Ten years ago, an antiquities dealer named Forrest Fenn buried a treasure chest filled with gold, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. He hid the clues to its location in a poem that is part of his 2010 self-published memoir, The Thrill of the Chase. Over 350,000 people have tried and failed to find it over the last decade, and now one of them has finally succeeded. The man who found the treasure—a cache estimated to be worth over $1 million—sent confirmation of his discovery to Fenn with a photograph of the chest.
“It was under a canopy of stars in the lush, forested vegetation of the Rocky Mountains and had not moved from the spot where I hid it more than ten years ago,” Fenn wrote on his website. “I do not know the person who found it, but the poem in my book led him to the precise spot.” He told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the man who found the treasure declined to be named publicly but hailed from “back east.”
Fenn claimed he set up the hunt to inspire people to explore nature by giving them a “good old-fashioned adventure.” It was also a way to offer hope to those deeply affected by the Great Recession that followed the collapse of the housing market in 2008.
He described the chest as an ornate, Romanesque box—carved with scenes of knights and ladies—containing gold nuggets, rare gold coins, and various kinds of gemstones. The chest weighed about 20 pounds, and its contents weighed another 20 pounds. (Apparently, it took him two trips to hide it.) The stories in his memoir hinted at the location, and a poem in the chapter “Gold and More” contained nine clues leading to the site (see sidebar).
Of course, some folks got a bit carried away, even quitting their jobs and spending their life savings in the hunt for the chest. And “exploring nature” can be hazardous to those unaccustomed to dealing with the great outdoors. That region has bears and snakes, plus it’s easy to fall down a steep slope or drown in the river. And if you get lost or badly injured, the cell phone service is pretty much nil. At least five people have perished on their quest.
In 2017, the New Mexico State Police chief begged Fenn to call off the search for the sake of public safety. And Montana law enforcement issued a warning to would-be treasure hunters last year, citing two deaths near Yellowstone National Park, a handful of run-ins with the law, and one guy who got hurt but refused to tell his wife where, exactly, he was for fear of tipping off any of his competitors—thereby making his rescue that much harder.
“We encourage everyone to vigorously pursue their outdoor passions, but think like a local,” Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin told CNN last year. “Before you go after the treasure, consider your level of skill, preparation, and knowledge of the area.”
Fenn has weathered accusations of fraud by frustrated treasure hunters who became convinced there was never any buried treasure—including from the ex-wife of one of the men who died while searching. (Fenn promised in his announcement of the discovery that photographs and more details will be forthcoming, so we’ll see.) Then there are the lawsuits. One lawsuit was filed by a man in Colorado Springs late last year, although a judge dismissed the case in February in procedural grounds. The plaintiff, David Harold Hanson, has petitioned the court for permission to refile the suit.
A Chicago real estate lawyer named Barbara Andersen told the Santa Fe New Mexican that she planned to file a federal injunction, claiming that she solved the puzzle but her solution was stolen by an unnamed defendant who “followed and cheated me to get the chest.” Also crying foul is an Arizona man named Brian Erskine, who also claims to have solved the puzzle and thinks Fenn’s timing with his announcement of the discovery is “suspect.”
Fenn himself seems to be taking it all in stride. “I congratulate the thousands of people who participated in the search and hope they will continue to be drawn by the promise of other discoveries,” he wrote in his announcement. And he admitted to the Guardian, “I feel halfway kinda glad, halfway kinda sad because the chase is over.”