From fake maps and double crosses to mysterious disappearances and murder, many of America’s hidden treasures have enthralled investigators, adventurers, and casual observers for more than a century.
Some, like one on this list, have been found, while others remain perpetually shrouded in legend, lore, and misinformation.
And though many have long since been forgotten by the general public, some still attract hopeful treasure seekers intent on outsmarting the competition, laughing all the way to the bank and living out the remainder of their days in the limelight.
But that said, more often than not they end up broke, divorced and dejected, and in some cases dead.
Now let’s take a look at a few of America’s most fascinating hidden treasure mysteries.
East Idaho Stagecoach Heist
According to legend, somewhere in a remote corner of eastern Idaho between Virginia City, Montana and Salt Lake City, Utah lies a chest containing almost 800 pounds of gold worth nearly 20 million dollars at today’s prices.
Transported by the Overland Stage Line, the cargo was lost in a brash robbery carried out by a notorious band of Idaho outlaws nicknamed the Picket Coral Gang led by “Big” Dave Updyke – a sheriff in rural Ada County.
It’s thought that Updyke had a man on the inside named either Frank or Fred Williams who may have been the driver, and that he tipped the gang off to where the coach would be and when.
Then on July 26, 1865, armed to the teeth, the crew placed heavy rocks along the path and crept into the scrub to await their prey.
As the coach slowed at the makeshift barricade the outlaws lept from their positions.
Startled, one occupant pulled a revolver and promptly shot off one of the highwaymen’s fingers, but the others unloaded their rifles into the horses and passenger compartment stopping the carriage in its tracks.
Ironically the driver and armed guard both escaped, lending some credence to the theory that they were in on the crime, otherwise they would have been shot by the bandits first.
Either way, the passengers weren’t so lucky.
After the shooting stopped, a professional gambler, a Mormon couple returning from a family visit in Montana, a soldier on his way to visit his parents in California were all found dead inside.
However, one man bound for San Francisco to catch a ship to New Orleans survived by covering himself with a bullet-riddled body and playing dead.
The outlaws got away with the loot, but the survivors made their way back, recounted the harrowing tale, and even identified the culprits.
The insurance company put up a $10,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the thieves and the recovery of the gold, and the manhunt began.
In faraway Arizona lawmen eventually caught up with one of the thieves – a man named Whittmore – who in a state of drunkenness resisted arrest and was gunned down on the spot.
Later it was discovered that Mr. Williams had in fact been working with the gang, but when he was found in Colorado he had but a few measly dollars to his name.
Defiant and tight lipped to the bitter end, he was hanged.
Then it was Updyke’s turn to pay the piper when he was boxed in by a mob of fed up citizen vigilantes while hiding out at a cabin just outside Boise, and like the others he wasn’t exactly living the high life.
“Where’s the gold?” they asked him.
“Go to hell!” he responded.
That sealed the deal, and in another case of swift frontier justice they found a rope, looped it over a stout tree branch and hanged the crooked lawmen by the neck.
So, where’s the treasure?
According to some it’s probably within 15 miles of where the incident took place.
After all, 800 pounds of gold wouldn’t have been easy to transport by horse through rough country without standing out.
In addition, news of the robbery traveled fast, so unloading it would’ve been nearly impossible until the fervor died down, especially since the bars were stamped with traceable numbers from the mint, though they could’ve been melted down.
Undoubtedly some starry eyed treasure seekers are still pouring over first-hand accounts and historical records hoping to uncover a clue to the gold’s location, but for law abiding citizens finding it may not mean outright ownership.
Since the insurer paid for the loss, representatives of the previous owners probably don’t have much of a leg to stand on, but if it is ever found on federal, state or private land…
Well let’s just say whoever finds it better have black market contacts or a darn good lawyer.
The Lost Dutchman Mine
Named by Native Americans who considered them sacred, the Superstition Mountains are spread over nearly 250 square miles (646 square km) less than an hour away from Phoenix and its nearly two million residents.
Peppered with narrow caves, jagged peaks and toppling cliff dwellings, even as late as the mid-19th century the mountains served as strongholds for beleaguered Native Americans mercilessly hunted by a federal government determined to ‘civilize’ the west.
At about the same time a family of Mexican immigrants named Peralta purportedly discovered a rich gold vein running through one of the range’s many mountains, but as the story goes, on their last trip back to Old Mexico with their newfound loot they were ambushed by Apaches.
While a few escaped, most were killed, and the place it happened became known as the Massacre Grounds.
But though the marauding Apaches took the Peralta’s gold, what they apparently left behind was a concealed mine containing riches of epic proportions.
The legend persisted for decades, and though maps of shady origin popped up regularly, most were likely fakes crafted by scammers hellbent on duping dimwitted prospectors with big dreams.
And more interestingly, in circumstances akin to the strange deaths befalling those who dared to enter Tutankaman’s Tomb, over the years numerous treasure seekers have vanished or wound up dead, sometimes in bizarre fashion.
But the legend didn’t take root until the 1870s when German immigrant Jacob Waltz – aka “the Dutchman” – finally found the mine with help from a Peralta family descendent.
Along with partner Jacob Weiser, Waltz is said to have worked the mine for years, hiding numerous caches in secret locations throughout the mountains.
Most stories put the lion’s share of the gold in a hidden cave near well-known Weaver’s Needle, and it’s speculated that on today’s market it’d be worth tens of millions of dollars.
