In 2010, a millionaire called Forrest Fenn self-published a memoir containing clues to a treasure hunt in the Rocky Mountains. Fenn had buried a chest full of items from his antiquities collection – including jewelry, jade carvings and plenty of gold coins deemed worth between $1m and $3m – hoping to give people the Indiana Jones type of adventure that had defined his life.
He had conceived of the hunt, he said, “for every redneck out there with a pickup truck, six kids, [who has] just lost his job, his wife, and lacks adventure.” To see people scrambling to find it gave him great satisfaction.
Fenn died of natural causes last Monday at the age of 90. In an email sent to the Guardian just days before his death – likely his last correspondence with a news organization – he wrote that he thought more than 500,000 people looked for the treasure. While it is impossible to verify this number, it is undeniable that many hunters did so obsessively and sometimes recklessly. Five have died in the process, but Fenn steadfastly refused to call the treasure hunt off. “If someone drowns in the swimming pool,” he told a New York Times reporter in 2017, “we shouldn’t drain the pool, we should teach people to swim.”
Treasure hunter Reed Randall made one such trip between his home in Houston and Maybell, Colorado, 10 times between 2019 and 2020. He was certain Fenn’s clues led to a spot outside of town, but pinpointing the exact location proved difficult.
One evening in late May, he finally saw a tree glowing at sunset which matched the final clue in one of Fenn’s poems. The sandy patch was just big enough to hold the treasure chest. Randall began to shovel dirt ferociously, anticipating the plink of steel hitting bronze. But it never came.
After a few hours, Randall eventually realised his hole was too deep for an old man to have dug. And if the treasure wasn’t here, he decided, it couldn’t be anywhere. He emailed a photo of the scene to Fenn. “I know your secret,” he wrote, implying the hunt had been a scam all along.
Then, on 6 June, Fenn announced that “a man from the east” had found the chest. In a short statement posted on a fan’s website, Fenn wrote that it had been buried “under a canopy of stars in the lush, forested vegetation of the Rocky Mountains”. Ten days later, he posted pictures allegedly sent to him by the man who had found it. Fenn said he would not reveal his name to protect the finder from tax issues.
Randall found the timing of this announcement – just a week after his email to Fenn – extremely suspicious. Like a substantial number of other searchers, he now believes the hunt may have been a hoax. Another faction believes the treasure is real, but not found – either it’s still out there, they argue, or Fenn retrieved it himself. Still, many remain true believers. They accept Fenn’s account of events, but feel abandoned, because without more details, they don’t know how close they came to striking gold.
Few paid attention when Fenn first released his memoir. Things kicked off two years later with a 2012 feature in Newsweek, which presented his methods as sketchy, but also swashbuckling and profitable. Soon enough, Fenn was on the Today show and in the pages of United’s in-flight magazine. Facebook groups, blogs and YouTube channels devoted to the hunt proliferated. Fenn received thousands of emails, and replied to every one.
Treasure hunters were soon arrested for digging at historic sites, but other reports were even more dire: Randy Bilyeu’s body was found along the Rio Grande almost seven months after he went missing in January 2016; Jeff Murphy fell 500ft in Yellowstone in 2017; Paris Wallace’s body was found along the Rio Grande; Eric Ashby went over the side of a raft and drowned in 2017; Michael Wayne Sexson died in March after he and a friend, who survived, went into the Colorado wilderness without adequate clothing and provisions; the pair had been rescued from a similar situation just a month before. In 2017, the New Mexico state police begged Fenn to call off the hunt after Wallace’s body was found near Taos.
Growing up in Texas as a middle child, Fenn had been a trickster – he often escaped class down a fire escape. He was also resourceful, and sold marbles he made by hand. There was something too ordinary about his father, a dedicated school principal, that both Fenn and his brother Skippy rebelled against with careless adventures.
Although his father touched many lives as an educator, he was forgotten by the world. Until Fenn wrote about him, a Google search revealed no more than the location of his burial plot. “We are victims of our tiny environments,” Fenn wrote wistfully, wishing a bigger life for himself. The treasure hunt, he decided, would be the project by which he would be remembered.
Fenn retired from the air force in 1970 after 20 years of flying. In The Thrill of the Chase, Fenn says that he, his wife and their two daughters used his $12,000 retirement to move to Santa Fe and build Fenn Galleries, a block from the famous art gallery destination of Canyon Road. In fact, Fenn had bought into an existing antique trading business with $25,000 in cash and $100,000 in items from his own collection of “Indian crafts” and “bronzes”, according to an article in the Belleville Telescope from 1978.
