Searching for Forrest Fenn’s Hidden Treasure? 5 Things to Consider.

forest fenn jemez

You’ve no doubt heard about it. It gives new meaning to the word “misadventure.”

Forrest Fenn, millionaire antiquarian — and person of interest in a federal grave-robbing and artifact-poaching probe — self-published a book years ago about his lifetime of derring-do.

No one would have ever heard of the book, had it not contained a bit of doggerel, which people charitably call a poem, that supposedly contains clues to a stash of gold and jewels that Fenn says he buried for others to find. (To read it, follow the link at the bottom of this post.)

Whether he actually did this is doubtful. What his motivations might be, if he did indeed do it, are dubious.

But people are taking it seriously anyway. Not since Oak Island has a rumor taken hold in the popular imagination to create a meme that, on its surface, is about attaining wealth but, at its core, is about desperate hope and frustration.

I have a hard time deciding whether it’s just a silly diversion or a cruel hoax. But as a person who cares about wilderness, historical resources, and simply other people, I wanted to give all of you potential treasure-hunters out there some things to consider.

1. What Fenn is asking you to do is dangerous. A 33-year-old woman hoofed it all the way from Carrollton, Texas, to the Santa Fe National Forest to search for the supposed prize, and 7 miles into her exploration, she got hopelessly lost. It took three aircraft, a team of rescue workers and a pack of search dogs to find her. It was a perverse errand into the wilderness.

2. When asked whether his secret cache was buried on public land, Fenn told the Daily Beast the answer was “too big of a clue.” Which could be read to mean either — and only — “it doesn’t matter because the whole thing’s a ruse” or “yes.”

Obviously, even if the treasure weren’t a maguffin, the guy’s not going to point you to someone’s private property. Or maybe he would; I never met him, so I don’t know. But he’s made such a big deal about Yellowstone in the past that to admit it’s on public land would be a dead giveaway.

So if you’re going to take the bait and start digging up national park or forest or BLM land, you should probably sock away some bail money and keep your lawyer’s number in your pocket. ‘Cause digging on state or federal land without permission is illegal.

3. And even if you do manage to secure a permit for taking part in Fenn’s publicity stunt, you can’t keep whatever you find.

I can hear you already, libertarians and Blue Ribbon Coalitioners — yeah, the American people own the land, but that means everyone owns it and what’s on it. It’s owned by public trust, not individual right, so you can’t go spading over soil there because you think it’s yours. Moreover, you won’t own any Dominican cigar box full of costume jewelry that you happen to find there, any more than you, personally, own the natural gas that’s being extracted from that same public land by oil companies.

If you don’t like it, go find a country that doesn’t have a government, because that’s how government works.

To give you a sense of how fully aware Fenn is that this is illegal, and what little concern he has for you if you get caught, he recently said of this issue: “I’m staying out of those discussions, except to say it may be fun to redefine some of the terms.”

4. Fun. In addition to the prospects of finding yourself stranded in the Sangre de Cristos dying of dehydration, or arrested on federal felony charges, what seems least “fun” about this whole misadventure is that it threatens very real, and literally irreplaceable, archaeological resources.

Western public lands are this country’s greatest repository of historical records — both human-made and not. Just in the Four Corners area alone, there are uncounted ruins of pithouses, tool-making sites, cliff dwellings and seasonal encampments going back a millennium and more.

I’ve been lucky enough to see some sites in Northern New Mexico that have never been excavated — not dissembled and mortared back together like you find in most national parks — and the experience of witnessing history in such places is unmatchable.

I’m not alone in my enthusiasm for this, which is why, under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, hunting for artifacts on public land is also a federal felony.

Clearly, Fenn doesn’t care about this either. Conceiving of the past in a way that doesn’t serve personal gain just isn’t “fun.”

5.  You have about as much a chance of finding hidden treasure using Fenn’s poem as you do of finding Jimmy Hoffa’s remains by poring over the New York Giants’ passing stats over the past 30 years.

To see what I mean, you can read Fenn’s buried treasure poem here.

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  1. Matt

    It is NOT illegal to “dig on federal land”. It is illegal to dig in a national park and it is illegal to disturb areas known to contain archaeological artifacts.

