From Smaug the Dragon resting upon the hoarded wealth of the dwarves, to Conan the Barbarian finding the Treasure of Tranicos, lost hoards have been one of the key plot devices of heroic fantasy. Their equivalents in real life are no less inspiring, as there are few thins that can grip the human mind as much as the allure of a lost treasure-trove: gold and silver coins, precious jewels and adornments, exquisitely wrought decorations and other objects that bespeak the wealth of forgotten monarchs and lost kingdoms. From a child’s dream of peg-legged pirates buying oak chests filled with doubloons and pieces of eight on some lonely island to exhaustive searches by scholars and adventurers, the search for the concealed wealth of yore has been the source of poems, books and motion pictures.
The siren-call intensifies, however, when a curse is said to rest upon the treasure…
From the Viceroyalties of the Spanish Main
One of Latin America’s fabled treasure hoards is the one belonging to the Marquis of Yaví y Tojo, which had to be hauled away by forty mules burdened with gold and silver.
In 1679, Juan José Campero de Herrera a noble member of the knightly order of Calatrava (created from the remains of the Knights Templar), had the good fortune to marry well: his bride, Juana Bernardes de Obando, was the great-granddaughter of the famous General Zárate, who had been given enormous land-grands and money by the Spanish viceroy for having established a town in the Andean valley of Jujuy (modern Argentina). The Obando family’s fiefdom extended from the vicinity of Humahuaca to the city of Tarija (modern Bolivia), giving the reader a fair idea of the extent of this land-grant. The knight of Calatrava therefore acquired, through marriage, a territory the size of Switzerland and Serbia combined, as well as the title of Marqués de Yaví y Tojo. After being pronounced man and wife, Campero de Herrera had acquired wealth, nobility and power in a single stroke.
Far from what one would expect after such unexpected bounty, Campero de Herrera did not sit back to enjoy his good fortune, but rather devoted himself to making improvements to his domain, building dams to control the flow of a nearby river, flour mills to feed the vast nations of natives under his sway, and installed facilities to retrieve abundant placer gold from the rivers. But even the best fairy tales have their down side: his wealthy bride proved barren and hopes of perpetuating the family name were dashed. Ever pious, Campero de Herrera built two churches to seek divine intervention in the vicissitudes of biology.
Modern historians have found church documents attesting to the wealth of the childless marquis: a business contract makes mention of three hundred and thirty quintales of silver (an old unit of measure equivalent to 100 kilograms) being mined at Cochinoca — sixteen thousand kilograms of silver ore.
The marquis dug tunnels underneath his country house–Alicate–as a way to reach the mine workings and perhaps as exit routes in case of an attack by hostile natives. Perhaps Campero de Herrera could see the clouds gathering in the horizon; his excessive wealth and good fortune had led him to believe that it was possible to separate his fiefdom from the viceroyalty and run it as an independent domain. The plan failed, Campero de Herrera was forced to set all of his business documents and books to the torch. But there would be no impoverished exile for the knight of Calatrava–he loaded his fortune onto the backs of forty mules and vanished, along with his wife and retainers, in 1696, never to be seen again.
After this lengthy prologue, it is here that the “legend of the lost treasure of the Marqués de Yaví y Tojo” begins. Tradition holds that the marquis, unable to cross the Andes with such a fabulous burden, decided to bury his kingly wealth in a place from which it could be recovered at a later date. In order to avoid any problems involving faulty recall or geographical changes, the marquis drew symbols marking the site. These can be seen in a canyon overlooking the Yaví River and resemble odd hieroglyphics showing what appears to be a sea anchor and a feline figure. The locals are adamant that the scrawls are not native petroglyphs but marks made by the marquis to show the location of the treasure.
Relived of his burden, states the legend, the fugitive nobleman reached a wilderness known as Siete Corrales. There, it is said, Campero de Herrera and his wife were slain by natives who took the forty mules which still carried considerable quantities of food and valuables.
There are native structures in the La Mendieta mountain range which surrounds the area. Could these hold the marquis’ lost silver treasure? Local ranchers believe that it would be possible to find the leather bags carried on muleback by dredging the Yuruma Creek, the body of water along which the ambush took place. This lost treasure awaits the brave souls willing to claim it.
But the Marquis of Yaví y Tojo’s lost treasure isn’t Argentina’s only lost treasure trove: according to retired school principal Christina Coccari, the oral traditions of her country’s Tuy region (a Guaraní word meaning “soft mud”), which includes the towns of Lavalle, Madariaga and Villa Gesell. In 1820, the fledgling Argentinean government built a series of forts to keep the nomadic tribes at bay. Wagons filled with bricks for this construction effort reached the area from Chascomús and three forts were erected–Juancho Viejo, Invernadas and La Porteña. The government then entrusted a military man, General Alzaga, with the task of colonizing the region and dispersing the Pampas tribesmen, who were known for their raids and for abducting the colonists’ women and children. Ten years later, one such raid by the Pampean chieftain “Arbolito” (Little Tree) destroyed the forts and killed the settlers, except for one young woman who had survived along with a leather chest filled with silver and gold coins, buried at the foot of a tree marked by a hanging Rosary.
