256-year-old Hell’s Half Acre treasure legend alive and well

by Lou Varricchio

Republished from the March 20 Sun Community News

BRISTOL | How a legend grows over the centuries is a subject worthy of a university dissertation. In the case of Texas lost-treasure researcher W.C. Jameson, many legends have a basis in fact but then morph, over time, into wild tales that often stretch credulity.

So, too, is the case of Vermont’s lost treasure trove, which may, or may not be, buried on the western slope of the Green Mountain range in the town of Bristol.

The so-called Hell’s Half Acre treasure of the Bristol Cliffs, a rock-slide site now inaccessible because private property blocks the way, is visible from travelers along Route 116. The Bristol Cliffs Wilderness area, formalized by Congress during the 1970s, is now a protected area within the boundary of the Green Mountain National Forest.

In recent years, ice climbers enjoy the technical challenge of ascending Bristol’s frozen winter cliffs to reach an outcrop called Devil’s Pulpit.

“A bulge of quartzite called Devil’s Pulpit, probably used by early Native American toolmakers, dominates the cliff face…,” according to the U.S. Forest Service website. “The area has no established trails, and the occasional footpaths to the cliffs are faint and hard to follow. But with a map and compass in hand, you can explore the area and find one of the least visited spots in Vermont.”

According to Jameson’s 1998 book titled, “Buried Treasures of New England” (published by August House Publishers), the Hell’s Half Acre or Bristol Money Diggings legend has been around in some form since the early 1800s.

There is a historical account of the 1765 murder of a ship’s captain and the theft of several wooden chests of gold coins from the coastal sailing trader Nebuchadnezzar.

The 1765 case occurred when the sailing vessel was at anchor in Boston harbor. The ship sailed between Nova Scotia and the Carolinas trading everything from whisky and maple syrup to lumber and turpentine. Capt. Charles Benoit, the Nebuchadnezzar’s skipper, was known to be a bit of a Captain Bligh. And from these scant facts, the crime of the ship’s stolen coin chests veered into the land of legend.

While anchored at Boston, Phillip DeGrau, identified as a sailor aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, led a group of fellow seamen in an uprising against Benoit. The captain was killed, his body tossed into the harbor, with the mutineers then rowing to shore with their stolen coin chests. The idea, so the story goes, was to take the loot overland to Quebec and escape the long arm of New England colonial law.

After absconding with horses and wagons, the mutineers escaped Massachusetts in a northwest direction. The plan was to cross into Vermont, head along the Champlain Valley, and duck into Quebec. But the men didn’t bargain for such a rough overland journey up and over hills. Finally, they were confronted by the Green Mountain range.

“By the time the seamen arrived on the west side of the Green Mountains,” Jameson writes, “they determined that to continue under the present circumstances would be impossible. They decided to hide the chests, locate another wagon to facilitate transportation of the treasure, and resume their journey. After burying… four gold-filled chests, travel slowed to a crawl. It took almost two weeks to cross the low mountain range.”

While Jameson doesn’t cite his sources, he notes that the sailors found a steep boulder field and buried the chests in a small cave, most likely a tectonic cave formed due to Ice Age frost action. Residents of the village of Pocock (later renamed Bristol) supposedly met the sailors who wanted to buy a new wagon and horses. But finding neither wagon nor horses for sale, moved on to the north by foot. That is the last we hear of the Nebuchadnezzar’s mutineers.

By the late 1800s, sporadic searches for the lost coin chests were reported in various Vermont newspapers. People dug holes and moved boulders around the Bristol Cliffs rock slide. The Bristol Money Diggings grew to become a part of Vermont’s rich history of folklore.

New England folklorist Edward Rowe Snow believed the legend began in 1752 when the Spanish vessel Santa Elena y Senor San Joseph was anchored in New London, Connecticut. Why? Well, a local news account of the theft of chests of silver from the ship gave Rowe Snow the idea that it might have a connection with Bristol’s Hell’s Half Acre rock slide.

An 1880s booklet written by old-time Bristol Herald editor Franklin S. Harvey, titled “The Money Diggers”, purports to be the true story of the lost treasure.

Long out of print, Harvey’s account tells of treasure seekers exploring the steep, dangerous slopes of the Bristol Cliffs. He describes a treasure hunter named Uncle Sim who spent years in search of the lost chests amid the jumble of the Bristol Cliffs rock slide. Harvey reported, via stories he heard in Bristol over the years, that mutineer DeGrau returned in 1800 to look for the Nebuchadnezzar chests.

But take all of this talk of lost treasure in Vermont with a grain of salt. Various diggers have searched the Bristol Cliffs for its supposed treasure over many decades — and their reward has remained just as elusive as the more celebrated treasure-seekers of Oak Island, Nova Scotia.

The facts that historians seek behind a legend, inevitably, become malleable by oral tradition over long years, forged into wonderful tales that satisfy storytellers and seekers of treasure alike. Like so many enduring legends and mysteries, the “truth” is probably out there — somewhere — just over the rainbow.

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