The Aztec Treasure Cavern
by John Townley
What follows is an abridged version of the Grand Canyon stories as they appeared in “Treasure” magazine.
Three hundred and fifty years passed before any reliable information came to light regarding the lost treasure of the Aztecs. Even then, the story of a prospector who barely escaped death in the Grand Canyon was thought to be the ravings of a madman. On September 8, 1867, James White drifted to shore near the Mormon farming settlement of Rioville, where the Virgin and Colorado rivers meet. He had lashed himself to a crude raft of three cottonwood logs and on this ungainly craft had drifted through the terrible rapids and cataracts of the Grand Canyon. If true, it was the first such passage for a white man.
White was in critical condition when found by the Mormon farmers. It was several weeks before he could put his story together, and even then big gaps in his memory made most of the journey a blank page. He had been prospecting in western Colorado and decided to try some of the upper Colorado drainage patterns for possible placer deposits. Somewhere between the present-day towns of Grand Junction and Moab, White’s party was attacked by Indians and he escaped with a single companion. Since they were both unfamiliar with the country, they decided to use the river as a means of escape. Using logs taken from the banks of the Colorado, they tied them together with harness leather and cast off into the unknown. In one of the first cataracts, White’s partner was lost overboard and drowned. With him went all the gear and supplies. White was left alone in a massive canyon still beyond the frontier.
After the first week, White’s condition deteriorated into semi-consciousness. In one period of sanity, White remembered coming to shore opposite a large opening in the rocky walls of the canyon. Wanting to escape from the hellish heat, he crawled inside and promptly went to sleep. Hours or perhaps days later, he was awakened by Indian braves carrying torches. Looking around at the cavern, White found himself in a large solution cavity filled with golden artifacts. Gigantic idols of beaten gold, masks of silver and turquoise, weapons of every type and size with hilts of precious metals and gems. Long bars of metal were stacked between the larger statuary and topped with jewelry and piles of gleaming emeralds, turquoise and garnets. None of the ceremonial implements resembled anything that White had ever seen in his travels in the Southwest. Later, when his account of the journey through the Grand Canyon had been picked up by eastern newspapers, archaeologists showed him pictures of Aztec ceremonial figures and weapons. White positively identified them as similar to the materials that filled his cavern in the canyon.
White fully expected the Indians to kill him on sight, instead they gave him a handful of dried meat and some pinon nuts. Again he drifted into delirium until he was found below the canyon, and nursed back to health. White never tried to capitalize from his experience. He returned to Colorado and refused to accompany the many parties that wanted to relocate the hidden cave. Most historians have dismissed his account as fanciful dreamings, but over the years White told the same story in the same way so often that he must have been sure of his facts. Today, river experts are more inclined to agree that he was the first man through the canyon.
The Grand Canyon area is still among the most remote in the country. In the late 19th century it was even less accessible. The few parties of prospectors who dared brave the dangers of the river, or tried to reach the bottom of the canyon by climbing the mile-high cliffs never succeeded in re-locating the hidden cavern. Gradually, White’s experiences were forgotten or ignored as a result of his delirium. However, in 1903, the treasure excitement blossomed again when two prospectors told of being led to the cavern by a friendly Paiute.
The story began in 1902, when Jake Johnson, a desert prospector, broke his leg while working alone in the badlands south of St. George, Utah. Johnson was near dead of exposure when he was found by an old Paiute and his squaw. In exchange for Johnson’s camping gear, the old couple nursed Johnson back to health. Then, one evening, while the brave was out hunting, a mountain lion attacked his squaw. Johnson was able to kill the cat before the animal had done more than maul the woman. After that, Johnson was almost a brother to the Indian warrior. During the rest of his convalescence, the Indian would tell legends of his people to Johnson, as they sat around the campfire in the evenings. Once he told of a great treasure cache that had been hidden generations before.