The young survivor told the tragic story to a priest, Father Castañeda, who ordered that the treasure chest be located. Despite their best efforts, this was never accomplished, for a local child had found the Rosary dangling from the tree and taken it to her mother.
Contemporary belief holds that the treasure chest is located in the “El Rosario” lagoon, but that the hoard is “accursed” due to the blood that was spilled over it, and will therefore represent a source of misfortune for anyone who comes across it.
In the Mexican Desert
Mexico reputedly holds a number of undiscovered treasures that are waiting to be claimed by an intrepid adventurer. One of them is the so-called “Tesoro del Fraile” (the Friar’s Treasure) buried somewhere in the northern state of Coahuila. During the gold and silver boom times that pervaded throughout the Mexican viceregal area, a number of treasure troves were stolen and concealed. This particular one, according to historian Rubén Dávila Farías, involves a series of letters written by Fray Pedro de Noyola, a priest who left Mexico during the country’s War of Independence. In one missive, dated January 20, 1811, the priest asks Cipriano Lozoya, a resident of port of Veracruz, to go north to Coahuila to find a buried treasure: “It will not be possible for me to return to that country in which I lived so joyfully…but perhaps chance may lead you, my friend to a happy and wild region known as the Bolsón de Mapimi, where you shall find a hill known as La Bufa. On that hill, with its face toward the rising sun in the month of May, you can see a [mountain] range that dominates that height and two smaller hills not too far away. The point of reference I must give you is known as Antiguo Mineral de Mapimí…” the priest goes on to explain that in a cave halfway up the small western hill, known as Guadalupe, there is a cave. The treasure hunter was to walk a distance of “twenty rods” from the cave entrance and dig “three rods down” to find four strongboxes containing gold and silvery jewelry belonging to the Church, plus an alleged 200 boxes of gold and silver coins “minted with the effigy” of King Charles V.
A further, grislier find would also be the bones of the 4 mules used to haul this amazing wealth.Elena González, a resident of Torreón in the State of Coahuila, told television journalist Nino Canún in 1993 that she possessed the “gift of voices” and that one such voice had guided her and her friends to a series of caves where she found a “little bag of cloth containing sixteen silver pieces”. Had Ms. González been given a foretaste of the greater wealth of the Friar’s Treasure?
Nostradamus Sees Treasure
Michel de Nostradamus, born in 1503 in the village of Saint Remy, in Provence, has been considered by many as the most important post-Biblical prophet for the enigmatic and verses known as the Centuries. Michel was the great-grandson of Pierre de Nostradamus, a court physician who attended the kings and dukes of France. Born into a family of mathematicians and philosophers, Nostradamus’s work has been interpreted and re-interpreted to suit all manner of interests. Many have overlooked some of the lesser quatrains utterly unrelated to eschatology–and one of them has to do with lost treasure.
The 27th Quatrain (XXVII) reads thus:
Dessous de chaine Guien du Ciel frappé.
Non loing da lá est caché le tresor,
Qui par long siecles avoir esté grappé,
Trouver mourra, l’oeil crevé de ressor.
(“Under the mountains of Guyana by heaven punished
Not far away there is treasure concealed,
Having for long ages being sealed
Death to he who finds it, eyes by springs pierced”)
The 27th quatrain, a prophecy having nothing to do with the rise or fall of kings or great wars, has been ignored, as have been others, such as the 10th — interpreted by some as foretelling the rise of cinematography as an art (“serpents sealed in cages of iron”). The revelation of a hidden treasure trove in the Guyana Highlands is certainly fascinating, and no one has ever made an effort to find it. The treasure, says Nostradamus, will remain inviolate and the curse upon the first one to lay eyes upon it shall remain in force. The “eyes by springs pierced” suggest some ingenious booby trap set by the filibuster or pirate who was forced to leave his wealth in this remote, inhospitable location. Such devices, reminiscent of the harrowing experiences of the fictional Indiana Jones in the opening moments of Raiders of the Lost Ark, are known to have existed. It is believed that the tomb of Shi Huangdi, the legendary Yellow Emperor, is still defended by arrows set on hair-triggers.
