In the winter of 1870 rumors began to circulate around the village of Safe Harbor. Deep in the forest at the dead of night, the light of a lantern could be seen. At first, no one paid the sight much attention. A lone light in the woods was not uncommon. A cow was known to wander off and a responsible farmer regardless of time would look for her.
But the light was not a singular event. Over the coming weeks, more people reported seeing it. The ones that saw it did so frequently but rarely in the same spot. The lantern was spotted on both sides of the Conestoga River in the area surrounding Safe Harbor. Eventually, the realization came that the mysterious light was an almost nightly occurrence.
Curious villagers ventured into the woods to where the lantern had been seen Their investigations found little except holes with piles of overturned dirt and salt scattered about. This did little to solve the mystery and only generated more questions.
What was this person searching for? It had to be valuable if it motivated a person enough to spend night after cold winter night in the woods. Not to mention digging in near frozen dirt, even in Lancaster’s soft fertile soil, was no easy chore. With the location of the excavation changing almost nightly, it was as if the person had no idea where to look.
In early February people got some answers. It was a treasure hunter or more specifically…treasure hunters. When someone from the group—proving Benjamin Franklin’s maxim, “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead,” again true—began sharing details of their exploits. The information eventually made its way to a skeptical reporter. He described their activities in a February 5, 1870 article entitled “Foolish Fortune Hunters” of The Columbia Spy.
“A number of foolish people, residing in and about Safe harbor, this county, are almost nightly engaged in a fruitless search for buried gold on the rocky and wild hill opposite the Mansion House hotel, in that village.”
But where did the gold come from?
According to the loose-lipped treasure hunter, a fortune teller in Columbia had shared the uncanny story of the gold’s origin and its final resting place with the intrepid adventurers. The treasure believed to be worth $4 million had been taken from the French army by Indians in the chaos that ensued during the French and Indian War.
Of course, no proper buried treasure story would be complete without a supernatural component. This prize is no different. According to the fortune teller, the treasure was guarded by a seven foot tall “Indian Spirit” who moved the cache nightly which increased the difficulty of locating it.
While that last part might strain credibility, this is not the only lost treasure story from North America’s portion of the Seven Years’ War.
General Braddock’s Lost Payroll Gold
In 1755, British General Edward Braddock was ordered to Virginia where, with two regiments of regular troops and additional militia, he would move westward to Fort Cumberland, Maryland. From that location, Braddock’s orders directed him to enter the Ohio Valley, capture Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh), and then engage additional French strongholds further north.
Even though Britain and France were not formally at war during Braddock’s march, the events served as an important prelude to the French and Indian War (1756-1763). Braddock successfully reached Fort Cumberland in May 1755 and Fort Duquesne in July of the same year. The French moved some of their forces from the fort to a forward position where they attacked the unwanted visitors in a violent encounter that resulted in more than 900 casualties, including a mortal wound to Braddock.
It is following the armed clash that most legends begin because the general allegedly carried a gold-laden chest that went missing during or soon after the battle. The location of Braddock’s gold seems to be dependent upon the geographic locations of the authors who write about it. Stories have been passed down through generations that place the cache anywhere from Alexandria, Virginia, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the along the route of Braddock’s failed 1755 mission.
Fairfax County, Virginia’s claim to the treasure, is traced to the general’s arrival in Alexandria and the subsequent problems he encountered building a road to Winchester, Virginia, for equipment-laden troops. After being slowed by rain and mud, General Braddock ordered that two brass cannons be removed from the wagons and buried. Gold coins, intended for payroll, were poured into the cannons for safe keeping. The Centerville, Virginia, location was noted and plans were made to retrieve the items at a later date.
In another version of the story, an optimistic General Braddock anticipated that his forces would successfully drive the French from Fort Duquesne and that a supply of money would be necessary to provide for the troops’ needs until a proper administration could be established. Braddock’s crushing defeat, in 1755, dashed his plans and set in motion a chaotic retreat toward the safety of Fort Cumberland. The general suffered a serious wound during the battle and later died near Uniontown, Pennsylvania. A decision was made to carry the payroll chest to Fort Cumberland, but further attacks on the retreating party prompted the survivors to bury it.
