to time and there are rules related to such hunts. So enjoy these sites of local legends shared with me and others, but take their tales of treasure with more than a grain of sea salt. The real undiscovered treasure is not coins or currency of any kind, but spectacular scenery, sensational stories, and an excuse to safely explore for fun these places through which pirates are said to have passed.
Easton’s treasure in Harbour Grace
The best-known Newfoundland pirate was perhaps Peter Easton, and his story can be explored at the Conception Bay Regional Museum in Harbour Grace.
Local historian and author Patrick Collins says, “According to writings by Governor Mason and found in Prowse’s History of Newfoundland, we know that Peter Easton was here by 1612, and fortified somewhere in this area,” he says, indicating a section of coastline running from Point of Beach, passing near the former 1870 brick Customs House that is now the museum building, and ending near Ugly Head.
“There are all kinds of stories about how Easton came here and one is that Queen Elizabeth I requisitioned him to come as part of the navy, but while he was here the war ended with France. So finding he had nothing to do, he realized a lot more could be made by building his own army of fishermen and attacking the French and Spanish and Basques.”
He adds, “Now a lot of this is lore and can’t be proven historically without much more archeological research, but we do know that Easton captured Sir Richard Whitbourne and kept him prisoner for 11 weeks, attempting to get him to join him in piracy. Whitbourne refused, but did eventually manage to help get Easton a pardon.
“There is another great folklore story of Easton sailing into Harbour Grace harbour with the captured Spanish vessel San Sebastian in tow. Easton saw that the flags on his fort were in the wrong order and realized his stronghold had been captured. Five Basque ships sailed across the mouth of the harbour to blockade him, but Easton knew the harbour and the winds better and was able to escape. In the process he fired on and sank the Basque ship St. Malo somewhere near Easton [also called “Easter” or “Eastern”] Rock close to the Harbour Grace islands. Somewhere ashore it was said 47 pirates were buried in a mass unmarked grave, but the exact location remains a mystery.”
Other local legends claim that after Easton left Newfoundland for good in 1618, he captured treasure ships en route to Europe, got his pardon, and retired a very wealthy man in France with the title of Marquis of Savoy. Some say he buried treasure somewhere in Newfoundland, perhaps Harbour Grace or surrounding islands (or the Southern Shore, by some accounts), before departing, but owing to his great fortune later in life, he never returned to claim it.
Plunder plot in Port de Grave
The Green Point lighthouse area near Port de Grave has been the site of much speculation about buried pirate treasure - in particular, the Peter Easton plunder he supposedly hid before attempting to break a blockade of ships at nearby Harbour Grace. The short trail to the iron tower of the 1883 Green Point lighthouse at the very tip of the Port de Grave peninsula is a favourite site for berry pickers and hikers.
Where there are ships, is there treasure?
Happy Adventure, near Eastport, shares its name with Peter Easton’s flagship (a model of his vessel Happy Adventure is on display in the Harbour Grace museum). For this reason, the community has made the list of possible Easton hiding places. Oderin, an island in Placentia Bay, sometimes also gets named as a hiding spot for pirate treasure, as bits and pieces of non-native woods were said to be found there - perhaps from ship building or repairs more so than hidden chests, but who knows for sure?
Unnamed and unclaimed
An area of Sandy Cove (also near Eastport) was supposedly called “Silver Buckle” after an unspecified pirate who buried his treasure there. Close by, tiny St. Chad’s (near Salvage) was once supposedly known as “Damnable,” since a pirate ship in hiding there was captured when the ship’s bell accidentally rang out, alerting the enemy, to which the pirate captain allegedly said, “Damn the bell!” Further afield, likewise in the category of unnamed pirates, somewhere on the South Coast between Boxey and Deadman’s Bight there is said to be hidden pirate treasure. As well, Baccalieu Island and Old Perlican islands are claimed to hold their own unfound and unspecified pirate treasures.
Bounty in Conception Bay
Kelly’s Island in Conception Bay, said to be the base of Irish pirate John Kelly, has a number of treasure and ghost stories associated with it - as do nearby Bell Island and Little Bell Island. As is par for the course, details are scanty, but pro diver Rick Stanley of Ocean Quest Adventure Resort in Conception Bay South keeps an open mind. “Just because it hasn’t turned up yet doesn’t mean it won’t,” he says. I joined Rick and other scuba divers, kayakers and more volunteers to clean up the main beaches on Kelly’s Island in June 2008. And while there may not be much remaining hard evidence of John Kelly himself, there is a very distinctive bum-shaped rock along the edge of the island that has gotten the nickname of “Kelly’s Arse.” Divers and adventurers sometimes go ashore to have a good-natured photo with it. Even a pirate can be the butt of a joke now and then.
In James Cove (an abandoned section of the community of Colliers), ghosts are said to guard Captain Kidd’s treasure. Local prospectors ran into some troubles hunting for it 50-70 years ago and it resulted in an anonymous humorous recitation called “Captain Kidd’s Treasure.” There is no evidence that the Scottish privateer-turned-pirate William Kidd (1645-1701) ever made it to this location or elsewhere in the province. It’s a fanciful tale, adopting a well-known pirate name, to warn adventurers against the dangers of strange expeditions late at night.
Turk’s Gut (in present-day Marysvale) is named for an encounter with a Turkish pirate. There is even an outdoor pirate mural and a “Turkish Spring Water” fresh water spring near the Heritage House. On the right days and in calm seas, caves and arches come into evidence from the ocean side. And if you know where to look, so does a turbaned pirate head in the cliff face, making this a favoured location for experienced and prepared sea kayakers.
What remains in Red Bay
Hauntingly beautiful in its starkness, Red Bay, Labrador has a wonderful hiking trail that leads to a pond atop Tracey Hill. This spot is said to hide Captain Kidd’s pirate treasure and
is supposedly guarded by a ghostly protector.
Hiding in the Humber
Just outside Corner Brook near Marble Mountain Ski Resort, a buried treasure is said to rest on Shellbird Island in the Humber River. “The Old Man in the Mountain,” a natural, scowling face in the cliff looking down on the island, is said to be a marker for the treasure. An information board at the exit off the Trans-Canada Highway will help you find the “Old Man” as he stares down from the confines of Breakfast Mountain.
- by Dennis Flynn
Listen to the Downhome podcast episode that accompanies this story here.