7 Tantalizing Stories of Lost Treasure in Oregon
Even if all you had to go on was what you learned in movies, you probably know that Oregon is allegedly teeming with lost, hidden treasures just waiting to be rediscovered.
I mean, those kids in The Goonies found all that pirate gold and the thirty-something buddies in Up a Creek found what remained of D.B. Cooper’s hijacked money, right?
Sadly, both of these films are works of fiction, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lost treasures in Oregon.
Read through this list of seven legendary lost treasure from the beaver state – yes, there will be pirates and one mysterious skydiving hijacker, along with reclusive prospectors, Chinese immigrants, and lost Oregon Trail kids – to learn about some of the best-known treasure tales that will get you wanting to pull out your compass and pith helmet and book the next flight to Portland.
1. Set-Em-Up’s Lost Cabin and the Discovery of Crater Lake
In the early 1850s, during the peak of the California Gold Rush, a prospector arrived in Eureka, California, every autumn with bags full of gold he pulled from the ground.
It was more than enough for him to rent a room and live comfortably for the winter, and with plenty to spare. He passed the long winter nights at the Eureka taverns where he made lots of friends by buying everyone drinks.
Who wouldn’t want to be friends with the guy picking up the bar tab?
If he told anyone his real name, they forgot it. There was alcohol involved, after all. The miner was known by his nickname, “Set-Em-Up.” Every spring, Set-Em-Up packed up his things and left for the summer, only to return months later with more sacks of gold and a thirst for whiskey.
This went on for a few years. Then one winter night, his Eureka drinking mates got him drunk enough that he began to start spilling his secrets. Set-Em-Up confessed that his gold mine was not in the Eureka area.
In fact, it wasn’t in California at all. He had found his gold, he explained, in Oregon. He built a small cabin next to his secret gold mine so he could spend his summers mining and his winters drinking whiskey.
When Set-Em-Up left Eureka that spring, his buddies assumed they would see him again in the fall. But he never returned. All winter long, over pints of whiskey they had to pay for themselves, the men of Eureka pondered the fate of Set-Em-Up.
Perhaps he met with an accident or fell ill. Then one old miner spoke up to say that Set-Em-Up had told him the general area where his gold mine was located. The old man suggested they launch an expedition to find Set-Em-Up’s lost gold mine.
It speaks volumes that the men of Eureka wanted to go off in search of the gold mine, but no one suggested they go looking for Set-Em-Up to make sure he was alright.
Along the way, the Eureka men joined up with a few Oregonians, including John W. Hillman, and they all stomped around the Oregon wilderness in search of Set-Em-Up’s cabin and mine, which they never found.
Hillman, however, made his own discovery while he was searching for Set-Em-Up’s lost treasure … well, in search of dinner. He and his mule left the rest of the group to hunt for food.
The mule suddenly stopped and refused to take one step forward. Stubborn creatures, those mules. When Hillman dismounted and walked a few steps ahead, he found himself standing on the rim of Crater Lake.
The lake, of course, was well-known to the Native Americans living in the area, but Hillman was the first white man to visit the lake.
Related read: 16 Iconic Landmarks on the Oregon Trail
2. Ill-Gotten Wells Fargo Gold
Wells Fargo stagecoaches were the best way to send large quantities of gold and cash from one bank to another in the Old West, long before we could transfer money in a few taps on Venmo (where the IRS can now monitor and tax us!).
Sure, there was less government oversight in those days, but there were some drawbacks to the stagecoach method. In the early 1900s, a Wells Fargo stagecoach was making its rounds between Pendleton, Oregon, and Kennewick, Washington, when it passed through the border town of Umatilla, located on the Oregon side of the Columbia River.
Just outside of town, two robbers held up the stagecoach and made off with about $1,200 in gold, which was a lot of money in those days. They weren’t the slickest bandits of their profession, however, and were quickly captured and sentenced to death by hanging.
At the gallows, one of the robbers confessed that the pair had buried the gold not far from the sight of the stagecoach robbery. If they would politely remove the noose from around his neck, he asked, he would happily lead them to the place where the stash was hidden.
The authorities weren’t buying his obvious attempt to escape justice, and he and his partner in crime were executed. Townsfolk left the public execution and searched for the buried gold. Actually, people looked for it for decades, but it was never found.
3. Pirate Gold of Neahkahnie Mountain
As promised, here is a tale of pirate gold for you, although it doesn’t involve One-Eyed Willie, the pirate from The Goonies. The Clatsop, Native American people living on Oregon’s coast, tell a story about a Spanish galleon that sailed into Nehalem Bay in the late 1600s.
According to their account, which has become part of their tribal folklore, the sailors on the galleon dropped anchor in the bay and a small party came ashore.
