Forrest Fenn’s Treasure
A human named Forrest Fenn flew 328 combat missions in 365 days during the Vietnam War. Twice he was shot down. His experiences earned him a Silver Star.
When Fenn left the military, he ended up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he eventually established an art gallery that turned into a multi-million-dollar operation. The gallery sold a mixture of Native American creations, artifacts, and conventional paintings, including openly admitted forgeries of famous works by Monet and Degas. Fenn basked in the term “eccentric,” often roiling the already eclectic Santa Fe art scene. Just ask his pet alligators, Beowulf and Elvis.
In 1988, doctors diagnosed Fenn with terminal kidney cancer. Fenn’s parents filled his childhood with adventures in the Rocky Mountains. His father developed pancreatic cancer and, after a protracted fight, decided to take 50 sleeping pills to keep his family from dealing with a grisly end phase. When Fenn received his own fatal diagnosis, he decided to follow his father’s path, though he wanted to add something fun to the process. He had discovered a location in the wilderness where he wanted to perish. When he died he would take a chest full of treasure that he had curated over his successful business years. He’d release a riddle to the world, pointing obliquely to his final resting spot. If someone could find the spot, they’d discover more than a million dollars worth of gold, jewels, and art.
He crafted a poem and put together the chest. Everything was set up.
Only one thing held up the posthumous high-stakes scavenger hunt: Fenn didn’t die.
He survived for decades post-diagnosis. So, instead of waiting for cancer to take him, Fenn figured he would release the treasure chest while still alive. In 2010, he published The Thrill of the Chase: A Memoir. In it, he unleashed the poem, which he claimed pointed directly to the location of the chest. Of course, the verse was a bit cryptic.
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 drawing ever 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 answer 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.
Unlike many treasure hunts, in which either the source is long dead or refuses to offer help, Fenn was still alive and often interacted with searchers. He provided some hints along the way. The chest was somewhere in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe. It was at an elevation between 5,000 and 10,200 feet. He excluded Alaska, Canada, Idaho, and Utah. Over and over, he claimed all one needed was the poem.
The Thrill of the Chase brought thousands of amateur Indiana Joneses into the American West. The mixture of puzzle-solving, riches, and fantastic scenery prompted many to spend countless hours in remote, unforgiving places.
Because we live in America and will do just about anything for a buck, things quickly devolved into madness. In addition to many tales of genuine joy in the outdoors, the next decade was filled with death, conspiracy theories, and lawsuits.
Five people died while searching for the treasure. Authorities arrested a man for digging up graves in Yellowstone National Park because he was convinced the solution urged him to do so. One man believed Fenn never buried the treasure but kept it at home. The man arrived at Fenn’s house to steal it, where he was held at gunpoint until he was arrested. Another person sued Fenn, claiming he had moved the treasure four times because the claimant was on the verge of discovering its location. Others sued Fenn for fraud. Fenn’s family was constantly harried.
As the deaths and stress mounted, many called for Fenn to end the hunt.
Still, Fenn believed the positives outweighed the negatives. Communities sprang up, attempting to crowdsource information and solutions. One of Fenn’s main motivations was to get people outside, away from the trappings of the modern world. The stories of people visiting spots they would otherwise not buoyed Fenn.
2010 turned into 2020 and many wondered if the chest would ever be found. Fenn thought he’d die before it happened. Then in June 2020, Fenn announced online that someone had finally done it.
After a decade, the bizarreness seemed to be over and a person was instantly rich.
Days after teasing the discovery, Fenn posted the images above.
And that was it.
The finder, a “shy” person from “back east,” did not want to be identified, fearing the same sort of backlash that Fenn’s family had endured. Fenn and the finder decided not to reveal the location of the treasure, thinking the location would gather too much foot traffic for its own good.
Both of those decisions are logical and reasonable. Officials have gone to great lengths to keep the location of Hyperion, the world’s tallest tree, a secret. Rangers in Yosemite had to close areas related to the Firefall due to humans being unable to use them in moderation. The examples are numerous. And the finder needed to look no further than Fenn during the previous decade to believe an unhealthy amount of attention might be showered upon the finder.
However, the decision to maintain the mystery would obviously not sit well with the conspiracy theorists. Fenn simply told this person where it was! No one found it; Fenn just orchestrated a photo op! Additionally, even those who thought everything was legitimate just spent a lot of time and money searching for the prize. They wanted closure. Were they close to the correct solution? Did they ever have a shot?
Backlash ensued. More lawsuits were filed. Fenn decided to reveal one tidbit: the chest had been hidden in Wyoming.
To many hunters, this revelation made sense. Fenn spent a lot of time in Yellowstone as a child and expressed his love for the area many times. Tens of thousands of hours were spent inside the National Park and in the areas surrounding it in search of the box. To others, the revelation seemed to conveniently dispel a couple of lawsuits, in which claimants produced solutions in other states.
