AIM Sussex County (Newton, NJ)
November 6, 2009
Column: Dupont, Ron
The Crabtree Island Treasure - a Revolutionary legend from Vernon
Tales of buried treasure are common in American folklore, usually featuring pirates, Spanish doubloons, ancient treasure maps and mysterious locales. The New Jersey - New York area has been rife with legends of hidden treasure since the Revolutionary War, usually reported to have been hidden during the war by Claudius Smith the bandit, Joseph Brandt, the Indian Chief who fought for the British, or even by Captain Kidd himself.
One of the most remarkable New Jersey tales of buried treasure and the Revolutionary War comes from here in Vernon Township. It was first put in print in 1873, by which time the facts, whatever they were, had become coated over with several generations of folklore. Thus it is impossible to say whether there is even a hint of truth to the following story, but it's worth re-telling, true or false.
Written by an anonymous Vernon resident and printed first by the New York Times and then by the New Jersey Herald in 1873, the story goes "Every locality in this country has its pet legends of immense treasure buried somewhere within its limits. The oldest inhabitant of Vernon Township remembers, when a boy, hearing his white-haired grandfather relate how his father used to tell of the depredations of Brandt, the Indian chief, and of Claudius Smith, and their respective followers throughout this section, and of the large amounts of gold and silver they compelled the settlers to disgorge, all of which they were in the habit of hiding in caverns and caves and burying it in different localities.
"A time came when these desperadoes were driven off, leaving untold riches behind them. This has ever been tarnishing and corroding in its secure hiding places. Now and then, some farmer's plow turns up a pot of glittering coin, a wood chopper's axe reveals a fortune in some ancient hollow tree, or some ambitious student of geology, digging and picking among the rocks and ravines of Sussex County, is rewarded by finding a portion of the hidden wealth."
(Indeed, there are genuine accounts of farmers plowing up old kettles of Revolutionary War-era coins in the 19th century.)
The story continues: "One of these traditions is to the effect that there is buried near this place [Vernon] gold and silver to the amount of $100,000, which was buried on Crabtree's Island in 1776. The parties hiding this treasure were a number of Tories who had stolen it from the Government Treasury in Philadelphia. They were carrying this booty to the British Army. They came up the Delaware Valley, but being closely pursued, they struck into the wilderness of this county and buried the stolen money near here. Crabtree's Island is a knoll of ground situated in a dreary, almost inaccessible swamp, through which courses a dark, sluggish stream called Black Creek."
"Sixty years ago [about 1813], on the authority of an old lady named Lent, now living in Paterson, but who formerly lived in the neighborhood of the spot where the treasure is said to be hidden, a search was made for it by parties who knew that the circumstance of secreting the money was true. They went to Crabtree Island and dug down for twenty feet. At that distance they uncovered an iron chest or case. This, being struck with a pick, sank out of sight in the quicksand.
Instead of continuing the search the men became frightened. It was believed among them that the hidden wealth was "spell-bound," and in case it was ever discovered, if a word was spoken until it was secured, it would disappear [this is a standard element in "buried treasure" folklore across the U.S. and Great Britain]. When the chest was uncovered, the workman who found it exclaimed, "I've got it," and struck it with his pick when it sank from sight.
"The fortune seekers retreated from the spot hurriedly and it was not until about ten years ago  that any further efforts were made to find the treasure. Since that time many expeditions have been made to the place where it is buried, as it seems to be taken for a verity here that the money is actually beneath the sand in the swamp. Parties from Paterson, Newton, and other places have made repeated searches.
Clairvoyants have been employed to reveal the exact spot and the old lady spoken of was brought from Paterson once to point it out, but the country has been so changed by cultivation of the land she could not find the place. Mineral rods have been brought into requisition and at one spot on Crabtree's Island there is actually considerable attraction shown. As this is a noted mineral belt, however, skeptics account this for easily.
"Even yet there are persons hereabouts who firmly believe in the existence of this El Dorado. This coming season  an organized attempt is to be made to unearth the Tories' stolen riches and also to make a vigilant search among the rocks and hills for the traditionary treasures spoken of above."
Alas, to the best of my knowledge all efforts to find the Crabtree Island treasure were in vain. If the story is true, all that gold is still out there.
Which raises an interesting question: in the vast bottomland marshes along Black Creek, where precisely IS Crabtree's Island? My friends, I'm not saying I know, but if I did, I sure wouldn't tell.
This story was adapted from the author's book "Vernon 200: A Bicentennial History of the Township of Vernon, New Jersey." More of Ron Dupont's articles can be read at www.pmrd.blogspot.com.