The Clatsop warriors watched as the men marched straight from the water’s edge up the side of a bluff and to the side of Neahkahnie Mountain. Oh, and they were carrying a super heavy chest with them. I’m picturing a traditional pirate chest.
The members of the Clatsop tribe noted that the group of men suddenly stopped at a random spot, dug a deep hole in the sandy soil, and placed the chest inside.
The Native Americans added that the pirate sailors tossed a dead man’s body on top of the treasure, but it is unclear whether they carried the corpse with them, along with the treasure chest, or if they sacrificed one of their own men to “guard the treasure.”
Either way, the Clatsop people conclude their story by saying the pirates left behind an inscribed stone to mark the spot — and that a ghost watched over the buried chest. The Clatsop people were either terrified of that ghost or they all suffered from a deplorable lack of curiosity, for they claim that they did not dig up the chest.
More than 100 years later, the region was overrun with white explorers, including Lewis and Clark, members of the Hudson’s Bay Company, fur trappers, mountain men, and Captain Vancouver.
In their interaction with the Clatsop people, plenty of white men learned of the legendary buried pirate treasure and, of course, went in search of it. In the 1870s, one such treasure hunter, a man named Pat Smith, claimed to have found rocks carved with arrows, crosses, and one with the letters “DEW” on them.
But no treasure.
In the 1930s, two other treasure hunters were certain they had found the right spot, so they began to dig. They were both killed when the sandy shaft collapsed in on them, burying them alive.
There is an intriguing twist to this story of pirate treasure. Thomas McKay, one of the earliest settlers to the area, was often seen walking along the bluffs of Nehalem Bay with a shovel in hand.
Apparently, McKay heard about the legend of pirate treasure while onboard the Tonquin with the Astoria party, and as an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. As the story goes, one day McKay abruptly quit his job, left his trusty shovel behind, and departed the region.
A few years later, when he built his home along the Willamette River, he was a wealthy man. He never disclosed how he came into money. Did he find the treasure? Or is it still out there waiting to be found?
Lost Treasures of American History
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4. The Lost Blue Bucket Lode
In 1845 – four years before gold was discovered in California – a group of some 800 pioneers in 200 covered wagons took the Oregon Trail in hopes of finding a better life in the fertile Pacific Northwest.
The group was led by Stephen Meek, a seasoned explorer who claimed to have been through the region numerous times. I assume he was exaggerating. When the party reached the high desert region of southeastern Oregon, Meek noted that provisions were running low.
He suggested the group take a short cut to The Dalles, the traditional end of the Oregon Trail. Bad idea. When has a short cut even worked out as planned?
The pioneers followed their leader along a path that would later be called the Meek Cut-Off until they were all hopelessly lost. They made camp somewhere along the Malheur River. Food was scarce. Water was scarce. Patience was scarce.
So, Stephen Meek and his wife crept out of camp and high-tailed it out of there before the angry pioneers lynched them, abandoning the settlers to their fate. Several of the pioneers died of illness (I played Oregon Trail in the 1980s, so I feel qualified to diagnose them all with dysentery), but the group eventually found their way to The Dulles.
They found something else too.
The details are blurry, but somewhere between where Meek ditched them and The Dulles, a few Oregon Trail children were tasked with filling up some water buckets in the nearby stream.
They returned with the water a few shiny gold nuggets found in the stream. When asked how many of these pebbles the children saw, one of them answered, “Enough to fill my blue bucket.”
One of the old-timers on the wagon train identified the nuggets as copper, so the pioneers did not go too crazy collecting the rocks. After all, they had bigger worries. They needed to continue their journey.
The party arrived at their destination and all the settlers went their separate ways. One family, the Fishers, held on to the blue bucket containing a few of the shiny rocks.
A few years later, after word of the discovery of gold in California was nationwide news, Mrs. Fisher pulled out the blue bucket and had one of the rocks tested. It was a gold nugget.
If only the Fishers had collected more of the nuggets. They could return to the stream, but the problem was, none of the settlers on the Meek trek knew where they were or how to get back.
Hundreds of people went in search of the Blue Bucket Lode. One group claimed to have found the spot near Dale, Oregon, but failed to produce any of their own gold nuggets.
In 1974, a local historian named Charles Hoffman poured over details in a journal kept by one of the members of the Meek Wagon Train, a young cattleman named Jesse Harrit. Hoffman, too, announced he located the spot, but like other searchers, he did not find gold.
Currently, there are two working theories about the Blue Bucket Lode – that floodwaters buried the gold under a thick layer of silt or that some unknown, reclusive, mountain man (our buddy, Set-Em-Up, perhaps) found the location and extracted all the gold.
5. The Lost Forest Mine — and the Lost Cowboy
In the early 1900s, an unknown, unnamed cowboy was rounding up cattle in Oregon’s Lost Forest, a natural area in the south-central part of the state.
