In a world where everyone wants to get rich and live a life of luxury, coming across a stash of buried treasure is just about the best-case scenario. Societies worldwide have told stories of profitable explorers hiding their loot beneath the earth, only to leave it there for future generations to find. But, of course, it’s never that simple. The treasure is always well-hidden, and the only way to find it is with the key, often in the form of a map. That’s not the case, though, in perhaps the most infamous American story about buried treasure.
In the early 1800s, an American adventurer named Thomas Beale buried tens of millions of dollars worth of gold and silver in rural Virginia. Instead of a map, he created a set of ciphers to lead would-be treasure hunters to the content’s location. Almost two centuries later, the instructions remain unsolved, and the treasure is yet to be found.
The ciphers and the loot that they describe have been the subject of immense scrutiny over the years. Cryptologists disagree over whether the code is crackable. Historians aren’t sure whether the men in the story all existed. Some fortune seekers claim that the gold was dug up decades ago. Others argue that it never existed. Still, Beale’s ciphers remain one of the most intriguing unresolved tales from America’s early chapters. Let’s explore.
In the early 1800s, an American named Thomas Jefferson Beale set out from Virginia with 30 explorers, hunters, and miners on a westward journey. They traveled into Mexican territory, hunting buffalo and keeping their eyes peeled for gold. Their search was in vain, until one day, they stumbled on a gold and silver mine in the Santa Fe area. Over the next 18 months, Beale and his crew extracted every ounce of precious ore that the lode had to offer. Having secured their treasure, the next task was to transport it back to their homeland, but much of the crew was not prepared to end their expedition, hoping to find similarly rich mines nearby. So, Beale personally carried the jewels back east, burying them near the small town of Montvale in Bedford County, Virginia.
Around 1822, Beale was summoned westward once again, and he knew that he couldn’t bring his treasure with him. So, he created three encrypted messages for himself and his crew— the first to describe the prize’s location, a second to display the treasure’s contents, and a third to identify the rightful owners. He placed the ciphertexts in an iron box and delivered them to a local innkeeper, Robert Morriss, telling the man to keep the box closed unless Beale didn’t return for ten years. A few months later, Beale sent a letter from St. Louis promising to have a friend deliver the ciphers’ keys in the coming weeks.
No friend ever arrived.
Finally, in 1845 Morriss opened the box, finding the three cryptograms and an additional two pages of plain English text. Morriss attempted to solve the ciphers on his own but could not crack them, so he turned them over to a friend with more proficiency. After months of effort, the friend came across the secret to the second cipher and successfully decoded the text.
The passage vaguely referenced the location, stating that the treasure was buried six feet below the ground in Bedford County, just four miles from Buford’s, a popular pub. More importantly, it contained mouth-watering details of the riches that lay beneath the ground, saying, “The first deposit consisted of ten hundred and fourteen pounds of gold, and thirty-eight hundred and twelve pounds of silver…The second…consisted of nineteen hundred and seven pounds of gold, and twelve hundred and eighty-eight of silver; also jewels…valued at thirteen thousand dollars.”
Altogether, the cache held more than three tons worth of precious metals, including 35,000 troy ounces of gold, 61,000 troy ounces of silver, and at least 200,000 dollars worth of other jewels. At current prices, the trove’s potential value is over 60 million dollars. Critically, in the text’s final lines, Beale declares, “Paper number one describes the exact locality of the vault, so that no difficulty will be had in finding it.”
Morriss died years later without ever coming closer to uncovering the treasure’s location, but the ciphers ended up in the hands of a Virginia freemason named James B. Ward. Following his own failed attempts, Ward published the ciphers in a pamphlet in 1885, along with his own text describing Beale’s story. The pamphlet flew off the shelves, and people from around the region flooded to Bedford County, driven by a quirky Virginia law stating that anyone who finds buried treasure has the right to keep all of it.
Their efforts ranged from brute force, like indiscriminate digging, to logical finesse, like studying ciphers. Yet, they all failed. To this day, the treasure has never been found. Despite the best efforts of cryptologists and supercomputers, the first and third texts have never been decoded.
This led to questions regarding the ciphers’ validity. After all, the second one was relatively simple to crack as long as the decoder had the proper key— a modified copy of the Declaration of Independence. The text was written in numerical characters. One need only find the word corresponding to the number (e.g., the first number is 115, and the 115th word in the Declaration of Independence is “instituted”), and take the first letter of that word (in the case of the example, “I”). However, even with the key, translation errors fill the decoded text.
For instance, one line in the second cipher reads, “I have deposited in the county of Bedford about four miles from Buford’s.” But, with a word-perfect copy of the Declaration of Independence, the actual translation reads nothing like that:
“A haie deposoted tn ttt eointt oa itdstrrs aboap thrr miles troa baaotts.”
This critique came in 2013 but was quickly rebutted with impressive clarity. From 1776 to 1825, the Declaration of Independence was published in more than 350 different variations. Some of these variations are subtle, like changing “inalienable” to “unalienable,” but they make all the difference in accurately deciphering Beale’s texts.
While most cryptologists agree that the second text is a real cipher, they disagree over whether the other two contain an intelligible code. Computer analysis of the texts shows that the numbers can’t have been chosen at random— there is some sort of pattern at play, but it’s impossible to know just what that pattern is. That’s because Beale’s ciphers are missing the two things that cryptologists focus on when deciphering codes— repetition and length.
