Critical Enquiry


In 1885 a man named J.B Ward began selling a pamphlet which purported to contain information about a sizeable treasure trove buried in the present state of Virginia. This wealth allegedly had been amassed by one Thomas Jefferson Beale and his associates, who travelled into the American West during the period of roughly 1817-1823 and discovered a vast deposit of gold and silver in a valley "some 250 or 300 miles North of Santa Fe."

Beale and his associates, being concerned about theft of their wealth and in need of a secure hiding place, were said to have buried the gold at a site "near Bufords Tavern" in Bedford county, Virginia. In case of accident, Beale left coded messages—without a decryption key, which was said to be held elsewhere—with a man named Morriss and then departed, never to return. By some chance our friend Ward came across the papers and attempted to decrypt them. He claimed to have found the key to one document, the cipher being based on the US Declaration of Independence, and worked on the remaining two for some years. Finding himself unable to accomplish this task, he then decided to sell copies in the hope that someone else might manage to decode the papers and discover the location of the treasure. Ward claimed to have decoded one document, the key being the U.S. Declaration of Independence, but had no success with the others.

Since publication of the papers in 1885, many people have attempted to decode the documents with no success whatsoever.


First, it should be made clear that this article will not concern itself with possible solutions to the allegedly coded documents since far more qualified individuals have already spent countless hours of fruitless effort attempting to fathom their meaning. References to these materials will be found in the bibliography at the end of the article; readers are welcome to try their hand at finding a solution.

The story itself seems plausible enough: men find a deposit of gold, create a private corporation of sorts to share in the labor and wealth, and make a contingency plan to ensure the money will not be lost if something untoward happens to some or all of them while recovering more of the precious metals. However there are aspects of the tale that do not ring true and simply make no sense.

First, the story notes that the men felt uncomfortable depositing the money in a bank in Santa Fe (then a Spanish or Mexican town) and this seems perfectly sensible. However we are told they decided to transport the hoard over thousands of miles of wilderness and half-civilized territory in order to secret it in Virginia. Why? The city of St. Louis is mentioned in the tale and there were certainly reliable banks in operation there by 1823. Why did the men not deposit the gold in one or more legitimate banks, either in St. Louis or even Virginia, instead opting to hide it in a manner that might make it difficult or impossible to recover? This simply makes no sense, and it also must be asked why they simply did not evenly divide the gold and silver already recovered and deposit their individual shares in banks or even with trusted relatives.

Numerous additional questions suggest themselves.Would some of the men not have owned property on which they could hide the trove? Why hide it all in one place, which would result in the loss of the entire hoard if someone discovered the location? Who owned the land on which they allegedly hid the numerous iron pots containing several tons of precious metal? Presuming that one of Beale's thirty men was not the owner of the property, would the money not belong to the legitimate land-owner if he happened across it? The possibility that someone might stumble across the hidden "bank" or have witnessed the burial of many iron pots seems to outweigh the advantages of secreting the hoard in an allegely remote or uninhabited area. It must be remembered that a great deal of population growth was occurring in the young United States at this time, and most people would be aware that an unsettled area might suddenly change hands and become a new farm or town, resulting in a much better chance the buried goods would be discovered.

An aside to this point is that the burial of such a large hoard would have left a fairly large area of ground disturbed, both from the burial itself and from the activity of the diggers and pack animals or wagons. Also, a trail would have been left from their point of departure (perhaps Bufords Tavern?) to the burial site, and this would certainly attract unwanted attention.

We can therefore assert that the tale is doubtful based on the illogical method used when hiding the treasure. Objections to this assertion can and should be raised since men often behave illogically when treasure is concerned, but to believe that thirty treasure-maddened men would agree to abandon the fruits of their labor in a muddy hole is at least questionable.

Next, according to the tale the precious metals deposited were composed of the following sums and weights:

The first deposit consisted of one thousand and fourteen pounds of gold, and three thousand eight hundred and twelve pounds of silver, deposited November, 1819. The second was made December, 1821, and consisted of nineteen hundred and seven pounds of gold, and twelve hundred and eighty-eight pounds of silver; also jewels, obtained in St. Louis in exchange for silver to save transportation, and valued at $13,000.

This is an appreciable amount of material. Each load consisted of roughly two tons of metal and, in the latter case, jewels. A considerable number of pack animals and/or very sturdy wagons would be required to haul such weight overland for thousands of miles—recall that no railroads or other mechanical conveyances existed at this time, and good roads were few and far between especially in the West. The possibility for the loss of some number of the horses or donkeys employed in such labor through injury, wild animal attack, or other hazards must also be accounted for, as well as the number of men needed to supervise and manage the pack animals or wagons during the journey.

