I went to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve hoping to strike gold. Instead, I unearthed something else.
Stories of buried fortune at Point Lobos have been circulating since the gold rush, with rumors that prospectors hid their personal bounty for safekeeping underground.
True Tales of the Forty-Niners recounts one unfortunate story of a miner who put thousands of dollars worth of gold dust in a can and buried it near a tree stump. He made himself a precise map and counted his steps, but could never find the can again.
When Robert Louis Stevenson visited Monterey in 1879, shortly after the gold rush peaked, it’s likely that he would have heard those same stories.
The spoiler: I haven’t found buried treasure at Point Lobos, despite years of peeking under the trees on Whaler’s Knoll. A newer quest, perhaps equally misguided, has taken priority: proving that Stevenson based the most famous pirate story, Treasure Island, on Point Lobos, despite its Caribbean setting.
There are reasons to believe it, like the timing: Stevenson was here in the fall of 1879; Treasure Island was published in 1883, after first appearing as a magazine serial in 1881-82.
The first of many film interpretations of Treasure Island, made in 1934, was filmed in part at Point Lobos.
The fact that Pt. Lobos is a peninsula, rather than an island, is no problem. In those days, there were few trees in Carmel and no town, and there would’ve been a clear view across Carmel Bay to Lobos – easily mistaken for an island.
Even more persuasive are descriptions of Treasure Island proffered by Stevenson himself, portraying a setting more like Pt. Lobos than the tropics.
“Grey-coloured woods covered a large part of the surface,” we learn as the Hispaniola sails toward anchor. “This even tint was indeed broken up by streaks of yellow sand-break in the lower lands, and by many tall trees of the pine family, out-topping the others.”
Young Jim Hawkins, the protagonist, finds himself face-to-face with marine mammals as he circles the island. “I beheld huge slimy monsters – soft snails, as it were, of incredible bigness – two or three score of them together, making the rocks to echo with their barkings. I have understood since that they were sea lions, and entirely harmless.”
It’s no surprise other coastal areas stand ready to claim their own turf as the basis for the setting in Stevenson’s book. TreasureIslandTheUntoldStory.com (which accompanies a book of the same name) claims it’s Norman Island, in the British Virgin Islands. And the rocky coast of his native Scotland is a strong contender, too.
A close study of Stevenson’s time in Monterey seemed in order, including a look at his meticulously documented journals – and a detailed accounting of his visit to Monterey in his 1882 book The Amateur Emigrant, in a chapter titled “The Old Pacific Capital.”
There are detailed accounts of walks through Monterey pines and sounds of the surf, but no mention of Pt. Lobos.
Monica Hudson, president of the Robert Louis Stevenson Club of Monterey, is also a Pt. Lobos expert. She’s the author of the 2004 Images of America book on Point Lobos, she leads walking tours there through her California Legacy Tours, and her husband is a direct descendant of Alexander MacMillan Allan, who bought Point Lobos from a developer, lot by lot, beginning in 1898, to keep the land in open space instead of a planned subdivision. (State Parks bought Point Lobos from Allan in 1933.)
Hudson says the odds that Stevenson set foot on Point Lobos are low.
“I’ve done a huge amount of research, and there is no evidence he crossed the Carmel River,” Hudson says. He did visit Carmel Mission and Carmel Valley.
The story of a captain marooning a mutinous crew on a Caribbean island – which was called Dead Men’s Chest – is true. And Stevenson never visited the Caribbean, but the setting could modeled on somewhere else he saw.
More likely, Hudson says: He invented a fictional island for his fictional book, although elements of the story of Dead Men’s Chest were true. (In the book, that’s a line in the spooky pirate tune.)
Stevenson wrote the story, Hudson adds, when he was back home in Scotland, and vacationing when it began to rain relentlessly. He was trapped inside in the rain with his 11-year-old stepson, and they told stories to pass time.
For proof, she points to Stevenson’s own words: “In his own writing, he writes that Treasure Island is an imaginary place.”
Still, she can’t prove it with 100-percent certainty. Just like she can’t prove I won’t find gold if I keep looking.