The Debunker: Did Pirates Make Treasure Maps?

by Ken Jennings

June is the time of year the United Nations observes World Oceans Day and the U.S. celebrates National Oceans Month, so we’ve asked Skipper Ken Jennings to navigate us through four maritime myths that refuse to die. It turns out that none of them really hold water.

Ocean Myth #3: Pirates Made Treasure Maps.

Of course the bloodthirsty buccaneers of the Spanish Main drew treasure maps, right? How else would they find their way back to their hard-earned booty? We can probably even picture these historical maps: one hundred paces from the beach to the skull-shaped tree, follow its shadow at noon twenty paces, X marks the spot, et cetera et cetera. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

But there’s just one problem: those maps first appeared in popular novels, not the historical record. Please don’t keel-haul me for telling you this, but there’s no real-world evidence for any pirate ever drawing a map to his buried doubloons. We know of a few cases where privateers like William Kidd and Sir Francis Drake buried stolen treasure that was too heavy for their crews to carry in one trip, but in every case the authorities quickly recaptured the booty. And none of these stories has a map.

The legend of lost pirate treasure seems to have started in early 19th-century American literature, in stories like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Wolfert Webber” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug.” Neither of these stories has a map—that innovation seems to have sprung from the mind of Robert Louis Stevenson, who once spent a rainy Scottish summer drawing maps of islands with his stepsons and concocting adventures that might happen there. The final result was his immortal 1883 novel Treasure Island, the origin of lots of things people think they know about pirates. As a plot device, a treasure map is unbeatable: it lets a modern, non-piratical protagonist in on an old-timey treasure hunt. But as a practical matter, pirates seem to have been pretty good at just remembering where they left millions of dollars in gold and gems. Wouldn’t you be?

Quick Quiz: Upon being kidnapped in 75 BC by Aegean pirates, what historical figure promised to return and crucify them all, and once ransomed did just that?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.