Sanibel Island on Florida’s west coast is rich in history, with a long and diverse past. But even this sun-drenched tropical island has dark and mysterious skeletons in the closet, which are best kept buried. And one of the most mysterious chapters in the island’s history is the bizarre story of Captain Oliver F. Bowen.
Oliver Bowen was born in 1828 in the Deep South, and as a young man became a Mississippi River boat pilot. When the Civil War broke out, young Bowen joined the Confederacy as a river pilot, running men, supplies, and treasure past Union blockades. After the war ended, Captain Bowen left the U.S. to seek his fortune plying the waters between the West Indies and Africa. During these years, he may have taken part in some dark dealings, possibly including piracy, human trafficking or smuggling. Little is actually certain about his activities in the postwar era, but there is a record that he spent a short period as a supervisor at a South African diamond mine.
While Bowen left after the war with very little, he soon returned a man of some considerable means. He made his home on Sanibel Island as a homesteader, intent on starting an agave plantation. He arrived with his new wife, Mary Dos Santos, whom he met and married in Trinidad. He also brought all the supplies he would need to build his estate, including timber and slate roof tiles, as well as a substantial crop of agave imported from Trinidad. Dos Santos took care of most of the estate at Wulfert, while Oliver spent his days lazing around or experimenting with the agave and other exotic plants with Thomas Edison.
By this time, surely many Sanibel residents wondered just where Captain Bowen made and stashed his fortune, and speculation was rampant that he had a treasure in stolen diamonds and gold from smuggling and other illicit activities. This speculation might have been further fueled by Captain Bowen’s eccentric behavior.
He soon began construction of a deep well on his property and was seen guarding it day and night from a hammock that he strung directly over the mouth of the well. When Bowen died unexpectedly and mysteriously, he was buried in this well by his wife. Dos Santos claimed that her husband’s last wishes were to be buried in the well, which would then be filled in and the location kept secret. Many may have wondered if Bowen was murdered for the treasure, and his body dumped into the well to cover up the crime. Others may have believed the treasure was still hidden in or beneath his coffin in the well, waiting to be discovered.
Dos Santos and her children returned to the West Indies soon after Bowen’s death, but several years later, two of Bowen’s sons were observed returning to Sanibel with two other men. Witnesses reported seeing the group headed to the site of the former homestead with shovels and other excavating tools. Shortly thereafter, the four men were again seen leaving the island carrying what was described as “bulging suitcases.”
Could this have been the treasure? Were the suitcases filled with millions in diamonds and gold, as many speculated? Did Bowen’s sons rob their own father’s grave? What is certain is that none of the Bowens ever returned to the island again, except for son Albert, who came back nearly 60 years later to erect a tombstone in his father’s memory. This tombstone can still be found in the Wulfert area, and is now a registered historic landmark.
Surprisingly, this was still not the end of the strange events surrounding Captain Bowen. More than 20 years after the tombstone was erected, in July of 1982, a journalist received a call from a family who had been exploring the area. It seems they had stumbled across the tombstone of Oliver Bowen and found grave robbers had recently dug up the coffin. It is likely that these grave robbers were searching for the lost treasure and may have been disturbed in the act. The Sanibel Police were called and found that the coffin was still intact and still contained the remains of Captain Bowen, but no treasure was found.
In the more than 100 years since Bowen’s mysterious death, many people have reported eerie sensations while out in this area, as if they are being watched, even during daylight hours. Others have seen strange unexplained lights and shadows among the agave and palmettos late at night, said to be the ghost of Captain Bowen looking for his stolen treasure.
Captain Bowen’s Grave is now a historic landmark, but is rarely visited by anyone other than the snakes, alligators, and coyotes that live in the adjacent wildlife preserve. There is no clear path to the grave marker, and only the most dedicated adventures can find it hidden among the dense tropical undergrowth of the Wulfert area of Sanibel Island.