If I had to create a definition for the word treasure, it would not be traditional. In my eyes treasure can be many things. I don’t believe that precious metals and gems are the only physical things which possess value. For example, an archaeologist would consider old bones to be a treasure, and a historian would find wealth in certain records. An entomologist would treasure the discovery of a new insect, while a lover of code may prize a new script.
Within the last couple of years, a book by the Santa Fe author Forrest Fenn has been sought-after by treasure hunters. Thrill of the Chase: A Memoir is a book Fenn has used to drive people into a maddened search for a treasure chest the author has hidden. On March 9, 2013, a 34 year old woman from Texas was found after she got lost in Bandalier National Monument while searching for the treasure. This month, officials with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish threatened to file charges against a man they found digging under a descanso (roadside memorial or grave marker) for the treasure. What are these people thinking?
Web sites across the world proclaim the words “somewhere in the mountains north of Santa Fe, a magnificent treasure box is hidden. Will you find the treasure? Join the chase!” The book is only being carried by one bookstore here in Santa Fe. The delirium led me to consider the human fascination with treasure, so I decided to peer into a small part of this history.
Why are humans so fascinated with the hunt for treasures? Aside from the fact that many people are extremely broke right now, what drives them to partake in the hunt? According to the Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore Mythology and Legend (©1949), “gold has been consistently the most highly prized of metals thorough the ages…” The book says that “gold was so highly valued, it early became associated with religion. It was used to make idols, as tribute, and as offerings to the Gods.” This means that the symbolism of gold has been ingrained into humans since it was first discovered. Not only has the warm colored metal been associated with the heavens, but the Chinese “believed gold leaf” was “the most perfect form of matter; an unguent containing it was the most powerful remedy of Chinese medicine as it gave renewed life to the human body.”
I have discovered that gold was “a potent curative force” in “early medical practice,” and that it was associated with the Gods. I believe that the value of this metal is inherent in our collective memory for at least two good reasons. I found some interesting articles and books which explore lost treasures. I thought it would be great to share these stories which begin in 1902 and end in 1963. These stories shed light on the quest for treasure and the hunters who obsess about the hunt. The Dictionary of Folklore Mythology and Legend also describes hunters who “go into a trance” while being under the spell of “hunting magic.” A search for gold could not both invite and “repel” madness~ could it? For as long as many people can remember, there have been oral stories of: money walled up in houses; gold being buried in mountains; and unknown treasures which are not considered “lost.”
The Santa Fe New Mexican ran an article on July 24, 1902 in the “Special Correspondence” section of the paper. In this article, it was reported that there was “supposed hidden Spanish Treasure” in Grant County. The special report said that the treasure was hidden in an “old cave near San Lorenzo.” Apparently over the years many people tried to locate the Spanish treasure. I had to laugh out loud in the silent library when I read that the “treasure-seakers” had found many skeletons, but not any treasure. I guess if you were talking to a person interested in straight forward wealth, bones would just be worthless? On the other hand, an archaeologist would find much wealth in that type of finding.
On August 3, 1922, in Racine, Wisconsin it was was reported that the “lure of hidden treasure” surrounded “an old building on one of the principal streets.” The Roswell Daily Record issued a news release titled “Wealth Hidden by Baker During the War Be Sought by K. of C.” This was a very interesting story. It was reported that a “miser’s hoard of gold” was “buried there, according to pioneers.” It was apparently a “mystery, more than half a century old” that members of the Knights of Columbus wanted to solve. The article seemed to speculate that a German baker starved his wife to become rich. The reporter described her as a “gaunt, silent woman.” During the Civil War, the baker feared “the loss of wealth” so he “withdrew his savings, cashed all his securities and bonds and under cover of darkness buried the treasure somewhere within his house.” The poor starved wife wasn’t even told where the treasure was buried. The baker figured that if she was captured, she would be tortured to reveal the secret location. After the baker died, the wife searched for the loot to no avail.
In the book Hidden Treasure in the Wild West by Oren Arnold (©1966), the author wrote about “Pancho Villa’s Mountain Bank.” Here was one case amongst many cases of hidden treasure being buried in a mountain scape. “The poor people of Mexico considered” Pancho Villa a hero. According to the book, Villa had told his friends “I have some money hidden away in a secret mountain bank.” The hero assured the people by telling them “when it is needed for our experimental work here, I will go get it. Perhaps we can build a testing laboratory with it and hire good scientists. I will look into the matter soon.” What a nice thought! Unfortunately Villa was killed on July 20, 1923. Arnold’s book says that “when he had driven his automobile to a nearby town, old enemies ambushed him.” Before he could reveal the location of his mountain bank, “the harsh staccato bark of machine guns sounded, and Pancho Villa, the great liberator, fell across the steering wheel, dead.”
“Writing in a geological bulletin published by the New Mexico Bureau of Mines in 1935, K.C. Dunham told” the story of Padre LaRue’s mine. In Mines of the Old Southwest by Jack D. Rittenhouse and Rex Arrowsmith (©1963), I located information on the “Organ Mountain Silver Mines.” Arrowsmith was a geologist and gave a particular professional flavor to his account of the mines. The report said that LaRue was “stationed at a hacienda in Chihuahua (Mexico)” and that the priest “was told by a dying friend of placers and a fabulously rich gold-bearing lode in the mountains two days’ journey north of Paso del Norte.” LaRue migrated north with others to the Organ Mountains so that he could find the gold. According to the report, they located the gold, and then buried it at the request of Padre LaRue. The priest was located by the Church in the City of Mexico and he was later “murdered” by a soldier for not divulging the location of the treasure. In case number three, the secret location followed LaRue to his grave.
The only thing I found in common with the small amount of stories I looked at for this research was the fact that all the men died without telling anyone where the treasure was buried. It is possible that all of these stories were simply not true. It is possible that there was never any treasure at all. Though I guess I could say that as an archivist, I do tend to value stories as a type of treasure. I do find a sort of wealth in that! The author who really put this into perspective for me was Arthur L. Campa. In his book Treasure of the Sangre de Cristos: Tales and Traditions of the Spanish Southwest (©1963), Campa published a “Treasure Land” map which focuses on New Mexico treasures. The map shows places from the north to the south (Taos, Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Cuba, Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Sandia Peak, Albuquerque, Tome, Magdalena Mountains, Santa Rita, Mesilla, and the Organ Mountains among others). I was particularly intrigued with Chapter 11~ “Natural Phenomena and the Growth of Legends.”
It is more than safe to conclude that the value of treasure is inherent in our collective memory for several reasons. Campa said that “legends are an interesting product of folk society, the origin of which dates back to pre~Christian days, to Greece, Babylon, and the valley of the Nile. They are so deeply imbedded in the cultural texture of the folk thinking that today, as in the days of the Greeks, even geological formations assume anthropomorphic shapes and are indued with the attributes of folk heroes.” Contemplating the forces which drive humans to insanity can be a good way to peer into the mind. Where are are these behaviors and beliefs rooted?
The treasure Forrest Fenn says he buried may or may not exist. We may never know. Maybe Fenn will take the secret to his grave like so many did before him? Then again “a simple story may be gradually embellished with whatever attributes are important to folk, and with whatever concepts are current and acceptable at the time when it begins.” According to Campa, “very often the actual fact or historical account that gives rise to a particular legend may be totally forgotten, lost, or modified to such an extent that only the legend growing from the original happening survives.”