7 Intriguing Stories of Lost Treasure in Utah
By Karen Harris
Come to think of it, Utah would be a great place to hide something.
First, it is vast. As the 13th largest state in the union, Utah covers a total of 84,899 square miles. Too bad they couldn’t add one more mile … I like even numbers. Or 101 miles. That would be so much better.
Within the odd-numbered boundaries of the state, Utah has some diverse geography: rugged mountains, dry deserts, pine-filled valleys, an inland salt-water sea they are trying to pass off as a lake, narrow canyons, an entire meadow made of salt, imposing mesas and buttes, wind-carved sandstone arches and pinnacles, and even sand dunes without the obligatory ocean.
In short, Utah has all sorts of nooks and crannies that could make great hiding places for lost treasures. Heck, if I had treasure I wanted to hide, I’d head to the Beehive State.
According to legends, I’m not the only one who has thought this. What follows is a list of seven lost treasures that, if the stories are true, are still securely hidden in Utah’s rugged landscapes just waiting to be found.
1. Montezuma’s Rich Revenge
This story pre-dates the Old West-era but, if it is true, it is a trove worth billions of dollars and priceless artifacts that, in the wise words of Indiana Jones, “belong in a museum!”
The year was 1519 and the Aztec emperor, Montezuma II, had reigned over much of what is now Mexico for the last 17 years.
Things had been pretty status quo for the Aztecs until the Spanish Conquistadors, led by Hernán Cortés, made an unannounced visit in 1519 and bullied the Aztec people with their guns, armor, Christianity, and smallpox.
Oh, and with their thirst for gold. That’s was a biggie.
Some epically one-sided battles ensued and, in 1520, Montezuma was killed. Cortés and his men were like, yeah, now we can plunder that booty (in a non-sexual way), but to their dismay, the Aztecs didn’t have piles of gold, silver, and jewels.
Or did they?
As the story goes, Montezuma could read the Spanish writing on the wall and knew his people were doomed to fall to the Conquistadors. So, he got a group of his most trusted men to take the riches of the Aztecs north for safe keeping.
There are a lot of places north of Mexico, but for some reason, most people believe Montezuma’s treasure is in southern Utah. It’s a plausible theory. Montezuma’s men probably didn’t want to go THAT far and, as I said, there are lots of nooks and crannies in the canyons and caves of southern Utah.
In 1914, a treasure hunter named Freddie Crystal (no relation to Billy Crystal) showed up in the area of Johnson Canyon claiming to have a map with a big red X on it. He devoted his time to poking around the nooks of the canyon.
Locals chalked him up as a kooky weirdo, but after a few years, Crystal thumbed his nose at them, for he had found a few caves that had been intentionally sealed off. Now the locals paid attention.
Some of them helped Freddie Crystal break through these seals, but they only found emptiness and disappointment, like Al Capone’s vault when Geraldo Rivero opened it on live TV.
Decades later, in 1989, a local Kanab, Utah, resident, Brandt Child, theorized that the caves Crystal found were fakes to throw treasure hunters off the trail. Child believed that the real resting place of the treasure was in the underwater caverns in the region.
He purchased some land and hired a dive team, but, he alleged, something truly bizarre happened. The divers reported seeing ghostly underwater Aztecs guarding the cave. I am picturing the villain guy from Wakanda Forever whose name I forget.
The divers said the ghostly Aztecs tried to pull off their breathing mask and one even shut off a diver’s air tank. The divers surfaced, got in their car, and kicked up gravel as they sped away.
Brandt Child then tried to drill into the underwater cave and was overjoyed when one drill bit came up with bits of gold on it. But the Aztec curse struck again. The drill operator suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack at his home that night.
But wait: there’s more!
Child’s next plan was to pump out the water and drain the cave. This may have worked, except the Department of Natural Resources discovered the cave was home to an extremely rare critter: the amber snail.
They put the kibosh on further drilling, pumping, diving, and even breathing near the snails. In fact, the DNR threatened a $50,000 fine if a snail was killed. That’s $50,000 PER SNAIL. Child wisely ended his treasure hunting activities and Montezuma’s treasure remains lost.
2. Butch Cassidy’s Outlaw Stash
Here’s a true Old West lost treasure tale, per Treasure Seekr.
Butch Cassidy and his pal, Harry Longabaugh, whose rapper name was the Sundance Kid, had a gang of outlaws called the Wild Bunch. On April 21, 1897, Butch, Sundance, and the Wild Bunch pulled off a well-planned heist in Castle Gate, Utah.
The outlaws had done their homework. They knew that a train would come on that day to deliver the payroll cash for the employees at the Pleasant Valley Coal Company, so they waited for the train to roll into town.
