11 Treasure Hunting Tales

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There’s a reason countless tales have centered around the search for buried treasure. Not only do tales like Indiana Jones and Treasure Island appeal to our desire for wealth and adventure, sometimes they’re based in truth. Here are a few times intrepid explorers have struck it rich—and a few priceless hoards that are still out there for the finding.


1. Nuestra Señora de Atocha

In 1622, a fleet of Spanish ships battled a hurricane and lost, settling at the bottom of the sea among the Florida Keys. This included Nuestra Señora de Atocha, “Our Lady of Atocha,” which was carrying copper, silver, gold, tobacco, gems, and jewelry. The Spanish tried and failed to recover the lost valuables, so the wreck remained in the deep until 1985, when treasure hunter Mel Fisher found it after years of searching. The “Atocha Mother Lode” amounted to more than 40 tons of silver and gold, including Colombian emeralds, 1000 silver bars, artifacts made of precious metals, and more than 100,000 pieces of eight. So far, the spoils have reached about 450 million dollars—and they’re still excavating.

You can actually search the Atocha for yourself. For a fee, Fisher’s family leads dives of the wreck, letting divers take home “up to $3000 in authentic shipwreck treasure.”

2. The S.S. Central America

Photo courtesy of SSCentralAmerica.com

Two hundred and thirty five years later, the S.S. Central America also fell victim to a hurricane, this one off the North Carolina coast on September 11, 1857. Roughly 425 people sank to a watery grave, as well as 21 tons of gold valued at about $2 million. It stayed there for 131 years, until an Ohio treasure hunter named Tommy Thompson found the vessel with his crew in 1988. Gold that later sold for $50-$60 million was recovered, but those involved say that only 5 percent of the ship was excavated, leaving untold riches left on the ocean floor. In 2012, amid disputes over who or what company the gold really belonged to—39 insurance companies have put in claims—Thompson disappeared. His lawyer has said that Thompson is “at sea” and will be notified of impending charges and warrants when he returns.

Just for context as to how much this wreck is worth, an anonymous man identified only as a “Forbes 400 executive” bought an 80-pound brick of gold recovered from the wreck for $8 million in 2001.

Found, Sort Of

3. The RMS Republic

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Had the Titanic’s future passengers been paying attention to the White Star Line’s track record, they could have avoided their fateful trip. Three years before the “unsinkable” luxury liner set sail, the White Star Line lost the RMS Republic when it sank 50 miles off the coast of Nantucket after it was struck by the SS Florida. With the exception of three unlucky passengers, everyone on the Republic made it safely off of the ship. The cargo did not, however, and treasure hunters have been searching for it ever since. Though the exact contents are unknown, legend persists that $3,000,000 in freshly-minted American Gold Eagle coins lay at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Why that much money was on the ship is another unknown, but theories include earthquake relief for Messina, Italy, and payment on a loan from the Imperial Russian government.

The lost ship was rediscovered by Captain Martin Bayerle in 1981. Though they’ve attempted recovery efforts several times, the money has yet to turn up. Bayerle does have a legal claim to the wreckage and its contents, so although millions of dollars worth of coins could legitimately be there for the finding, they’re not really there for you to take.

Still Missing

4. Yamashita’s Gold

The Nazis weren’t the only ones hiding precious metals and art during WWII. It’s rumored that Japanese forces stashed large amounts of gold somewhere in the Philippines in the early 1940s, where it has remained hidden for the better part of a century. Named after Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita, the loot allegedly consists of a wide variety of valuables taken from banks, churches, museums, and private homes, among other places. After a brief stop in Singapore, Yamashita’s gold was ferried to the Philippines, where higher-ups believed it would be safe until the end of the war. It wasn’t. Some researchers believe that the American military was able to recover most of it and used it fund Cold War operations. Others say there’s no evidence to suggest that there’s any booty at all, let alone the massive quantities purported to be hidden.

Stories were still swirling as late as 1992, when Imelda Marcos claimed that her late husband's wealth came from finding Yamashita’s gold, not from embezzlement or kickbacks. According to a man named Rogelio Roxas, that’s true. In 1988, he filed a lawsuit saying that he found Marcos’ stash, then was incarcerated and badly beaten for his trouble.

5. The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine

Photo courtesy of the USDA Forest Service

There's gold in them thar hills. Maybe. The Lost Dutchman is arguably the most famous lost mine in the U.S. It’s so lost, in fact, that people can’t even seem to agree what state it’s in—could be Colorado, California, or Arizona. If some intrepid explorer could pinpoint its location, though, the gold vein there could be very lucrative. Many believe the mine can be found somewhere in the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix, but who it belongs to and how it was discovered is where the story veers wildly off course. Some say the Apache tribe claimed it 150 years ago; another tale has a Dr. Thorne stumbling upon the mine while he was under Navajo captivity. A third version says a couple of U.S. Army soldiers discovered it, then mysteriously turned up decapitated shortly thereafter. Several other semi-mysterious deaths have been recorded over the years, including one as recently as 2012. If you head out to the Superstition Mountains to seek the vein out for yourself, don’t let your guard down.

6. Treasure of the Llanganatis

Back in the 16th century, Spanish commander Francisco Pizarro captured an Inca king named Atahualpa (pictured). Atahualpa swore that he would fill an entire room full of gold and gilded treasures if Pizarro would let him go. Pizarro agreed. While the gold was en route, Pizarro went back on his word and had the king garroted on July 26, 1533. When the gold couriers heard that their journey was worthless, they dumped the treasure in a secret mountain cave to be concealed for hundreds of years.