How, as a military man and the son of a school principal, did Fenn amass a $100,000 collection? In Newsweek, Tony Dokoupil detailed Fenn’s grave robbing and looting tendencies, a hobby aided by his ability to take planes out for pleasure. While serving in the air force, Fenn took ancient jars from Pompeii and Libya; spears from the Sahara. “I was thrown out of Pompeii three times,” Fenn told Dokoupil.
When contacted by the Guardian before his death, Fenn wrote in an email that it was more complicated – he was caught climbing into an “almost completely excavated room” three times, but was allowed to keep the pottery sherd he found there. Of those trips, Fenn wrote: “All of us brought back souvenirs, but I did not collect jars or spears.”
While living in Arizona, Fenn “explored” Native ruins with two friends. Whether it is legal to take objects “discovered” at ancient sites can be a complicated issue, and can depend on where in the world discoveries are made. But in other cases, it’s quite clear. In the US, it has been illegal to excavate on public land since the 1906 Antiquities Act. Authorities caught Fenn on tape, Dokoupil writes, bragging about digging in Arizona and taking a stone axe from a corpse. (Fenn confirmed in an email that he did take an axe out of a cave, but the remains nearby were “animal bones left by humans who lived there”.)
By the late 1980s, Fenn was rich enough to purchase San Lazaro Pueblo on a patch of hilly juniper shrubland, 30 miles south of Sante Fe in the Galisteo Basin. As the owner of the ruins, Fenn could play archaeologist legally, so long as he didn’t disturb graves. In 1990, the state historic preservation division director found a human arm bone on top of a pile of artefacts at Fenn’s property. Fenn sued the state for trespassing – the case was later dismissed.
When contacted, Fenn wrote that he treated human remains at San Lazaro with care. “I am pretty good at identifying human bones but human phalanges can sometimes be difficult to tell from other animals. It was a phalange that the trespasser picked up.”
In 2009, Fenn ran into legal trouble again. The FBI and Bureau of Land Management raided Fenn’s house as part of a multi-year investigation into a ring of illegal diggers and traders in the Four Corners area, where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet. They seized only a handful of artefacts from Fenn (he says it was just two of them) versus 5,000 at another dealer’s home. They arrested 23 people, three of whom killed themselves. Fenn was never charged.
A year later, Fenn published his memoir. In it, he explains that his love for a turquoise bracelet included in the chest is tied to its history. An amateur explorer named Richard Wetherill had a Navajo artisan make the bracelet with beads he had excavated from a ruin in 1898. Wetherill sold it to a railroad hotel magnate whose descendant lost it to Fenn in a game of pool in 1965. His story neglects where the beads were found (Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in southern Colorado), those who made them (ancestral Puebloans who abandoned their homes because of prolonged drought), as well as anything about the Navajo artisan.
The history of white people making their fortune by exploiting Native peoples’ past has a long history across the world. In the US south-west, the excavation of artefacts has long been a hobby or a job for many, and authorities estimate that over 90% of sites in the Four Corners region have been plundered.
Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, director of the Association on American Indian affairs, told me that because looting cultural and religious items was federally sanctioned in the 1800s, we’re still burdened with it today. Amateur archaeologists and private collectors remove artefacts from their scientific and cultural contexts, she explained. When Fenn took a 2,000-year-old vase out of Pompeii, and later quite literally took ownership of the past at San Lazaro Pueblo, he displayed a lack of deference for these contexts which allowed him, O’Loughlin said, to “possess the mystery and culture of a vanished race of people. But the reality is, we’re still here today.”
For years, Fenn displayed “please touch” signs around his gallery. When students visited on field trips, he encouraged them to run their fingers across a portrait of George Washington listed at $150,000. When Dokoupil excavated at San Lazaro, Fenn told him to take the ancient artefacts he found home with him. It’s as though he was saying that the normal rules of care and reverence did not apply to him, and he had the ability to temporarily extend that to others.
Sandy Olsen – her name has been changed to protect her anonymity – first heard about Fenn’s treasure in 2018 while undergoing cancer treatment. “This could keep me busy,” she thought. And it did – through a double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and the tattoo she got to cover her scars. Like every other searcher I talked to, she eventually emailed Fenn to ask about the treasure. When he wrote back, she felt special. Soon, they were emailing almost daily, exchanging messages about life and the treasure.
In July 2019, he asked her to visit him in Santa Fe. After she agreed, he wrote: “I’m not sure it will be worth your while. Under it I am just a plane ole person. What do we have for each other and how much are we willing to give?”
“Do we have to be willing to give something to one another, or is it enough to have a few laughs and a nice friendship?” she said.
A few days later, when she asked if the local bookstore served alcohol, he replied: “Does it help to give you a couple of drinks?”
