What could be more exciting than looking for lost treasure? What could be more dramatic than almost finding it? This tale comes from a bit west of my Pennsylvania roots, so let’s just call this one an “America Jack” tale. Maybe you’ll want to go treasure hunting yourself. Enjoy.
One would think that once a river was formed, it would stay its course forever, getting wider on its way to its mouth as other smaller streams were adjoined. But as anyone who has ever lived along the “Mother of Waters,” the mighty Mississippi River, well knows, a river can move, and not a little distance. Large powerful rivers deposit sands and silts in some places and take them away in others, sometimes cutting off entire loops and bends, so that the meandering course it follows can change from time to time. Towns that once were on the banks of the Mississippi can find themselves land locked miles from the river. Places that were once far from the currents are washed away by the changing river course. If this were not so, the story that follows could never have happened.
In the 1850s, railroads were still a curiosity as a means of mass transportation of people and goods. The rivers were the highways of America and the major means of transit over long distances were riverboats. The Mississippi, and the Ohio and Missouri that joined it, gave access to thousands of miles of the interior of the growing United States. Which brings us to the Drennan Whyte, a sternwheel steam-powered riverboat built in Wheeling (in what was then still Virginia). In 1850, the Drennan Whyte was on a trip upriver from New Orleans. Like most riverboats, the Whyte carried a variety of cargo, but what took it into legend was the one hundred thousand dollars in gold coins it carried on board.
River travel was not without its hazards. Perhaps even more important to the safe transit of a riverboat than the Captain was the river Pilot, whose job it was to know the location of the constantly changing channel, as well as every sand bar, tree stump, snag or other obstacle from one end of the river to the other. Exploding steam boilers were not an uncommon cause of a steamboat going to the bottom of the river. The Drennan Whyte was just a few miles north of Natchez, Mississippi, when her boiler blew. In no time at all the Whyte went down in forty some feet of water, not far from the eastern bank. The crew was fortunate to make it to shore. The cargo, including the gold, went down with the boat. With a fortune that huge aboard, a larger boat was sent to try and salvage the cargo. The Evermonde, with large grappling hooks, arrived at the site of the sinking a few days later. But bad luck was abundant and the Evermonde somehow caught fire. It too sank to the bottom of the Mississippi, with the loss of many of its crew. It would be almost a year before another attempt would be made to salvage the gold.
Another salvage boat, the Ellen Adams, arrived on the scene in August of 1851, but a lot can happen to a river in a year’s time. Several high water floods had occurred and the main river channel had shifted to the west. With optimism high, the Ellen Adams dragged its grappling hooks over miles of river bottom, well upstream and downstream of where the Drennan Whyte was remembered to have floundered, but nothing was found. Two months later, the Adams itself struck a sand bar and was partially sunk. After this there were a few more attempts to find the wreckage of the Whyte, but all came to no avail. As salvage costs mounted, the owners finally gave up the search. Rumors would spread from time to time over the ensuing years that the Drennan Whyte had been found. Ambitious treasure-seekers would infrequently set out too, but try as they might, it all came to naught. The river held the secret of the whereabouts of the gold ship.
Almost twenty years went by when a bit of good luck came to a man with the entirely coincidental name of Ancil Fortune. You might say fortune smiled upon him. Ancil was the son of Caleb Fortune who had captained one of the salvage boats that sought the Whyte in 1851. He had grown up hearing stories about the lost gold, but like everyone else had to assume it was gone forever. By 1870 he had given up working on the river and was trying to make ends meet with a small riverside farm. In the late spring of 1871, Ancil went out by the bank one day with a shovel, intent on digging a shallow well that he could use to water his cattle. Digging in the alluvial soils laid down over eons by the Mississippi was easier than in the rocky soil further east, but it was still hard work. After a few hours, about eight feet below the surface, his shovel clunked into something hard. Ancil soon found it was metal, and appeared to be the top of the smokestack of a riverboat. Ancil kept digging, more out of curiosity than anything else. This was most likely a part of one of the hundreds of riverboats that had sunk over the years and covered over by the shifting silts of the river. At first he never thought about daring to hope that perhaps he had found the corpse of the Drennan Whyte. But as Ancil continued to dig his thoughts naturally turned to this possibility. His thoughts also turned to the need to keep what he had found a secret. He dug until he came to the roof of a deck, enough to increase his hope that maybe, just maybe, a whole riverboat lay beneath. He went home that night and thought more about it, and on the following day went back to his riverside pasture and filled in the hole.
