Is a sunken fortune hidden in the bottom of Lake Michigan?

A heavy wooden chest with metal chains underwater

Are 5 chests of gold under Lake Michigan?

A heavy wooden chest being lifted up by hooks on chains

Sailors in the 20’s almost had the chests


It is only a speck of rocky land just east of Wisconsin, surrounded by the chilly waters of Lake Michigan. It is called Poverty Island, an apt name, especially when treacherous storms sweep in across the lake without warning. Furious winds and lightning-swift currents have spawned a graveyard of sunken ships and over the years, intriguing tales of lost treasure.

The silhouette a ship on a foggy horizon

Did the salvage team really find the treasure?

One legend in particular has claimed that, just offshore of Poverty Island, there are five chests stuffed with gold bullion and coins, which would today be worth more than $400 million. Richard Bennett, a professional diver and author, has spent more than 20 years and $100,000 of his own money searching for the sunken fortune:

“Any story that survives 100 years has to have some validity to it. If they survive 100 years, they probably have an 80, 85% chance of being true.”

But how could $400 million in gold end up on the bottom of Lake Michigan? The treasure story reaches back to 1863, when the tide of the Civil War was turning in favor of the Union. The beleaguered South, strapped for capital, put out a desperate call for relief to France. According to the legend, the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte III, secretly dispatched a shipment of gold across the Atlantic to Canada. It was then spirited down the St. Lawrence River and into Lake Michigan. But some believed that, while traveling inland to Chicago, the ship was attacked and sank. Others believed it was shipwrecked in a storm. In either event, the chests of gold never arrived.

Steve Harrington, a maritime historian, is convinced the treasure is still located off the coast of Poverty Island:

“I think that’s one of the most intriguing things about this legend is that it’s consistent in that the loss is always at Poverty Island. There are always five chests, and it’s always the same scenario.”

A man pointing at a computer screen with scans of shipwreck documents

Records of 1863 shipwrecks are well preserved

However, historian Chuck Feltner disagrees. He has spent many years in the Great Lakes searching for shipwrecks. Feltner believes that the legend of the treasure is a good story, but holds no truth:

“Records of shipwrecks on the great lakes in the year 1863 are extremely good. We’ve not been able to find any evidence that any of these vessels that were recorded to have been lost were sunk in the vicinity of Poverty Island or that they were French vessels, as the legend would have it to be.”

Despite the lack of a paper trail, the legend of the secret shipment has persisted. In 1929, a group of sailors were said to have snagged the five chests with their anchor. Up it came, just seconds away, a fortune in gold, when suddenly the chains broke. The treasure plummeted back to its watery grave.

A few years later, a group of investors in Chicago raised $50,000 to try their luck at Poverty Island. According to Richard Bennett, a young boy named Karly Jesson, whose father was the local lighthouse keeper, was said to have watched the salvage operation for three consecutive summers:

“One day, he was sitting on the rocks watching this operation, and there was a lot of rejoicing, revelry—obviously a real… congratulatory party that was going on, on the ship.”

A scubadiver deep in the water of lake michigan scanning its floor

Will the underwater sled find the treasure?

According to the boy, a storm hit that night, and the salvage ship sank with all the men on board. The heartless tides of Lake Michigan had once again reclaimed the Poverty Island treasure.

Today, Richard Bennett feels confident that he will succeed where others have failed. Bennett has devised an ingenious underwater sled to comb the murky depths of Lake Michigan.

“The only way to really find this treasure is to have human beings on the sled visually looking at the bottom. It’s cold. It’s deep. The area is very treacherous. But I’m a dreamer, and I’m a gambler. As long as I have those things working for me, I’ll probably continue to do it.”

Will Richard Bennett ever find the Poverty Island treasure? Only time will tell. Until that day, Lake Michigan will keep its grip on the five wooden treasure chests hidden far beneath its surface.

Photos by Richard T. Bennett

Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season seven with Robert Stack and in season five with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu.



  1. Rick

    I spent my summers for 57 years snorkeling swimming and fishing in bay de noc. It’s littered with the bones, timbers and planks of wrecked vessels. The wooden and steel vessels didn’t sink, they floated onto the rocks, we’re smashed to pieces, and distributed by currents and waves all around the bays half under water until they became waterlogged and sunk. You’ll find many pieces of ships from the same era, but alas matey, wrong wreck.


  2. Aron Adamczyk

    Looks like Marty Lagina has gotten wind of the story and is searching for it! Hopefully they do some side-scan sonar on it and they can get to the “Bottom” of the story!



