Forrest Fenn Hid A Treasure Chest Worth Millions In The Rockies — And People Died Looking For It

Published January 1, 2019
Updated June 18, 2021

Just a 24-line poem in his memoir served as a clue to the treasure's location.

Forrest Fenn Treasure Map

TwitterForrest Fenn hid a treasure chest filled with goods worth upwards of $5 million.

In the summer of 2017, a 53-year-old man named Jeff Murphy disappeared shortly after embarking on a hike at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. While it’s sadly not uncommon for hikers to lose their lives while traversing dangerous terrain, one element of Murphy’s death was unique: he was searching for the mysterious Forrest Fenn treasure.

The legend of Forrest Fenn’s treasure is nearly a decade old. The premise for the hunt was quite simple: a wealthy art dealer decided to hide a small chest stuffed with gold and jewels in the Rocky Mountains, kicking off a treasure hunt of epic proportions.

Fenn claimed that all potential treasure hunters needed to find his loot was basic geographical knowledge, a map, and a poem he wrote comprised of nine clues within his self-published memoir, The Thrill of the Chase.

What made his treasure hunt so attractive was that the treasure was reportedly worth up to $5 million dollars at present and inspired an influx of adventure seekers to the Rockies in search of it.

Even Fenn himself couldn’t have predicted just how large-scale his hunt became — or how dangerous. At least five individuals lost their lives in the search. 

Authorities asked Fenn to end the treasure hunt because of how risky it became but instead, he opted to give additional clues to help hunters on their quests. The treasure was finally uncovered by an unidentified hunter in June 2020.

But was that really the end of the multimillion-dollar Fenn treasure saga?

Forrest Fenn’s Background

Forrest Fenn Vietnam War Veteran

Old Santa Fe Trading CoForrest Fenn served during the Vietnam War before he built a reputation as an artifact trader.

Forrest Fenn is a bit of a mysterious figure himself. What we do know about Fenn is that he’s something of a real-life Indiana Jones. Fenn was a fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force during Vietnam but in his spare time, he’d accompany archeologists on digs in exotic locations.

Fenn served in the Air Force for 20 years and is said to have survived 328 combat missions in Vietnam. He earned various decorations as a result of his service — including the Silver Star Metal — the third-highest personal decoration for valor in combat the U.S. Armed Forces awards.

Fenn collected more than medals for valor. he bought sculptures from struggling artists and cast them in bronze toward the end of his 20-year career. He managed to sell some of the pieces but traded most of them for Native American artifacts.

Over the years, Fenn’s sale of artifacts enabled him to open up his own gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1973, he opened up Fenn Galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico

By the late 1980s, Fenn’s collection was so large and exclusive that he grossed roughly $6 million per year in revenue. His noteworthy collection — which included a mummified falcon from King Tut’s tomb and Sitting Bull’s peace pipe — attracted an extensive list of high-profile celebrity clientele. This included Jacqueline Onassis, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Redford just to name a few.

The Brush With Death That Inspired The Hunt

Forrest Fenn's Artifacts

TwitterForrest Fenn opened his own art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he displayed and sold countless artifacts he’d collected over the years.

Fenn was living lavishly with his wife Peggy in Santa Fe in 1988 when he received a grim diagnosis; kidney cancer. When Fenn faced what he thought was the end of his life, he began thinking about what his legacy might be.

Thus, the Forrest Fenn treasure was born.

Fenn purchased a 12th-century Romanesque 10 by 10-inch lockbox and secretly filled it with valuable artifacts and a copy of his autobiography. Fenn planned to haul the treasure into the mountains and die beside it, but he beat cancer and the Fenn treasure sat untouched in a vault in his home — until 2010.

Twenty-two years after receiving his cancer diagnosis, Forrest Fenn announced his treasure hunt to the world. Over the 10 years that the treasure hunt was held, more than 300,000 people attempted to find his hidden treasure. Fenn claimed he received 100 emails per day from hunters soliciting clues as to the treasure’s location.