The presence of such drovers or mule-skinners must also be mentioned for another reason; since Beale is said to have left his fellow share-holders in charge of treasure recovery while he transported the gold back to Virginia, we must presume he hired additional men as guards and animal handlers for the journey East. Aside from the possibility that one or more of these men would be a criminal who would certainly make an effort to steal some or all of the treasure, how likely is it that none of these men talked after their job was done? Secrets are not easily kept, and no amount of payment would prevent one of these men from bragging about a huge gold shipment being transported from Colorado to Virginia. Such loose talk would have resulted in an eruption of gold fever, as it did in California in 1848-49 and again in Colorado in 1858. Yet the historical record is silent on this matter.

Again, it seems safer to deposit the gold and silver in one or more banks closer to the New Mexico/Colorado area—or even in Virginia since Beale is said to have travelled back there on two occasions to bury the goods—to increase the security of the treasure. As noted above, if banks weren't acceptable then why not divide the treasure as it was excavated and deliver it to a member of each shareholder's family for safekeeping? Men who spent months or years digging and searching for gold and silver would want to safeguard it in a reliable manner, i.e. in the hands of an impartial third party who would be responsible for any further deposits or withdrawls by properly authorized members of the corporation.

Keeping with the idea that the enterprise effectively consisted of a private corporation, we need to ask what happened to the other shareholders? The story tells of thirty men, all of whom would own a share in the treasure. While we can believe that Beale might have passed away suddenly due to illness or was killed in an accident, this leaves the rest of the party to share in the proceeds of the discovery. It is a certainty that all members of the group would have known the Morriss' name and at least some of them should have been aware of the location of the buried hoard. Why did none return to claim the gold after Beale was killed? Or did they return, with or without Beale, and clean out the site, leaving Morriss holding papers that were now worthless?

We know that Beale gave Morriss' name to his fellow excavators since he tells us so explicitly: he was instructed to seek out a qualified and trustworthy individual and thus he "made [Morriss'] acquaintance, was satisfied that you would suit us, and so reported." So we are left with the question why no one ever contacted Morriss; there seem to be only four possibilities:

One: all thirty men died without leaving any instructions or disclosing the existence of the treasure to any of their relatives or friends. The likelihood of this is incredibly slim—at least some of the men would have left instructions in a will or disclosed the existence of the money to a wife, brother, child, or some other close relative.

Two: Beale died, and his fellow shareholders cleaned out the hoard without contacting Morriss.

Three: Beale lived and again did not contact Morriss when the corporation recovered the hoard, having no need to do so and possibly believing Morriss would insist on a "cut" of the treasure. In either this case or option two, Morris was left holding bits of worthless paper. This means that all decoding attempts since then have been a complete waste of time.

Four: The entire story is a hoax, and no treasure existed in the first place.

In any eventuality the odds are not very good that the treasure is still buried "near Bufords Tavern," if ever it was.

The "Coded" Documents

As stated above, this article will not delve into possible solutions to the so-called "ciphers" that Beale is said to have left behind, but it would be remiss not to mention some of the work that has been done to date. Many expert and amateur cryptographers have tried their hand at solving these puzzles, and at least one fellow performed a high-speed computer analysis on the unresolved ciphers. His report suggests that, statistically, the evidence suggests the unsolvable ciphers are in fact a hoax.

Given the availability of even higher speed computing resources today and the fact that once "unbreakable" encryption keys (e.g. DES 128 bit and so forth) have become relatively trivial to decode, the breaking of the Beale documents —presuming they are not a hoax—should be child's play since they would certainly be old-style homophonic or book ciphers.

Other inconsistencies exist within the documents themselves, as noted by prior researchers into this legend. They found that at least one word in the single de-coded document did not exist in the English language at the time Beale is said to have produced this material. The word stampede did not exist until the 1860s or later, and they found that the past tense variant stampeded did not appear in print until approximately three years prior to Ward's publication of his 1885 pamphlet. This in itself is highly suspicious, and the suspicion is reinforced since the same researchers requested a professional stylometric writing analysis of the text of a) the de-coded Beale document; b) Ward's pamphlet; and c) a half-dozen unrelated documents from the same period in history (Nickell & Fischer 1992, p 56). The results showed a high degree of correlation in writing style and word arrangement between the Beale document and Ward's pamphlet, suggesting they were both written by the same person.

Gold In Them Hills?

Another question that must be answered is whether it is reasonable to believe the amount of gold allegedly discovered and mined by Beale and his party could have been found "some 250 or 300 miles North of Santa Fe." Geographical study has determined that, if indeed the party discovered gold this distance due North of Santa Fe, the location of the deposit would lie somewhere between the towns of Buena Vista and Alma, CO. Geologists were consulted in both New Mexico and Colorado to determine the likelihood this could have occurred. Discussions with Joe Mraz in New Mexico resulted in the following information, which sounds relatively hopeful:

The Truces Peaks area is just north of Santa Fe and has a reported Spanish mine that I think is in the Beatte's cabin area near Iron Gate. There is also the Hopewell mining district, 75 miles north of Santa Fe, in the Carson National Forest. There are active claims in the area of the campground near Hopewell Lake. If we look 200 north of Santa Fe, we're in Colorado, which didn't exist in 1812.

