Century-old Game of Letterboxing Alive and Active on St. John

By Ashley Winchester

“Of mongoose and wild donkeys we have no fear, all thoughts turn to treasure lying near; Look high into the canopy, there’s a termites nest, move along quickly continue your quest; Shiver me timbers and pieces of eight, continue the trail and speed up the rate…”

These cryptic words aren’t directions to find Blackbeard’s booty, but in completion they will lead you to one of 11 treasures hidden on St. John in a century-old game known as letterboxing.

Letterbox hiders place a small weatherproof container filled with a logbook, inkpad and often hand-carved stamp in a place they think others might enjoy discovering and write clues to find it. The clues are posted on the Internet or in some cases distributed among friends, and the hunt begins.

Described as part treasure hunt, part outdoor activity and part artistic outlet, letterboxing on St. John offers seekers a chance to visit little-known places throughout the island.

“It’s a great activity to do besides beaching,” Loretta Dewey, of Croydon, N.H. said. “My daughter, Jesse, and I were in St. John last March [and] we had a ball finding several letterboxes on the island. We have been letterboxing for about three years, and have gone to many off-the-beaten-path places searching for them.”

Dewey and her daughter, who visit St. John “every couple of years,” hid their first letterbox near Annaberg Plantation.

The site evokes intense feelings and memories from her 47 years of visiting St. John, according to Dewey. She wanted to share a spot with other letterboxers that was easily accessible to visitors but hidden from the average onlooker, she added.

Finders have their own personal stamp and logbook, and trade stamped impressions to prove they’ve found the spot. Letterboxers are often known more by their art than they are by their real names, and individual stampers are recognizable over time from place to place.

“While there (on St. John) we visited a box that was planted by the same person who planted one in Block Island, R.I.,” Dewey said. “It was fun to know the same people vacation all over.”

The oldest active letterbox on St. John was placed in February of 2001, but the global hobby is more than a century old. The hobby began on the moors of Dartmoor, England, in the mid-1800s, according to letterboxing.org. Hiders would leave a calling card, letter or postcard or box in a remote location for the next finder to send.

The tradition of leaving postcards has evolved to the stamp exchange, and it is estimated that there are now between 20,000 and 30,000 active letterboxes in the U.S. alone. Where they once relied on maps, poems and pure luck, most letterboxers now use the Internet to find their prize, but the concept remains the same. Regina Sisk, from Boston, enjoys letterboxing with her young children.

“It just makes a hike more fun for us and gives us a little reward,” she said. Sisk and children Kevin, age 4, and Annie, 2, hid their St. John letterbox near Cinnamon Bay, and included a stamp in the shape of a tropical scene carved from the sole of an old flip-flop. Sisk chose her personal stamp, a codfish, to represent her Massachusetts heritage.


This particular stamp and log entry is from a New England letterboxer.

“It is cool to see where all the different far away places people come from in the site logs, and to check out their stamps, which in some cases are super cool and artistic,” Sisk said. “Also, the imprints that you put in your personal books from the various sites sort of create an easy and creative way to remember hikes and various places that you might visit over time.”

There’s also a social aspect of letterboxing. Once a secretive hobby, letterboxing now offers enthusiasts a chance to share their collected art at gatherings and on the Internet by comparing logbooks.

“Connecting with people is one of the most enjoyable aspects of letterboxing,” said Frank and Gail Barber of Georgia. “There are bulletin board sites that facilitate connections and development of an online community of boxers.

Through this community, we have connected with people in different parts of the country and world.”

The Barbers, who go by letterbox names “Paw Paw and Granny,” hid two boxes while on St. John, and found 11 in their most recent visit – nine on St. John and two on St. Thomas. Their personal stamp is a cone flower flanked by two pawprints, and they carved a lizard and a fish for their letterboxes – “Lively Lizard” and “Waterlemon Cay” – on St. John.

“We chose the locations where we planted our two boxes for different reasons,” the Barbers said. “The Lively Lizard is at the ruins across from Cinnamon Bay because we thought there would be good traffic there.”

“We put the box [near] Waterlemon Cay because it is one of our favorite spots,” the couple explained. “We wanted one there because of the beauty of the place.” The couple have visited St. John about four or five times in the past 15 years, where they stay at Maho Bay Campground. The Barbers have placed 13 letterboxes with “about a dozen” in the works.

“It keeps our minds active solving puzzle clues and planning our next hunt for treasure,” they said.

Like the pirates of old, these visitors from the mainland leave their loot hoping to return in time to find their treasure intact, but with the added bonus of a logbook filled with the unique impressions of visitors from throughout the world.

For more information on letterboxing, visit www.letterboxing.org.