    David Bagdon
    Thanks for the offer, however I have never taken any money for our search for the Poverty Island Treasure search and after 50 years of being involved I don’t think it’s in the future. If you have finances why not do your own search. Maybe because of Poverty’s inherit dangerous location this may not be for you. There are treasure stories around us
    find one that is plausible for you and do the research. That in itself is rewarding. I can’t believe how much I have learned about the US Civil War and all its components. Good luck and if you find a treasure invite me to the party.



    Jean Anne Arden, Me too.



    Rum Runner, You are correct about many people looking for the Treasure of Poverty Island. It is difficult to tell how many people actually dived near Poverty Island over the years. Or how many times they dived on each trip there. I for one started before we had any formal search devices, side scan, GPS that sort of equipment. Loran had just came out and was available to the public. When we started it was dead-reckoning each time we went out. Often, we likely went over the same spot or at least part of the same spot. Even with modern search equipment it took wreck hunters many years to find the Captain Lawrence and she was a schooner length ship. Now imagine a few boxes 2X2X3 feet or there about in 60 to 80 feet of water in a square mile area. That’s the challenge.



    Thanks for the good wishes. Without dreams life would be pretty boring. Many people dream about winning the lottery or being a great sports figure. As long as you don’t take advantage of someone either by money or reputation I don’t see how it can hurt. We just had a basketball celebrity here in Milwaukee return to his childhood part of the inner city and consul youngsters in following their dreams. He had dreams of becoming a basketball star on the very street he just visited. Dreamers are also doers, that’s also how inventions are born.



    I think you sent me an e-mail about your Poverty Island screenplay. The discipline it takes to write a screenplay is daunting at best. I wrote a screenplay about a scuba accident and it was the thing sleepless nights are made of. I wish you good luck in your endeavor.



    I doubt the Poverty Treasure has been found. One could hardly walk into a bank with hundreds of pounds of gold and cash it in. Even people with the means to dispose of some of the gold would find it hard the move any large amount. They must have a source where it could be integrated into a normal flow of gold supplies. Better to make it known and use the courts to reap a reward. Some is better than none, and you sleep well at night.



    You are correct, people did believe the earth was flat. However, there were those that didn’t believe it, and got off their behinds and proved it was curved. I often wonder if they thought it was round. Where would we be if we didn’t challenge the legends and the unknown?


  10. Regina Felangi

    The best part-
    “Any story that survives 100 years has to have some validity to it. If they survive 100 years, they probably have an 80, 85% chance of being true.”
    People believed the earth was flat for longer than that.
    And don’t even get me started on the whole God thing, singular or plural.
    People are dumb.
    Poor guy.


  11. Anonymous

    Richard, are you still looking for the treasure? I almost came over to your house, to get your papers on the treasure. I grew up two blocks away from you, I think I may have been your paperboy in the late sixties. Or my brother Jim. If 85 th st went though, we wouldn’t t have had a back yard. You know the house big and very old on Lisbon Do you really think it s there? What about that guy from escanba, that looked for it, and then retired in Florida. That sounds a little like maybe he found it and just sort of slipped away. What say you, Mate.


  12. Anonymous

    All, I am currently finishing a screenplay on the Poverty Island Gold. I have read the above comments and hope to provide you a feature movie someday.


  13. Anonymous

    Dear Richard, I’ve also have read, years ago, in newspapers about the five sunken treasure chests linked together in bottom of Lake Michigan. I believe it is true. I really hope you find them. Then you and I can conclude that persevering faith in hoping dreams to come true exists, to the non-believers. Wish I could be there when you pull them out of the water!
    Never give up…and God go with you!


  14. Dennis White

    The leader of our scuba diving club dove many times looking for the gold with no luck. The original story from the 1980’s tells of a bartender from Washington Island that dove many times also looking for the five chests. Rumors were that the bartender found the gold. As he was pulling the chests up, one of the chests opened and the gold spilled to the bottom but he got four chests.When the person who wrote the story in the eighties tried to find the bartender on Washington Island to confirm the story he was long gone. The story ends with the bartender living in Hawaii and owning his own construction company.


