We’d put some serious money on every person in the world having two fantasies: super powers and finding buried treasure. But until we figure out exactly how to harness gamma radiation and spider bites, only one of those is something you could actually accomplish in your lifetime. The good news is finding buried treasure might not be as difficult or limited to 80’s movies as it sounds. There are enough local legends, ancient texts, and conspiratorial histories out there that, to us, people aren’t tripping over a hidden chest of emeralds every time they take a quick stroll through the woods. In fact, this might be the last feature we write. Early retirement is only a metal detector and shovel away.
Captain Kidd’s Treasure
We’ll admit The Goonies was a big reason we wanted to write this article. The cliché of buried pirate treasure is something you think about no matter how old you are, so we’re constantly wondering if there’s the remotest possibility that anyone like One-Eyed Willie existed. Turns out the answer is yes and his treasure’s in New Jersey (probably).
It’s almost a guarantee you’ve heard the name Captain Kidd before, but you might not know much about him. The short version is, he got his start as a privateer, which was a government sanctioned pirate. He tried to attack only French ships, but after his crew mutinied against that idea, he decided to just attack everyone. That’s where they started to make some real money. He was eventually captured, because that’s what happens when you murder your way across the Atlantic Ocean.
The British weren’t able to recover everything Kidd stole and for about 300 years now, treasure hunters have been attempting to locate the rest of the loot. Research has narrowed down the locations of other buried treasure to four spots, but we’ll tell you number one.
Cliffwood Beach in New Jersey is interesting to treasure hunters because it’s centered between where Kidd’s Rangers used to stand. Kidd’s Rangers were two giant elm trees Kidd used to guide the captain back to his gold and both stood until very recently. So these trees are a matter of historical record, not pirate mythology.
In Cliffwood Beach, there are two possibilities for hiding places. The first was a small island called Money Island, named after 17th century Spanish coins that were found on it. Sadly, the island doesn’t exist today, as it was completely eroded by Raritan Bay. But really all that means is, if the gold is there, it’s harder to get to, but not inaccessible. If it’s not there, it may be inland near Treasure Lake, which is kind of self-explanatory. Link
The Lost Ship in the Desert
If you ask us, one of the world’s most criminally underrated movies is Sahara. The reason we bring that movie up has two parts. The first part is the movie centers around looking for a lost ship in the desert, which is exactly what this entry is about. The second is we will look for, and take, any opportunity to defend that movie. The McConaissance was real and it started in 2005.
There’s too much to this one to be entirely false. Claims of seeing a sea-faring vessel stranded in the Salton Sea Basin have been repeated by American Indians, Spanish explorers, regular explorers, migrants, and treasure hunters for centuries. Generally, that diverse a group of people don’t agree on something unless there’s some truth to it. Add on the fact that we have modern examples of large ships getting stranded in deserts and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that 16th Century Spanish explorers hit some of the same problems.
It becomes even less wild of a claim when you look at geography. As the story goes, a Spanish vessel sailed up into the Salton Sea, possibly riding a tidal bore, a surge of water that moves against a river’s normal flow. When they went to return the way they came, the waters had receded back over the natural dam, leaving the vessel stranded in the sea. This happened as recently as 1922, and would still be happening if people hadn’t completely drained the river.
There’s the added support that the Los Angeles Star reported the ship as found in December, 1870, as the result of an expedition by Charley Clusker. Although Clusker also disappeared when he set out on a return journey, that initial report’s a decent positive affirmation that the ship exists.
In another story, a traveler who came upon the ship one night found pearls beyond imagination. He filled his pockets and sped to the local mission. The traveler wasn’t able to find the ship again, but his conviction was enough that he spent his whole life trying. While that might not be as reliable a source as the Star, we’ll still take it as a pretty good indication that the ship’s real, if elusive.
A quick note; most accounts agree the ship is Spanish, though other, less likely explanations point to King Solomon’s navy, one of the lost tribes of Israel, sailors from the Indian Ocean, or a roving band of pirates. No matter what this ship is, its recorded discovery would be enough to net you millions in notoriety, book, and movie deals. Plus you’d get to feel like Matthew McConaughey for at least a little while. Link
Forrest Fenn’s Treasure
This treasure hunt follows the template for a Hollywood kid’s movie exactly. It’s some kind of chest, hidden in the wilderness, with any clues for its location coming primarily from a purposefully obscure poem. There’s almost too much cliché here to be true, but people’s confidence in its existence seems unshakable, especially since Forrest Fenn is still alive and told CBS about the treasure.
What we know about the location isn’t much at all. It’s in the Rockies in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, or New Mexico. So yeah, that rules out most of the states, but the ones that are left are pretty goddamn big. Also, it’s not in a mine, which is helpful but also not.
Fenn says there’s 265 gold coins and hundreds of gold nuggets. The chest’s precise worth isn’t known, since Fenn’s the only one who knows exactly what’s inside. The contents come from Fenn’s career as a collector of antique artifacts, so not only is this a treasure worth millions, but this is a treasure worth millions hidden by a guy who knows what he’s talking about.
The motivation behind hiding the treasure was about as altruistic as they come, Fenn mostly being motivated by his own enjoyment of collecting. He hopes the treasure is found by a family who has gone looking multiple times, making the search more of a family bonding experience than a quest for gold and glory. That’s about as heartwarming as these things get. Most of the other stories we hear are about doomed ships, cursed pirates, and blood-soaked battlefields. Link
The Beale Ciphers
We were surprised that it took so long for the word “hoax” to pop up, but for most of what we saw in our research, even for stashes we didn’t include, hoaxes just didn’t appear often. We guess it’s because people just know there are some lines you shouldn’t cross.
