I spent the last 45 minutes of our drive across the backroads of southeastern Kentucky in the back seat, blindfolded. Once we parked, I was led, a treasure hunter on either side of me, for another 20 minutes. It seemed that we passed through some deep, shaded woods, then up a ravine, and finally along a flat.
Once the blindfold was removed I was standing among some huge boulders scattered along the base of a cliff. I did not even know what county I was in.
On the side of one boulder were mysterious carvings that appeared to be centuries old. There was a turkey foot, an arrow pointing ahead, the initials JS, and a date, 1767.
We forged ahead in the direction the arrow pointed. We made our way along the base of the cliff until we came to the mouth of a tunnel leading back into the cliff.
Armed with flashlights and bending at the waist, we made our way single file into the man-made shaft, which measured about five feet in diameter. It turned left and then right, finally ending about 75 yards into the mountain.
The sides of the shaft as well as several holes at its end appeared to have been made by a hand-cranked auger. Shale and other rock material that had been removed from the interior was spread out in front of the tunnel and scattered down the slight slope in front of it.
I hooked up with this group of local treasure hunters for a story for the Ashland Daily Independent in 1983. For two years they had been in the hunt for the legendary John Swift Silver Mines.
A newspaper story would be fine with them but I certainly wasn’t going to be given the opportunity to divulge where the area of their search was.
They were armed with what they believed to be an authentic copy of the journal Swift kept when he and his companions were allegedly mining rich veins of silver somewhere in southeastern Kentucky during the 1760s.
They were excited about having found so many of the curious marks and directions which Swift had posted in the journal to mark where rich lodes of minted coins were hidden while he and his company carried out mining operations off and on for eight years.
MORE THAN OTHERS
They had probably discovered more of these signs than anyone else had found in the more than 200 years men and women have sought in vain for the treasure.
Their findings seem to substantiate the story of Swift’s travels and activities in this part of the state in pre-settlement days.
A couple of years ago I visited John Byrd at his home on Cedar Run in Carter County. He was a member of the company taking part in that hunt of 33 years ago.
“I believe where we were that day was where Swift and his men had mined a vein of almost pure silver,” Byrd said.
Something was mined from that shaft, that’s for sure, and there is no record of anyone ever extracting iron ore, coal, saltpeter or any other mineral from that area of Menifee County, which Byrd finally revealed was where we were on the day of the blindfold.
IN A DRY LAKEBED
Some sources name the Little Sandy River as a place where one of Swift’s silver caches is hidden.
Some years later the group, journeying into the headwaters of Grayson Lake after the fall drawdown, followed other signs and carvings on rocks similar to those described in Swift’s journal.
These signs led them to a rock house (a recess under a cliff) where they found the remains of an ancient charcoal-fired furnace.
Had someone beaten them to silver coins there? Byrd believed so.
IN A ROCK HOUSE
Also around that time, Byrd and Dick Bond believed they had located one of Swift’s hiding places in a rock house on Bond’s farm south of Grayson.
Bond brought his backhoe into play and removed tons of material from the floor of the rock house.
A year later, the backhoe was brought into play again on land near Bond’s farm. Byrd’s dousing rods and Geiger counter indicated a cache of silver near the foot of a deep gully, at the base of a huge oak tree.
An essay of a sample of material taken from the dig showed it would yield silver worth about $8 per ton of material, hardly worth the expense of a mining operation.
SWIFT THE COUNTERFITTER
It’s a generally accepted historical fact that there was a Jonathan Swift in the area during the time period of the journal. He was a sailor with an early background in mining.
He came to Alexandria, Va. In the mid-1700s. Records in Alexandria reveal that a Jonathan Swift was tried in that city in the late 1700s on charges of counterfeiting English currency.
A silversmith who testified in the trial said Swift’s coins contained a purer silver than the genuine English coins.
Swift is said to have gone blind in his later years. With George Munday and the rest of his party dead, he was unable to locate the places where he had secreted the coinage away in the rugged hill country.
He spent his last years living with a Mrs. Joseph Renfro at Bean’s Station, Tenn. He supposedly gave his map and journal to her in exchange for her favors.
Ah, yes, silver – the color of moonbeams and the stuff dreams are made of.
Reach G. SAM PIATT at (606) 932-3619 or [email protected]