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Clues to Pirate Gold Unearthed in Florida, Treasure Hunters Claim

Willie Drye in Fowler's Bluff, Florida
for National Geographic News
March 15, 2007
 
Treasure hunters digging on a remote bluff overlooking Florida's Suwannee River claim they have found tantalizing evidence that pirate gold might be at the bottom of a muddy, 13-foot (4-meter) hole.

"We've found mahogany wood samples, flecks of gold, and gold all over the diver's dive suit [after diving in the hole]," said Tommy Todd, a St. Petersburg landscaper who owns the property being excavated.

Workers drilling at the site said they also found a sheet of gold wrapped around the drill bit when they withdrew it. Todd was not immediately able to show evidence of these finds.

"We know there's something down there," he said.

Todd and his partners, whom he declined to name, may be closing in on a treasure that—according to local lore—was buried in the area some 200 years ago by Jean LaFitte.

LaFitte roamed the Gulf of Mexico in the early 19th century as a smuggler and privateer, though he reportedly described himself an entrepreneur and defender of American freedom.

The spot near Fowler's Bluff, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) upriver from where the Suwannee meets the Gulf, was a likely hangout for LaFitte and such notorious colleagues as Jose Gaspar, Billy "Bowlegs" Rogers, and Black Caesar (see map of the Suwannee River).

Todd thinks LaFitte may have left treasure chests on the property.

"We're close to it," Todd said. "There are some interesting things going on. Our goal is to wrap up this year."

Excavations "For Years and Years"

Whatever might be at the bottom of the hole, pulling it out will be tricky.

Beneath the mushy, silt-laden soil lies a "Swiss cheese honeycomb" of limestone, Todd said.

If there is treasure down there, it's slowly settling deeper, Todd said. The earlier drilling may have burst the treasure chest and scattered its contents into the ooze, he added.

The property is several hundred feet from where three or four previous excavations were made. Until 2000 that land was owned by Bill Wise, who operated a small waterfront bar there.

Having heard the lore of LaFitte's gold, Wise and a Baptist minister used a metal detector to make several futile searches for the treasure. Wise sold the property in 2000, in part because he grew tired of treasure seekers knocking on his door.

He told National Geographic News he didn't really expect to find buried loot on his former property.

"It was a good advertisement thing for the bar, but I never put much faith in [finding the treasure]," he said. "I knew all these people had been trying for years and years."

Hidden in Gainesville Mansion?

The stories of previous searches are shrouded in legend and secrecy, but at least one early treasure hunter, a sawmill operator named Emmett Baird, may have struck gold on the land Wise once owned.

In June 1945 The Saturday Evening Post published a story about the lore of the Suwannee's pirate gold.

In 1897, the story said, a dying old man whom Baird had befriended gave him a map that prompted Baird and his business partner to hasten down to the Suwannee.

After three months of excavations at Fowler's Bluff, Baird announced that he was abandoning the dig.

But his behavior led some to believe that he may have pulled something out of the hole. Baird soon began investing in businesses in Gainesville, including a bank and a hardware store that became one of the largest in Florida (see map of Florida).

In 1900 he also bought one of Gainesville's finest mansions. Speculation that Baird had used LaFitte's treasure to make these investments swirled around him for the rest of his life.

So did stories that he'd hidden some of the gold on his Gainesville property.

Today Baird's home is a bed-and-breakfast owned by Cindy and Joe Montaldo. Like Bill Wise at Fowler's Bluff, they've had people knocking on their door asking about LaFitte's treasure.

One such visitor was the home's previous owner, who told the couple that he had searched the house for the legendary gold. He claimed that he and a friend had scanned one of the fireplaces with a metal detector, and the device "went crazy," Cindy Montaldo said.

"He and his friend looked at each other, then they both started destroying the fireplace," she said.

All they found, however, was a large piece of scrap iron that had been used in constructing the fireplace.

Lost Lore

The Montaldos bought the house in 1990 and began extensive renovations that included removing all the old walls. They didn't find any treasure.

Local historian Melanie Barr told the couple that she'd found nothing to substantiate the story that Baird had bought the house with pirate's treasure.

Even Baird's descendants are divided on the treasure tale, with one group saying he found treasure and another saying he didn't.

The world may never know whether Emmett Baird hauled a fortune away from the Suwannee, or whether Jean LaFitte ever left anything there at all.

But Tommy Todd said he hopes to announce the results of his treasure search by this fall.

"It's time for those damn pirates to give it up," Todd said.

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