Shipload of Gold Buried in Aroostook County
By Dena L. Winslow, Ph.D.
Copyright 2021

Introduction

Legends and stories have been around since Man first began to speak. They are transmitted orally and are best told in that format by a skilled storyteller. The stories change over time as details are left out and others added by different storytellers, sort of like the game of “telephone” where one person whispers something into the ear of another person, who whispers what they heard into the ear of the next person and so on… until at last the final person in the game reveals what was said to them – usually to peals of laughter from the participants when they hear something entirely different from what was originally said. 

Occasionally stories and legends are written down. When that happens, they tend to be taken as factual – even if they are not. And, the “facts” presented in the written version of a story tend to be repeated in future versions as they become part of the story – re-told from one author to the next. After all, what is written down MUST be true, right?

These stories usually begin as some actual event or happening, and are transformed over time into something else entirely. While there are many examples of that right here in Aroostook County, one example is the legend of the Quaker church in Fort Fairfield which is claimed to have been the “last stop on the Underground Railroad.” In spite of these claims, there is no actual historical record linking the church to the Underground Railroad except for the fact that it was a Quaker church. Quakers were known to believe in the equality of all people, so they did then, and still do today, help the less fortunate. Certainly they would have assisted slaves escaping to Canada to gain their freedom in southern Maine where they would have been close to the Canadian border.

However, the likelihood that any slave would have traveled all the way to Fort Fairfield to cross the border into Canada is remote indeed, and makes no sense when they could easily cross into Canada far South of Fort Fairfield and gain their freedom and safety much sooner. While they remained in the US they were vulnerable to re-capture and whatever horrible fate awaited them for their attempts to flee the bonds of slavery. Thus, it is extremely unlikely that any slaves came to Fort Fairfield to cross the border into Canada, and there is not a shred of historical evidence that would indicate that they did. It is equally extremely unlikely that the former Quaker church in Fort Fairfield was ever part of the Underground Railroad as has been claimed and written down in history books. Now that it has been written down as fact by some writers in the area, it is believed to be true, and continues to be passed on as fact when it is actually made-up fiction!

In spite of the actual facts, a story and legend has grown up that the church was the last stop on the Underground Railroad (like so very many other places also claim to be), and it is presented as fact. Beyond that, on the Canadian side of the border, a business has developed providing tours of a “trail” supposed to be the trail the slaves took when leaving the church in Fort Fairfield and entering into Canada. For a fee, a participant can walk the trail and learn about “what happened there” when in fact, no slaves are known to have ever traveled that way into Canada on their escape from slavery. But, people want to believe… so they pay their money and take the “tour.” It is doubtful if any of the paying customers ever question the truth of the “story.” 

Shipload of Gold Buried in Aroostook County

Like most legends, there is very likely a shred of truth to the story of the shipload of gold buried in Aroostook County, what that shred of truth may be is hard to determine at this time. But, it is a really good yarn and is well told by W. T. Ashby in his “A Complete History of Aroostook County and its Early and Late Settlers,” published in the Mars Hill View newspaper from December 23, 1909 to October 6, 1910. Following is the legend that W. T. Ashby tells:

(Note to the reader – some of the language that is used is not appropriate for today’s standards, however, Ashby’s language is used here as he wrote it in 1909).

War Not Ended

The long, and bloody French and Indian war did not quite end with the fall of Quebec. Montreal was still in the hands of the French, and an army and fleet was being mustered to try to recapture Quebec.

In the summer of 1760, an English packet ship was sent over with money to pay the British soldiers in America. Its destination was Quebec. After safely crossing the Atlantic it ran into a fleet of French war ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and narrowly escaped being captured. It was finally chased into the Bay of Fundy, and bottled up under the big guns of the Forts of St. John. Some 12,000 pounds of this money was to go to the English and Colonial army at Quebec, and the rest was to be carried in some manner to the Great Lakes and other western forts.

Start with Gold

The Paymaster, who had charge of the money, after looking at some maps, decided to make an attempt to cross the wilderness of Maine and reach Quebec overland. He had learned that the Indians had all been killed a short time ago at Meductic Fort. When told that the distance was long and beset with danger to men not schooled in woodcraft, and that there were still Indians far to the north, he said: “If three hundred Colonial troops can kill six hundred Indians in an hour, I do not consider them a very dangerous foe; my marines are well drilled and very trusty. We shall try it.” And they did.

