New Hampshire’s Isles of Shoals

Finding New England's Shipwrecks and Treasures

The improbable names of Appledore, Smuttynose, Lunging, Cedar, White, Star, and Duck make up the small windswept islands known as the Isles of Shoals, located ten miles off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

I have visited these islands many times within the last 30 years, each time searching for treasure. Most of my activities there have been underwater, combing the surrounding turbulent sea for the remains of old Spanish ships. The sea bottom around the Isles is covered with thick ribbony kelp, flowing from rock gullies that drop off from 20 feet to depths of 200 feet or more. Although I have never found even a splinter of wood from the treasure laden galleons, there is no doubt that they are there, possibly in deeper water than where I was hunting, or perfectly concealed within the kelp beds. I have also concluded that all the time I spent searching the sea bottom might have been better spent looking for treasure on the islands with a metal detector, for the bulk of treasure found at the Isles thus far has been dug up from the earth. Although the islands are mostly rocky and have little sand or dirt covering them, the silver bars and coins that have been recovered were either buried by pirates, or swept up from the depths during storms and deposited onto the islands.

The Isles of Shoals of today are as explorer Captain John Smith found them in 1614, “heaped together with none others near them, and many a barren rock, the most overgrown with shrubs, but without either grass or wood.” Smith did mention in his diary that he saw “three short shrubby old cedars,” and one man tried to start an apple orchard there in the 19th century, but today there are just a few shrubby trees on the Isles.

Many pirate ships visited the Isles in the late 17th and throughout the 18th centuries. Old records seem to indicate that the few fishermen who lived on the larger islands fed and indulged these “gentlemen of fortune” in every way. Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, was a periodic visitor to the Isles, as were Ned Low, William Kidd, and Black Sam Bellamy of WHYDAH fame. Phillip Babb — one of Captain Kidd’s first mates — settled on Appledore Island soon after Kidd was sent off to England in chains to be hanged. According to New Hampshire historian Oscar Laighton: “When Babb first came to Appledore there was a large excavation at the head of the cove,” near Babb’s house. “Babb made a big effort to dig up something, The pit he made was thirty feet across and ten feet deep, as I remember it, but the place was filled up level in the great storm of 1851.” Early in this century the Coast Guard built a boathouse over the spot of Babb’s treasure pit.

In 1720, Blackbeard was almost captured at the Isles by a British warship. He and his crew had stopped off at Star Island to replenish their food supply, but were forced into a hasty retreat when the British ship came into view. They departed in such a hurry that Blackbeard left his girlfriend Martha Herring behind. She, according to legend, remained at the Isles for 15 years, awaiting the return of her ferocious lover. He never showed up, and she died of heartbreak at White Island in 1735.

In 1950, Life Magazine published a story that pirate Captain Quelch buried a treasure of $100,000 in gold and silver at the Isles, but the magazine article did not divulge the source of this information. It is well documented, however, that Quelch in his brig CHARLES, did frequent the Isles during the late 17th century. Although most of his pirate crew escaped at Marblehead, Massachusetts, he and a few of the crew were captured after a brief visit to the Isles and hanged at Boston in 1704.

