The American West is vast, and its treasures elusive. From the first Spanish explorers to cross the plains and deserts, the quest for the West’s rich lodes of silver and gold has been unceasing. And over the centuries, thousands of —stories some more fantastical than others—have surfaced around hidden riches, buried loot, and disappearing mines. Here is a handful of folktales of some of the most popular lost fortunes to have tantalized and eluded seekers for generations.
What could be more traditional than stories of buried pirate treasure? And what pirate more likely a subject than the notorious Jean Lafitte? According to legend, Lafitte buried his swag—some 20 sea chests of treasure formerly belonging to the Emperor Napoleon—in several locations along the coast of Texas and Louisiana. Now and then, a few gold coins come to the surface, serving to keep alive the stories of Lafitte and his fabulous chests of riches.
In addition to the many legends that have surrounded Col. George A. Custer and the Little Big Horn, there have grown persistent rumors of lost treasure. As one version goes, the captain of the steamboat Far West—in order to lighten his load—buried some $375,000 in gold that he was safeguarding for miners, to better accommodate the battle’s wounded troopers. The gold still lies buried along the banks of the Bighorn River. Or not….
Many of the West’s most desperate outlaws have been credited with hiding the proceeds of their robberies. Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and their ubiquitous Wild Bunch are reputed to have buried countless thousands of their stolen dollars in Irish Canyon, a small, remote site in Colorado’s Uintah Mountains. Which begs the question: With a life of ease hidden away within easy reach, why travel all the way to Bolivia to start life over as bandits?
Desert treasure ship
Just what is a Spanish treasure ship doing stranded and buried in the sands of the Mojave Desert? Incongruous though it might seem, folklore has the galleon swept inland by a freak tidal wave, stranding it and its doomed crew—along with tons of Spanish gold (in some stories, the ship holds a fortune in pearls)—on the shifting sands. Over the centuries, the sand has covered it, but perhaps one day the wind will reveal a skeletal mast….
The most common stories of fabulous hidden treasure swirl around the lost mines. Such claims as Arizona’s Lost Dutchman and Lost Adams have been luring gold-hungry prospectors and treasure hunters for nearly a century and a half. Some have perished, their fates merely enhancing the mystique. Hollywood has exploited the legends with such films as McKenna’s Gold, in which Gregory Peck finds, then loses, the Lost Adams, and Lust for Gold, featuring a villainous Glenn Ford as the fabled “Dutchman.”