MIGHTY HISTORY
Daven Hiskey

That time a guy hid actual treasure somewhere in the Rockies

Born on Aug. 22, 1930, in Temple, Texas, Forrest Fenn did not begin his life wealthy, with his father working to support the family via a job as a principal at a local school. Things would change, however, during the latter half of his life thanks to a love of exploring and collecting various artifacts. His first such object was a simple arrow head he found when he was nine years old, something he still has to this day some eight decades later. Said Fenn, "I was exhilarated and it started me on a lifelong adventure of discovering and collecting things."

After finishing school, Fenn decided to do a little exploring on the government's dime, joining the U.S. Air Force in 1950 and traveling the world. Ultimately rising to the rank of Major, as well as flying a remarkable 328 combat missions in one year during Vietnam, he used his free time while in the service to search for artifacts wherever he was. Among many other finds during his time in the Air Force he reportedly discovered such things as a spearhead in the Sahara desert dated to around the 6th century BC and even a jar still filled with olive oil from Ancient Rome.


When he finally retired from the service, he decided to see if he could make a career out of his hobby, opening a shop, Fenn Galleries, with his wife and a business partner, Rex Arrowsmith, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The business ultimately became extremely successful, apparently grossing a whopping $6 million per year in sales at its peak.

Fast-forwarding almost two decades later, in 1987, Fenn's father died of pancreatic cancer. Things got worse the next year when Fenn himself was diagnosed with kidney cancer. During treatment, his doctors told him there was about an 80% chance of his cancer being terminal within a few years.

And so it was that with more money and valuable objects than anyone in his family would need when he was gone, he decided he'd like to use some of his artifacts to inspire people to get out of their homes and go exploring. As he noted a couple decades later in an interview with The Albuquerque Journal in 2013, "I'm trying to get fathers and mothers to go out into the countryside with their children. I want them to get away from the house and away from the TV and the texting."

His method for doing this was, in 1990, to purchase an approximately 800 year old bronze chest for $25,000 (about $48,000 today) and then place inside of it a slew of valuables including rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and emeralds; several antique items including pre-Columbian gold figures; a 2,000 year old necklace; a Spanish ring covered in gems from the 17th century; well over 100 gold nuggets of various sizes; 256 gold coins; and, finally, an autobiography of himself written in ultra small print and encased in a sealed jar. To ensure it could be readily read by the discoverer, he helpfully also included a magnifying glass.

That done, his first idea was to simply wait until he was near death, then leave behind a series of clues to a spot he had picked to go die, lying next to his treasure chest.

Fortunately for him, he survived his cancer, though he would quip surviving "ruined the story".

Now with more life in him, instead of going through with the plan, he simply placed the treasure chest and its valuable contents in his personal vault where it sat, waiting for his cancer to come back so he could execute his plan.

Two decades later and no cancer returning, at the age of 80 in 2010, he figured it was time to put a version of the plan in motion anyway. Thus, he drove somewhere in the Rockies between Santa Fe, New Mexico and the border of Canada, got out of his car and lugged the chest some unknown distance. From here, it is not clear whether he buried it, or simply left it on the surface to be discovered.

Whatever he did, after driving home, he announced what he'd done shortly thereafter in his self-published autobiography called The Thrill of the Chase: A Memoir.

Given this was initially just sold in a bookstore in Sante Fe and he doesn't seem to have otherwise too widely promoted what he'd done beyond locals, as you might imagine, little notice was given at first.

Things all changed, however, when an inflight magazine, who had stumbled on the story who knows how, decided to feature it. A Today's Show producer ultimately read this and decided it would make good fodder for their show in 2013. Not long after this, the story exploded across the news wires and treasure hunters the world over swarmed to the Rockies to find the chest.

Since then, an estimated few hundred thousand people have gone looking for Fenn's treasure. Some even have regular meetups in the Rockies each year to sit around camp fires and enjoy each other's company, while sharing hypotheses of where the treasure might be. Not always wrong, according to Fenn, a few who have emailed him of where they looked have even come within a couple hundred feet of it, implying that they probably correctly identified the starting point he gives in the clues we'll get to shortly.

