Meet John and Mary. These aren’t their real names, though; the reasons for this subterfuge will be explained later. They’re a 40-something married couple who hail from California. And, with a home out in the country, the pair have enough space to take their dog for walks.
Some years ago, then, while walking their dog, the couple noticed an aged, rust-damaged tin can dangling from a tree, which had actually grown around it. The tree sat on a small hill they call Saddle Ridge. And when interviewed by Kagin’s, a specialist coin company, John recalled, “At the time, we thought the can might be a place for someone to put flowers in for a gravesite.”
But although its precise location is a well-kept secret, we know that John and Mary’s property is somewhere in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, an area otherwise known as the Gold Country. In 1848, moreover, mobs of prospectors flooded the area in what became the legendary Californian Gold Rush. So perhaps the can the pair saw had been left by a bewhiskered fortune hunter, panning for gold?
The 1848 Gold Rush, which lasted until about 1855, started when one James W. Marshall happened upon the precious metal at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. Subsequently, around 300,000 souls from around the world arrived in California, eager to strike gold and build their fortunes. Indeed, something like 40,000 people arrived at San Francisco in 1849 alone, many of whom were likely making their way to the Gold Country.
However, one man who didn’t benefit from all this newfound wealth was mill owner John Sutter. In fact, his crops and farm animals were stolen and his land squatted during the mad scramble for the yellow metal. And Marshall fared little better, dying poverty-stricken in a simple wooden shack in 1885.
Fast-forward to February 2013, however, and John and Mary were again out for a walk on their land. When passing Saddle Ridge, though, John noticed something in the ground. And upon closer inspection, he saw that it was a buried tin can, partly revealed by natural erosion. In the Kagin’s interview, Mary revealed, “I was looking down in the right spot and saw the side of the can. I bent over to scrape some moss off and noticed that it had both ends on it.”
She continued, “John used a stick to dig up the first can. We took it back to the house, it was very heavy.” John, meanwhile, added, “I couldn’t figure out what in the world would weigh that much.” But then the top of the receptacle partially slipped off – to reveal the edge of a gold coin.
Incredibly, though, this was only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, the pair returned to Saddle Ridge with a hand shovel and dug some more; later, they took a metal detector to the site. And by the end of the search, they’d found eight of the heavy tin cans.
Furthermore, what lay inside the cans was life-changing. John and Mary had discovered an astonishing hoard of gold coins – 1,427 of them, all in all. The cache included $20 gold pieces, and all the coins had been minted between 1847 and 1894. So, with these dates in mind, perhaps the coins could be connected to the California Gold Rush?
At first, John and Mary’s immediate concern was to conceal their find. John remembered, “I dug a hole under the wood pile and got a slab of green board to cover it, put the coins in plastic bags, then put them in a box inside an old ice chest and buried them.” And it seems that John felt he was channelling the methods of the long-dead Californian prospectors, as he attested, “The old-timers had it right – it’s safer than in a bank!”
So now the reason behind the couple’s anonymity, along with the secrecy of the location, becomes clearer. Indeed, if their identities – or the location of their property – had been revealed, things could have become very unpleasant. Crowds of people may well have made a beeline to their site and dug it up, in a strange echo of John Sutter’s fate.
Consequently, the couple eventually approached Kagin’s, where expert numismatist, or coin specialist, David McCarthy examined their extraordinary find. The face value of the coins was $27,980, with their estimated modern-day value weighing in at a cool $10 million. That, amazingly, makes it the most valuable find of its kind ever in the U.S.
So who buried the hoard all those years ago, and what made them do it? A sum in excess of $27,000 was a huge amount of money in the 19th century, so there must be a story behind how the money ended up buried in tin cans.
Yet, regrettably, the sad truth is that we’ll probably never know. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped the theorizing. For example, Douglas Mudd, the curator and museum director of the American Numismatic Association postulated to Mashable that people simply didn’t trust banks back in those days. The hoard, then, may have been left there by a miser who died before they could return and collect it. Others, however, have suggested that the stash was stolen money that had to be hidden from the prying eyes of law enforcement.
And, interestingly, it turns out that there was a theft in 1901 that could possibly have fit the bill. Specifically, a crooked employee called Walter Dimmick stole $30,000 from the San Francisco Mint during that year. Dimmick was caught and imprisoned but, mysteriously, the stolen money was never discovered.
However, the U.S. Mint and Kagin’s have repudiated this theory, arguing that the coins are too varied in denomination. Indeed, when speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2014, Adam Stump of the U.S. Mint said, “There is nothing connecting these coins to any theft from the Mint. We’ve done quite a bit of research, and we’ve got a crack team of lawyers, and trust me, if this was U.S. government property we’d be going after it.”
Meanwhile, other less plausible theories about the truth behind the Saddle Ridge Hoard have emerged. Jesse James stole the money, some have asserted, or maybe it was the work of Black Bart, a notorious stagecoach robber. It’s even been said that the Knights of the Golden Circle hid the money to finance a reprisal of the American Civil War. All of these theories, however, can safely be dismissed.
And what of John and Mary? How have they fared with their newfound wealth? Speaking in the interview with Kagin’s, John said, “Like a lot of people lately, we’ve had some financial trials. I feel extreme gratitude that we can keep our beloved property.” It sounds, then, as if this windfall came at just the right moment for the couple.
Mary continued, “We love our lives as they are – I hope we can help our family members and our community and give back some… We’re the same people we were before, just with more freedom of choice. Our finances won’t have to dictate so many of our day-to-day decisions.”
So it seems that this huge stroke of luck could not have happened to a more deserving and gracious couple. But what remains is the mystery of who buried the money in the first place. And why did they never come back for it? Like those Californian prospectors, the truth may well be lost forever.