The treasure chest and its contents weigh upwards of 40 pounds. Inside are a number of gold coins, gold nuggets the size of chicken eggs, pre-Columbian gold figures, emeralds, and diamonds.

The treasure was hidden in the aftermath of the Great Recession — a deliberate choice on Fenn’s part. He said in an interview with ABC News, “We were going into a recession, and lots of people losing their job, despair was written all over the headlines, and I just wanted to give some people hope.”

The Nine Central Treasure Hunt Clues

Young Forrest Fenn

Old Santa Fe Trading CoAfter his cancer diagnosis, Fenn bought a Romanesque treasure chest and filled it with millions of dollars worth of bounty which has sent hopefuls on a wild goose chase to find it.

The launch of Forrest Fenn’s treasure hunt coincided with the release of his 2010 self-published memoir, The Thrill of the Chase. The book contains the roadmap for finding the treasure in the form of a 24-stanza poem; one that Fenn said possessed nine clues that would lead hunters to his grand prize.

The poem, located in Fenn’s memoir, reads as follows (with the bolded phrases signifying the nine probable clues):

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 to walk.
Put in below the home of Brown.

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.

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.

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.

Treasure hunters analyzed and dissected the poem, studying each word in great detail and theorized multiple explanations for each individual clue. There are still forums and entire websites dedicated to Fenn’s treasure. Hunters shared information, tips, and advancements they made in solving the riddle.

For example, the first clue for the Forrest Fenn treasure (and the start point of the treasure hunt), “Begin it where warm waters halt”, could hold several different meanings. Some hunters believed this line was intended to lead treasure hunters to one of the many hot springs found in the Rocky mountain range.

Another more detailed theory suggested it was the point where warm water turned into cold water within a river.

Trout only swim in cool waters, and Fenn is an avid fisherman who in the past has specifically mentioned that he often fishes for trout. There are specific points in rivers and streams where warm waters turn cold — where trout can be found. Many believe that “where warm waters halt” referred to these points, marking the beginning of Fenn’s trail.

On various different blogs and Reddit threads treasure hunters debated what each part of the poem meant.

Not everyone shared their conclusions for fear of another hunter copying their trail. However, the community often shared new hints that Fenn himself may have knowingly (or unknowingly) shared with the public.

Forrest Fenn’s Treasure Hunt Turns Deadly

Hundreds of thousands of people have tried to uncover Fenn’s hidden treasure for 10 years.

The various interpretations of the nine clues, as well as the others Fenn subtly dropped over the years, led hunters into dangerous terrain. In some instances, people who went looking for Fenn’s treasure sadly lost their lives.

So far, there have been at least five known disappearances or deaths related to Fenn’s treasure hunt. In June 2017, 52-year-old Paris Wallace went missing while reportedly looking for Fenn’s treasure. Wallace’s body was discovered in the Rio Grande rivers a couple of days after his disappearance.

The most recent victim was a 58-year-old snowmobiler who set out to search for the treasure with his unidentified companion in March 2020. He later died after the two men were rescued by authorities near Dinosaur National Monument along the Utah-Colorado border.

These deaths and disappearances have alarmed authorities who called on Fenn to cease the treasure hunt altogether.

But Fenn insisted on keeping the hunt alive. Instead of calling off the hunt, he offered treasure seekers more clues and merely cautioned them to stay safe.

Following the incidents in 2017, Fenn wrote that “in the light of a recent accident, and in the interest of safety” he felt he owed it to the community to divulge more information.

“The treasure chest is not underwater, nor is it near the Rio Grande River. It is not necessary to move large rocks or climb up or down a steep precipice, and it is not under a man-made object” Fenn wrote. He also reminded hunters that he was 80-years-old when he hid the treasure, so the hiding spot would be a place that an elderly man can easily access.

“Please be cautious and don’t take risks,” Fenn advised. He also reminded treasure seekers that the hunt was supposed to be fun.

Fenn himself predicted that his famously dangerous hunt would last for at least decades, though he believed one lucky hunter would eventually discover his multi-million dollar jackpot in spite of the risks.