According to Indian tradition, an expedition of well-organized and warlike men had come from the south escorting a long line of slaves, dragging boxlike containers shrouded by skins. The party went directly to the Grand Canyon and descended down from the south rim. The treasure was placed in a cavern that evidently had been chosen earlier. The slaves were killed on the spot, while half of the men remained as a guard and the others returned to the south. It was probably planned by the Aztecs that they would recover the cargo once the Spaniards had been driven into the sea, however, months and years went by without word for the garrison at the cavern. Eventually, they intermarried with the local Paiutes and told them tales about a great Indian empire in the south with their emperor, who would return in the future with an army to bring prosperity to the Paiute tribe. Until then, the treasure must be guarded from discovery by anyone. It was a responsibility that meant annihilation for the Paiutes should they permit the hidden cache to be stolen.
Johnson later said he was doubtful of the story at first, then realized that if it were true, he had an opportunity to make a fortune through his relationship with the Indians. He bided his time and then asked the Indian to show him this cave, in return for saving the life of his wife. After considering the request for several days, he agreed to take the prospector to the cave in a year, if both men were still alive. Johnson spent the year near Kingman, Arizona, working gold placers near the Colorado river. He wrote his brother telling him of his expectations and asked the older man to come west before the date Johnson was to meet his friendly Paiute brave. In September, 1903 both brothers were at Pipe Spring in northern Arizona ready to see if the story told the year before was reality of hoax.
The Indian and his woman met the men as planned, and after some disagreement about another man being present, agreed to lead the brothers to the treasure. The Paiute forced the pair to agree that they would remove only as much gold as they could carry. Further, the men would be blindfolded and led to the cavern. One day’s ride south of Pipe Spring, the prospectors were blindfolded and four days were spent in the saddle before they were finally told that on the next day they would be taken on foot to the cave. Starting at daylight, they were led three hours or so, until a sudden drop of temperature told the prospectors that they had been led underground. After a few minutes’ walk, the blindfolds were removed and the men saw that they were in what appeared to be volcanic caves. Lighting torches, the party then proceeded through the cave, always in a descending direction, until they came to a single large room. The glare from the four torches suddenly magnified several times the magnitude of golden idols, shields, and other objects reflecting the light in the eerie flickering flashes. Neither of the men had time to inspect the cave at length, as the Paiutes continually urged them to take what they could carry and retrace their steps to the surface. It was clear that they were at the base of the Grand Canyon, since an opening could be seen in the distance that led onto a sand beach. However, the men were never sure whether they had come down through the cave from the rim of the canyon or whether they had been led at some point along the sheer walls when they had entered the cave.
When they reached the surface, the sun had set long ago. In the dark, they made their way back to camp. After returning to Pipe Spring, the prospectors went to Salt Lake City and sold the bullion they had collected to the smelter there. Each man received slightly over $15,000 for his bullion. Both outfitted and returned to the St. George area, certain that they could find their way back to the cave and riches that would rival the Count of Monte Cristo. The more they searched, the more the country began to look alike. They stayed until November snows, then returned the next year. With their profits from the first trip, they bought ranches in southern Utah and settled down to raising whiteface cattle between occasional trips back to the Canyon to look for their lost trail of wealth.
In 1907, despairing of ever relocating the entrance to the cave, the brothers wrote an article on their experiences for the Salt Lake Mining Review. The editors sent a reporter to St. George to discuss the letter with the brothers. The reporter came away convinced them en had seen the lost treasure of Montezuma. The article was published and created a sensation. Men from all over the West descended on St. George and made futile searches for the entrance to the treasure cave. It was a useless effort; the treasure was never seen again. Gradually, the excitement died, and can only be recaptured by reading the yellowing files of the newspapers of southern Utah. Today, with all the improved roads to the north rim country, the search for Jake Johnson’s lost cave might be easier. Then too, it’s possible to rent a river craft and explore the canyon from the bottom up. Who knows, you might find the same entrance that Jim White unknowingly crawled through over a century ago, and collapsed amid a jumbled heap of priceless golden antiquities. At any rate, Montezuma’s treasure has been seen by at least three men and documented in a respected mining journal. You might be the lucky man to be number four.