Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Alumni Profiles

From Western to the Whydah: Barry Clifford’s discovery of the world’s greatest treasure

Barry Clifford poses for a photo in the Whydah Pirate Museum.

It is 1998, the sun is shining, and the air is hot and humid with a slight breeze coming off the ocean. Soft sand and the smell of the sea surround me, and I can hear the waves crashing. My sisters are screaming with joy while they ride waves and fly their kites. My father is showing us how to body surf, and my mother is enjoying a moment of peace and quiet. But not me, I am successfully avoiding the water. I grew up away from the ocean and waves, I am more comfortable on land, digging. Digging for what, you might ask? Treasure! I was fascinated by my father’s National Geographic magazines, archaeology, and the search for long-lost items. My 8-year-old self believed to my core that I would someday find treasure of my own, and there was no better place to start looking than the giant dunes of Cape Cod. So, with my little plastic bucket and shovel, I started digging.

Fast forward to 2023, I am working in the alumni office of a small mountain university, the last place I would expect to meet a world-famous underwater archaeologist and explorer, but that is exactly what happens. Barry Clifford (’69) graduated with a degree in history and sociology and, in 1984, right off the coast of Cape Cod, he discovered the shipwreck of the Whydah, a pirate ship captained by Sam Bellamy, the infamous pirate. As he proceeds to tell me about his incredible search for the Whydah, it hits me that I am actually going to be visiting the Cape in just a few months, so we arrange a meeting during which I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a tour of Barry’s Whydah Pirate Museum. This is the story of that visit.

Barry Clifford poses in front of the Whydah Gally display in the Whydah Pirate Museum.

The Whydah was the first ever authenticated pirate shipwreck to be discovered. It was a historic find, but discovering the hull was just the beginning. It is believed that only 10% of the claimed treasure is accounted for, and dive teams continue their relentless search in the waters off the Cape to this day. It might seem strange that a world-famous underwater explorer came from a place like Western but it is true. Barry was simply interested in shipwrecks because, according to Barry, “they are easy to get to.” Barry found support and inspiration at Western to go after the things he wanted and he made it happen. “I have had several teams; this search has been going on for 40 years. But the original team was with people from college and people from around the Cape that I was friends with. Tripp Wheeler, Rob MacFarland, friends from college who came to work with me. I had a whole Crested Butte and Gunnison team.”

To discover the shipwreck, the team used the information they found in letters that Captain Sam Bellamy wrote to the governor, the ship’s log, a map and written accounts recorded in The Mutinous Wind by Elizabeth Reynard. Once a general location was identified, it was time for the team to start diving and searching for the elusive Whydah.

When most people imagine the search for sunken treasure, they imagine finding a pile of gold that is easily seen by the naked eye, but the reality is quite different. When Barry’s team discovers artifacts, the majority are, in fact, encased in concretions, or solid masses of sediment that have formed over time. They essentially look like big boulders and form when iron gets in the water. But, as Barry would explain, they are so much more than that. In his museum, one such concretion is on display, kept under constant running water. “There is a whole pirate skeleton inside this,” Barry said, pointing to … “You can see his bones sticking out of the side.” The concretions are kept intact because people don’t get to see things like this every day. Otherwise, concretions are often taken to a laboratory to be taken apart. The concretion on display in the Whydah Pirate Museum is nicknamed the Tomb of the Lost Pirate. Looking at the X-rays on display, you can see that there are at least a hundred coins and a pistol inside, frozen in time. Barry explains, “That dark spot in the middle? That used to be the barrel of a pistol that dissolved. When it dissolved, the electrical action caused all these coins to fuse together. This right here is a 50-caliber machine gun bullet frozen into a concretion with a piece of eight.” The machine gun bullet is from the 1940s and goes to show how easily artifacts in an underwater site can end up buried next to each other as they get sifted down through the soft sand.

A concretion on display at the Whydah Pirate Museum.

Barry’s team has hundreds of these concretions that they haven’t even opened up yet, some were first brought back to the surface back in the early 80s. “The process takes so much time to complete. We have over two hundred thousand artifact cards with drawings of each of the artifacts that we have conserved. We could open over 50 museums with the artifacts that we have.” If you don’t know what you are looking for, you can walk right by a concretion on the beach. As Barry would say, “They look like a big lump.”

