February 20, 2007

BRISTOL MONEY-DIGGINGS: TRUTH VS. FACTS

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“Twas after the French and Indian Wars,
As men with their precious haul
Were carrying metals and gems as loot
To Quebec and Montreal…”
--Leo Leonard Twinem A Ballad of Old Pocock

So where is the truth in all this treasure-digging business?

Admittedly, it’s a terrific story, but what, if any, are the facts behind it?

Can there be a real-life treasure in Bristol just waiting for some lucky prospector to come along? Or maybe it’s gone; secretly unearthed and covertly stolen away? After all, it would make sense not to publicize such a find. Imagine the risk.

But no such find is on record, and today the truth, like the treasure, is impossible to unearth.


Were any of the treasure-diggers real?

Apparently so. The holes are there to prove it.

And Bristol newspaperman Franklin S. Harvey claimed personal recollections of Uncle Sim Coreser, who was responsible for the Big Dig of the 1840s. Mr. Harvey recalls the last time he saw Mr. Coreser, circa 1860, when the old man returned to the site alone: "He had a few tools and was digging and prying around in his feeble way among the loose rocks. I pitied the poor old man, and freely forgave him for all the awful frights he had given me during my boyhood; for hiding behind a rock and growling like a bear; for telling me bloodcurdling stories that made my hair stand on end; for ridiculing my odd and bashful ways; all doubts I may have had of his present or former sincerity were scattered in the winds."

Uncle Sim put in his time at the site – some 12 years -- but neither he nor his crew found a thing.

It seems to me the real key to the story's legitimacy lies with the original excavator, Senor DeGrau.

Mr. Harvey claimed he had spoken with reliable people who remembered the original Money-Digger. “He cannot be called an impostor,” Mr. Harvey wrote, “for he asked no favors of anyone."

Given that he existed, dug, and did not find what his prize, his story is still improbable. It is unlikely to me that a band of roving miners -- Senor DeGrau’s father and his companions -- traveling randomly through primitive New England, would just happen to make the needle-in-a-haystack discovery of a rich silver mine while passing through Pocock, Vermont.

The story’s credibility gets more flimsy when we realize silver, like Spaniards, is not native to the Green Mountain State.

Then again, maybe somebody brought it here.

Is it far easier to suppose DeGrau and company hid something in the wilds of Bristol, then later returned to reclaim it. The fact that he was Spanish could provide a clue as to what his "treasure" might have been.

New England folklorist and historian Edward Rowe Snow speculated about this very possibility. Without getting into a confusing and convoluted blow-by-blow of the history of the Spanish ship Santa Elena y Senor San Joseph, suffice it to say that in November, 1752 she was on her way from Honduras to Spain.

The hold was loaded with treasure, including 40 chests of silver. On November 24th problems at sea forced the ship to put in near New London, Connecticut. Requests for aid and repairs were met with deceit and thievery. While at anchor most of the treasure disappeared.

What happened to it remains a mystery that will never be solved. However, it is possible that thieves, carrying an unspecified amount of silver, made their way north, eventually unburdening themselves in the wilds of Bristol before continuing on to Canada.

If that is so, then the Spaniard DeGrau may have been the one remaining member of a pirate band who returned to Vermont in 1800 to reclaim his ill gotten gains.

Though the prospect is admittedly remote, the scenario is within the realm of possibility - as possible, perhaps, as a productive silver mining and smelting operation in colonial Pocock.

The power of this solution is diminished a bit when we consider that several Vermont towns in addition to Bristol - including my hometown, Chester - boast essentially the same story of lost silver and wandering Spaniards.

But here treasure-seeker mentality clicks in: There were at least 40 chests of silver. Maybe different Spaniards deposited chests at different locations, thus accounting for many of Vermont’s, and New England’s, treasure tales (most of which involve Spaniards and buried loot).


In any event, this colorful tale does accomplish at least one thing: it introduces the concept of high seas piracy to the only New England state without a seacoast. So if DeGrau was a pirate, he was a rarity indeed.

True? Fact?

False? Fraud?

Does it really matter?

The Bristol story seems to reveal certain truths about the human character. Somewhere in the human psyche there must be a longing for the unique romance supplied by buccaneers and buried bounty. And, for even the laziest among us, the promise of instant wealth can inspire a lifetime of backbreaking labor and repeated disappointment.

Truths of a sort, without any facts to back them up.

©2007 by Joseph A. Citro