The outlaws made off with bags of cash — and an angry mob in hot pursuit — and headed south into the canyons and deserts of Utah. The angry mob lost them near North Spring Canyon.
The Wild Bunch was heading to their favorite hideout, Robber’s Roost.
Robber’s Roost was an ideal hideout. Located somewhere about fifty miles east of Hanksville, the area was rugged, untamed, and crisscrossed with slot canyons, creeks, and caves. Those bags of gold that Butch, Sundance, and the Wild Bunch stole in the Castle Gate robbery were, according to legend, buried or hidden somewhere around Robber’s Roost.
We know that the outlaws made off with about $7,000 in that robbery, but the stories claimed that Butch and Sundance also deposited the loot from other robberies in the same secure location. None of that money has ever been found.
Adjusted for today’s dollars, the Wild Bunch’s hidden treasure could be worth millions of dollars — if it’s ever found.
Related read: 9 Things You May Not Know About the Sundance Kid
3. The Lost Josephine Mine
The legend of the Lost Josephine Mine is a staple in Utah lore. As the story goes, Spanish Jesuit priests established the mine somewhere in the Uinta Mountains of Utah in 1650.
They mined rich veins of both silver and gold for three decades before abandoning the mine in 1680. The priests were willing to show off the shiny stuff they pulled from the ground, but they were far less reluctant to share the location of their mine with locals.
The Jesuits, following the proper protocol because they were priests and not rule-breakers, reported their mine to the King of Spain. Documents written by the Spanish Jesuits give an estimated value of the silver and gold and an approximate location — two rivers and a mountain peak.
The priests were probably not being intentionally vague. As some of the first Europeans to the region, they discovered that places didn’t have names. Well, there were probably Native American place names, but the rivers lacked proper signage and, as we will see in a moment, the mining priests and the indigenous people were not exactly copesthetic.
The native Ute people, unhappy that foreigners had invaded their land and took their precious metals, clashed with the priests. When tensions escalated, the Jesuits left Utah.
But, according to the documents they dutifully sent back to Spain, they could not carry all the gold and silver they collected. They left it in a vault which they hid within a secret chamber in the Josephine Mine where, presumably, it still sits today.
Treasure hunters have spent a lot of time trying to find the Lost Josephine Mine. The general consensus is that the two rivers and a mountain peak they mentioned refer to the Weber River, the Provo River, and Hoyt Peak. That’s not an X-marks-the-spot, but it’s been the starting point for many treasure hunting expeditions over the years.
A local man named Gary Holt claimed he located the Lost Josephine Mine in 2013, but not the treasure vault. As proof, Holt presented samples of what he called “goldcite” to the media. Holt stated that the goldcite was just as valuable as gold and he estimated that he mined about $30 million worth of goldcite from this old mine.
In reality, goldcite is not gold. — it’s a type of calcite. The legend of the Lost Josephine Mine states that gold and silver — already mined by the priests — was placed in a vault within the mine. What Holt said he found … sorry, not the same thing.
Related read: The Complicated Legacy of Peacemaker Ute Chief Ouray
4. The Golden Jesus Treasure
In 1810, at the start of the Mexican War of Independence, a Spanish mission in Mexico was attacked by native Mexicans. It was personal: the head priest of the mission was not as godly as he wanted people to think.
He had a lust for gold, silver, and wealth, and little regard for the Mexican people. He owned a mine to the north, which is a fancy way of saying “in Utah,” where he forced Mexican miners to dig for gold and silver. The working conditions at the mine were terrible.
The workers were treated more like slaves than employees and the mine was unsafe. Several Mexican workers died in mining accidents, they were jacked out of their full pay, and the head priest pocketed all the riches. So when the War for Independence broke out, the native Mexicans knew who they wanted to target first.
The head priest at the mission didn’t have the gold sitting around in nugget form. He had had it made into religious artifacts, including a large cross made of solid gold that was reported to be three-feet tall. There were plenty of smaller gold and silver artifacts as well. The priest liked his bling.
With Mexican attackers closing in on his mission, the priest ordered his men to load up all the shiny stuff onto forty burros and they fled north, hoping to reach Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the safety of the Spanish mission there. But it’s hard to travel fast with that much heavy gold and burros aren’t the fleetest animals around.
The attackers caught up to the priest and his men somewhere, if the stories are to be believed, at the north end of the Kaiparowits Plateau. At this point, a decision had to be made. With their heavy burden, they were easy targets for the attackers. Their only hope of escape would be to ditch the loot so they could speed up their travels.
The priest and a few of his men, as the legend goes, found a small cave. They stashed the large, cumbersome gold crucifix along with all the other gold and silver artifacts and fled to Santa Fe. Where was the treasure hidden?
That is, quite literally, the million-dollar question.