Three days later, he asked her to send photos. “Are you making a photo album or what?” she said with a laugh-till-you-cry emoji.
“I just want to recognize you when you get here.”
She sent him a photo: waist up, red bikini top.
“You are a very pretty girl,” he wrote. “But I can’t see your tattoos.”
When she visited, she was relieved to find another searcher at his house. He told them stories, asked what they wanted to know. He’d sworn to protect the treasure hunt by not revealing anything to individuals. But when asked about a specific clue, he said only two people knew the answer. Then he looked at Olsen and winked. That day, she found him charming. She thought that if she managed it properly, she could hold on to their friendship.
She was wrong. He kept asking for photos. She worried that if she didn’t comply, he’d wink at other people about clues, or worse, he’d somehow keep her from the treasure. But she drew a line and never sent more photos. Eventually he stopped talking to her, saying he was busy. Soon she learned she wasn’t alone.
Mindy Fausey, then a 40-year-old woman, sent her search narrative to Dal Neitzel, who ran the unofficial Fenn treasure hunt site, in 2014. He posted it to his blog. Fenn contacted Fausey and invited her to email him. Like Olsen, she says she felt special. He flew her and her son to see him. He said he didn’t like the attention she got from men on blogs. He wrote: “I get jealous when they flirt too much. Do you mind telling them that you are 80 but have had four facelifts and the hair is a wig and your teeth are in a glass of water on your nightstand? I’ll feel better.”
For Christmas, he asked for nude photos. She sent a horse figurine and a wood plaque that she painted herself of the letter F, which is how he always signed his emails. He didn’t mention receiving the package, so she asked about it. “I didn’t see any photos,” he replied.
She decided people needed to know. Not exactly that people needed to know what kind of person he was – but more that these close relationships meant that the integrity of the chase could be compromised. She posted screenshots of their emails on her website. People attacked her in return, saying she had used her sexuality for clues, ruining the chase in the process. Forums surfaced to trash her. She received hate mail and death threats.
Fenn also asked Sara Jane Woodall for photos. When Woodall, who had a YouTube adventure channel and nude modeling business under the name Wonderhussy, posted a video detailing plans for a search trip with her sister, Fenn reached out and invited her to visit him at his house in Santa Fe. She and her sister had only planned on searching in New Mexico, but Fenn mentioned West Yellowstone so much that day that it felt like a hint. They decided to extend their trip.
Before they left, he gave them books, arrowheads and asked if they needed gas money. On their way to West Yellowstone, they stopped to soak in the hot springs Fenn went to every summer as a kid. When they sent him a photo, he wrote back, “now girls, you know you’re not supposed to wear bikini tops.” They laughed it off.
“He’s a dirty old man,” she told me. “But I have been exposed to way worse than that.”
In an email sent to the Guardian days before his death, Fenn denied that he asked women for nude photographs. “I am aware of several fake emails that say I did,” he wrote. Fenn added that the emails are the work of searchers who are “angry with me because I would not help them find the treasure”.
Upon learning of his death, Olsen felt frustrated. “He left the treasure community with very few answers after many years and thousands of dollars spent. He left the women he took advantage of feeling like victims that will never get an apology from him.”
One thing remains: seekers’ absolute commitment to their craft. Many of the Facebook groups devoted to the Fenn search have turned their attention to other hunts, such as the series announced this summer by Johnny Perri, a retiring jeweller in Michigan. Perri said Fenn inspired him to hide $1m worth of treasure around the state to be found in a series of hunts. Participants have to pay for access to clues. In August, the $50 tickets to the first treasure hunt, which is worth about $5,000, sold out.
Fenn, at least, gave participants the chance of winning big. “He gave a million dollars of his own treasure to an average person,” seeker Crysty Harper said. Harper was the most casual searcher I talked to – at times she spent 40 hours a week on the hunt and re-read The Thrill of the Chase obsessively. She even had her husband read it aloud on their annual summer trip from Arizona to the Rockies.
Even now, most searchers are convinced that they had the correct solutions, that they were on the cusp of finding the chest. They are also convincing. When Randall explained that the lines “If you’ve been wise and found the blaze / Look quickly down your quest to cease” referred to the tree that glowed in the sunset, I nodded along, upset that the chest wasn’t in the sandy patch where Randall hoped it would be.
In the end, Randall believes that Fenn made the whole thing up to get back at the FBI and the Bureau of Land Management; he thinks Fenn tricked people into traipsing around on public land, causing damage, digging things up, needing to be rescued.
“Think about it,” he said. “The raid was in 2009. The book came out a year later.”
Fenn’s death doesn’t change things for Randall. He already said goodbye to Fenn, next to the empty hole he dug in the middle of the Colorado wilderness.