Judge Cooper off for Pirates' Treasure Isle of Palmyra

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Judge Cooper off for Pirates' Treasure Isle of Palmyra


This shorter but detailed article covers some interesting topics of Palmyra's history up to that point, including the possible treasure buried there, the disputes over ownership, and a mention of a possible Jack London story based on Palmyra.

The highlight of the piece is a wonderful picture of Cooper himself aboard his ship, manning the helm in preparation for sailing to Palmyra to look for the treasure.




Honolulu Star-Advertiser




Public Domain





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When Judge Henry E. Cooper comes back from his cruise in the South Seas with Capt. F.C. Miller perhaps he will have on board the schooner the millions in gold and silver which are supposed to be buried on the island of Palmyra, which the Judge has just acquired for $750. This is the island which forms the scene of an amusing treasure story which Jack London wrote for a recent issue of the Saturday Evening Post and which was told by Captain Walker, in this paper, several years ago.

In going over some documents at the bureau of conveyances yesterday, Registrar Charles H. Merriam came across one filed last June by virtue of which the judge of the circuit court secured the island from Mrs. Elsie M. Wundenberg, widow of the late F.W. Wundenberg of this city. In consideration of the sum of $750 the deed recites that Mrs. Wundenberg does “hereby release and forever quitclaim unto the said Henry E. Cooper, the island of Palmyra, situate in the Pacific Ocean in longitude 161 deg. 53 min. west and latitude 6 deg. 4 min. north, or thereabouts, being the same premises conveyed to the said F.W. Wundenberg by deed of W.A. Kinney, dated the 3rd day of March, 1890.”

Attorney E. I. Spalding represented Mrs. Wundenberg in the transaction.

Price Goes Up

The late Mr. Wundenberg secured the property from Kinney for $500, so that the price has gone up $250 since the last transaction. Kinney sold out at a loss, for he obtained the island in 1886 from W.F. Allen, trustee of the Pacific Navigation Company, for $750, the same amount that the judge paid.

The Pacific Navigation Company obtained the property from W.L. Wilcox on July 18, 1885, for “one dollar and other valuable considerations.” Wilcox had previously secured the island for $550 from Henry Kahaawinui, who was the husband of Kalama, who was the widow of Johnson Beswick Wilkinson of Auckland, New Zealand. J. Kaikala was also one of the persons who sold to Wilcox.

The recitals in the list last deed show that the island was devised to Kalama by Wilkinson under a will admitted to probate before the supreme court of New Zealand, June 29, 1866. The island had been taken possession of in 1862 by the Hawaiian government, which claimed practically everything in sight and out of sight in the South Seas, but at the time of the probating of the Wilkinson will it was evidently considered as belonging to the British crown, which also had a little habit of claiming all the land floating around in the Pacific or anchored by coral strands.

Port of Honolulu

Of course, all the outlying islands composing the Palmyra group belong to the United States and, as a matter of fact, Judge Cooper’s new acquisition is officially known as part of the county of Honolulu. The treasure which is supposed to be on the island is said to have been taken from the Spanish ship Esperanza, which was captured by pirates shortly after leaving Peru in 1816. The Esperanza, six weeks after her capture, struck on sunken coral somewhere in the middle of the Pacific. The pirates built a small vessel from the wreck upon which they are alleged to have placed about a million and a half in gold. The silver “was buried in a secure place.” according to the ancient legend, with some gold.

This “secure place” is supposed to have been Palmyra Island. Capt. F.D. walker related the story of the buried treasure in The Advertiser several years ago. An English pirate ship, the Santa Rosa, was fitted out in England to search for the treasure and it has been declared by some romanticists that the crew got some of the buried wealth.

Jack London based his recent yarn on an amusing experience which the crew of the Santa Rosa had with King Kamehameha here, but London took a novelist’s license with the story. Capt. F.D. Walker related it as follows:

Kamehameha Got Gold

“Kamehameha’s financial transaction with the crew of the Santa Rosa was particularly amusing. It seems by a fortunate coincidence e the king had a cargo of rum just arrived, which he carefully bottled off. On the arrival of the pirate ship, rum being evidently in demand, his price was one coin per bottle. As soon as all their silver coin was expended the Santa Rosa crew produced five peso gold pieces and clearly explained that the gold piece was worth five times as much as one silver piece, and therefore demanded five bottles of rum.

“This the king would not assent to; ‘one coin one bottle,’ he said. The crew therefore thought they would submit but cut the gold into five pieces. This the king would not accept. He said he could not cut his bottles into five, so, as there was no alternative, the crew had to give way. Soon there was nothing but doubloons - still one coin, one bottle demanded the king. Then came the bar silver.”

Jack London took that transaction, which the story-tellers say occurred at Honolulu, and transferred it over to Palmyra. Perhaps Judge Cooper, when he gets to his island, will exclaim, “Yo, ho! and a bottle of rum!” in true pirate style. At any rate he will be monarch of all he surveys, for he owns the island.

Original Format



“Judge Cooper off for Pirates' Treasure Isle of Palmyra,” Palmyra Archive, accessed October 31, 2020, http://palmyraarchive.org/items/show/122.


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