About all the able-bodied men had gone to the war, and it was with great difficulty that he picked up a few woodsmen for guides and pack bearers. When only about half ready the expedition started up river in the ship’s boats. They were rowed by the sailors up to the mouth of the Presque Isle stream, and the boats returned to the ship. We are told that the party who started across the old trail consisted of 60 marines in full uniform, four officers and ten guides and scouts, one of them being an Indian. The soldiers each carried ten day’s rations and only ten rounds of ammunition. When the overbearing Englishman was told that ten rounds of ammunition was not enough, he replied, “My men have their bayonets and I have my sword.”

Trouble Ahead

The marines, with jackets buttoned tight and belts in proper position, started up the trail. Each man with 60 pounds on his back, four abreast, to the music of the drum and fife. The commander rode a big white horse and the poor scouts instead of being ahead on scouting duty, were trudging along in the midst of the soldiers lugging the heavy leathern sacks filled with gold. They came to the Aroostook and as the water was low, they crossed without much difficulty and camped for the night.

You may be sure the orderly time of march was not kept up long. The marines crowded each other in the narrow trail and stumbled over roots and snags, and as there were apparently no Indians near to be frightened by the orderly display of British marines, the order was given to break ranks and march at ease. [1]

The Indian Trail

The old Indian trail across Maine to Quebec left the Presque Isle river of the St. John at a point somewhere near Robinson in the town of Blaine, and wound back and forth in a north westerly direction going between Squapan lake and Haystack mountain, crossing the Aroostook just below Ashland, thence to the foot of Long lake on the Allagash across the St. John at Seven Islands, and from there to the Chaudiere river which it followed down to the St. Lawrence and to Quebec. I have an old map before me on which the trail is so marked, and we will assume it is correct, or nearly so.

Something Happens

Now the trail was plain and well worn by thousands of feet that had passed over it during the six years’ of war, and if nothing had happened the clumsy sea soldiers and their officers might have in time dragged their tired bodies across the forest and reached their destination; but something happened. While the soldiers were getting in trim to start the next morning, a couple of bark canoes were seen coming down the river. The occupants of the boats were Indians, and the Indians with the English party said they were a small party of the St. Francis tribe. “I’ll show them what they’ll have to contend with if they come near me!” said the commander. Then the drum rolled, the marines fell into line, the banner was unfurled, and the ill-mannered guides laughed at the display.

Ambushed

The Indians, however, did not stop to see the free show; they hastily ran the boats ashore and scampered away into the woods. “Look at that!” said the English officer; “the Red skins will not molest a well drilled force.” But the “well drilled force” had only marched about six miles when a volley of musket balls came from behind the trees on a hillside; the white horse fell dead and a bullet tore a patch of skin off the back of its noble rider’s neck; four of the soldiers also lay groaning and bleeding on the trail. Again the drum rolled and orders were given to form a line of battle. This was quickly done and four rounds of the precious ammunition was wasted on the trees, for not an Indian was in sight.

A halt was called: The dead, including the horse, were buried with military honors. An old scout, one Zach Thomas, advised an immediate retreat, saying he believed the whole party would be surrounded and killed by the Indians if they advanced. “Go back sir if you want to,” said the commander; “I shall advance, and if those cowardly curs attack me again, I shall challenge them to come out and fight and I will teach them a lesson.”

[1] Ashby, W. T., “A Complete History of Aroostook County and its Early and Late Settlers,” Mars Hill View, February 17, 1910.

Thomas, a thorough scout and woodsman, who had been in the war and was discharged on account of wounds from which he had not recovered, took the commander at his word and went back. By skulking and traveling nights he made his escape, and some of his descendants are living in Aroostook today.

