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“Pirate Gold of Adak Island:” The Definition of Fool’s Gold in Alaska

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I think we can agree that it’s evident that “reality TV” is anything but reality nowadays. Maybe in its early stages, “reality TV” had some vestiges of real life – heck, those folks on The Real World and Survivor really did have some spontaneous, quirky experiences. Anymore though, not so much. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Netflix’s Pirate Gold of Adak Island was not only incredibly staged and terribly edited to manufacture drama – but was based on a lie in the first place.

Pirate Gold of Adak Island Hero

Mr. V and I were intrigued to see the show pop up on our suggested list in Netflix, and decided to give it a go. I don’t normally watch documentary-style shows and certainly not reality TV, but I was particularly appalled at Pirate Gold of Adak Island. In the end, I fit the definition of “hate-watching” to finish the show’s eight episodes.

Worst of all, when I dug a bit deeper into the origin story that led someone at Netflix to green-light this warped definition of “reality” TV set in Alaska, I discovered that from the first details of the show’s premise, it’s nothing but fool’s gold: bright and shiny and could be mistaken for something good but ultimately worthless.

What’s the Premise of Pirate Gold of Adak Island?

To save you the time of watching the show – unless you’re totally on board with “reality” TV based on fabrication, in which case, you do you – the basic premise is thus:

In 1892 a pirate buried gold on Adak Island worth over $300,000,000. He died before he could return. Now, a team of skilled treasure hunters seeks to unearth the gold, but the island is riddled with live munitions.

IMDb

Netflix’s synopsis is a bit more mysterious: “Will this expert team unearth legendary pirate treasure? Follow the hunt for buried gold amid the harsh Alaskan wilderness in this documentary series.”

This latter description could perhaps allow me to beg forgiveness for being interested in the first place. Being inspired by (buried) gold (slash-pirate treasure) in the Alaskan wilderness has brought thousands to The Last Frontier over the years – no judgment from me there!

But it’s that IMDb decription that should give you red flags: it’s weirdly specific, and all of the details are spouted off repeatedly by the members of the cast when digging holes all over the island during the show. It’s either true and somehow something I’ve never heard about my home state, or it’s a good story. So I decided to dig deeper.

The Origin Story for Pirate Gold of Adak Island

It took me less than 30 minutes and a few helpful Reddit comments (notably this one) to point me in the right direction. A search on eBay took me one step further, and for $11 including shipping, I bought an original copy of Long John Latham’s True Treasure from October 1971 with a the original story inside. I may not be a journalist in the traditional sense because I run this blog instead of writing for an editor at a publication, but I am happy to hunt down sources and trace ideas back to their roots.

Having read the full story in its original form and publication – “Seal Pirate’s Missing Gold” by Maurice Kildare – it’s easy to see why one might assume it as true. Take the name of the magazine, for a start: True Treasure sort of gives the impression that the stories within must be based in fact, doesn’t it? (In fact, early issues of True Treasure were known for housing almost entirely fiction.)

Kildare’s story is equally rich in detail so as to suggest its accuracy and truth, but even the author’s name is not reality. “Maurice Kildare” was one of several pseudonyms used by Gladwell Richardson (1903-1980), a man known for his ability to weave incredibly rich, believable stories about treasure and adventure across the American West. (Other fantastic events and locations – including the Apache Death Cave and 1883 Bisbee Massacre – are fanciful tales loosely based on lone facts or more often outright fiction.)

This is no insult against Mr. Richardson; he was one of the most prolific Western writers of the 20th century and his name deserves more recognition than it has. Put together, however, alarm bells should be ringing, or your bullshit detector should be going off – however you want to put it.

We have a man known for writing fiction about treasure and adventure publish in a magazine known for publishing fiction about treasure and adventure… you can do the math. And Netflix thought this made a good premise for a reality TV show about Alaska.

(To be fair, it appears as though some of the showrunners actually seeded the internet with blog posts and forum discussions about the treasure for a few years preceeding the show – probably in a bid to make it all seem more believable that it might be real. Redditors far more experienced at internet searching than me have found no evidence anywhere online before the mid-2010s, and only one mention of the lost treasure in a book for kids about cryptids and similar ‘mysteries’ from 1994, so take that as you will…)

My point is this: it is almost certainly the case that the story of the “pirate gold of Adak Island” is fiction. I could dive deeper – I actually considered doing a few FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests to try and verify or disprove some of the details in Kildare’s story… – but it seems clear enough to me. Therefore, this “reality” show is based on a story that took me less than an hour and less than $20 to verify was fake.

But Don’t They Find Gold on Adak Island?

Ah, dear reader, yes, they do find gold; two gold coins if memory serves. While I’ll reserve judgment as I wasn’t there in person, I think we can all agree that the scenes both have that sheen of reality TV about them. Maybe there is gold on Adak Island, but I hope you’ll agree that it’s probably not there because of some seal pirate who didn’t exist in the first place.

Will There Be Another Season of Pirate Gold of Adak Island?

Oh gosh, I hope not.

Don’t get me wrong: I love any show that gets people excited about visiting Alaska someday. While I was “hate-watching” Pirate Gold of Adak Island with regard to the general premise, even I am now sold on trying to visit Adak Island and the rest of the Aleutians someday – hopefully soon!

I just don’t appreciate being lied to, which is what this show does to the audience. There’s no verification, no fact-checking, no questioning the official story told by the main members of the cast. Netflix should have verified, and if they went ahead to green-light the project, they could have at least let the audience know somehow that it was likely a fiction. Instead, they do a dumb cliffhanger looking at a fence with the cast voice-over that the gold must be out there somewhere…

There’s no gold. Stop it.

What Reality TV Set in Alaska Should I Watch Instead?

As I mentioned at the top, I don’t watch reality TV in general, but luckily, the V&V community does – and they love Alaska almost as much as I do! I asked over on my Facebook page, and here are some of the best reality TV series set in Alaska that were recommended in response:

Hopefully, with this list, you can find something more enjoyable – and more based in the history and reality of life in Alaska – to watch instead.

Have any questions? Wanna debate my research? The comments are open for your thoughts and feedback!

Help others discover this post too!

I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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