The best guess is that it is somewhere along the Escalante River between Escalante and Boulder. In 1870, a treasure hunter named Llewellyn Harris, who had gotten ahold of a Zuni map that would lead him to the hidden treasure, arrived to search for the golden cross but all he ever found was the bones of burros.
It is possible that the Zuni people took the treasure or that someone else discovered it. It’s also possible the story is pure fiction. But it is possible that a three-foot-tall, solid gold cross is still hidden in a random cave in Utah.
Related read: The Meeker Massacre’s Tragic History and Legacy
5. Brigham Young’s Lost Mormon Gold
Brigham Young, the leader of the Mormon Church — also known by the lengthy The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — and the guy for whom the university was named (Go, Cougars!), led his people from their home base in Illinois to Utah in 1846 to Utah’s Salt Lake Valley to escape religious persecution. Or, to seek religious freedom. Maybe both.
A few years later, when gold was discovered in California, kicking off the gold rush, Brigham Young and the Mormons said no, thank you to the thought of prospecting for gold.
They said their religious beliefs forbade them from lusting after gold and riches. Very quickly, however, they changed their minds. Lusting after gold and riches was okay, they said, if you needed the money to help your religious community grow and thrive.
Interpreting religious doctrine is complex.
The Mormon Church acquired as many as forty goldmines in Utah’s Uinta Mountains. Still fearing persecution and because there were no safety deposit boxes to be had, Brigham Young decided that the Mormon people would keep all the gold they found in a vault hidden in the Bloomington Cave, one of Utah’s largest cave systems.
Although treasure hunters still search the cave for it, the hidden Mormon gold cache has not been found — at least, not that we know of. Bloomington Cave is located outside St. George, Utah. Is it a coincidence that to this day, most of the higher-ups in the Mormon Church live in St. George? I think not.
6. The Johnson Canyon Treasure
Here is another lost treasure story that starts with a wealthy and unpopular guy in Mexico during the Mexican War of Independence. In this tale, the rich guy is a politician in Mexico, so there are two reasons why he was hated.
As the fighting closed in, this unnamed man made his escape with his vast collection of ancient Aztec weapons and artifacts, precious jewels, gold nuggets, and gold and silver coins. He wound up in Johnson Canyon to the northeast of Kanab, Utah, where he searched for just the right spot to bury his treasure.
On his return trip, however, he was shot. As he lay on his deathbed, he tried to draw a map to show where he hid his treasure. But he was dying, so his artistic skills were not at their peak.
The crudely drawn map is indecipherable and the man died before he could add the big, red X to mark the spot. The best guess, based on the little information that can be gleaned from the map, is that the treasure is somewhere in Johnson Canyon between the Paria River and Black Rock Peak.
But that’s really just a guess.
Since the treasure of Johnson Canyon has never been located, it could be that the dying man drew a fake map to throw people off his trail. His treasure trove of riches and artifacts could still be hidden away in the southwest, waiting to be discovered.
7. The Donner Party’s Lost Treasure
Yes, THAT Donner Party.
You already know the story of the ill-fated Donner Party who, in the winter of 1846-47, took a shortcut off the Oregon Trail and learned the hard way that shortcuts never work the way they’re supposed to.
Before the real trouble started for the Donner Party — you know, the starvation and cannibalism part — two of the group’s leaders, George Donner and James Reed, suggested everyone lighten their loads by leaving unnecessary possessions behind before they trekked across the Great Salt Lake Desert. George Donner didn’t heed his own advice. At least, not at first.
The group was about five days into their march across the Great Salt Lake Desert when George decided he had enough of the heavy chest of gold coins he was carting around. When the party camped near a spot he called Floating Island, George Donner buried his chest of coins, about $15,000 worth of gold, in the salt flats.
Of course, he intended to come back for it, but fate had other plans for George Donner when he and 41 other members of his group perished in the snow-packed Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Did any of the surviving members of the Donner Party go back for the gold? According to legend, it is still buried beneath the salt, perhaps near a natural spring in Pilot Peak or perhaps near the ghost town of Lucin, Utah.
Finding lost treasure is never as easy as Hollywood blockbusters make it out to be. It could be that hidden treasures are being guarded by Aztec mermaid ghosts or rare endangered snails. Perhaps it was already unearthed by an Old West outlaw who didn’t want to share with his fellow gang members.
It might be sealed off in a forgotten cave or mine shaft. Or everyone could be simply looking in the wrong place. The unique geography of Utah plays a key role in keeping these alleged treasures hidden.
With such diversity, Utah’s millions of nooks and crannies have yet to be fully explored. Maybe one of these lost treasures of Utah is on the verge of being discovered at this very moment.
Related read: 17 Epic Facts about the Transcontinental Railroad
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by Karen Harris
Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University. A wannabe world traveler, Karen spends her days writing and her nights researching cheap flights to far-off places.