But nobody has found it yet.

Worse, in the process of searching, at least four people to date have lost their lives — one Jeff Murphy died after falling down a steep slope in Yellowstone. In another case, a Pastor Paris Wallace somehow got swept away in the Rio Grande during his search. In another instance, one Eric Ashby was rafting in Colorado during his search when he drowned. In his case, Ashby apparently specifically moved to Colorado the previous year to devote himself to finding the treasure.

Finally, Randy Bilyeu, who retired from his job as a mechanic to search for the treasure full time, was found along the Rio Grande, though it isn't clear how he died other than the temperatures were below freezing at the time he was searching.

For whatever it's worth, it's also been claimed by Bilyeu's ex-wife, Linda, that a family of an unnamed individual reached out to her to offer their condolences and revealed their loved one had also died searching, but they had chosen not to make that information public. On top of that, it's often mentioned that a Jeff Schulz, who died while hiking in Arizona in 2016, was searching for the treasure, though nothing in his family's memorial to him and Facebook posts seem to mention any such connection, despite it being widely reported.

Whatever the case, in response to these deaths, Fenn, who actually rented a helicopter to help search for Bilyeu when he went missing, continually reiterates that searchers need to remember the treasure is "not in a dangerous place… I was eighty when I hid it…. don't look anywhere where [an]… 80-year-old man can't put something. I'm not that fit. I can't climb 14,000 feet."

This fact also has many speculating that from the starting point where he exited his vehicle might have only been a couple hundred feet given the 42 pounds the chest apparently weighed and his revelation that several people had come within two hundred feet of the chest.

Whatever the case, because of the deaths, and some people's reported obsession with finding the treasure, with a handful of people even bankrupting themselves in the search, Fenn has been asked by certain authorities to retrieve the chest and call off the hunt.

A request Fenn refuses to grant, noting the overall benefit to hundreds of thousands who've got to go on a real treasure hunt in the wilderness. He further states, "I regret that some treasure hunters have invested more in the search than they could afford, although those numbers are small. I also regret that several people have become lost in the winter mountains. . I have said many times that no one should extend themselves beyond their comfort zone, physically or financially."

And as for the addicted, he states this is unavoidable with any activity "in the same way gold miners, gamblers, hunters and baseball fans become addicted."

Naturally, others have claimed it's all one big hoax, such as the aforementioned Linda Bilyeu. Fenn is adamant, however, that it is not and he really did put the treasure chest somewhere in the Rockies.

(Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

As for proof, he offers none but his word. That said, for whatever it's worth a few of his friends have come forward and stated they saw the chest in his vault with the items over the years leading up to 2010 when it suddenly disappeared. For example, a long-time friend of his, noted author Douglas Preston, states he saw the chest and the items, and that "As far as proof goes, there's no proof. It's hard to prove a negative. The negative is that the chest is gone. It's not in his house and it's not in his vault. And also knowing Forrest for as long as I have, I can absolutely say with 100 percent confidence that he would never pull off a hoax. I'm absolutely sure that he hid that treasure chest."

So where is it? As for the main set of clues Fenn has given, they are as follows:

As I have gone alone in there
And with my treasures bold,
I can keep my secret where,
And hint of riches new and old.
Begin it where warm waters halt
And take it in the canyon down,
Not far, but too far to walk.
Put in below the home of Brown.
From there it's no place for the meek,
The end is ever drawing nigh;
There'll be no paddle up your creek,
Just heavy loads and water high.
If you've been wise and found the blaze,
Look quickly down, your quest to cease,
But tarry scant with marvel gaze,
Just take the chest and go in peace.
So why is it that I must go
And leave my trove for all to seek?
The answers I already know,
I've done it tired, and now I'm weak.
So hear me all and listen good,
Your effort will be worth the cold.
If you are brave and in the wood
I give you title to the gold.