The gold allegedly turned up in 1850, when English botanist Richard Spruce said he had discovered written directions and a map to the cave. In 1886, treasure hunter Barth Blake (the perfect name for a treasure hunter, don’t you think?) used the documents to locate Atahualpa’s gold, writing, “There are thousands of gold and silver pieces of Inca and pre-Inca handicraft, the most beautiful goldsmith works you are not able to imagine.” He wrote about priceless jewelry and vases full of emeralds, so many riches that a thousand men couldn’t carry them out. Blake presumably took what he could carry, but mysteriously disappeared on his way back to New York.

Modern-day archaeologists agree that the map Spruce found does send explorers to a cluster of mines in the Llanganate mountains, but aren’t sure that a real-life Cave of Wonders really exists. The real find, says the National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence, would be discovering Inca sites and and learning more about their presence in the mountains—which is exactly what happened last year

7. The Beale Ciphers

Whether you’re a Nicolas Cage fan or not, National Treasure may have been on to something. The Beale Ciphers are a set of three ciphertexts that, when solved, will reveal the secret location of a cache of gold, silver, and jewels worth up to $63 million. As legend has it, Thomas Jefferson Beale and a couple of cohorts found a cache of gold and silver while on expedition in the American southwest. They hauled it all home to Virginia, hid it somewhere in Bedford County, then left a box containing an encrypted text with a local innkeeper, instructing him to open it only if none of them returned for it in 10 years. After a decade passed, the innkeeper opened the box and had a friend help him with the ciphers inside. The friend was able to decode one, which is where National Treasure comes in. The innkeeper’s buddy somehow realized that cipher #2 was a book cipher, and the words within corresponded to a particular version of the Declaration of Independence. Here’s what it said:

I have deposited, in the county of Bedford, about four miles from Buford's, in an excavation or vault, six feet below the surface of the ground, the following articles, belonging jointly to the parties whose names are given in number 3, herewith. The first deposit consisted of one thousand and fourteen pounds of gold, and three thousand eight hundred and twelve pounds of silver, deposited November, 1819. The second was made December, 1821, and consisted of nineteen hundred and seven pounds of gold, and twelve hundred and eighty-eight pounds of silver; also jewels, obtained in St. Louis in exchange for silver to save transportation, and valued at $13,000. The above is securely packed in iron pots, with iron covers. The vault is roughly lined with stone, and the vessels rest on solid stone, and are covered with others. Paper number 1 describes the exact locality of the vault, so that no difficulty will be had in finding it.

The other two ciphers remain a mystery to this day. Though some believe the whole thing is an elaborate hoax, feel free to give decoding it a shot. It could be worth your while!

Cipher 1
Cipher 2: (Already decoded)
Cipher 3

8. The Barber Dimes

Photo courtesy of Cointrackers

In 1907, a shipment carrying six barrels of fresh Barber dimes left Denver, headed for Phoenix. They never arrived. No one knows what happened to the dimes or the men driving the wagons, but some believe the wagon tumbled down into Colorado’s Black Canyon, home to some of the steepest cliffs in North America. Anyone willing to brave those cliffs and crags could be handsomely rewarded, though—it’s estimated that the six barrels of Barbers would be worth at least $3,000,000 today.

9. Oak Island

If you think The Money Pit is just an awesome ‘80s movie starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long, you must not be from Nova Scotia. In 1795, a man named Daniel McGinnis discovered a pit, believed to be man made, on Oak Island on the south shore of Nova Scotia. Someone had installed a solid oak floor every 10 feet down in the pit. After 30 feet, McGinnis and his pals gave up the dig. It was the beginning of a mystery that still hasn’t been solved today.

Many people—including a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt—tried to excavate the pit, to no avail. Six people have died trying to get to the bottom of the pit ... and the mystery.

What’s down there that required such elaborate concealment? No one knows for sure, but a cipher found on a slab of stone about 90 feet down declares that “Forty feet below two million pounds is buried.” Some believe the pit holds the pirate treasure of Captain Kidd or Blackbeard; others think Marie Antoinette’s missing jewels somehow ended up there. There’s a Holy Grail theory, and at least one suggestion that the pit contains not real treasure, but proof that Francis Bacon was the author of Shakespeare’s plays.

These days, Oak Island is the subject of a reality show on the History Channel called The Curse of Oak Island. At the end of the first season, the brothers who now own the island supposedly find a Spanish coin from the 1600s. To be continued?

10. Confederate Gold

On May 24, 1865, a couple of gold-filled wagon trains containing the last bit of the Confederate treasury were robbed. Though the “official” story is that Confederate President Jefferson Davis intended to repay the Confederate loan from France, many speculate that the South was just trying to hide the last of its reserves from the North so it could use it to rise again someday.

The wagons were hijacked about 100 yards away from the Chennault plantation near Washington, Georgia, where Davis held his last cabinet meeting. Though Union soldiers searched for the missing stash and even interrogated the Chennault family, the money never turned up. Over time, rumors began to circulate that the gold never made it any further than the property. It’s said that even today, gold coins have been found along the dirt roads near the plantation when there’s a heavy rain. If you're thinking about treasure hunting, though, mind where you're digging: the Chennault plantation is still privately owned, and the owners probably don't care for people aerating their lawn.

11. Dutch Schultz’ Lost Treasure

Shortly before his death in 1935, New York mobster Dutch Schultz loaded $7 million in cash, bonds, and diamonds into a waterproof safe, then buried it somewhere in the Catskills on the banks of the Esopus Creek. He was gunned down by a hitman not long afterward, leaving no trace of his treasure. But that hasn’t stopped folks from looking for it, from hauling shovels up to the mountains to trying to contact Schultz in the great beyond, which one psychic says she accomplished. The mobster refused to give up the whereabouts of his loot even from the afterlife, saying, “If I were to tell you exactly where the treasure is, then there’d be no more search. There’d be no more fun, and I wouldn’t be famous anymore.”