With the help of written accounts, historians, and artifacts, Barry has been able to bring the story of Whydah back to the surface for all to admire in his museum in West Yarmouth. The museum takes you on a walk through history, and it all begins with the slave trade.

As Barry takes us around the room, showing us shackles and a branding needle, he tells us, “This is where it all started. We did research with National Geographic and put a team of African-American scholars and historians together to go back and look at all of the history of the early slave trade. There were over a million slaves exported, and iron and shells were used to trade with Africans for captives. These cowrie shells were more valuable than gold to Africans. This pistol here was filled with very, very fine lead shot and would be fired at slaves if they were rebellious; the slave traders would use this to quell rebellions. It wouldn’t kill them but would keep them under control.” The museum has on display images of how the enslaved people were “stored” on the ships, laying side by side, alternating to fit as many people as possible, in rows. Barry continues, “It was legal to buy and sell people, but if you were sold and you stole the money used to pay for yourself, that was a capital crime. Ask yourself, would you want to be on a law-abiding slave ship, or would you want to be with a democratic pirate core?” That is what Sam Bellamy’s vision for the Whydah was; it was a democratic pirate core. “There were 180 pirates onboard, all with an equal share, and many were once enslaved. Anything of value was greatly cherished, so we are finding bags now completely filled with artifacts and treasure, like smoking pipes, rum bottles, pistols, and coins, and these were all individual shares. Everybody got an individual share. The money was kept in bags, in chests, between decks … and then depending on where you were from, you might value coins differently than other treasure.”

A gold ring on display at the Whyah Pirate Museum.

And the variety of artifacts that Barry finds is staggering. Because Sam Bellamy’s crew raided over 50 ships during their time as pirates, Barry’s team has collected dozens and dozens of navigational instruments. One set goes all the way back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. “A lot of the ships that they were robbing might have had items that were passed on from generation to generation, and that is the true treasure of the Whydah.” Barry’s team has such an incredible cross-section of cultural material. Unlike a Spanish galleon carrying all freshly minted coins, Barry’s coins go all the way back to the time of Columbus, and many are one-of-a-kind. “Here is a really rare coin, 1653, that is worth around $100,000 dollars,” he said. “This is just a fraction of what we have, and again, the coins that we have go all the way back to Ferdinand and Isabella, and you will note they are all different because they were used. A lot of these come from the sale of human beings, so they have tremendous historical value. They have been appraised for crazy amounts of money. We have thousands of them, and we have never sold one.”

Each artifact has a story and gives a glimpse into the past, but some also stir up more questions.  “A lot of the things that we find have symbols on them, and these mysteries are slowly coming to light. For example, you see right in the middle of this coin that man is probably an English king. But right there is a symbol. That symbol is a templar symbol, a Jacobite rose.”

Next, Barry shows us a pistol they found that is just like the one we saw in the x-ray of the concretion but this one has a very important story to it. “In the 1930s, a woman named Elizabeth Reynard came to the Cape. She was an author, the head of the English department at Bernard College and she was writing a story about the Cape, the Whydah, and pirates. She had heard about Maria Hallett, so she went to visit the Hallett family that was still in Wellfleet, and of course, they had all of these incredible stories about Maria Hallett. One of the stories they told her that she wrote in her book called The Mutinous Wind In the late 30s describes Maria Hallett giving Sam Bellamy a red silk ribbon with roses on it. Well, when we found this William III pistol, we actually found a red silk ribbon with roses on it wrapped around the handle, leading us to believe we had, in fact, discovered Sam Bellamy’s pistol.”

A pistol on display in the Whydah Pirate Museum.

Stories like these can give you goosebumps, thinking of the history contained in these artifacts. Barry explains that these are the kinds of things that happen during their research. The team didn’t realize for years that this pistol could be Sam Bellamy’s, but with meticulous research, these mysteries keep coming to light.

Another example of this is during Barry’s presentation in Vail, Colorado, roughly ten years ago. While sharing images on a projector, Barry pronounced an engraving on a small ring as “Teyeba,” and a lady said, “Mr. Clifford, I apologize for correcting you, but I am a Senegalese scholar, and that is pronounced “Tayba” and in Senegalese that means ‘Son of the King.’ So, this ring belonged to a Senegalese prince.” This prompted Barry to do a little more research, and upon closer inspection, one can see that the “A” on the ring is not just an “A.” It is a masonic symbol. The Senegalese language wasn’t translated into English until the early 1890’s. So, who did this carving? Barry explains, “This was done by someone probably on the Whydah, and the ring was given to Teyeba.” On the inside, there is a carving of “WFS,” which could mean Western Fleet Station or someone’s initials. Another mystery to be uncovered.