He had arranged to meet the other members of his group at Sand Springs, but he arrived at the meet-up spot before the rest of the wranglers. Or everyone else was fashionably late.
To kill time, the cowboy poked around the area a bit and found a shiny rock. He put it in his pocket and didn’t mention it to his pals when they finally arrived.
Later, when the cowboy was in Lakeview, he dropped the rock off at an assayer’s office to be analyzed. He didn’t give his name and only provided a vague explanation about where he found the rock.
The assayer never saw the cowboy again. The cowboy never learned the results of the analysis: the rock was gold! Attempts were made – so they say – to locate the lost cowboy, but he remained lost. So has the location where he found his gold nugget.
Ever since, there’s been speculation that a vein of gold is still waiting to be discovered in the Lost Forest.
Related read: Daily Life on the Oregon Trail: What it Was Really Like
6. The China Bar Treasure
Gold miners set up camp at the mouth of Oregon’s Salt Creek in 1858 and started mining operations in the region. Along with the white gold miners, there were several Chinese immigrants working the mine.
The indigenous people of the Fraser Canyon area, the Nlaka’pamux people, viewed all the miners as trespassers in their territory, which they kinda were. White settlers in those days – we will call them ‘jerks’ – had an elitist attitude and honestly believed that they were entitled to take anything that belonged to the Native Americans. Clashes between the two groups were frequent and sometimes violent.
One day, a group of Chinese miners were returning to camp with a load of gold they had found when they were attacked by Nlaka’pamux warriors. The miners fled with their gold and hid out in a cave somewhere in what is now Douglas County, probably in Fraser Canyon.
Their hiding place didn’t stay hidden for long. The warriors discovered the cave and killed all the Chinese miners. Their gold, however, was not recovered. It is believed to still be hidden in a remote cave somewhere near Fraser Canyon, but it has never been found.
Related read: Why Did People Move West in the 1800s?
7. A Hidden Kettle of Gold
In the mid-1800s, the misnamed town of Fort Grant sprang up near Phoenix, Oregon. Despite the name, the settlement was more of an outpost for prospectors and cattlemen than an actual military fort with proper defenses.
The job of the paymaster of the camp was to trade the gold nuggets and gold dust that the prospectors brought in and them cash. There was not a bank, a vault, or a safety deposit box in Fort Grant, so the paymaster made periodic trips to Phoenix to do the camp’s banking.
In between deposits, however, the paymaster had no place to securely keep the gold and cash. He had to get creative.
He stashed the gold nuggets, gold dust, and cash in an iron kettle — because, why not? — and buried the kettle in the ground near camp. The unorthodox system worked well until the day that the paymaster suffered a massive stroke.
Laying on his deathbed and unable to speak, he tried to draw a map to the hidden kettle, but he was hindered by the paralysis from his stroke and his complete lack of artistic skills. Alas, he died before he could complete his sketch.
The area around Fort Grant was thoroughly searched, but the kettle of riches was never found.
Thinking of Going on a Treasure Hunt? Probably Don’t
In addition to these seven legends of lost treasure in Oregon, there are other tales of hidden riches waiting to be found in the Pacific Northwest — and we didn’t even go into details about D.B. Cooper’s missing booty. If you think, after reading this article, that you can easily find one of these lost treasures, let’s rethink this.
First, there are people who have devoted their entire lives to researching just one of these stories and they’ve been unable to find any buried treasure. The chances of you being able to locate it after spending nine minutes reading this article are pretty slim, if I’m being honest.
Second, Oregon is a lot more settled than it was a century and a half ago. Folks don’t take kindly to strangers digging holes in their backyards. Likewise, some of the places mentioned in this article are now part of Oregon’s state parks system.
Park rangers also get angry when people show up with shovels and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of a pissed-off park ranger.
Lastly, looking for lost treasure can be dangerous.
People have died doing so, and we don’t mean being impaled by booby-trapped spikes or getting crushed by large, stone balls. They have died in much less cool ways, like falling off cliffs, freezing to death, and dehydration.
Don’t be that guy.
Explore the Old West
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- 7 Strange but True Stories of the American West
- 8 Famous (and Infamous) Sheriffs of the Old West
- 13 Bizarre Facts About Liver-Eating Johnson, the Revenge-Seeking, Cannibalistic Mountain Man
- 7 Intriguing Stories of Lost Treasure in Utah
- Lost Mines and Treasure Tales of Oregon and Washington: States of Oregon and Washington, Ivan Herring
- Oregon Wonderful Tales of Treasure Lost, David Visser
- Treasure Tales of the Oregon Coast, Daniel Petchell
- Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of the West: Bibliography and Place Names, from Kansas West to California, Oregon, Washington, and Mexico, Thomas Probert
- Lost Treasures of American History, W.C. Jameson
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.