near a peculiar rock. Boys, don’t ever quit looking for it. It is the
richest thing I ever saw.”
those deathbed words, uttered about 1800, John Swift set off the
longest running treasure hunt in Appalachia. A hunt that
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.”
site is easy to find. Just take U.S. 25W south
about five miles from Jellico, and the cliff is across the river on
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.
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.
“go to it, boys. If you find this silver mine, let me know—and we will
Searching For Swift’s Silver Mines
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.
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
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.
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.
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 Colorado?
Anita Travis McMannis
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.
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
is interesting to note similarities between the Kentucky and Colorado legends as
they relate to descriptions of the land and rock formations and named
research of “original papers” has Munday associated with Spanish miners
from Mexico, digging ore
in the rugged cliff country of the Red River Valley.
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.
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.”
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?
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
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.
held Labor Day weekend, this year’s Swift Silver Mine Festival will be
held Friday through Sunday, August 31– September 2.
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.
a brochure or more information, call (606) 668-3574 or (606) 668-6475.
Swift’s Silver Mines and Related
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
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.