Is there any such thing as a pirate treasure map? Somewhat surprisingly, if you ask just about any academic or maritime historian with an interest in the subject, the chances are they’ll tell you no. In short, the mainstream position is that they’re all fakes, tall tales concocted by scammers to extract money from the greedy and gullible.

Well… I don’t deny that there’s an awful lot of truth in that, insofar as it does often seem that the pirate treasure hunting world (industry?) is populated almost entirely by only two classes of people – the scammers and the scammed.

But over the last year or so, I’ve been researching two very different claimed strands of pirate treasure history – the (alleged) William Kidd maps and the (alleged) Olivier Levasseur (‘La Buse’) maps. (Yes, it turns out that there are at least two versions of the Levasseur / Le Butin cryptogram… but this is all terrifically murky.) And what I’ve found is that just saying “it ain’t so” doesn’t really do these histories justice – the stories behind all of them are simply fascinating.

Anyway, seeing as International Talk Like A Pirate Day is coming up shortly, what I’ve decided to do is give an evening talk on pirate treasure maps to give all this new material a bit of a public airing.

So if you like history and/or pirates or you’re secretly an armchair treasure hunter, I’ve got some great stories for you about these mysterious pirate treasure maps you won’t have heard of or read about. I’m really looking forward to it, and I hope a good few of you can come along and be entertained.

It’s being held on Sunday 15th September 2013 at the Cornerhouse Community Arts Centre in Surbiton (not far from the A3) at 7.30pm (though the doors and the bar open at 7pm). I’ve set up the ticketing via my friend Glenn Shoosmith’s startup BookingBug, and you can book through the nifty WordPress widget in the top right of the page.

I’ll post a bit more about this as the date approaches, but that should be enough to be going on with – hope to see you there! 🙂

18 thoughts on “Pirate Treasure Maps – Does X Mark The Spot?

  1. Andrew Scott Bear on August 9, 2013 at 11:44 am said:

    Greetings, Nick!
    Sounds like great fun. Any chance you’ll video the presentation and make it available here on Cipher Mysteries–for us Yanks across the pond who are unable to travel to the evening event?

  2. bdid1dr on August 9, 2013 at 4:20 pm said:

    What! No pub meeting this time? Even with the gallows outside the front door? Ennyway, this meeting sounds like it will be suitable enough to bring your child with you. Perhaps you’ll dazzle ’em all with the contents of the treasure if you’ve located Le Buse’s? Cheers!

  3. Highly unlikely, as literacy of pirates was rare. The last thing you would want to have on if you were caught is something written down. If you see an X it is probably a signature.


  5. bdid1dr on August 15, 2013 at 10:04 pm said:

    OK “X”plor — where’d yuh stash it! It’s all a cons-piracy — I jes’ know it! Nick, has “X” plor already disovered it? Jes’ another yankee across the pond from u !

    bdid1dr (who wore a patch over her “good” eye” for six months, post surgical intervention for “cross-eye”, when she was six years old. First grade at school was hell!.

  6. bdid1dr on August 19, 2013 at 9:36 pm said:

    Amen to Scott’s query/hope/ for “any chance” of a video of your “Pirate Presentation”! Keep in mind that we had more than a few pirates on this side of the pond. (I’m not counting Johnny Depp’s “gang” but please pardon the plentiful punny pirate phraseology popping up and poking my awful sense of humor!)

  7. bdid1dr on August 19, 2013 at 9:49 pm said:

    Pardon my not using your full name while posting, Bear. Trying to keep controversy to a minimum.

  8. bdid1dr on August 19, 2013 at 9:58 pm said:


    Piratese translator, eh? Do you remember the slang ROFL’ng? Well — I’m having difficulty getting back to my feet, much less my chair! Thanx a lot! 🙂

  9. Tricia on August 20, 2013 at 10:52 am said:

    Needs posts.

  10. @ bdid1dr: Is it a map you be seeking or treasure ? To find treasure you need a metal detector and look near the ports. If you find a privy look for the full bottle of rum I dropped.