But just because this is the first one where the word “hoax” appeared doesn’t mean we believe it. This story’s as convincing as the other ones and we’re not ready to give up that sense of childlike wonder at the possibility of decoding a 150-year-old mystery.
The Beale Ciphers were three coded messages found in a box that originally belonged to Thomas J. Beale and supposedly referred to a treasure Beale discovered in a mine north of Santa Fe. Beale and his companions moved the treasure to Bedford County, VA, where Beale gave Robert Morriss, trusted friend and local innkeeper, a box to be opened if Morriss didn’t hear from Beale for a decade.
Two decades later, because Morriss was either a bad friend or waited an extra decade for each extra s in his name, he opened the box. When he and a friend couldn’t decipher the papers inside, only figuring out the one about the contents of the treasure, they published “The Beale Papers.” It was a pamphlet aimed to spread news of the treasure as far as possible, basically crowdsourcing the deciphering. It didn’t work, which you already knew because this article wasn’t titled “Treasure Hunts You Can’t Go On Because Someone Else Already Found All the Stuff.” Link
It’s a little funny that movie characters are constantly looking for Biblical treasures but, for all the things the Bible includes, it doesn’t have any treasure hunts. We guess it’s because, in the Bible, Moses was just handed the Ten Commandments and when Jesus went on his quest for the Holy Grail he was just picking out a cup.
But Biblical treasure hunts bring up to The Copper Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was found in 1952 and was one of the only scrolls that was found where it was originally hidden. When archaeologists finally got it unrolled and translated, they realized the scroll wasn’t a lost religious text, like the others, but was a list of ancient treasure. Gold and silver quantities and locations were recorded in a laundry list, making this one of the most straightforward treasure retrievals in history.
That is, it would have been, if they could properly translate it. The scroll, like the other Dead Sea Scrolls, was written in Ancient Hebrew, but since most of our knowledge of Ancient Hebrew comes from religious texts, and this scroll wasn’t religious, there are quite a few words that we have no way of translating. So what should have been a point and dig operation quickly became a frustrating exercise in futility.
For example, one of the more complete sentences from the scroll is this: “In the Second Enclosure, in the underground passage that looks east.” Which is common knowledge for someone who lived 2,000 years ago, but is basically useless to us now. It’s like giving directions to somewhere based on Funcoland locations. That works great in the early 2000s, but every day there are less and less modern people who remember.
It’s a fairly safe bet that most of the treasure the scroll lists is still where it was originally stored, but without some kind of Ancient Hebrew Rosetta Stone, for now, we’re shit outta luck. Not that we should let that stop us. Link
The Tomb of Qin Shi Huang
This might be the most honest entry on the list, since it’s the only historical one that doesn’t come with the unspoken caveat of possibly not being real or exciting. We know it’s real because we’re in the process of excavating it, and it’s exciting because there’s no reason to doubt what the ancient Chinese claimed about the crazy scale of the tomb. On the other hand, the hunting part is over, so while there’s still more to discover, that’s mostly up to archaeologists now. On the third hand, this is literally an ancient, booby trapped Chinese emperor’s tomb and if that doesn’t fit on this list, then nothing does.
The quick history on Qin Shi Huang is, about 2,200 hundred years ago, he unified the different warring factions of China and declared himself the first Chinese emperor. From there he got super rich and died.
After he died, he was buried in a city-sized underground cavern complex filled with clay reproductions of all the concubines, armies, bureaucrats, and servants he could possibly need in the afterlife. If you’ve seen the terracotta soldiers the History channel loves to fantasize about, you’ve seen the population of Huang’s tomb.
The major hurdle left for the excavation is how to deal with the reported river of mercury around Huang’s tomb. If that was a set piece in a movie, people would dismiss it as ridiculous, yet that’s exactly what archaeologists expect to find. All they have to do is figure out how to not have it poison the area’s water supply.
This is an archaeological project that’s been going on in some form or another since the 1970s and no one expects it to be ending any time soon. As far as legitimate, lucrative tomb raiding goes, this is the project you want to get in on. Link
And One for Fun
None of us are going to find any of the rich stuff listed here. Decode the poems and riddles, pore over all the archaic maps and ancient scripture you want to, sweep miles of beach with a metal detector. We won’t stop you. Hell, we’ll compile a list of equipment recommendations if enough of you want something like that. But in all likelihood, a few articles and books and futile searches are the closest we’re going to get to these treasures.
But if it’s the searching you enjoy, try Geocaching. It’s all the fun of a treasure hunt with the added bonus of actually finding something. Sure, what you find probably isn’t going to be a few million dollars worth of conspiracy gold, but, at the end of it, you’re not going home empty-handed.
There’s also no financial investment like in historical treasure hunting. You don’t need much for the activity beyond what you’d already have with you if you’re going for a daytime hike. Besides good shoes, water, a GPS (in the form of your smartphone) and plenty of time, the only thing you have to bring with you is some kind of toy or trinket to trade when you find the cache.
It’s an easy, rewarding way to spend the day. When you first find that tupperware container or old metal box hidden in a rotting tree stump, everything you liked about adventure movies comes back and reminds you why people buried treasure in the first place. Link