    What Fenn hid are not “artifacts” – it is a modern “treasure trove” and are (a) legal to hunt (Forest Service’s own words) and (b) will belong to the finder (minus taxes if he/she is stupid enough to acknowledge finding it).

    1. Western Digger

      Hi Matt, thanks for writing. I’m going by what’s been reported by Archaeological Damage Assessment & Investigation, a firm that archaeological sites on federal lands.

      “It likely would be a violation of the theft of government property (18 USC 641) and injury of government property (18 USC 1361) statutes, both of which are felonies if the value of the property stolen or injured is greater than $1,000.00. These statutes would apply because the property Fenn buried would now be abandoned on federal land and would, therefore, have become federal property. Digging it up at Bandelier, clearly government property, would constitute injury and removing it would constitute theft.”

      So the treasure trove, if there is one, would be ipso facto federal property if he left it on federal land. Weird, I know, but that’s what the law is. And while you’re right that it’d be legal to hunt — i.e., look visually for — the stash, digging for it would constitute damage to federal property (the land).

      As for archaeological resources, I didn’t mean to suggest that there’s anything of archaeological value in Fenn’s supposed hoard. The concern that some archaeologists and I have is that people are going to disturb lands of real archaeological value while potholing federal lands because of this wild goose chase.

      Thanks again for writing.

  2. Paul

    I think adia’s assumption that the propery is abandoned wouldn’t hold up in court, at least as long as fenn is alive. The nps has won cases arguing exactly the opposite (of course under the auspices of maritime law…so who knows..). I can think of a couple of cases, the Fowey in Biscayne natl. park and the submerged b-29 at lake mead, where title was established to the resources in spite of the fact that physical control wasn’t held (locations were known to looters, but not to nps). I know the cases are different, but the fact that fenn seems very much involved in all of this makes it seem like he still maintains title to the treasure. He’s guilty of not obtaining a special use permit for putting on a treasure hunt, etc, but I don’t think he’s “abandoned” his property.

  3. Ahmed Kazikian

    You seem not to realize that fun and legality are not always mutual. Quite often the opposite, in fact.

  4. Anonymous

    It was inside of a beaver dam on the East side of the river…who knew

  5. Anonymous

    I think i have located it in one of the caves it is right near an opening above which i believe is the blaze

  6. Anonymous

    I think I have a clue 🙂
    Anyone going to be out searching this week-end?

  7. Ron

    First anyone who believes that law and rights are the same thing has not read Fredrick Bastiat’s book on The Law Our rights have been violated to the point that we are prisoners in our own homes and property. Our own government is our worst enemy using the so called laws to legally plunder us. 99% of all laws and federal land regulations violate the Constitution and only continue because the people to not demand otherwise. The Feds fear the Constitution and have regulated it into invisibility.

    If you find the treasure or any treasure don’t be stupid and announce it to the world. Most of the treasure is untraceable so act with care.

  8. Thomas A Conrad

    I be leave he is smarter then that ,at the end of his poem you have already found the box ,it says ; If you brave and in the wood I give you the title to the gold. which means , Behind the piece of wood on the inside lid of the box is a Will to the finder because he thought he would be dead, giving ownership to the treasure.

  9. R

    I’ve met Fenn at a book signing. I spoke to him for 10 minutes. He’s totally full of b.s. He has a penchant for giving exact numbers, and when asked for the same numbers again he changes them. He’s a giant scam artist who wrote a book to unsurprisingly; sell books. He’s frail and spacey. I told him I suspected he was a giant liar and he got pissy lol.


    I personally believe that Mr. Fenn simply hid his treasure to amuse himself, perhaps with the hope of keeping his name and his story alive for many years to come. I see absolutely nothing wrong i that. Who doesn’t want to be remembered?

  11. Phyllis allen

    Forrest Fenn at one time when he was younger saw how his father was known by lots of ppl so Forrest googled his dads name in n nothing popped up,so Forrest decided he would be know thru History an ppl could Google his name in !an there many
    Years later is Forrest Fenn n the unfound Treasure Chest stories