Additionally, Joe offers the following insights on the possible fate of such a mine:

[...] a long term mining operation, by numerous miners, even with primitive tools, would leave behind an extensive tailings (rubble) pile. [...] An operation that extensive and easy to find dating to 1820, has likely been re-located and turned into a modern day mine, 1860 to 1930, or so.

So it seems possible that such a mine existed, was abandoned by Beale and his people at some point, and then was re-discovered by later miners. If this is the case it's likely no trace of the original workings would exist today. Staff at the Colorado Geological Survey were consulted to determine the possibility of a mine of such potential in the appropriate area; remember that the legend tells us of four tons of refined gold and silver, plus an unknown amount of additional silver that was exchanged for jewels in St. Louis. According to a local geologist the area noted above is indeed rich in gold and silver deposits; Alma is part of the extremely rich "Colorado Mineral Belt." (Keller, 2003) Both placer and hard-rock operations occurred there, starting in roughly 1858 and continuing until the 1960s. One mine in Alma, the London Mine, closed as late as 1991.

Our difficulty, however, lies in determining the reason the above information accurately reflects the conditions outlined in Beale's statement. At least two possibilities exist. The first, obviously, is that the deciphered Beale document is genuine and reflects accurate historical facts relating to the case. Beale wrote what Ward said he wrote because he and his companions actually discovered vast deposits of gold in the area in question.

The second possibility is that Ward was well aware of the existence of vast gold deposits in the Alma area and, as with the noted similarities between the Beale legend and Poe's "The Gold Bug" story (see below), he took advantage of this knowledge to produce a tale containing at least a kernel of fact. Anyone using a map to correlate the phrase "two hundred and fifty miles North of Santa Fe" with known locations in Colorado would find himself squarely in the middle of an area that was known to abound with gold and silver. In fact this is exactly the sequence of events that occurred when researching this article!


It seems extremely likely the Beale legend is just that -- a legend, and probably a hoax perpetrated by J.B. Ward for some unknown reason. While the basic story of men accidentally locating a vast gold and silver deposit in the unexplored American West is perfectly plausible, the rest of the tale is found wanting on a number of points. The incorrect language of the documents, the improbability that Ward could have de-coded the document as he claimed, the unlikely scenario that thirty gold-mad men would have buried their hoard in an insecure, public location, and the sheer lunacy of transporting 8,000 or more pounds of gold and silver across the American continent by wagon or donkey in 1820 when safer options were available lead to the conclusion that the Ward concocted the tale for some purpose of his own. Perhaps he believed he could become wealthy by selling pamphlets to unsuspecting travellers in the same way that charlatans throughout history have hawked fake treasure maps to the gullible. Maybe Joe Nickell's conclusion that the tale is a "Masonic hoax" (Nickell & Fischer, 1992) is correct. It's equally possible Ward was planning to purchase a property in Colorado and re-sell it, or shares in its success, as the location of the mythical gold mine. We may never know.

Even if the legend as we know it is absolutely factual, it's certain any treasure buried "near Buford's Tavern" was extracted long ago by Beale and/or his partners. As noted above, if the men returned from their labors and divided the treasure as planned, there was no reason to contact Morriss regarding the documents he is alleged to have held. Unless all thirty of Beale's men disappeared without a trace and without having informed their families of the location of the trove, then the most logical explanation is that they recovered their wealth and retired in luxury without informing Morriss that his services were no longer needed.

Despite all data suggesting the story is simply a hoax, treasure seekers will continue to hunt for Beale's hoard while legions of cryptographers attempt to decipher the remaining documents. The logic of those obsessed with treasure generally prevents them from accepting contradictory data or even visualizing alternative solutions. Nickell noted that authors Innis & Innis, in their Gold In the Blue Hills, mentioned that the Poe story "The Gold Bug" had marked similarities to the Beale legend; they asserted that this was a point in Beale's favor since Poe might have known of the Beale story and used it as a basis for his own tale. In doing so they completely ignored (or avoided discussing) the alternative explanation, i.e. that Ward used the Poe story--published decades prior to his pamphlet--as a basis for the Beale hoax.

We can only conclude that the Beale legend is no different than many other tales of lost treasure; it is a magnet for the hopeful who desire either wealth or notoriety for having solved a "mystery" of such proportion, as well as for those who are attracted to tales of the unknown for their own sake. The story will continue to attract these people, and no amount of hard data will shake their conviction that the pot of gold is buried under the next hill.

Bibliography & References

Note: All information contained in these pages is © 2003 Richard E. Joltes. Short excerpts may be used in other publications where proper credit is given and permission is granted in advance. All rights reserved.