Thousands risk their lives searching for millionaire’s hidden treasure

People are often infatuated with the idea of winning or gaining a large sum of money in a short period of time. While winning the lottery may seem like the best bet to becoming a millionaire overnight, some people would actually prefer a chase. Perhaps that is why 65,000 people have risked their lives in the depths of the Rocky Mountains in search of a hidden treasure. While the idea of buried treasure may seem like something out of your favorite pirate movie, it actually is more modern than you might think.


Forrest Fenn, who is now 87-years-old, is somewhat of a legend in the Santa Fe area. He became famous as a treasure hunter who collected some of the most rare and expensive artifacts and relics. He and his wife ran an art gallery with his findings, which was often frequented by the rich and famous such as Stephen Spielberg.

In 1988, Fenn was diagnosed with cancer and came up with the idea to fill a chest with his most valuable possessions, such as gold, rare coins and gemstones, and hide it in the Rocky Mountains. However, his illness was cured and he decided to wait until he was closer to the end of his life. In 2010, Fenn drove somewhere in the mountains and finally hid his chest. He encouraged thrill seekers to go on a hunt into the nature in order to find the treasure. Since then, thousands from all over the country have attempted to find the chest, using only the handful of clues that Fenn gave about its precise location.

Seven years later, people are still going crazy over the idea of Fenn’s treasure. There have been endless amounts of interpretations of Fenn’s clues and many theories that the whole thing is nothing but a hoax. While there have been thousands of brave hunters who have gone after the treasure, not everyone has come back alive.

Three deaths later, police are begging Fenn to put a stop at all of this. However, he is not planning on backing down anytime soon and is still urging others to leave their homes, have an adventure and go after the treasure.

Early years

Forrest Fenn arrived to Santa Fe, New Mexico in the the beginning of the 1970s as a mysterious handsome ex-Army pilot who had nothing but a small amount of money and a high school education. He later married his wife Peggy and opened a small art gallery with her in Santa Fe. The couple sold everything from ancient artifacts to fine art. They were quite successful and became well-known over the years.

Making millions

Fenn went on treasure-hunting trips throughout the American particularly in the Southwest, and even bought the San Lazaro Pueblo. He collected an impressive amount of rare items ranging from handmade Native American baskets to a rare peace pipe from Sitting Bull. In only a decade, him and his wife’s small art gallery made over $6 million a year in sales. They often catered to celebrity clients such as Gerald Ford and Steven Spielberg.

Falling ill

In 1988, Fenn was diagnosed with cancer. Realizing his grim future, he decided to stuff a chest with some of his most valuable pieces that he had collected throughout the years. Some of these items included antique jewelry, large nuggets of pure gold, rare emeralds, diamonds and a copy of his autobiography. He planned to hide the chest in the Rocky Mountains, and take his life next to it, dying a legacy.

Hiding the chest

However, things didn’t quite go as planned for the treasure hunter. In a turn of events, he was cured of his illness and the chest stood there in his house study for the next 20 years of his life, waiting for the right moment. In 2010, an aged Fenn made the decision that the time had come. He drove away to the Rocky Mountains and found a good place to hide his treasure chest filled with his most precious and most expensive belongings.

Worth millions

Although it has been said that Fenn’s treasure chest of gold, jewels and artifacts is worth anywhere from $2-5 million, Fenn has admitted that he himself doesn’t even know. “These are all things that I have collected over the years. As you know the price of gold goes up and down every minute. I made up my mind I would never try to guess what the treasure’s worth.”

A poem

In his 2010 memoir titled The Thrill of the Chase, he told readers about his hidden treasure and offered the public to go after it and try to find it. The clues of the treasure’s exact whereabouts are found in a 24-line poem that consists of nine, not-so-clear, clues. To this day, thousands of people picked the poem apart in attempts to interpret it.

First clues

The poem goes as follows: “As I have gone alone in there And with my treasures bold, I can keep my secret where, And hint of riches new and old. Begin it where warm waters halt And take it in the canyon down, Not far, but too far too walk. Put in below the home of Brown.” While there have been many interpretations, experts believe that this part of the poem speaks of a place where cold or hot water runs down a canyon. “Brown” is believed to be a person or landmark since it is capitalized.