  11. bdid1dr on September 4, 2013 at 2:30 pm said:

    @ xplor: yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of “rum”? Don’t need a map for that. My husband is all the treasure I need (he is very much a “bower bird”).

  12. oooh you might be surprised. Based on “recent” defined (could be over a period of time) treasure finds in predictable places: eg , on the bottom of the seas, known trade route for trans of gold, silver and other defined valued art effects. These treasures could have been displaced by the such of natural events, such as weather or by sheer weight of the bounty. Not to exclude pariats who are historically known to hide bounty off shore. Give rise rise to authanic pirate treasure maps.

  13. Nick, I hope you had a great evening at 116…..and that nobody got lost. Did you ever get around to checking out my reference to Mel Fisher and the years he spent researching the archives of the royal court of Spain? He found the wreck of the “Atocha” and “mined” it clean. Several billion bucks worth of bullion and coins alone. The state of Florida took a huge chunk. Mel’s son and daughter-in-law were killed when the dredging equipment overturned and collapsed.
    In more recent years, treasure hunters have found the “Atocha’s” sister ship. I’m writing this essay on this page because I think it validates my thinking: “Who are the pirates in the various European treasure trove disappearances?”

  14. Nick: The question of whether or not there might be such a thing as a genuine treasure map is the subject of a book (or series of books) I wrote and published some 15 years back, and re-published about the time you were giving your talk. I’m sorry I missed it.

    In the process of my research, I delved into the life and times of Harold T. Wilkins, and while sympathetic with your view didn’t end up with the same impression of the man. He was eccentric, certainly, and in his early years he was touched by the gold bug, trying to make a living from popularising piracy and treasure maps. Of course, in this, he was prone to exaggeration! In his second phase of writing he was touched by thoughts of Lt.Col. Percy Fawcett, and in his third he was touched by Area 51. Overall, then, this is the impression generally held of the man. Touched!

    The real story of the Palmer and Wilkins maps is convoluted, and goes back beyond the 1930s. My take on the Palmer-Kidd and Wilkins-Kidd maps is that they are genuinely and consistently cryptic, part of the same set (of seven maps) and may well work in conjunction with the ground markers on Oak Island, Nova Scotia, scene of a 200 year-old treasure hunt.

    Whether or not there ever was a treasure on Oak Island I don’t know, but there’s just a chance that there was, and, if this be or were so, then there may truly be such a thing as a treasure map.

    In my view, the key to deciphering these Kidd maps is:

    Apply the first set of directions to the ground markers to form three points of a triangle.
    Locate the centre of the triangle.
    From this point take an offset, as indicated by the concluding instruction.

    The offset mostly has three components: a, b and c. The required length is a + b + ac. So, ‘three feet by three feet by FOUR’ is eighteen feet, and ‘7 feet by 7 feet by 8′ is 70 feet.

    The seven maps thereby identify seven regularly spaced points forming a ‘W’ on an extended rhombus. My thought is that the centre of this figure is the focus of attention, as in the image below.

    However, such is the scepticism and prejudice against treasure maps that I’ve been unable to get anyone to take this seriously enough to test it. But how often do you get to crack a cipher, or solve a puzzle, if you deny such a thing exists or is incapable of solution?

    For background to the maps see also

  15. nickpelling on June 7, 2016 at 6:45 am said:

    Geoff: from my point of view, the biggest challenge with pirates, treasure maps and historical ciphers is unpicking all the make-believe layers people seem so compelled to cumulatively slather on top of them. In each case, the effort required to get to the stage where you are sure that what you’re looking at is a genuine historical artefact is nothing short of daunting.

    With the Kidd maps, I’d happily agree that there may well be some core truth hidden underneath it all: but I’d also be somewhat surprised if the whole set proved to be completely genuine. Where should the line be drawn… and how? They’re hard questions, with answers that are painfully slow in coming.

  16. Nick: concerning the problems of treasure maps in general I’d agree with you, but perhaps we’re conditioned into drawing the line higher than is needed for rational assessment due to the emotions that treasure maps evoke.

    The well-known author Edward Rowe Snow found a pirate ‘treasure’ of a skeletal handful of gold and silver coins from interpreting the instructions on a pirate treasure map, and then testing the result. His expedition may have been only partially successful because the instructions were not specific enough to pinpoint the location of the main hoard.

