Bill O’Leary - better known as Arawata (now Arawhata) Bill - spent most of his life looking for treasure.
Legends of hidden treasure had circulated around Westland, especially of a sea chest of gold worth £30,000 buried near a river mouth by pirates who had fled the Australian goldfields or of a ruby mine, long since lost.
Neither has ever been found.
William James O’Leary was born October 8, 1865, the second child of a family of eight to Timothy O’Leary from Prince Edwards Island in Canada and Mary O’Connor who came from County Clare, Ireland.
They had come to New Zealand in response to the discovery of gold in Otago.
It was a hard life.
The family lived first at Tuapeka where gold had been found before moving to Weatherstons near Lawrence.
Like a lot of kids at the time O'Leary's formal education was minimal.
He worked on stations in Maniototo county before heading to Queenstown where he started prospecting, moving around South Westland for 14 years before taking a job with the Westland County Council as ferryman on the Waiatoto River. He resigned in 1929 and the rest of his life was spent prospecting the river valley from where he got his nickname.
But his obsession with gold might have come about as the result of a prank. A companion pretended to find a nugget which Bill refused to believe was planted.
O’Leary also claimed to have found - then lost - a ruby mine in the Red Hills area.
He was the perfect bushman, completely self-reliant. Happy with his own company, he was not, however, a hermit. He enjoyed meeting people.
He finally retired in his mid-70s but still made prospecting trips. Still searching.
In 1943 he went into a Dunedin home for the aged but hated the lifestyle and made several attempts to return to Arawhata. He never found any significant gold - or indeed - his ruby mine.
He died in Dunedin Hospital on November 8, 1947. His name lives on as two passes, one in the Mt Aspiring National Park and west of Lake McKerrow bear the O’Leary name.
He is buried in Andersons Bay Cemetery, Dunedin with a simple headstone, funded by a public appeal, that records both his names.
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