Apostle Island Treasure

A mysterious hermit

Early fur trading in the seventeenth century was a booming industry in North America with many types of pelts reaching peak value through demand. By the 1800's this once lucrative industry began to dwindle with animal populations becoming scarce, forcing fur traders into exploring alternate sources of wealth. As fur trading exploded in popularity, trading posts were established across the continent, connecting resources and wealth into a large network. Fur outposts became early stores, reliable for a number of other essentials, changing along with the times. A well known Chequamegon trader, by the name of Benjamin Armstrong had done just this.

Apostle Islands
Apostle Islands

Armstrong opened a store in La Pointe Wisconsin on Madeline Island, then later established a trading post on Oak Island, north of there. Benjamin traded wood to steamships passing through Lake Superior's Apostle Islands, and various goods such as corn and rye with the Chippewa. Around this time, La Pointe was the commercial hub for western Lake Superior. Benjamin's trading prowess introduced his family to a number of people around the Apostle Islands including a mysterious hermit. The fellow lived alone on an island between Madeline and Oak, seldom visiting other islands or the mainland. Rumors about the man, last name Wilson, claimed he was well off with more money in coins than he knew what to do with.

The hermit was first encountered at the boat dock on Oak Island, as Wilson sought to obtain a barrel of whiskey. Benjamin obliged, and even went so far as to help him boat the barrel back and receive payment for doing so. Once there, it became evident Wilson really did have a little wealth, pulling out bags of coins for Armstrong to count. This deal lead to future agreements and Benjamin became a more frequent visitor to trade for hay. During one of Armstrong's routine boat trips in 1861, he noticed a regular burning fire kept by Wilson, was snuffed out. According to his account, chimney smoke ceased, and after two days with no sign of life from the island he traveled with Judge Bell to find out if Wilson was alright. The two found his body in a scene which appeared to be result of foul play and very little trace of any wealth.

Exactly how many gold and silver coins Wilson owned is unknown, as with its whereabouts to this day. A very small stash of coins were found in the cabin after exhaustive searching, but nothing near the amount as his trading seemed to indicate. People have searched around Hermit Island, and other Apostle Islands with hope of discovering the missing fortune. Where did the coins come from, and where did they go? One theory about where Wilson may have obtained his coins stems from history of Hermit Island, well before Wilson set foot on the land and called it home. Almost two-hundred years earlier, at the height of the North American fur trade, the Apostle Islands were bustling with activity. A group of pirates in the area sought to capitalize on industry success by targeting passing vessels and trading operations. The pirates made camp using a cave located somewhere on Hermit Island, and presumably stored plunder obtained from endeavors.

Actual identity of the pirates is unknown, and their demise is mentioned as the result of a poorly planned attack on a French fur trading ship. If the pirates indeed cached treasures on the island, this provides a plausible explanation of where Wilson might have obtained a large amount of wealth beyond trading; by finding a lost pirate treasure stashed on the island. Modern explorers have tirelessly combed the cabin area and surrounding islands without finding a trace of gold. With a near solitary life, it's difficult to determine where Wilson kept his treasure, and there are a number of nooks and shoreline caves throughout the area.