    On another occasion, he discovered a rotting box of gold and silver coins by assuming that instructions he found in a straightforward book cipher were genuine. So, your question is actually answered. Treasure maps do exist, even pirate treasure maps, and this fact can be discovered by believing in them.

    In the case of the Kidd maps, I’m simply surprised that five sets of instructions can be applied in a consistent manner to ground features discovered after the maps came to light and produce a regular pattern of points.

    When this happens, my reaction is that, “this bears investigation,” rather than, “this can’t be correct because the maps have a dubious provenance,” or, “this seems too good to be true.”

    Cracking a cipher requires belief in it. Once you’ve cracked it you can decide whether the message it provides is genuine, but this might require a test – and belief in the viability of such. Perhaps, we’re actually in danger of conditioning ourselves not to crack the cipher.

    In the case of the Kidd maps, the actual pieces of paper are irrelevant, it’s the information they convey that’s important. The maps could be copies of copies of copies, the cipher text could have been used in a scam, but that doesn’t necessarily make the information provided of no use whatsoever.

    We’re doing this all the time with ciphers. We say, “this could be a hoax, but the cipher is there so let’s assume it’s genuine and try to crack it.” You’ve done this yourself, here, but we hesitate to do so with the instructions on treasure maps. Why? Presumably, because treasure maps are generally problematic, and widely considered to be a thing of fiction. We’re preconditioned. In this sense, we’re mildly prejudiced, and maybe some authors also don’t want to appear irrational in the eyes of others.

    Harold Wilkins possessed several of what he had very good reason to believe were genuine sets of instructions for locating treasure deposits. He put three of these onto maps of his own making, and suddenly these instructions become bogus! Two of them were used in a possible scam, but for that reason they become fanciful! This just doesn’t necessarily follow.

    Wilkins published the instructions in his possession because Palmer refused to allow him to publish his. Wilkins was looking for the island these instructions applied to, and so he also published its outline elsewhere in his book, and asked his readers, “where is this island?” Gilbert Hedden told him. It’s Oak Island.

    Treasure maps are notorious for interpretations dreamed up out of nothing, but, as a recent TV series has demonstrated, you don’t know whether the proposed solution is fanciful or not unless you look. We all know this. You don’t crack a cipher unless you believe it really might be cracked.

    The message surely is that we won’t discover whether treasure maps exist unless we’re prepared to concede that they really could. So, it may be that most researchers are not yet in that state of mind to discover whether this particular type of cipher (the treasure map) truly exists, because they’re altogether too reluctant to believe it does.

    I’m simply observing that applying a crib to five ciphers (treasure map instructions) reveals a meaningful message. So, the next thing to do is to examine the plaintext, which surely means testing it rather than observing that the result is surprising.

    So, was my failure to convince the people involved that a test of the message produced would be meaningful a consequence of a procedural error on my part (which wasn’t even looked at) or the fact that people are conditioned into believing that treasure maps don’t exist? I believe it’s the latter. People generally don’t feel a need to see and assess the supporting evidence because they’ve already made up their minds on the matter.

    I’m simply observing that maybe the bar should be set such that we’re prepared totally to suspend disbelief in order to proceed with investigation. This is what Edward Rowe Snow did, and he found treasure. In my view, any other way of proceeding is unlikely to produce answers.

    The evidence is that treasure maps, and particularly pirate treasure maps, do exist. It’s then a matter of assessing individual cases. You’re disinclined to believe that the Kidd maps could all be genuine and part of a set. I believe that there’s potential evidence of such, and that the possibility deserves to be tested. Let’s agree to differ.

    Maybe it’s change that’s slow in coming, not the answers. It does seem to me in the case of the Kidd maps that the answers have widely been decided without having done the research and testing required to make an informed judgement on the matter.

  17. nickpelling on June 7, 2016 at 3:24 pm said:

    Geoff: I think I’m going to have to try to unpick many of the threads you have put forward here in a separate post – trying to deal with them all in a single comment is just not going to be sensibly possible. 🙂

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