April / 2001

Searching for Swift’s Lost Silver Mines

by: Brook and Barbara Elliott

John Swift’s journal may be more than 200 years old, but Kentuckians are still searching for his lost silver mines and cache that have never been found

“It’s near a peculiar rock. Boys, don’t ever quit looking for it. It is the richest thing I ever saw.”
With those deathbed words, uttered about 1800, John Swift set off the longest running treasure hunt in
Appalachia. A hunt that continues today.
According to the legend, John Swift, of
Alexandria, Virginia, discovered several silver mines in the hills of eastern Kentucky. His first finds were in 1760, and there were several others. In addition to the mines themselves, there are, so it is said, caches of silver coins and ingots waiting to be found.
It started when Swift befriended a man named George Munday, a Frenchman captured at the Battle of Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War. Munday had discovered a vein of silver somewhere on the headwaters of
Big Sandy Creek. But the Shawnee attacked, killing his father and brothers and making him a prisoner.
Munday remained a captive of the
Shawnee for three years, during which time he was forced to help mine silver in several places. Because Swift had helped him, he agreed to guide him to these Indian silver mines.
On the first expedition, Swift says in his journal, “After crossing
Big Sandy Creek, near its headwaters, and continuing west for a considerable distance, we located three of the mines.” They then traveled southwesterly, following a great ridge, where they found other mines near a large river.
On subsequent explorations, Swift and his crews uncovered several other mines, and established smelters where they refined it and cast it into coins of the era. Ironically, such coins—some of which have been recovered—contain more silver than the issued specie of the day. Whether John Swift and his crew actually cast these coins remains to be seen. Such counterfeiting was fairly common in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Swift went to
London, England, to raise capital for developing the mines. While there he was outspoken in his support of American independence, and was imprisoned for his views. He spent 10 years in jail, losing his eyesight during that period.
Aged, infirm, and blind, he returned to western
Appalachia to rediscover his mines. Using a journal he had kept of his adventures, and hiring local people to guide him based on his remembered landmarks, he spent the rest of his life trying to find his lost silver mines.
He never did. But to help support himself, he sold various copies of his journal, broadsides, and maps—all of which held clues to the lost mines. At least 36 versions of the journal were produced until his death, along with 29 known treasure maps. Using those heirlooms and other reference works, thousands of treasure seekers have spent the past 200 years searching for the lost mines in what is one of the most enduring, and one of the most endearing, legends of the southern hills.
They come merely with an old map and hope. And they come with metal detectors and the results of deep research. And they sometimes come with great financial backing. In the late 1990s a major search went on headquartered in
Elkhorn City. The organizer was said to be backing this serious treasure hunt to the tune of $150,000.
What keeps them searching? Through the years, there have been silver finds resulting from the clues found in Swift’s journals, and by using the signs and symbols he left carved on rocks and trees. There have been too many of these finds—which include ingots, coin molds, and caches of silver coins, silver ingots, and shaped artifacts—to dismiss the legend out of hand. This despite the fact that geologists all seem to agree there is no silver of any consequence in the
Kentucky hills.
Former newspaperman Michael Steely, a great collector of Swift lore, details some of these finds in his book, Swift’s Silver Mines and Related Appalachian Treasure:

  • A Kentucky man has a mostly silver ax head, or wedge, he found near an old smelter.
  • An Ohio man has several “fingers” of silver he found while searching for the mines.
  • Several Spanish coins from the Swift era were found in North Carolina, setting off a small silver rush.

Steely himself remained skeptical until he found a large, silver spearhead at a site he believed to be indicated by some of the Swift rock carvings. He showed me that artifact, which has been appraised as 85% silver (the rest is ash and impurities). It is obviously crudely forged, from a single lump of silver.
Most recently, using the symbols at the so-called Lakely stone carvings, near the town of
Frakes, a man found a cache of seven small silver ingots. The Lakely carvings, which are supposedly coded directions to a Cherokee hoard of gold and jewelry, rather than to the Swift mines, have been used by treasure hunters for years.
Reading copies of John Swift’s journals, you are struck with the detail and precision of his descriptions. Trouble is, the geology described fits many places in eastern
Kentucky and surrounding areas.
For instance, Roy Price, one of the foremost Swift treasure seekers and collectors of Swift lore in the country, took me to a spot near
Jellico, Tennessee. There’s a naturally carved Indian head in the cliff, and a lighthouse nearby, that seem to be perfectly described by Swift. “A treasure map, widely circulated in the last century, brought many treasure hunters here,” Price told me, “and is still being used by hunters today.”
The site is easy to find. Just take
U.S. 25W south about five miles from Jellico, and the cliff is across the river on your left.
Nobody has found anything at the Jellico site. But by the same token, nobody has discovered silver near a similar site, which also matches the description, found near the entrance to
Natural Bridge State Park, here in Kentucky. If you visit the park, stop as you turn in to the Hemlock Lodge entrance and look to the cliff line on your right. You’ll see the Indian Head Rock, and the lighthouse (named Owl’s Window), just under it.
While many of the sites, especially those that have rock or tree carvings, are closely held secrets, just as many are easily accessible to the general public. You don’t even need a treasure map to find them. General-interest publications often guide you to the possible location of the mines.
So, “go to it, boys. If you find this silver mine, let me know—and we will celebrate.”