Ancil Fortune obtained seeds from the willows that grew along the river banks. A fast growing tree with thin but dense pendulant branching, willows are common place along rivers and streams, where they help to hold the soil of the banks from erosion. It wasn’t soil erosion that interested Ancil, as he scattered the seed for hundreds of feet around the site of the boat stack. He wanted a screen of trees to allow him to dig in secret. But trees don’t grow overnight. Fortunately for Ancil Fortune, he was a patient man. He didn’t go near the spot again for five years. By then, the screen of willows was thick and high enough to let him resume his digging unseen by other eyes.
When he thought the time was right, Ancil Fortune returned to the site and cleared a spot in the tangle of young willow trees. He started once more to dig, spending as much time as he could as the labors of the farm permitted. Often he dug at night by the light of a lantern. His spirits were buoyed when he once again found the smokestack, and they soared further still when he one day thereafter reached the upper deck of the riverboat that seemed to lay below him. For almost three years he labored, hauling the earth up from his ever growing excavation bucket at a time, all alone in his seemingly Herculean task. Imagine Ancil Fortune’s excitement as he worked along the side of the steamboat and uncovered a heavy brass sign. There, subdued and slightly corroded, was the unmistakable name, Drennan Whyte!
Oh the joy that must have greeted that discovery, even as he knew that uncountable hours of his labor still lay ahead. Ancil knew the general layout of river steamboats, and even the layout of the Whyte, yet several tunnels he dug after discovering the plaque led to frustrating dead ends. He would spend days excavating cabins, spade of sand and mud at a time, bucket after bucket hauled to the top of his pit, only to come to naught. Where would the gold have been, he asked himself over and over, and could only conclude that it would have been kept in the Captain’s cabin for safekeeping. Through all of this the river fought him back. Twice the entire excavation filled with flood waters, and had to be emptied bucket at a time, along with more mud that came with the floods. Three more years passed and still Ancil Fortune worked at seeking the gold he just knew was there for the finding.
Finally, in the month of May 1881, almost eleven years after his shovel had first struck the top of the steamboat’s smokestack, he moved the last of the dirt from the top of an iron trunk. The lock held, but the hinges were badly rusted, and Ancil pried them off with his shovel. The golden horde of the Drennan Whyte lay before him. He filled his pockets with as much of the gold as he could, and headed for home to get some sacks with which to take the treasure he had finally found from the boat. But after all the jubilation, the fortunes of Ancil Fortune were about to take a fall. As he hurried across his pasture in the darkness, he fell and badly broke his leg. He crawled on home, not daring to seek help lest his discovery be found out by others all too willing to help themselves.
Things turned even worse a few days later, as Ancil lay in his bed barely able to crawl about his cabin to feed himself. The rains started to fall. Not just May showers, they continued hard and unabated for day after day. It was a widespread storm that stalled over the valley of the Mississippi and soon brought flood waters of monstrous proportion. As it does in such high water situations, the river began to cut itself a new channel in many places, but more importantly right in the area of Ancil Fortune’s treasure pit. It was several weeks before he could barely walk enough to limp and drag his injured leg to see about his excavation, and what he saw astounded him. The tangle of willow woods was gone, and the main current of the mighty Mississippi River ran across the spot where he only recently had found the boat and the gold. Ten long years of hope and labor were washed away forever. He was a patient man, as testified by the long years of his lonely travail. But even patience must come to an end, and it ended for him as he walked slowly into the raging currents of the river. Ancil Fortune went off to join the Drennan Whyte, never to be seen again.
Yes sir, that old river is an Indian giver the old timers would tell you. It will give something up once in awhile, but most likely, sooner or later, it will take it back again. It’s a good chance that the Drennan Whyte with the trunk of gold is still out there somewhere, waiting for another more fortunate person to seek it.