Sadly, poor Weiser didn’t get to enjoy the fruits of his labor, because he turned up dead – killed by either Waltz himself or Apaches depending on which version of the tale you believe.
Aging and dealing with rapidly deteriorating health, Waltz moved to Phoenix where he lived in relative poverty and obscurity with a young caretaker named Julia Thomas.
When he died in 1891, Thomas quit her job and cobbled together a team of gold junkies keen on finding the mine, all of who were driven on by tales of insider information Waltz was said to have given her.
Of course they failed miserably, and to recoup her investment in the expedition Thomas took to hocking her own fake maps.
Though the Lost Dutchman Mine has never been found, according to lore, legend and public record, dozens have died searching for it.
A few notable deaths include that of 35-year-old Jesse Capen who vanished in the Superstitions in 2009.
Officials investigating his disappearance discovered a home full of books, maps, notes and computer files that proved he’d been obsessed with finding the mine for years.
His remains were found three years later lodged in a narrow rock crevice.
Nearly eight centuries before in the summer of 1931, Dr. Adolph Ruth had also set out through the Superstitions in search of the lost treasure, and like Capen he never returned.
In December of the same year searchers found his skull sporting two gaping holes from a .44 caliber revolver.
Ironically, Dr. Ruth was found with a .44 caliber revolver, but none of its cartridges had been fired.
Investigators surmised that Ruth had taken his own life, but it begs the question, was he the first man in the history of the universe to reload after shooting himself in the head twice with a large caliber handgun, or was he murdered?
In a final enigmatic twist, it was reported that Ruth’s checkbook contained a note stating that he’d found the mine, and that he’d written the phrase “veni, vidi, vici.”
Or, I came, I saw, I conquered.
Forest Fenn’s Rocky Mountain Treasure Challenge
The famed Fenn Treasure was the brainchild of author and Santa Fe art dealer Forest Fenn who decided to go out with a bang when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1998.
Born in August of 1930, Fenn was a decorated Air Force pilot who flew over 300 missions in Vietnam.
After retiring, he, his wife and another partner opened a gallery that dealt in Native American artifacts and more contemporary works by artists like Monet and Degas, some of which were purportedly forgeries.
When told that he didn’t have long to live, Fenn set a sensational national treasure hunt in motion by hiding a 22 pound chest of gemstones, precious metals, and jewelry somewhere in the vast Rocky Mountains.
The replica 12th century carved wooden chest featured dramatic images of nights, maidens and scenes from medieval sieges, and it’s contents were reported to be worth as much as $2 million.
By the time he unexpectedly recovered from his near fatal illness in 2010, he’d already started a blog and self-published a 147-page book, both of which were called The Thrill of the Chase.
Through them he used short stories, poems and anecdotes from his life to reveal clues to the treasure’s location which was supposedly secreted away in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming or Montana.
To avoid being pegged as a fraud by detractors who said the whole thing was little more than an elaborate hoax, he claimed that he made no money from book sales.
Meanwhile as the hunt got underway, Fenn ran afoul of officials who claimed he’d violated federal antiquity laws.
The FBI raided his home and apparently found Native American artifacts, human hair and the skull of a ceremonial bison, all of which were confiscated, though no formal charges were ever filed.
Two others caught up in the case committed suicide, and Fenn always blamed the bureau for their deaths.
The search for Fenn’s treasure lasted more than a decade, and officially five people died in pursuit, though some claim the true number is much higher.
At least four residents of Colorado alone perished, including a pastor in 2017 and two snowmobilers who froze to death in a Utah park more recently.
In addition to the deaths a number of searchers were arrested for everything from trespassing, and destruction of property, to camping on public land without a permit, looting and outright theft.
In early 2020 an Indiana man was rescued in Yellowstone National Park after attempting to rappel into an 800 feet (245 m) gorge from a rope tied to a handrail, despite Fenn’s blog stating that climbing wouldn’t be necessary to find the treasure.
For his troubles the man was fined $4,000 and sentenced to a week in the local jail.
In another bizarre scenario, a Pennsylvania man broke into Fenn’s home but was held at gunpoint with the chest he was trying to steal still in his hands until the police arrived.
Fenn was also the subject of at least one lawsuit filed by disgruntled searchers who claimed he’d included intentionally misleading statements in his book and on his blog, though nothing ever came of them.
Then on June 6, 2020, Fenn made a blog post stating that the treasure had been found in a place described as a lush forested section of the Rocky Mountains under a canopy of stars.
In other words, exactly where he’d hidden it 10 years before.
It also stated that he didn’t know the person who found it, but that it was one of his poems that led the tenacious adventurer to the treasure.
Fenn also applauded the thousands of searchers who’d taken part, and on June 16 he released a number of photos including one of himself inspecting the contents of the now weathered chest.
Then in December of the same year, just a month after Fenn’s death, a medical student from Michigan named Jack Stuef came forward to claim his moment of fame as the discoverer of Fenn’s treasure.
In an official statement Steuf said that he’d found it in Wyoming and that he’d keep it in a secure storage vault until he decided to sell it.
But becoming wealthy and famous hasn’t exactly been a giant bowl of rainbow sherbet.
Instead, he’s endured a number of defamatory attacks and multiple lawsuits, mostly from disgruntled searchers sore that he beat them to the punch.
Some even claimed that he’d been secretly working with Fenn from the beginning – an accusation he vehemently denies.
Stuef and his family now live in a guarded building protected by multiple levels of security.