A Succession of Spirit Guardians
It isn’t enough for a hoard to be accursed by its previous owner or due to the violence that has characterized efforts at seeking its possession: sometimes supernatural guardians are appointed to guard the treasure, and perform their task with chilling efficiency. Among the considerable holdings of the Cleveland Public Library we come across two fascinating occult tomes, the Libellus Magicus and the Praxis Magica. These volumes, which apparently formed part of the collection of A.E. Waite, the renowned occultist. The Libellus, also known as The True Magical Work of the Jesuits, contains a variety of conjurations and spells, among them “St. Cyprian’s Invocation of Angels and his Conjuration of the Spirits Guarding Hidden Treasure” — a means by which a treasure hunter may adjure the paranormal forces to relinquish the treasures entrusted to their care. Such supernatural aids would probably come in handy to the brave souls willing to dare some lost hoards, such as the one allegedly contained within the Khabriat Douma cave system in the mountains of Lebanon. Important due to its strategic value, the town of Douma attracted the attention of conquerors throughout the ages until it was finally burned down by the Ottoman Turks in the 17th century. According to local legends, a vast treasure of unknown origin can be found beneath the rocky outcropping known as Mar Nohra, and that there are inscriptions and carvings nearby that are clues to its location. The intricate cave system, according to experts, was used in ancient times for military purposes and is linked to the fortress of Al-Hossein. Lebanese tradition holds that a princess hid her wealth in boxes inside this cave system, hence its name, “Cave of Boxes”; it is further believed that the ancient hoard is protected by a type of local magic known as rasad, which punishes treasure hunters by ruining their businesses, possessions and families. Other Middle Eastern hoards are protected by more fearsome guardians, such as the efreeti.
Similar supernatural protectors are not unknown in the Americas, either: the cave known as La Malinche in the state of Veracruz is believed to contain a hidden treasure–whether Aztec or Spanish is unknown–that is protected by the ghost of La Malinche herself, the woman who aided the conquistador Hernán Cortes as a translator. Legend holds that the beautiful revenant offers the treasure to anyone unlucky enough to pass her way, warning them that if they are unable to extract the hoard, they will be trapped forever within the caves.
In Britain’s Cornwall, tradition holds that the odd and still unexplained structures known as fogous play a role in supernatural treasure. These Celtic structures appear to have played a role in local folklore and were considered to contain evil spirits assigned to protecting a particular trove. Modern adventurers entering these structures have been treated to a host of paranormal events, ranging from hearing voices to encountering apparitions of what may be the reputed “guardians” of lost treasure.
American Spiritualist Emma Hardinge discussed the 19th century belief surrounding the discovery of gold or treasure: Spirits were able to lead mortals to uncover treasure troves or even lesser bounties like misplaced deeds or wills (Modern American Spiritualism, 439). If the treasure hunter placed his or her trust in spirit guides and treasure was indeed found, “it proved the belief in spirits by its fruits.” Hardinge adds the interesting side note that American folklore had associated treasure with discarnate entities before the mid-19th century boom in such beliefs. It was believed that “Indian or pirate spirits” were the protected hidden wealth against unworthy seekers.
Treasures of Brazil
To the north of the Brazilian capital city of Brasilia lies the State of Tocantíns, which holds huge semi-desertic regions crossed by the Balsas and Sono Rivers — not the image that comes to most people’s minds when thinking about Brazil. This scarcely populated and seldom traversed region of the country is considered to be accursed: truck drivers on their way to make deliveries claim to have seen “beautiful women” emerge from nowhere, lights dancing among the sand dunes, and others lights that engage in vehicle chases. The region’s reputation as an unholy location was only heightened in 1994 when, according to journalist Pablo Villarubia, a tractor-trailer suffered a mechanical breakdown in the middle of the desert. Twenty days later, the driver’s corpse–half eaten by vultures–was found, clutching a stick with which he had tried to keep the carrion birds away.It is only fitting that an area such as this should have a “lost” source of wealth: the legendary Los Martirios gold mine.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the bandeirantes or expeditioners who cut their way into the forbidding Brazilian heartland were looking for that country’s version of El Dorado: a lagoon filled with gold, silver and emeralds, crowned by a city whose inhabitants lived like kings. The Colonial explorers set out to find them and even established a number of towns to serve as bases for forays. While no city was found, the adventurers came across the Paraupava River and its gold deposits. A village named Araés was established and mineral wealth was exploited, but as it became increasingly harder to extract gold, the settlers became dispirited and the village was abandoned to the elements. In the mid-20th century, explorer and historian Manoel Rodrigues Ferreira was able to ascertain that the “lost” Los Martirios gold mine had been found–over the centuries, the river had undergone a name change to Araguaia and the village of Araés had vanished from the maps.
Aside from the thrill of acquiring sudden wealth–a constant in almost every culture on earth–the notion of finding buried treasure, much like a child’s fabled discovery of “pirate treasure” lying under a large black “X” on a tattered map, has led many adventurers to expend both capital and human lives on such endeavors, with the legendary “Money Pit” of Oak Island being one of the most memorable examples. The belief that the gold of dead kings is tantalizingly within our reach will be with us forever, even if said riches are protected by forces beyond our imagination.