The legendary Spanish gold of Neahkahnie Mountain
A Native American story tells of a galleon coming to the bluff, just south of Astoria, and its crew burying a mysterious chest there — guarded by the body of a murdered crew member. Is it true? And has the treasure already been found?
Neahkahnie Mountain as seen from the north today. (Photo by Eric
Baetscher. For larger image and copyright info, click here.)
Stories about buried treasure are, of course, almost never true. But there’s one buried-treasure story, dating back to the 1600s on the northern Oregon coast, that might actually be the real thing.
The story has been passed down through generations of Native Americans in the area of Nehalem Bay, and has almost certainly been corrupted over the centuries by exaggerations and simplifications. But here’s the gist of it:
Mysterious Spanish mariners arrive
In the late 1600s, a Spanish sailing ship came into Nehalem Bay. Some versions of the story say it dropped anchor there; in others, the galleon was shipwrecked. Both versions go on to say a group of men climbed into a small boat and rowed through the breakers to shore. The men then walked straight inland and up the side of a shoreside bluff called Neahkahnie Mountain, carrying a heavy chest. At some point, on the side of the mountain, they stopped, set the chest down and started digging; the whole time, the local natives had been watching with great curiosity.
Murder by the sea ...
At last, the hole was deep enough, and the chest was lowered into it. Then, apparently knowing the natives would not disturb a man’s grave, one of the bearded strangers drew his cutlass and plunged it into another, a dark-skinned man — apparently an African slave. This unfortunate fellow, once he finished dying, was then tossed in on top of the chest, and man and chest were buried together.
Neahkahnie Mountain from the south side, as rendered using the
"Earth" function on Google Maps. For the full map, which you can use to
explore the surrounding areas of the coast, click here.
... then they sailed away
From here, the stories diverge again. One has the ship hoisting anchor and disappearing over the horizon. In another, several sailors are left behind to guard the ship, but quarrel with the natives over women and are killed in the ensuing fights. Perhaps the most ludicrous version, a shipwreck scenario, has the captain of the ship killing all his crew members who won’t fit in the lifeboat and then setting out on the open sea in it, rowing to Baja California.
The legend begins to grow
A century passed. Then, in the early 1800s, British and American expeditions started to arrive: Lewis and Clark, the Astorian party and the Hudson’s Bay Company by land, and captains Gray and Vancouver by sea, though not in that order. Trading with the natives, they learned of the buried gold.
Hordes of treasure hunters
Poor Neahkahnie Mountain hasn’t been the same since. One settler after another has become obsessed with the legend and gone to try and retrieve the Spanish gold. People have spent years, decades, whole lifetimes digging hopeful holes in the bluff. In the 1870s, a treasure hunter named Pat Smith found some stones marked with arrows, crosses and the letters “DEW,” but nothing more. During the 1930s, two treasure hunters even died in the attempt, when an excavation they were working on collapsed on them.
The legend is still very much alive today. In 2006, a movie was even made about it – “The Tillamook Treasure” (also known as "The Legend of Tillamook's Gold"), an indie children’s film that won an impressive bevy of awards. People are still digging holes in the bluff, although a lot of it is going on in secret now, because the part of the bluff owned by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department is officially off-limits to treasure hunters.
But these latter-day treasure hunters may be barking up an empty tree. There’s some reason to believe the treasure was real, but was found long ago.
Thomas McKay, treasure hunter
It seems back in the early 1800s, a fur trapper named Thomas McKay arrived with the Astorian party on the ill-fated sailing ship Tonquin. Here, he must have heard about the treasure, because after he became an employee of Hudson’s Bay Company, he started coming to the mountain, spade in hand. He worked obsessively, digging and scrounging every spare moment.
Then one day he suddenly walked away from the mountain, quit his job and disappeared. Years later, when he settled at French Prairie by the Willamette River, he seemed oddly flush with cash — not to the point of being flashy about it, but never worried about money either, and quite generous with it among his friends. And this was before the 1848 gold rush, when other residents of the Willamette Valley were using bushels of wheat and “Abernethy rocks” as currency.
Thomas McKay, treasure finder?
Could it be that Thomas McKay found that chest, secretly slipped away with it, quit his job and went somewhere else to enjoy it, free of the notoriety and envy that always seem to accompany found money? In fact, isn’t that that what any of us would do?
If that’s what happened, one has to hope that he treated the bones of that poor murdered slave with some respect.
(Sources: Gulick, Bill. Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula: Mountain Press, 1991; Sullivan, William L. Hiking Oregon’s History. Eugene: Navillus Press, 2006)