Pennsylvania isn’t anywhere near the “high seas” trafficked by legendary swashbuckling pirates, but what kid
didn’t grow up with dreams of finding mysterious maps and buried chests of gold? We probably won’t find a sunken Spanish galleon in the Allegheny River anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t hidden treasure out there to keep our childhood imaginations alive.
In fact, Pennsylvania has several tales of lost loot throughout history. Even if you aren’t ready to grab a pickaxe and comb the forests for robbers’ gold, the state has plenty of other small treasures to uncover…American Indian artifacts and arrowheads, Ice Age fossils, gemstones, and Civil War bullets are discovered quite frequently…but we couldn’t help but indulge our imagination with some of the more colorful legends. Here are 7 great ones that might just lead you to a fantastic fortune…or at least inspire some excellent bedtime stories.
1. The Lost Silver Cave
This may be one of the most famous treasure tales, but it’s also one with quite a few interesting notes that suggest it might just be out there waiting to be discovered. As the story goes, a settler in the late 1700s was lost in the Allegheny National Forest and sought shelter in a cave, only to find it filled with silver veins running through the walls. The man made it safely home, but could never retrace his steps back to his fortunate find.
This alone sounds a bit like a storytale, but many early merchants in this region traded goods with American Indians in exchange for furs and silver pieces, suggesting such a spot could exist nearby. Although treasure hunters have scoured the area around Tionesta, the silver cave was never found – several stories say it was buried or barricaded long ago – but further silver discoveries in a burial ground in Warren County lead many to believe that a significant silver deposit exists.
2. The “American Robin Hood’s” Buried Gold
David “Robber” Lewis was a counterfeiter-turned-thief in the early 1800’s who was known for his habit of “robbing the rich to give to the poor,” and his crimes were well covered by regional newspapers. He was considered a fairly successful highwayman and proved to be a handy escape artist as well; he was arrested and managed to escape from prison at least four times.
He made use of local caves and caverns to stash his stolen goods (most notably in Indian Caverns). When he was captured after receiving a gunshot wound in a holdup gone wrong, Lewis managed to write a memoir before dying of gangrene in the Bellefonte Jail.
He claimed that he had several hiding spots still out there full of riches: $10,000 in a small cave near the Juniata River, another buried along Conodoguinet Creek...and one containing $20,000 in gold coins that he teased his jailers with, telling them it was visible from his cell. None of these treasures were ever recovered, but we like to imagine they will one day be found.
3. The Union Soldier’s Stash at Dent’s Run
In 1863, a Union Lieutenant escorted a wagon equipped with a false bottom to conceal several dozen gold bars to Washington D.C., hoping to avoid Confederate troops using a roundabout path through Pennsylvania.
The Lieutenant, who was struck ill early in the voyage, is said to have deliriously revealed the secret loot to the civilians travelling with him and – unsurprisingly – the group vanished before they reached the Susquehanna River (en route to Harrisburg). When one of the party’s guides turned up in Lock Haven (50 miles away from their last known location), he was interrogated by Army generals and claimed to have been ambushed by bandits. Detectives found dead mules in the area, but no trace of the gold. In 1870, several skeletons also turned up, which added some support for his story; however, the guide also had a habit of telling drunken stories at the local pub, claiming he knew the location of the stolen treasure. Local legends say that the Army spent decades sending search teams to the area around Dent’s Run, but no reports of discovery exist.
4. Captain Blackbeard’s Lost Booty
Ok, so we made a joke about the lack of “traditional” pirates in Pennsylvania...but there IS one pirate legend that might surprise you. The Captain Blackbeard you typically hear of in pirate lore was a real man named Edward Teach, but that’s not who we’re talking about here. Most people don’t know there was a second Captain Blackbeard - a British sea captain who salvaged the treasure of a sunken ship in the Bahamas in the early 1800s.