Beyond that, he's also mentioned in his autobiography that it is "in the mountains somewhere north of Santa Fe". That the treasure is not in any cemetery or grave (apparently some people were beginning to dig up graves, convinced he left it in one) nor on his property or any of his friends. (This one came out because people kept digging in his and his friend's properties.) He also states it's not in or under any man-made structure nor in a mine. Finally, in 2015, he stated at a certain point that it was wet at the time and surrounded by "wonderful smells, of pine needles or piñon nuts or sagebrush".

In the end, apparently achieving his goal, since the treasure was allegedly placed, many thousands have used it as an inspiration for a fun family vacation in beautiful areas, in most cases seemingly little upset about not actually finding the treasure. As Fenn himself states, even for all who don't find it, "the adventure [is] the greater treasure."

Seemingly concurring, one retired searcher, Cynthia Meachum, has taken over 60 trips into the wilderness to try to find it, stating "You go out, you look, you don't find it, you come back home, you go through your clues again, your solves again and you think, 'Where did I go wrong?' And you go out and you do it again. And I have actually seen some of the most spectacular scenery because of this that I ever would've seen."

Of course, for one lucky individual someday they might just also walk away with a literal, rather than figurative, treasure, which is the hope of Fenn, who states that given the number of people having correctly followed the clues to a point and come so close, he expects someone will find it soon. However, with him now at 89 years old, he may not live to see the day.

(And if you're now wondering, Fenn has also stated that he is the only one who knows the treasure chest's location and he has left no definitive record of its whereabouts other than the already revealed clues.)

Bonus Fact:

Speaking of buried treasure, a back injury and a recommendation by his doctors to take frequent walks saw one Kevin Hillier of Australia deciding to use the time more productively than just exercise, taking strolls through former gold fields with a metal detector. Broke, one night he dreamed he found an endless gold nugget that was so big that it could not be dug out of the ground. The next morning, he drew a picture depicting his dream on a piece of paper and had his friend Russell sign it as a witness for some odd reason.

Whether he made that part up, it was coincidence from having gold on his brain, or indeed prophetic, on Sept. 26, 1980, the dream would come true. After lunch, Kevin and his wife Bip were detecting in opposite directions when Kevin screamed. Rushing to him, Bip found her husband on the ground sobbing while kneeling in front of a tip of a gold nugget that couldn't be pried from the ground directly.

The Hand of Faith, the largest gold nugget in the world.

As a result, they began to dig… and dig and dig until they finally reached the bottom. Lifting it up, they realized what they had found was history. Weighing an astounding 27.2 kilograms (nearly 60 pounds), it was the largest gold nugget ever found by a hand held metal detector and the second largest discovered in Australia in the 20th century. In a recent interview, Bip claimed that the couple had some heavenly intervention, "People will say it was all coincidence and that's fine. But that's my Father up there…and he's interested in everything we do." To them, the rock looked like a hand making a blessing. So, Bip and Kevin named the gold rock the "Hand of Faith."

Scared to tell anyone, they rushed it home and soaked the sixty-pound chunk in the sink. The kids all helped to clean it with toothbrushes. That night, the family slept as the gold sat in a kiddie pool under the parents' bed. After a few days of debate about what to do, they decided to hand the rock over to a trusted friend to take it back to Melbourne for a delivery to the government.

A few days later, at a televised press conference, Victorian Premier Dick Hamer announced the discovery. However, the Hilliers were not there. They were hold up in a motel room watching the press conference on television, refusing to be identified. Said one of the Hillier kids, "Even for years afterwards, we kids never brought it up."

It took several months for the nugget to sell (according to Bip, this was the government's fault and caused the nugget to dip in value as the hype died down a bit), but finally in early February of 1981, with the help of Kovac's Gems & Minerals, it was sold to the appropriately-named Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas for about a million dollars (approximately $2.7 million today).

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.