The more that symbols are repeated throughout a cipher, the easier it is to guess the meaning of a word and, therefore, the entire text. For example, a one-word cipher containing no repeated numbers— like [46 93 291 11] is impossible to decode without a key. However, a cipher with repeated numbers— like [46 93 93 46] suddenly narrows down the options. We still don’t know precisely what it could say, but the word would have to be a palindrome, like “noon,” “deed,” or “peep.”
Beale’s ciphers contain minimal repetition. The first text, the one with the treasure’s location, has just 520 total characters and 299 unique symbols. This means that the average character is repeated 1.75 times throughout the text. For comparison, the famous Zodiac Killer cipher was 408 characters long and contained 54 unique symbols, with the average character repeated 7.5 times throughout the passage.
To display just how complicated Beale’s ciphers are, a renowned cryptologist ran both of them through a complex code-breaking computer program. The program was able to solve the Zodiac Killer’s code in less than three seconds. Yet, Beale’s second cipher, the only one decoded by humans, took eight of these computers more than 30 hours to solve and with a 5% margin for error.
Some cryptologists believe the cipher is so complicated and random that only Beale’s key could do the trick. Today, the more common critique is that the cipher is a good fake and that the treasure, and perhaps Beale himself, never existed.
Confirming the centuries-old story is a tall task, given the lack of record-keeping from that time. There is evidence that men named Thomas Beale, Robert Morriss, and James Ward lived in the US within the story’s timeline. However, proving any connection between the men is nearly impossible. The only clear link is that James Ward published the pamphlet that contained Beale’s ciphers, but this has been the subject of perhaps the most incriminating scrutiny.
When Ward published the papers in 1885, he charged 50 cents for it, about 15 dollars in current value. Modern critics point out that this was a remarkably high price for such a short document. Conveniently, Ward’s publication carried details of the treasure that could only be found with the indecipherable instructions held within. Treasure hunters, explorers, and adventurers purchased the encoded treasure map, yet only Ward got rich. Today, there is no evidence that Ward ever held Beale’s papers— he never showed them in public. The most damning proof against Ward may be a modern analysis of the language used throughout his and Beale’s texts. This analysis showed that Ward and Beale used similarly idiosyncratic language throughout their writings, indicating that Ward personally created the cipher.
Other theories about the treasure range from “possible” to “downright absurd.” Late 19th-century Americans latched onto the idea that the ciphers were written by Edgar Allan Poe, the famous author with a penchant for cryptography. This was easily disproven by the timing of Poe’s death and the events referenced in the text, but it shows just how far people have gone in attempting to legitimize the source.
One intriguing theory is that the ciphers have been decoded and the gold extracted, and the prizewinner avoided public scrutiny. A favorite culprit of Virginia conspiracy theorists is that the American government cracked the codes years ago and dug up the trove. This theory is plausible, though. After all, the federal government owns large chunks of land in the area surrounding Montvale. The American National Security Agency has even published a handful of texts about their attempts to decipher the codes. The government has done its best to ban digging for the cache, though this is usually done in an unsuccessful effort to force diggers to respect property rights.
For years now, it’s been clear the most likely explanations are that the treasure was fake or that it was dug up decades ago. Yet, that hasn’t stopped countless “Beale Hunters” from doing their best to find the prize themselves. Since the publication of Ward’s pamphlet, fortune-seekers have tried every tactic imaginable.
They hired psychic mediums to contact Beale’s spirit to reveal the location. They’ve taken shovel to earth an incalculable number of times. They even used dynamite to blast the region to no avail.
In the 20th-century, tactics got more high-tech. Treasure hunters showed up with metal detectors, magnetometers, pickaxes, and even backhoes. Instead of sitting in incense-filled basements, psychics have scouted the county via helicopter for spiritual confirmation of where the loot is buried. One man hired an armored truck to follow him throughout his search so he could make a safe getaway when the time comes. Today, locals complain that trespassing and destruction of property have become commonplace in the Montvale area, as searchers detonate dynamite wherever they believe the treasure may be.
The search has become an obsession for some, as men waste their time attempting to solve the cipher and dig up Virginia. Today, it’s a haunting example of just how far humankind is willing to go in search of material wealth. Men have gone mad, spent their savings, and ruined their lives in search of the windfall. Most are unwilling to accept that the treasure likely never existed, afraid of admitting to spending years in a hopeless endeavor. Many more claim to know the location but refuse to dig for it, perhaps fearful of bursting their dreams.
Of course, in many ways, this story is not unique. Tales of buried treasure have filled folklore for millennia across civilizations. To the seekers, the stories represent the prospect of wealth that can be unlocked by solving a sort of riddle. To onlookers, they’re the musings of madmen who would rather waste away in search of a fortune than toil away in honest work.
But what do you think? Is there any chance that Beale’s treasure is out there? Or was it a ploy by James Ward to make some money selling pamphlets? And what about the code? Regardless of whether the treasure is real, is there any chance that Beale’s ciphers can be decoded into plain English?
What does this story tell us about the human psyche? Are men and women justified in devoting their lives to the potential windfall? Are they searching for wealth, or is the manic pleasure of obsessive pursuit the reward in and of itself? Rather, is that hopeless pursuit the worst punishment of all?