(WFXR) — When you look up into the mountains around western Bedford County, you might be looking at $100 million in gold, silver, and jewels, and not even know it.
That’s because of a mystery that involves intrigue, secret codes, and a treasure possibly buried by a man named Thomas Beale.
So, who was Beale?
He was reportedly from the Botetourt County area and was out in what was then part of Mexico, though today it’s in Colorado, with a hunting party from Virginia.
Jennifer Thomson is the Genealogical Librarian for the Bedford Museum and Genealogical Library. She says the legend holds that the hunting party stumbled upon a mine filled with gold, silver and jewels.
“They said let’s take it back home and hide it.”
And hide it they did, if you believe the legend. After that, Beale sat down in a place called Buford’s Tavern in Montvale, Virginia and wrote out three ciphers.
One of them dealt with the contents of the treasure, another with the exact location, and a third with who the treasure belonged to, and who their heirs were. He allegedly left the ciphers in a trunk with an innkeeper in Lynchburg and promised to come back in 10 years.
But, Beale never returned. Years later, according to the story, the innkeeper opened the trunk, looked at the ciphers, but couldn’t figure them out. So, he gave them to a friend who was good with solving problems and puzzles.
“He talked to his buddy and his buddy uses the Declaration of Independence as a key to solve one of the ciphers,” said Thomson. “He tells him he figured it out, that the treasure is within four miles of Montvale, but he can’t figure out exactly where, and he can’t solve the other two ciphers.”
That led to the amateur cryptographer to ask for help by printing a pamphlet.
“He says ok, here’s these other two letters, can anybody help me,” Thomson said, recounting the legend. “That was in 1885 and people have been trying to crack the code since then.”
The stream of fortune hunters has not stopped coming to Bedford County. There are still organized efforts today set up to hunt for Beale’s Treasure. One man who has seen plenty of treasure hunters through the years is local historian Danny Johnson.
Johnson is 82 years old. His family founded Johnson’s Orchard and Peaks of Otter Winery. He says one of the most peculiar treasure hunting incidents involves a woman who though she’d cracked the code and started digging up a cemetery.
“It may be a good place for that treasure,” said Johnson, laughing as he talked about the woman from Pennsylvania. “But a judge sent her back home and told her never to come back to Virginia.”
While she may have been wrong, Johnson says one world-famous treasure hunter, the late Mel Fisher came to Bedford County to talk with Johnson. He says Fisher believed the legend and actually said it was true.
“Oh yeah, Mel was up here,” Johnson said. “He hunted for it and decided that the treasure had been found, that he found the place where it was buried, but it was empty.”
If there ever was a treasure, logistics would have been a nightmare.
A treasure that large would have to have been transported on multiple wagons. It would have had to cross what was then an international border and then hauled across the Mississippi River and through several states. It then would have to have been brought over the Appalachian Mountains and then buried. That sort of undertaking would have required dozens of people, and it would have been hard to keep it a secret.
Logistics draw the existence of the treasure into question. And if it did exist, with all of those people knowing about, how likely would it be that someone would at least come back for part of it?
Despite that, there are many who still believe the legend, and think the treasure is real.
A business that has adopted the Beale’s Treasure as part of its brand and image is the Beale’s Brewery in Bedford. Owner Dave McCormack says he is often contacted fortune hunters looking for information about the gold.
“A lot of people will write us and say they’ve solved the mystery.”
So far, none of those people have shown up to actually prove that they have, which again raises the question: Is or was there a Beale’s Treasure?
There’s enough evidence to say maybe…and just as much to say maybe not.
The only thing for certain is that some people still believe, and as Johnson would agree, hope is always a good thing.
“It’s out there. Either it’s been found, or it hasn’t been found. You’re either going to find out where it was hidden, or you’re going to find the gold. Either way, you’re going to have to hunt.”