The Retreat

The little army started again, but the dove of peace had fled. Savage foes appeared to be hiding behind every tree, and men were continually dropping in the ranks, shot down by an unseen foe. In vain the commander flourished his sword and dared them to come out and fight like men, but the stubborn St. Francis braves refused to obey. A retreat was finally ordered but the way was blocked. There appeared to be only one way they could go, and that was toward the north. The advice of the scouts was at last listened to, and the men broke ranks and took to the woods; but every step they took toward the north brought them nearer to the headquarters of their foes. After struggling for four days, this little band of hampered sea soldiers found themselves surrounded on all sides by hoards of whooping, yelling Red men. They were driven into a cedar swamp near Madawaska lake, in the present township of New Sweden and made a rude breast-work of fallen trees. Their food was gone also their ammunition; their smart new uniforms were in tatters, their shoes were worn out, and all hope of getting out of the forest alive was abandoned. One afternoon when the foe appeared to be nearer than usual, the commander ordered a bayonette charge; the half famished men driven and strengthened by desperation rushed into the woods. No enemy was there, but many of them fell from bullets that came from the tree tops. The end was near and none knew it better than the commander.

An Exciting Time

Now this commanding officer was no coward. With his little band of well trained marines he would not have hesitated to attack a thousand Indians on the open plain and be pleased to die fighting them. But this unseen enemy from the tops of the tall trees, this cowardly mode of warfare disgusted and discouraged him. He had an idea that the Indians had learned that he had a large sum of money and were hounding him to death to get possession of the treasure. He was bound, however, that they should not have it if he could prevent it. He found a piece of parchment in his dispatch box, and crawling out from under an upturned tree where he had been seeking shelter, he drew a rude map of the hills, forest, lakes and streams, and wrote a short letter to the commander at St. John. Then he called the guides and treasurer bearers, and paid them liberally, thanked them for their services, and told them to escape if possible and give his letter to the commander at St. John or to the captain of the ship that was supposed to be still lying in the harbor awaiting orders. He then took possession of the treasure.

Night was approaching; the loons on the lake were beginning to scream and laugh, and the gaunt timber wolf scenting a feast was howling in the distance. The miserable men who had been sheltered under logs and windfalls all day, now crawled out and stretched their cramped limbs. The Indians in the tree tops had stopped firing and the released guides were crawling away through the swamp like snakes – all but the Indian who had been asked to remain an hour longer.

Hiding the Gold

Near the doomed men stood three tall pine trees in a row. The Indian, with the assistance of the officer, now carried the heavy sacks of gold to the base of the tree farthest north, and with their hands dug a deep hole in the swamp muck and deposited the gold. Then the Indian cunningly replaced the moss and tramped it down, no doubt thinking that if he could get away he would sometime return and get the gold. But the paymaster quickly drew his sword and as quick as a flash ran it through the unfortunate man’s body and he fell across the pit in which the money was buried. “Dead men tell no tales,” remarked the officer as he sheathed his bloody blade.

Discovered

But there were other eyes that saw the gold buried and also the murder. A scout named Sites, having mistrusted the treasure was about to be buried was lurking near; he had crawled away in the twilight and climbed a scrubby fir tree, and when the treasure was buried he was almost above the spot. Sites escaped, also the other scouts; they crawled out of the swamp in the darkness and when morning came they were at the Aroostook river and out of the danger zone. It is known that the master of the packet ship got the paymaster’s message, but the unfortunate marines were never heard from again. Two years later Sites and two companions started on a journey into the big woods after the hidden gold but they never returned.

The chances are the treasure has never been removed and never will be found. Perchance some toiler, making railroad ties or getting shingle rift, has tramped over a fortune and knew it not. [2]

There is likely some grain of truth to this story as it appears in other locations as well. For example, it was claimed that the same thing happened on Hermit Island on the Great Lakes with a British shipment of gold and silver to pay the troops during the same period of time as the gold shipment was supposedly buried in Aroostook County. This story is very similar with an attack on the British soldiers guarding the gold and silver by a group of Native Americans, the gold was buried and has never been found following a bloody massacre from which only two British soldiers survived to tell the tale.

[2] Ibid, February 24, 1910.

Another story of a chest of gold intended to pay the soldiers during the Revolutionary War involves the chest being buried for safekeeping near a large oak tree near Chaumont Bay which has never been found; and another from 1838 in which the ship, the Sir Robert Peel was sunk in the St. Lawrence River with 20,000 British Pounds that was the British payroll. The lost gold was supposedly buried near Point Peninsula, New York. [3]

There are also stories of British treasure buried to protect it from the opposing French troops. One story tells of General James Abercromby in 1758 when on his way with his troops to attack Fort Ticonderoga in New York. He met up with the French commander Marquis de Montcalm and ultimately buried his treasure on Tea Island. It is speculated that this was the pay for 12,000 British troops.[4] Of course, like all good buried gold stories, this treasure too has never been found.