Some more hints

It continues, “From there it’s no place for the meek, The end is ever drawing nigh; There’ll be no paddle up your creek, Just heavy loads and water high.” No paddle up your creek has been considered to mean the creek has a strong flow and water high could hint at being near a waterfall. “If you’ve been wise and found the blaze, Look quickly down, your quest to cease, But tarry scant with marvel gaze, Just take the chest and go in peace.” Many think that “the blaze” is a specific object that marks the treasure. “Marvel gaze” could reference a breathtaking view.

Final thoughts

“So why is it that I must go and leave my trove for all to seek? The answers I already know, I’ve done it tired, and now I’m weak. So hear me all and listen good, Your effort will be worth the cold. If you are brave and in the wood, I give you title to the gold.” This is Fenn explaining why he buried his treasure, saying that he is getting older and is too weak for hunting treasure anymore. “In the wood” gives a clue that the treasure is somewhere in a forest.

Media attention

After word got out of Fenn’s treasure, it gathered media attention from all over the country. The public loved Fenn, who was the perfect embodiment of the free-spirited Westerner, with his plaid buttoned-up shirts, cowboy hat and fancy belts. Although the country loved the idea of a man hiding his treasure in this day in age, the newfound publicity also created some controversy.

Trouble with the law

It is illegal to dig up certain Native American artifacts and relics. In fact, since 2006 there have been 23 arrests due to looted pieces from the Four Corners region in the US. Because Fenn’s treasures were mostly from Native Americans, an investigation with the FBI began. The treasure chest filled with relics that were dug up, could actually be illegal. Luckily, the investigators could not prove anything about Fenn, and he was not charged.

Additional clues

Since Fenn buried his treasure, he has held the secret safely to himself. His own wife doesn’t even know where it is! Throughout the years, Fenn has given a few more clues here and there. According to him, the treasure is: 1. Somewhere in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, or New Mexico. 2. Located above 5,000 ft but below 10,200 ft. 3. Located in an area near pine trees. 4. Not located in a graveyard or mine or any other man-made structure. 5. Not in close proximity to a human trail 6. Not in a place an 80-year-old man couldn’t go.

Online community

Fenn’s treasure has created some sort of online community. There are thousands of forums and Facebook groups that include members who either are truly thinking about going after the chest, and people who just enjoy debating over the interpretation of the clues. The largest discussion forum is on ChaseChat, which consists of more than 100,000 posts on the subject since 2012. On the forum, members often ask, “What kind of hill can an 80-year-old man climb?” and “Does anyone else here have dreams about the treasure?”

An obsession

Quite a lot of people have become obsessed over the idea of Fenn’s treasure. One man said he spends “12 hours ever night” on Google looking up clues. “Every night. Every night I’m looking.” A young man from Northern California said that he “spent eight weeks researching 20 hours a day prior to an unsuccessful 2014 expedition” with his dad and big brother. There are even thousands of videos on YouTube of people claiming that they know exactly where the treasure is and that they are certain they will be the ones to find it.

Flooded with emails

Every day Fenn’s email inbox is flooded with emails from people asking for more clues. He has even received threatening emails and several bribes. He also has frequent visitors come to his house trying to look for any information they can get. In an interview with People magazine, Fenn said that he has been in danger several times and had to dial 911 on multiple occasions.

Why bury it?

It is still unsure the exact reasoning of Fenn burying the treasure. Many believe it was just to make a name for himself and to keep his legacy strong even after he is gone. Others believe that maybe Fenn did it in order to encourage others to get outside, off their computers, and enjoy nature for a change. Fenn said that the ideal person to find his treasure is “a redneck from Texas who’s lost his job, with a pickup truck and 12 kids and a wife to support.”

A dangerous hunt

In the last 6 years, there have been around 65,000 people who have gone looking for Fenn’s treasure, none of them have been successful. In fact, not everyone has survived the hunt. So far, there have been at least two official deaths attached to the treasure. The New Mexico police is now begging Fenn to put an end to the hunt, saying that it is too dangerous and isn’t worth losing lives over.

Increasing business in Santa Fe

The hunt for Fenn’s treasure has been so popular, that the mayor of Santa Fe, Javier Gonzales named May 25,2015 official Thrill of the Chase Day in recognition of “visitors who have traveled from all over the world to Santa Fe and its surrounding areas for the purpose of searching for the treasure that Forrest Fenn has hidden.” The mayor said that since Fenn announced the treasure, the “lodging and service-related businesses” have been booming.