Only one person lived on Smuttynose Island in 1813, and that was Sam Haley. On stormy nights he would keep lanterns burning in the windows of his home that faced the open sea. The lights, he hoped, would help vessels avoid the treacherous shoals. On the morning of January 15, 1813, Sam found the frozen body of a ship-wrecked sailor lying in the drifting snow in front of his house. The Spanish sailor had dropped dead from exposure only a few feet from his front door. In the night, a Spanish galleon heading for Spain from Portsmouth hit Cedar Island Ledge, only a few hundred yards from Sam Haley’s home. Sam had slept soundly through the stormy night, not hearing the ripping of timbers as the galleon was crushed by the rocks, nor the screams of the frightened Spaniards. Only 14 bodies washed ashore: there were no survivors. Grave markers covered with weed and a crude rock monument still stand in memory of these unknown Spaniards on the wind-swept island of Smuttynose. There had been 28 crewmen aboard the 400 ton galleon CONCEPTION, under the command of don Juan Coxava, when she wrecked that night, but even well into this century there was confusion as to whether it was the Spanish vessel SAGUNTO, or the Cadiz galleon CONCEPTION that wrecked off Sam Haley’s house. Both had traveled up the coast from the West Indies to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to add dried fish to their cargos, and both had slipped out of port heading for Spain on the night of January 14th. The SAGUNTO apparently made it by the Isles and put into Newport, Rhode Island, rather than sailing out the storm, so says historian Samuel Adams Drake, but the CONCEPTION disappeared, and it is thought to be this vessel that had crashed into Cedar Island Ledge. For ten days after the storm, much wreckage drifted ashore at the Eastern point of Smuttynose and into the wash between Smuttynose and Appledore Islands: raisins, oranges, wood, cloth, clothes, and a few silver pieces-of-eight.

It was three years after the shipwreck, in 1816, that Sam Haley, Jr. — old Sam’s son — got permission from the Massachusetts legislature to build, “a sufficient sea-wall around the dock where the said Haley now lives.” While building this seawall that connects Smuttynose with Cedar Island, providing a harbor between these islands, Sam Haley Jr. found four silver bars. They were hidden under rocks on the island’s south beach. He sold them for $4,000. It was this find that started people thinking that the CONCEPTION carried a cargo more fruitful than oranges and raisins. The bars could have been hidden by pirates, but most thought they had washed onto the beach from the 1813 wreck.

In 1901, while she was vacationing on Star Island, Mrs. James Allen found three Spanish gold doubloons dated 1600, which had probably been washed up in a storm from a Spanish galleon that wrecked near the northside cliffs facing Halfway Rocks in 1685. A church was built on the southwest side of Star Island from the wood that washed ashore from this wreck, and part of this church is still standing today.

From 1865 through 1869, blackened Spanish coins of silver washed ashore on the southside beach at Appledore Island, facing Smuttynose, and until a few of the coins were cleaned, it was thought that they came from the CONCEPTION; but they all dated in the 1700s, over 100 years before the CONCEPTION sank. Possibly another unknown Spanish vessel carrying treasure from South America or the West Indies, wrecked at the Isles near Appledore Island in the 18th century. Codfish and other local fish, salted and dried by the fishermen of Portsmouth and the Isles, were a great favorite of the Spanish. In fact, many Spanish ships laden with treasures from the tropical New World would stop off at New Hampshire before traveling on to the Old World with their gold, silver, and dried fish to please the King of Spain.

Illustrative Map, Isles of Shoals

In 1870, a clay pot with 60 Spanish silver coins in it was dug up on Star Island. This, without a doubt, was the hidden catch of some old pirate. There were probably many other pots filled with treasure dug up at the Isles that nobody but the finder knows about.

There is only one snug harbor at the Isles, called Gosport, surrounded by Smuttynose, Cedar, and Star Islands. Here, scuba divers from Portsmouth recently found a few fistfuls of coins, some brass and copper, and a few silver. Because one or two were dated in the early 1800’s, it is thought that they washed into the harbor from Cedar Island Ledge before Sam Haley built his seawall. However, since many of these coins are British, they are probably from still another unknown or forgotten shipwreck off the Isles.

There are a few houses, mostly summer cottages, on the bigger islands at the Isles of Shoals, a rickety old wooden hotel on Star Island, and a lighthouse on White Island. Otherwise the Isles are deserted — except, of course, for the ghosts of Phillip Babb and Martha Herring, who respectively guard the buried treasures of Captain Kidd and Blackbeard. There is, without doubt, much of value to be recovered from these islands, on land and in the surrounding sea. If New England, like the West Indies and Nova Scotia, would like to claim fame to its own genuine treasure islands, they are New Hampshire’s Isles of Shoals.

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