[3] “Lost Treasures and Ghost Towns in New York,” August 9, 2013, https://cnyartifactrecovery.wordpress.com/2013/08, accessed 6/29/21.

[4] “The Story of Lost Treasure From the Revolutionary War in Lake George – Can you Find it?”, March 4, 2012, https://cnyartifactrecovery.wordpress.com/2013/08, accessed 6/29/21.

[5] “Haunted Treasure Lies Hidden in Safe Harbor; Chaotic Spoils of the French & Indian War,” June 6, 2019, https://unchartedlancaster.com, accessed June 29, 2021.

[6] W. Dennis Stires, “Mystery of the Gold Bars,” a presentation at “Mysteries of Northern New England,” Washburn Humanities Seminar, June 16, 2007.


Also like most buried gold payroll stories, one person survived to tell the tale in July of 1755 when British General Edward Braddock was ordered to move his troops in Virginia. Ultimately he came under attack by the French and was mortally wounded, Braddock’s gold filled chest was buried and has never been found. [5]

Similarly, there are tales of hidden gold during the Civil War… some of which made its way to Maine according to independent researcher W. Dennis Stires, who reported that $7 million dollars in gold bars was brought from Washington DC during the Civil War and hidden in the Canton, Maine area. It has never been found. Similarly, there are stories from the Standish, Maine area indicating that a safe place was built there to hide the Civil War gold bars and it can’t now be located. [6]

Tales of buried gold and other treasure have always fascinated humans. Chances are good those kinds of tales will always continue to fascinate and arouse our imaginations! After all, who doesn’t want to find buried treasure and get rich?

Buried Treasure Found in Aroostook County in 1865 in What is Today Presque Isle

It seems that one man did, in fact, find buried gold in Aroostook County in what is today Presque Isle. 

In the fall of 1841 the State of Maine sent $10,000 in gold from Augusta to Fort Fairfield to pay the militia who were stationed at the fort before the Webster-Ashburton Treaty settled the border between Maine and Canada in 1842. According to W. T. Ashby, Major Johnson, a US military officer was in charge of the gold and was expected at Masardis, which was then the major hub of the area because what is today Route 11 was the major road into Aroostook County from parts south at that time.

As the officers in charge of the gold headed for the Johnson place on what is today the Reach Road in Presque Isle to take the road located there at that time to the Fort, they met up with David Bubar, Aroostook’s first mailman, who had come running through the woods and told them that there was a party of men waiting to ambush them.

Ashby continues the story:

“When they came to the top of the high hill near the Lovely brook, they could see the stars and stripes floating above the Fort (Fort Fairfield) some three miles away. The men cheered and Sargent Watson assured the gentlemen on horseback that in an hour’s time they would be eating a good, warm supper. But the Sargent wasn’t a fortune teller.

The cheers had hardly died away, when McCoy, the old Aroostook bear hunger, met and told them that more than 50 men were apparently waiting for them on the Whitney hill. He assured them they were not soldiers from the Fort, but the most of them were scouts and hunters from the Tobique river (in present-day New Brunswick) and many of them were the meanest villains that ever run unhung.

Major Johnson now took command… He wrote a note on the back of an old envelope and gave it to McCoy; he then put a piece of gold into the trapper’s hand, and told him to carry the note as quickly as possible to the commander at the Fort. He saw that an effort was being made to secure the money and was sending to the Fort for assistance. He believed their movements were being watched by scouts, and that there were men in the little posse who were in league with the ruffians who were trying to rob him. He drew a brace of heavy horse pistols from the saddle and ordered the men to fall in and march. McCoy disappeared into the woods and was never seen by living men again.