The Forrest Fenn Treasure Hunt Body Count Grows

Forrest Fenns Pottery Collection

Old Santa Fe Trading CoAt least five people have either disappeared or died while trying to search for Fenn’s mysterious treasure.

Undeterred by the failure and tragedy of those who came before them, treasure hunters kept looking. Though hiking in the Rocky Mountains itself is not a crime, the rising loss of life reasonably frustrated the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office to no end.

According to CNN, Montana law enforcement went as far as issuing a warning on Facebook on June 18, 2019. Their primary goal was to at least urge these potential risk-takers to reassess their deadly quests before burdening emergency services.

“In the last couple of years, two people have died, two have been rescued near death, several have had run-ins with local law and federal law enforcement, and one told his wife today he was injured but not where he was,” the post said.

“These people were all near Yellowstone National Park and they were looking for the Forrest Fenn treasure.”

Sheriff Brian Gootkin issued a few choice words of his own, regarding this dangerous draw to Montana’s tough terrain.

He said that some hunters only provide rough location data to their loved ones before venturing out in a misguided attempt to protect themselves from competing hunters — making emergency rescues nearly impossible.

“You must know that this country is unforgiving if you don’t give it the respect it deserves,” said Gootkin, adding that bears, snakes, rivers, and shoddy cellphone service were often unexpected hurdles for hunters.

“We encourage everyone to vigorously pursue their outdoor passions, but think like a local,” he urged. “Before you go after the treasure, consider your level of skill, preparation and knowledge of the area. Consider the volunteer hours spent searching if you need to be rescued, and the anxiety of those left at home.”

It was a year later that an unexpected twist in the Fenn treasure saga happened: someone found it.

Fenn’s Treasure Finally Uncovered

Forrest Fenns Airplane

Old Santa Fe Trading Co/The Thrill of the ChaseIn 2020, Fenn announced that the treasure had been discovered by an unidentified treasure hunter.

In June 2020, after a decade-long search for Fenn’s hidden treasure in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, the veteran announced on his website that the booty had been found.

However, when asked to reveal the identity of the victorious treasure hunter and where the loot was found, Fenn demured.

“The guy who found it does not want his name mentioned. He’s from back East,” Fenn told the Santa Fe New Mexican. He added that the discovery of the treasure was confirmed through a photograph that the individual had sent him.

“I don’t know, I feel halfway kind of glad, halfway kind of sad because the chase is over,” Fenn said of the end of his treasure hunt. But the Fenn treasure saga was not quite over yet.

A handful of treasure hunters have come forward with legal claims about the hidden bounty.

Barbara Andersen, a Chicago real estate attorney, is among those who have pursued legal measures against the distribution of the treasure, alleging that she was cheated on her answer to Fenn’s clues by an unknown competitor.

“He stole my solve,” Andersen said in an interview. “He followed and cheated me to get the chest.” Andersen filed an injunction asking the court to stop an unknown defendant from selling booty from the treasure chest and grant the treasure to her instead.

In a separate case, a Colorado man named David Harold Hanson sued Fenn for $1.5 million, alleging that he was led astray from the treasure hunt through fraudulent statements and misleading clues from Fenn.

Others, meanwhile, believe Fenn’s treasure never existed, that the nationwide treasure hunt had just been a ruse.

“I think his announcement is at least a few years, and a few lives, too late. But he has to live with that. I believe this was over much earlier than today,” said treasure hunter Seth Wallack. “In 2020, he said the treasure was found, but doesn’t reveal any details so his narrative can’t be questioned.”

No matter what the public might choose to believe, there is no question that Fenn’s treasure hunt, for a period of 10 years, awakened the country’s imagination — for better or for worse.

After this look at the elusive Forrest Fenn treasure, read the story of the mysterious Oak Island treasure. Then, check out the history of gangster Dutch Schultz, who also left behind a buried treasure.

Bernadette Deron
Bernadette Deron is a digital media producer and writer from New York City who holds a Master's in publishing from New York University. Her work has appeared in Yahoo, MSN, AOL, and Insider.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.