What Lies Beneath
Underwater recovery of valuable objects is relatively common, but terrestrial treasures are rarely found. When it does happen, it makes the headlines.
In 2013, a couple hiking on their Sierra County property in California noticed a rusted can protruding from an embankment. This was the first of eight more cans containing gold coins recovered in the same location.
Called the Saddle Ridge Hoard, the 1,427 gold coins of mixed denominations were minted between 1847 and 1894 and had a face value of $27,980 when they were cached. The coins were assessed at $10 million and represent the largest buried collection of gold coins ever found in the U.S.
Salvage and treasure diver Scott Mitchen discovered a new form of treasure when he brought his first log up from the bottom of Lake Superior. The profession of underwater logging was born when Mitchen realized that thousands of old-growth logs had sunk during logging operations in the late 1800s.
It turns out that timber resting on the bottom of a cold lake with little oxygen fares quite well. And with the tight grain of old-growth trees, they are worth a lot of money. So much so that one veneer-quality log can fetch several thousand dollars.
Stories like these bring up an aspect of treasure that only adds to its allure. Something of value was lost or secreted away, but for some reason, never claimed.
Let us now return to where we left off in last week’s episode of What Lies Beneath.
In 1972, I was working with a botanist in a gorge along Paint Creek that would soon be underwater. We noticed a roughly pyramidal-shaped grotto that was completely sealed off with rocks. The base of the opening was approximately eight feet in length and six feet high at its apex.
What made this sight particularly puzzling was that the grotto was about two-thirds of the way up a vertical limestone wall. The immediate question that came to mind was how anyone managed to gain access to the opening in the first place?
The question that logically follows “how?” is “why?” Why would someone go the considerable effort of closing off a small cave in such a precarious location?
From these questions, two conclusions can be drawn. First and foremost, that something of value or importance must be hidden in the grotto. We can also safely assume that the location was chosen because of the difficulties involved in accessing the site.
A grave of someone important comes to mind. Native Americans in Ohio have been known to bury their dead in caves. However, this was not a common practice with the mound builders or the Shawnee.
Likewise, cave burials were rare among the white settlers who much-preferred family cemeteries.
In the early 1980s, I checked a book out of the Cambridge, Ohio, library. The Frontiersmen, written by Allan W. Eckert in 1967, is a historical narrative of the clash between the Shawnee and white settlers encroaching on their territories in present-day Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.
The book is considered historical fiction. The events and historical figures are actual, but poetic license is liberally employed with regard to the dialogue between said figures.
There were penciled notations in the margins of the book about “Shawnee Silver,” which I now understand was a common term used by white settlers in the three-state area.
The notes were referring to the fact that the Shawnee had a particular fondness for silver items. Their bodies were often adorned with silver armbands, bracelets, earrings, necklaces and medallions.
The word Shawnee* has been variously defined in English as “People of the South” and “Those who have silver.”
The whites believed the Shawnee had silver mines, which for geological reasons, is not likely. To date, none of these fabled mines have been found. However, the Shawnee did have caches of high-grade silver ore that they regularly visited to replenish their supply of silver adornments.
The rumors of mines are probably a product of the white settler’s lack of knowledge about the area’s geology. It is far more likely that silver ore was simply a trade item. From the time of the mound builders, extensive trade routes had been established.
A real mine would require drilling down through hundreds of feet of sedimentary stone before reaching any rock bearing precious metals. Such technology was not yet invented in the 1700s, so that effectively rules out a silver mine.
As mentioned in the last dispatch, much of Ohio was covered with an ice sheet during glacial periods. When the glaciers retreated, they left behind sand, gravel and boulders called glacial erratic.
All of this glacial till originated in Canada and does, in fact, contain some precious minerals and semi-precious stones.
So, it is conceivable the Shawnee could have practiced some form of placer mining. But, they would not have been able to recover silver from placer mining in a quantity equal to what they are known to have possessed.
This is where the grottos come in.
Several footnotes in Eckert’s book refer to white men being captured and forced to march blindfolded up small streambeds to locations where they were ordered to stop.
They were held there under guard until their Shawnee captors forced them to return downstream toting sacks containing heavy rocks.
Some prisoners reported that by peering under the blindfolds, they could see that the rocks contained thick seams of natural silver.
Silver in some natural states is malleable, and, like gold, could be hammered into various objects.
Yellow Springs, Ohio, is less than 40 miles from Paint Creek and is situated near a deep gorge hosting the Little Miami River. In the late 1800s, a geology student collecting rocks in the canyon found several chunks of ore containing high-grade silver.
I hiked every nook and cranny of this gorge and others in southwest Ohio over several years in the early 2000s. Although I found no silver, I saw many small caves in these tranquil places.
Many of the grottos were situated on vertical faces of limestone. And, some had piles of rubble at their base. These rocks may have been used to close off the grotto at one time.
Even though the settlers believed that the Shawnee were obtaining their supply of silver from mines, this was just an uneducated assumption. One that the Indians allowed them to think so that their caches of silver were further protected.
Or, perhaps, the Shawnee perpetuated the silver mine myth for the very same reason – keep the whites searching for a conventional mine.
Early pioneers searched for these mines all over southwestern Ohio. Much to the Shawnee’s delight, they searched the fields and marshes around present-day Xenia, not the gorges.
The Shawnee were known for misleading the intruders and for having a great sense of humor. Perhaps, they found pleasure in watching the wrong places.
One instance that clearly demonstrates the Shawnee’s willingness to let the avaricious whites believe the silver mine theory involved the Shawnee Chief Blue Jacket. He was approached by representatives of an ad hoc mining company in Kentucky offering horses, money and other goods if shown the location of a silver mine.
The clever chief bargained with the men, obtaining what he felt he could get from the eager would-be miners. He then led them around for several days in the Red River area of Kentucky, searching for the mine without success.
Blaming his failure to find the mine on his failing eyesight, he said he would return to Ohio and send his son back, who would be able to find the site. That, of course, never happened.
Well, with or without good eyesight, you cannot find a “mythical” mine –right?
Should one of these potential silver caches be found, I strongly urge the finder to contact the proper authorities rather than opening it. These sites are uniquely important historic and cultural places and should be treated as such.
Much can be learned about our native peoples by allowing archaeologists to conduct a professional examination of the site. Desecrating such sites on state or federal land can land you in prison with a huge fine. Please, do the right thing.
Well, those are the facts about Shawnee silver, a walled-off grotto, and the geology of Ohio as I know them. Now dear reader, I submit this story For Your Consideration.
The Shawnee were relocated to reservations in a series of removal acts. They were first sent to reservations in Ohio and were eventually moved to reservations in Oklahoma and Kansas.
From time to time, the Shawnee were granted requests to visit their sacred burial sites in Ohio.
Once back in Ohio, they would frequently disappear for days or weeks. They always had more silver items in their possession on their return west than when they arrived in Ohio.
*The Shawnee was only one of a dozen or so tribes who lived in the Ohio Valley.