The saga took a turn on 7 September 2020, when Fenn died peacefully of natural causes. Weeks later, an anonymous article appeared on Medium, titled “A Remembrance of Forrest Fenn” and penned by a person claiming to be the finder. Based on the contents of the article and photographs, many community members thought the piece to be authentic. The author claimed to be a medical student with loads to pay off, alluding to a future sale of the treasure. The person wrote about the toil of the search – the location had been deciphered in 2018, but not until 2020 did 25 days of searching yield paydirt. The author continued to guard the location’s secrecy.
In December 2020, Outside Magazine published an article called “The Man Who Found Forrest Fenn’s Treasure.” The reporter had corresponded with the finder, who continued to remain anonymous. However, a lawsuit prompted the finder to believe his identity would soon be revealed, so he opted to put his own name out there. The finder turned out to be 32-year-old Jack Steuf from Michigan.
The sage took a turn on 7 September 2020. Fenn died peacefully of natural causes. Weeks later, an anonymous article appeared on Medium, titled “A Remembrance of Forrest Fenn” and penned by a person claiming to be the finder. Based on the contents of the article and photographs, many community members thought the piece to be authentic. The author claimed to be a medical student with loads to pay off, alluding to a future sale of the treasure. However, the writer continued to guard the location.
Two years later, the contents of the chest were auctioned piecemeal for a combined $1.3 million.
Steuf continues to maintain radio silence regarding the location. That fact does not satiate thousands of hunters, many of whom continue to search for the solution, despite the lack of treasure. Was it really in Wyoming?
According to some sources, Fenn did, indeed, place the chest within Yellowstone National Park. In 2020, Fenn supposedly contacted Sarah Davis, the chief ranger of Yellowstone, to ask her if the spot could handle an influx of visitors. She told him that it could not tolerate much human presence, so they decided to keep the location secret.
Some enterprising hunters believe they uncovered the spot, however. Shortly before the Medium article arrived, a few prominent members of the community received an anonymous message from someone claiming to know where Steuf had found the chest. The missive also told them that news would be coming out about the search in the next week. They had pictorial evidence of the site. When the Medium article dropped the next week, the hunters took the anonymous letter seriously and started to look anew.
The longevity of the overall hunt stemmed partially from the poem’s vagueness. How many spots in an entire mountain range might fit the lines? If the anonymous writer was correct, the poem contained a much more concrete spot than anyone had previously understood.
According to anonymous, Fenn embedded coordinates within the poem in the form of homophones and “kangaroo” words. For example, “for” could be “four.” Both “to” and “too” could be “two.” Or, “done,” “gone,” or “alone” could hide “one” in their metaphorical marsupial pouches. If one were to “paddle up your creek,” the numbers would point to a precise location on the globe.
This theory points to North 44 degrees, 26 minutes, and West 110 degrees, 42 minutes, 12 seconds. This location is on the Continental Divide (where hot meets cold? Pacific and Atlantic?), just south of Isa Lake (the first two words of the poem are “As I”) and north of Shoshone Lake. This zone had been exhaustively covered by many hunters before. When some members of the community group were skeptical of this solution, a statistician informed them that the odds of a homophone method randomly pointing to Yellowstone National Park were infinitesimal.
They went to search.
But how would they know if they found the spot? The chest was supposedly gone. It had taken Steuf 25 days at this location to find the container, so it obviously was not in a spot sitting next to a giant neon sign.
The anonymous message had sent them photos of the location. They went to the coordinates and hoped they could piece together the exact spots, based on the images. On day one, they found nothing. Hours into their search on day two, they stumbled across a spot that matched the photographs. The group shared their proposed solution to the internet.
Some buy the story; others do not. Who was this anonymous writer? If it wasn’t Steuf, how did this person have the info? Why would they share it? They seemed to have inside information about the forthcoming Medium article, so an air of legitimacy surrounded the author. Some speculate Steuf was active in community-based information sharing and that the coordinate solution had been a group effort. If Steuf decided he was the sole keeper of the goodies, perhaps a former confidante was upset. A million dollars can easily make these things happen.
To date, the origins of the tipoff message are still unknown. Steuf has not revealed the location or provided more information. Despite being found, Forrest Fenn’s treasure, in some ways, remains a mystery. As people continue to test their solutions in the Rockies, however, they are fulfilling the wish of the eccentric hider by exploring the outdoors. And that wilderness is a priceless treasure.
Further Reading and Exploration
The Thrill of the Chase: A Memoir by Forrest Fenn
Rivals Scorn His Santa Fe Gallery, but Forrest Fenn Baskets the Cash – People
A Remembrance of Forrest Fenn by Jack Steuf
The Great 21st-Century Treasure Hunt – Intelligencer/New York Magazine
THE MAN WHO FOUND FORREST FENN’S TREASURE – Outside Magazine
Forrest Fenn’s Treasure Sells for $1.3 Million at Online Auction – Outside Magazine
LOCATION OF FORREST FENN’S TREASURE FINALLY REVEALED – MeatEater