As we neared the end of the museum, we noticed a small boot preserved in a glass case with what appeared to be a bone sticking out of the top. The fabric in the boots looked extremely well preserved; a lot of these artifacts came out of concretions and are oftentimes in near-perfect condition (particularly the coins) because they are buried under 10 to 30 feet of sand, and there is no oxygen down that deep so there is no reaction or oxidation. Barry tells us the story of the boot and of John King, a young boy who was a member of the crew: “He must have been friends with Teyeba and the Native American boy. We actually found John King’s shoe and that leg bone – it would be the fibula – that was inside the stocking, inside the shoe. He was crushed by a cannon, frozen into the cannon. This was also in a concretion. Everything is in concretions so you never know what is in there. This time, we found a French woven silk stocking,” he said. “My historian, who has since passed, was a genius. We were walking through the museum one day, and while looking at this shoe, I asked, “Ken, were there any kids on board?” and he said, ‘Oh, by the way, there was a boy named John King. I have a letter from the captain of the ship for the Governor of Jamaica complaining about this very rebellious young boy who threatened his mother and joined Sam Bellamy.’ Ken was a genius times ten; he knew everything.”

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.
An ad encouraging viewers to donate funds to support Western Colorado University
A woven silk stocking and a fibula on display in the Whydah Pirate Museum.

As we wrap up the tour, I can’t help but wonder what is next for Barry Clifford and his team.

Barry is working on opening more museums. In fact, one museum will be opening soon at Treasure Island in Las Vegas. “The idea is education, especially kids. Kids love this. We have been working with the Franciscan Hospital. We do virtual stuff with them; we have archeologists teach the kids as we take the concretions apart,” he said. “I am also still diving at the Whydah site. It will be work for a lifetime. We just found this huge section of the ship that is perfectly preserved. We are not concerned about looting; it is so dangerous out there, and we have a hard time with it, so if you don’t know what you are doing, it won’t be easy at all. It is just crazy how dangerous it is out there.” Barry shows me a picture that is a scan of the shipwreck site. The image is a little fuzzy. It is what you would expect of an underground scan, but you can clearly see straight lines stacked on top of one another and, between the lines, lots and lots of dark oval spots. “This is what we just found. That is the stern of the ship, and you can see between the decks it is all filled with material. That has been covered for 300 years. Now remember, the money was kept in bags, in chests, between decks. Those round things are bags. It is crazy. The Whydah was supposed to have ivory tusks on board; we might have found them. We tried to dive last week, but the weather was too dark and we couldn’t see anything,” he said. “We have been diving over this thing for the last 40 years, and we never saw anything until this big storm came through.”

In addition to digging up the stern of the ship, Barry’s team has a lot of work to do on land. “This is our laboratory. All of these tanks are filled with artifacts. Do you see all those bags? Those are all concretions that haven’t been taken apart yet. There is another anchor there, some of the canons; this is 7 canons all frozen together in one. These are all X-rays with gold and gold bars; there is a human thorax. Anyway, it is how we dig, and we have a lot more work to do”.

We pass the ship’s bell that, when unearthed, confirmed for Barry that he had, in fact, found the Whydah. I cannot imagine what a moment like that must have felt like for Barry and his team. Knowing they had finally discovered what they had been searching for all that time and not knowing yet that this would set their lives on a course of continued discovery for the next 40 years and more. Before we headed out, we snapped a few pictures in front of the ship’s anchor. As I walked back towards the car, it hit me that my 8-year-old self was definitely looking for treasure in the wrong place. No, I needed to be searching in the water that I was so eager to stay out of.

You May Also Like

Alumni Profiles

Cheryl Cwelich is not your traditional student. After working in the accounting field for over a decade, Cheryl went back to school and was...

Alumni Profiles

Samantha Coleman has always loved basketball. For her, it isn’t just a sport; it’s a big part of who she is. So, after playing...

Alumni Profiles

Given the topography around Western Colorado University, it isn’t surprising that a lot of Mountaineers are avid trail runners. But one of Western’s most...

Alumni Profiles

When Scott Borden and Mallory Logan became friends, they never imagined, in their wildest dreams they would one day be working together to release...