First death

The first person to die while searching for Fenn’s treasure was Randy Bilyeu. The 54-year-old had temporarily moved to Colorado in order to search for the treasure. He spent two weeks with his little dog named Leo and his GPS. He took a raft along a rocky stretch of river close to the border of Bandelier National Monument. After his ex-wife filed the missing person’s report on January 14, 2016, Bilyeu’s raft and his dog were found the very next day, but he was nowhere to be found.

Body found

An intense and massive six-month search was held, and his family tried to stay positive, believing that he was still out there somewhere and just got lost. Despite the search team’s incredible efforts, they were unable to find any sign of Bilyeu. Over a year later, a group of Army engineers who had been working along the Rio Grande found his skeletal remains. Bilyeu’s ex-wife Linda and his daughters were heartbroken when they heard the news. They called Fenn’s hidden treasure nothing but a “sick hoax.”

Cause unknown

Although there was some closure for the family, his death continues to be somewhat of a mystery. When they found his remains, he had no broken bones or signs of any sort of injury. The medical investigators claimed that Bilyeu must have died due to some sort of weather injury and probably succumbed to dehydration or hypothermia. The true cause of the father and grandfather’s death will most likely remain unknown forever.

Second death

The second person to die while attempting to discover Fenn’s treasure was Pastor Paris Wallace. Wallace was the lead pastor at Connection Church in Grand Junction, Colorado. He had gone to the secluded area of New Mexico in hopes of locating the hidden chest. However, after he hadn’t come home, and stopped answering his phone, his family reported him as missing on June 15, 2017. Shortly after, Wallace’s car was found parked near the Taos Junction Bridge and his body was found about 5-7 miles down the river.


Only one month after the death of Wallace, a third body was found that was believed to also have been a victim to Fenn’s hunt. On July 28, 2017 a body was found in the Arkansas River that is considered to be the body of 31-year-old Eric Ashby. According to Ashby’s family members, he had moved to Colorado in 2016 in order to search for the treasure chest. He was last seen on June 28 on a raft he bought from Walmart in the river his body was found in. Although it hasn’t officially been identified as Ashby’s body, if it is it would mean a third Fenn related death in just one year.

Warning the public

The New Mexico State Police have urged the public to stop looking for the treasure, and for Fenn to put an end to it all and just stop the hunt already. However, in an interview with Westword, Fenn explained that although the deaths of the two, possibly three men is tragic, “accidents can happen anywhere.” He also warned future hunters, “Anyone who goes into the mountains should be prepared, use a GPS and always be aware of possible dangers.”

A hoax

Linda Bilyeu, Randy’s ex-wife, is still advocating against searching for Fenn’s hidden treasure. She strongly believes that it is all just a fake hoax that was used by Fenn to get famous. She blames Fenn for the death of her ex-husband and the death of the two other men. Linda spoke to the Associated Press, “Another family is left to grieve and carry on without their loved ones. Only one man has the power to stop the madness. Yet, he continues to pretend he’s doing a good deed by getting people off the couch and into nature.”

Taking time to think

Although Fenn admitted that he did think about ending the search, he ultimately decided that it is doing more good than bad. “After a long deliberation and discussions with friends, I have decided that stopping the search would not be fair to the thousands who have searched the Rockies and gone home with wonderful memories that will last them forever. ” He continued, “A number of family members who have been estranged for years have reunited to join in the search.”

Helping with the rescue

Fenn responded, saying he does not at all feel responsible for any of the deaths, but that he does feel the responsible for helping with the rescues. In fact, when Randy went missing Fenn chartered helicopters for three days, it cost him over $9,000. He also helped pay for more people to come and join the search rescue team. He noted that at his age and health he cannot physically help, but that he is always willing to help in any way he can.

So close

Out of the last 65,000 treasure hunters who have gone looking for the hidden chest, Fenn said that a few have been very close, as close as 200 feet. He said he knows this because of the emails he receives from people telling him the exact location they were at before they gave up. Can you imagine? Only being 200 ft away from millions and giving up?

Will it ever be found?

When Fenn was asked if he thinks someone will ever find the supposed treasure chest, he said “Nobody is going to happen upon my treasure chest. They will have to figure out the clues and go to it. Somebody could find it this summer, or it could be a thousand years.” He called himself an innocent “bystander” now, and admitted that nature could change the treasure’s location. “We can have flash floods, earthquakes, forest fires. I don’t have any control over that.” Let’s just hope someone finds it before any of those things happen.