Searching For Swift’s Silver Mines
Although many of the supposed sites of Swift’s silver mines and lost cache are closely guarded secrets, there are several public sites that are easily accessible. Here are some of them:
Breaks Interstate Park. The Towers, a prominent landmark formed in a horseshoe bend of the Russell Fork, is said to be described in several versions of Swift’s journal.
Jenny Wiley State Park. In the captivity story of
Kentucky heroine Jenny Wiley, she talks about smelting silver with her captors. The well-described site is probably not in the park, but you might discover it along the 180-mile Jenny Wiley trail.
Carter Caves State Park. There are several sites at Carter Caves associated with the lost silver mine, X Cave and the Saltpeter Cave among them. Saltpeter Cave is also known as a counterfeiter’s cave, and is supposedly the site of a French silver mine that Swift identifies in his journal.
Red River Gorge. Red River Gorge is the center of the John Swift legend, and was the last area he searched before his death. Among the many possible locales are Rock Bridge, on Swift Camp Creek; Swift Silvermine Arch; and Becky Timmons Arch.
Cumberland Gap. Mentioned by Swift as “the Great Gap,” it’s also where the Spurlock family—who settled in
Kentucky specifically because of the lost mine—began their searches.
Pine Mountain State Park. Most searchers believe the mines are somewhere on Pine Mountain—called Laurel Mountain by Swift. Although they could be anywhere in the 125-mile-long mountain, the state park is as good a place as any to begin your search.
Cumberland Falls State Park. The Renfro family settled here, also in search for lost silver mines.
Big South Fork National Recreational Area. The 105,000 wilderness acres of the Big South Fork are associated with both the Swift and lost Cherokee silver mine legends.

Is Swift’s Silver in
By Anita Travis McMannis

Over the past 200 years, the facts about Swift and his lost silver mine or cache have been changed to protect the silver, so to speak.
According to an article by Don Viles, titled John Swift’s Silver Bar Cache, posted on the Internet at www.losttreasure.com, Swift’s lost silver is actually located in
Colorado, not in the hills of Kentucky, Tennessee, or North Carolina.
It is interesting to note similarities between the
Kentucky and Colorado legends as they relate to descriptions of the land and rock formations and named rivers.
Viles’ research of “original papers” has Munday associated with Spanish miners from
Mexico, digging ore in the rugged cliff country of the Red River Valley.
Viles notes a record in 1768 saying the group left
Virginia and that the returning counterfeiters were ambushed. According to Viles, the record states “An unusual rock at the junction of three creeks. Rock has turkey tracks engraved on it that point to the mine,” and that there are silver bars and coins stashed at the “forks of the Big Sandy River,” which Viles says is near the headwaters of Peyton, Colorado.
The silver mule trains continued to
Colorado Springs, says Viles, and then through Ute Pass and the mountains to today’s Colorado National Monument. He says Ute Pass is probably the site of one of Swift’s silver caches, of which Swift stated, “Two horse loads of silver and a valuable prize was left on the south side of the Big Gap where we marked some trees.”
So do Swift’s lost silver mines and cache reside in
Kentucky or Colorado? Were the references indeed to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, Big Sandy River, and Cumberland Gap?
One thing’s for sure, it’s an intriguing legend that is backed by some substance of fact. Maybe you’ll be the one to discover the real truth!

Swift Silver Mine Festival
Campton is where it is said that Swift made his “camp town,” hence the town’s name, and also the location for one of Swift’s suspected silver mines. Campton celebrates annually with a festival in his honor.
Always held Labor Day weekend, this year’s Swift Silver Mine Festival will be held Friday through Sunday, August 31– September 2.
The fun includes bands and music, street dancing, a beauty pageant, veterans’ memorial, and parade along with all types of food and arts, crafts, and cottage industry items for sale.
For a brochure or more information, call (606) 668-3574 or (606) 668-6475.

Swift’s Silver Mines and Related Appalachian Treasures
(by Michael S. Steely) This book provides a wealth of information for searching for Swift’s lost silver mines. Call your local bookstore, or order it directly from the publisher, The Overmountain Press, $17.95 at (800) 992-2691.

Brook and Barbara Elliott are freelance writers and public relations consultants. They write primarily about travel and outdoor recreation, and help publicize businesses in those industries.