The $1.5 million of silver bars he recovered travelled to Baltimore with Captain Blackbeard to be shipped back to London; however, he was confronted by a French privateer and evaded capture by loading his loot onto wagons and moving inland from the Susquehanna River. As the War of 1812 broke out, Blackbeard planned to travel to Lake Erie, which was controlled by the British. Captain Blackbeard was an excellent sailor, but was not so successful navigating by land and underestimated the rugged terrain. Rather than risk losing the treasure, Blackbeard is said to have buried the silver near a salt lick outside of Keating Summit.
Blackbeard made it to Canada, and from there to Britain, but while he made his way back to America, Colonel Noah Parker was sent to guard the treasure site. Parker, a man of opportunity, successfully kept the treasure hidden...including from Captain Blackbeard. Parker claimed to have never found the silver, but was reported to have shown a sudden level of wealth around town. Most believe that Parker, who kept the location of the treasure a secret to his grave, couldn’t possibly have spent the entire fortune, and that some portion of it remains undiscovered in the wilderness in Potter County.
5. The Doans Gang’s Loot
This infamous band of outlaws were best known for their Loyalist leanings during the Revolutionary War, acting as spies for the British and responsible for several murders and robberies in Bucks County. In 1783, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed an act declaring them “robbers, felons, burglars, and traitors” as the gang frequently stole horses and robbed tax collectors. Accounts of their crimes vary widely, including a particularly dramatic myth of Moses Doan committing suicide by riding a horse off a cliff to avoid capture.
One detail that is consistent across multiple accounts is that the Doans Gang made use of the many caves along the Delaware River, both to hide out when on the run and to stash stolen goods. There are several suspected hiding spots, including a cave near Point Pleasant, a buried treasure near the outskirts of colonial-era Philadelphia, and a lost metal box near Frenchtown, New Jersey. Some reports estimate their thievery amounted to nearly $2 million, but with such a wide range of crimes, their cached goods really could be anywhere.
6. Frontenac’s Fortune
In the 1690s, French Canadian explorers carrying kegs filled with gold coins set out from New Orleans to carry their treasure - by some estimates as much as $350,000 - to Montreal. The plan was to head up the Mississippi River to the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers and to cross Lake Erie, but after a run-in with a group of Seneca Indians, the travelers decided to lighten their load by burying the kegs. According to legend, the treasure is buried in the Borie area at the base of an enormous rock.
Two of the travellers were Jesuit priests, and they claim to have carved a cross into the stone to act as a marker for when they returned for the gold. The Frenchmen never made it back to collect their treasure, but stories of a strangely marked rock persisted in Seneca legends and superstition surrounding the stone kept the gold stash from discovery. Over the years, the carvings wore away and the exact location was lost, though a crude map said to have been drawn by the explorers suggests it remains in Potter County.
7. The Kinzua Bridge Cache
In 1893, an unknown outlaw in the town of Palmerville perfectly timed his robbery to occur when a stagecoach carrying a company’s payroll arrived to drop off nearly $40,000 of gold. The lone thief grabbed the gold and took off on horseback traveling west, where he was seen by several farmers as he fled. For nearly a week, citizens searched the woods for the robber and the loot, to no avail...until they came across a violently ill man wandering through the area.
He was taken for medical treatment, but never recovered. In his delirium, he muttered about “the money” and repeated the phrase “see the bridge” over and over. The doctors reported his descriptions of a “three-cornered rock” and glass bottles. Many believed he was describing the location of the stolen gold and searched the area around the Kinzua Bridge in vain. At the time, the forest surrounding the bridge had been cut back for construction, so the location of the treasure could have been miles away from the actual structure. Many have searched the Wildcat Hollow region, but no reports of discovery surfaced.
Are you ready to go for a treasure hunt? Hundreds of individual coins as well as silver and gold pieces have turned up across the state, but none of the historical hoards have ever been fully excavated. Whether or not the secret stashes have been raided by now, it’s fun to imagine stumbling across a discovery like these! Have you ever found long-lost treasures? Where should we start digging?! Tell us about your fantastic finds – small or large – in the comments!