They soon came to the brook and halted; nearby stood the Sam Work’s cabin…now deserted…the officer ordered the men to dig a hole in the road with their bayonets, and in this, he deposited the two bags of gold. A big, square rock was then rolled up from the shore of the brook and placed on the treasure. After all traces of their recent work had been obliterated, the squad then moved forward and joined their companions who stood in the road. The guns were piled behind a big, pine top and covered with the new fallen leaves. Then the party moved forward, unarmed, and dressed as lumbermen; they thought they would pass unmolested.

They soon reached the top of the hill, and the Fort and the old flag was again in sight only two miles away. It was many a long day before these Yankee soldiers saw that flag again, and some of them never saw it more. 

Captured by the waiting robbers, the soldiers disguised as lumbermen were taken to Fredericton, New Brunswick and put in jail as prisoners of war even though they were not captured by legitimate British troops. These robbers did not find the guns that were hidden, or the gold that was buried. Because an epidemic of smallpox broke out in the prison in Fredericton, Major Johnson and four of his men died there. It is presumed that McCoy was murdered as he never made it to the Fort.

When the posse didn’t arrive at the Fort, a group of soldiers were sent out looking for them the next morning. It was presumed at the Fort that the missing paymaster Major Johnson had been killed by his posse of men who had stolen the gold. Notices were sent to Augusta and a reward was offered for the arrest of the missing posse. 

A few years passed and the posse held at the Fredericton jail were released when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was signed in 1842. W. T. Ashby’s father purchased the property with the Sam Work cabin (then deserted because Sam returned to New Brunswick, Canada) and began farming there about that time. Mr. Ashby worked hard to provide for his family, as all pioneer settlers did… but he never knew that just yards from his cabin $10,000 in gold lay buried under a rock – a VERY significant amount back in the 1830’s and 1840’s.

In the 1860’s during the Civil War, a young man came to the Ashby neighborhood and purchased a farm from a widow whose husband had been killed in the Civil War. W.T. Ashby calls him “John Jones” – not his actual name. He went to work cutting the trees on his newly acquired farm.

In May of 1865, the Ashby boys, including W. T., were outside piling brush from a “chopping” where a field was being cleared. Ashby continues the story:

“They made a big pile of sticks and brush on an old pine top and set it on fire. When the pile was pretty well burned down, there was a loud explosion and the ashes and fire flew in all directions. The frightened boys ran to the house and told their mother. She said it must have been a hot rock that burst and paid little attention to their story; but when their father came home the story was told to him, and after he had eaten his supper he took a shovel and went over to the place to investigate. 

He scraped away the ashes and close against the old timber top the shovel clanked against something which sounded like iron. He stooped down and commenced to throw something out onto the ground that looked to the boys like short crow bars, at the same time telling us to run away back. When they had cooled off a little, we went up to them and he told us they were musket barrels. That was just what they were – 24 musket barrels; one of them split open; and stocks had either rotted of burned away. A rusty bayonet was attached to each one. Father took one of the rusty ram rods and dropped it down into a gun and said they were loaded with powder and ball; the barrel that was burst open had exploded with the heat.

There was no telephone in those days, but the news got around just the same, and by dark there were 20 men and boys in the dooryard looking at the old guns. All the men agreed that they were relics of the Aroostook War, but how they came behind the old log none could tell.

All of the settlers were more or less interested in the old muskets, but young Jones acted as though the discovery had affected his brain. Early the next morning he came and got me (W. T. Ashby) to go and show him the place where the guns were found. I went with him, and after he had looked at the place he sat down on a log and took a map out of his pocket and while he looked at it apparently went to sleep, for while he was dozing, two ducks came from the lake and dropped down into the brook nearby, but I could not make him look at them and went home disgusted. He soon came out of his trance, however, for we saw him pacing off the distance from the old pine top to the brook.

Jones turned out to be a very lazy young man, and the industrious, hard-working settlers predicted that he would never pay the $200 he had agreed to give for the farm, and they were right, he never did. Jones put in the most of his time fishing along the brook, and he appeared to be too lazy to fish, for my brother and I went fishing ourselves and often found him sitting in the shade studying that everlasting old map. He was also paying attention to a pretty girl – the belle of the settlement – and after a while she got interested in the map too, and evenings they would take a walk over to where the old guns were found and look at the map, and then he would pace towards the brook again.