Only one member of the payroll detail survived and was found wandering along Will’s Creek in a state of delirium. He could only recall burying the gold at a divided section of Braddock Run, or perhaps where it emptied into Will’s Creek. Both locations were near the fort where he sought safety.
A different version of the legend has the chest buried at the junction of streams feeding Savage River in present-day Garrett County, Maryland.
The Hidden Treasure of the Tuscarawas Path
In 1754, the French built Fort Duquesne at the mouth of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers for the purpose of settlement and trade. Over the next four years, the French through these endeavors accumulated a large amount of gold and silver rumored to be worth $13 million.
Around 1758 The French’s fortunes began to change. General John Forbes lead a British campaign of 6,000 troops to drive the French from the contested Ohio Country. Forbes’ strategic objective was simple: capture Fort Duquesne.
When the French learned of the British approach, they quickly decided to move the treasure in gold coins. Under a small escort of ten men, the French soldiers loaded sixteen pack horses with the gold and silver (another version of the story says the treasure was the French military’s payroll) and headed for Fort Detroit via the Great Trail.
Meanwhile, the main body of their army would attempt to hold the British while they prepared for final abandonment. If trouble should arise the French soldiers were ordered to bury the treasure and mark the spot.
After several days on the trail, Native American scouts informed the French that the British were gaining ground on them. The treasure was quickly buried and landmarks made to relocate the spot. Shortly after a skirmish took place and eight of the ten Frenchmen were killed.
That was the last anyone heard of the treasure until 1829 when the nephew of one of the two surviving Frenchmen was going through his uncle’s papers. Among the documents, he found the story of the unrecovered treasure. More importantly, it provided the vague location of the treasure horde. The gold was buried in the middle of four springs that formed a square. A half mile to the west, they jammed an “odd rock” into the fork of a tree. A mile to the east, they carved a deer into a tree and 600 steps to the north they buried the shovels.
The solider’s nephew searched for the lost treasure between East Rochester and Minerva. After a long and unproductive search, he gave up and returned home. Over the ensuing decades, people continued to look and dig for the treasure. Between 1829 and 1875 the described landmarks were found—mostly by accident—near the Ohio town of Minerva at the intersection of Stark, Columbiana, and Carroll counties. The story of the hidden treasure lives on more than 250 years later.
Sunken Treasure of Fort Levis
On the upper St. Lawrence River, among the Thousand Islands along the present day Canada-United States border, is Chimney Island. It was there that the French had Fort Levis. The fort, located in the middle of the river, was designed to stop invading British ships. It was on this site that the decisive Battle of the Thousand Islands in August 1760 took place.
The French were able to repel the invading ships several times during the nine-day until the British switched to “hotshot.” These balls of fire set ablaze everything they impacted. Originally armed with 300 soldiers, the French surrendered having lost 275 men to the British’s 26. Just before the fort fell, French troops buried a chest of payroll gold on the island.
Years later, a descendant of the French commander in charge of the fort traveled from France to Ogdensburg. He hired a boat to go to the island and find the treasure. According to the story, he did find it, but his boat capsized when he was returning to shore. Unwilling to let go of the riches, the man and the chest of gold sank to the bottom of the river. It lies there still today.
Uncharted Lancaster: Haunted Indian Gold Adventure
If you aren’t afraid of a seven-foot-tall Native American ghost, click here to start the Haunted Indian Gold Adventure.
But perhaps the real motivation for the massacre of the Conestoga by the Paxton Boys was not revenge but gold in this historical fiction short story. Read it here!
Plus, if you would like to read the original newspaper articles detailing the Safe Harbor’s treasure hunters click here.
- Foolish Fortune Hunters
- Treasure Seekers Again at Work
- A Deluded Treasure Seeker
- Buried Treasure
- Lancaster County in the Various Wars
- The Influence of Lancaster County on the Pennsylvania Frontier
- Legend of the Lost French Gold
- April 3, 1875 edition newspaper, The Minerva Commercial
- Fort Duquesne
- Hidden treasure: The hunt for gold in Minerva
- Where is General Braddock’s Gold?
- Hidden beneath the St. Lawrence River, a sunken fortress and legend of treasure