He appeared very much interested in the old trail, and used to often come over and ask mother if she knew exactly where it crossed the brook, but as the land on both sides of the stream had been cleared and stumped in the last 20 years, mother was not sure of the exact spot. Mother was born on the river, and Jones used to ask all manner of questions about the early settlers and the Aroostook War. One night she happened to tell him, with other gossip, a story she had heard about a squad of soldiers who had been sent from the Fort to conduct a pay officer through the woods, and how they had killed him and fled with the money. She said the young man’s eyes bulged out so that she might have hung a dishcloth on them. Young Jones was pronounced stupid, and I might add there were others tarred with the same stick.

Just over the pasture fence, near the old Work’s cabin in which I (W.T. Ashby) was born, used to be a big flat rock sunk into the ground almost level with the pasture sword. Many a day I have played on it and around it with my brothers and sisters that are now in distant states, or have passed over to that unknown shore. Many times when I have been carrying water from the brook, my bare feet have stood on that stone while I turned on a little water from the pail, and wondered how the pure, clear water could turn the stone a darker color; I can shut my eyes and see it yet; and every time I go over to the old homestead I can see it without shutting my eyes, for it is a corner stone under one of the barns. It does not look as big as it did when I was a boy.

One showery afternoon in August, young Jones came in to wait till a shower had passed by. He had been to the Fort and had a new pick-ax and shovel with him. He said the cattle roiled the water in the brook and he was going to dig a well. As the rain continued, father asked him to stay all night, but he said he must go home, and went away in the rain. It was a terrible night. Shower succeeded shower; the blue chain lightning flashed, and the thunder crashed, till the windows in the old house rattled. None of us slept much during the night. Morning came, and while mother was getting breakfast, I took a pail and went to the brook for water. Imagine my surprise when I saw the big rock rolled out of its bed and laying on the grass; rails from the fence that had been used for levers, were laying around it; the hole was full of water; there was a new pick-ax and shovel standing in the hole. I dropped the pail and ran to the house. The whole family, including the dog, were soon on the spot. Two big $20 gold pieces were picked up in the mud which was a Godsend to poor people in those days, but, - “of all sad words of tongue or pen the saddest are these, it might have been” – the whole pile.

Jones slept in the old log barn, and when Johnnie MacShane went to tell him breakfast was ready, he was not there. Soon after, the sweet girl I have mentioned, went to Lowell, Mass. to work in a factory. Three weeks later she wrote home she was married. Young Jones was a shoemaker by trade, and the summer he was at the settlement he often put neat patches on the boys’ boots. He is still a shoemaker and owns one of the big shoe factories at Brockton, Mass. His wife is dead, but some of her children returned to her native land and are in business in a certain village. Her brothers and sisters are still living here, and as they are a very modest, sensitive family, I have been requested not to use their names.

At the time of the border trouble, young Jones’ father came from Belfast, Me. and came to Aroostook with the militia. He was one of the men who helped Major Johnson bury the gold, and heard the order given to the posse to advance 300 paces and halt. With the others he hid his musket behind the old log, and we have seen how he became a prisoner. After his release he went to Massachusetts and engaged in the shoe business. While he often told his family of the hidden gold he would not go to look for it, for he was told while a prisoner at Fredericton that it had been found and removed. He, however, drew a map of the country for his son and described the shape and color of the big stone under which it was buried. You know the rest.

One more little story and I will close this scrap of history which I think never was written before. Johnnie MacShane took one of the old gun barrels home and it was used for a poker around the big, stone fireplace. One evening the following winter some boys gathered at the widow’s home. There was a roaring fire in the old fireplace. One boy was playing a jews-harp and two others were on the floor dancing. Mrs. MacShane came along and set the poker and teakettle close in toward the fire so the boys would not kick them over. The old gun barrel got hot, the charge in it exploded and at once ball went up the old stone chimney and sent down a shower of soot and ashes. “Holey mother, save us!” said Mrs. MacShane as she crossed herself and ran for the bottle of holy water. “I told John there might be a dead Yankee’s soul in that domed owld gun when he brot it into the house; throw it out of doors!” The next morning the widow told me that she would knit me a pair of mitts if I would take the old musket barrel and sink it in the lake. I cut a hole in the ice and let the old relic sink to its muddy grave.[7]

[7] Ashby, June 9, 1910; and June 16, 1910.