  15. Rum Runner

    Hello Mr. Bennett
    As we know the story of Poverty Island treasure has been around a long time. However I believe it to be factual regardless of what the naysayers say. If your research has been exhaustive then you know that it does exist. The big questions is has anyone else found it and recovered it and kept there mouth shut. The advantage today is the sophisticated equipment available for such endeavor’s it’s available however not inexpensive. Even better than the equipment is luck Mel Fisher had this and it made him very successful where other’s failed. May he rest in peace. I have been fascinated by treasure hunting all my life whether on land or sea it’s addictive. I would love to be there when this particular treasure is found and recovered. Beat of luck be safe and careful.


  16. blackcougar

    Rrrrrrrrrr/shiver me timbers/another treasure story/ I’m hopeing this ones true/all I can say is/PLEASE/PLEASE/BE CAREFUL/I’ve personally saved 5 children from drowning / including myself twice/true story/ MAY GOD BE WITH YOU /and PLEASE donate/some of the findings to /ST. JUDES CHILDRENS HOSPITAL /GOOD LUCK to all Treasure Hunters Everywhere


  17. Jean Anne Arden

    WOW I am speechless !


  18. Capt Ralph

    I’ve heard this story many times. had a conversation with a salvage captain out of green bay many years ago who’s father hunted for this treasure. I’ve always wanted to pull my sidescan around there a bit as it has phenomenal definition. Since I began my latest job I’ve been interested in it more as we have tech available that can discriminate gold returns from other metals.


  19. Richard Bennett

    To answer Joe from the 8-30-16 comment: Your right Joe, that was the point, to be odd. By early 1864 the Union blockade was so strong only one in three blockade runners made it though. So coming in the back door was longer, but had higher odds of succeeding. We are only talking about adding weeks to delivery time. Support of that kind coming through the North was not probable. Covert projects rely on the uncommon.
    Richard Bennett


  20. Joe

    Traveling up the seaway to the Great Lakes seems to me a very odd way to reach Richmond VA.


  21. Noah Lownds

    I live on the garden peninsula a few miles north of poverty island and have always been intrigued by the story. I’m a commercial fishermen and own many boats that could be very useful in the search. Contact me if your interested Mr Bennett.


  22. kenneth feistner

    i beleve the boxis of gold will never be found or brat up for the simpel fakt
    the souls of the sukin ship dont want the trezer found and lotid so the souls
    of that ship will never leat that trezer leave the merky deps of the water
    so i thak people shood stop triying and this is my apinyin


  23. johnathin rose

    i dont beleve this trezer reley egzist’s and i havint senn iny thing to shaing my mind


  24. Where is the $400 million at and Lake Michigan

    Please tell me you half of it


  25. Richard Bennett

    Like all adventures in treasure hunting there is a lack of funding. Because the odds are always against you. Above in this page talked about the sea stories he heard as a young man. They were true, now add the problem finding a few small chests in a mile square area. I remember when we were working on raising the Alvin Clark from Green Bay Wisc.someone took our buoy off. We had dived the Clark a hundred time and still lost it for a while. She was 26 feet wide and 105 feet long and stood 60 feet off the bottom. See the problem? Luck is as important as working capital. Fee will invest in luck. Only the daring apply.


  26. David Bagdon

    I’d love to join Mr Bennett and help with the salvage, I’m. sure some funds would help with equipment. and the expenses needed for this type of endeavor.l would welcome a discussion. with Mr Bennett.


  27. David Bagdon

    I’d love to join Mr Bennett and help , and fund his search.


  28. Anonymous

    I have no problem that you are using the underwater shots, but I would like a ‘photo/video by Richard T. Bennett’ tag.


  29. Lew

    That ‘s interesting. My grandfather spent half of his life after coming home from WWII with a friend in Benzonia, MI. looking for the lost gold of Poverty Island. Spending years building long running, fast boats he could “outrun the storm” in, once getting to the island from Traverse City area. Had some really wonderful stories coming back from trips where he stared into the “Gates of Hell” with “water walls” on both sides and lightning crashing all around. Even went so far as to buy a 2-man submarine in 1964 from a company in Fort Wayne called Nautilette, for the search. Hauling it by boat to the island was to dangerous, making the boat seem like towing a rock, so the lil’ craft never made it down to the bottom. They did manage to find chains diving on a ledge about 80′ down. Having a museum historian carbon-date it to the same era left them eager for the adventure. But alas, life’s priorities and age dissolves their dream. Best wishes to Mr. Bennett and crew. Never forget, mother Michigan can be an unforgiving, raging b*#ch, and they don’t call it Poverty Island for nothing… Safe journeys, Captain.


  30. Bill Purvis

    What about one of those small manned submarines?? How deep is it??


leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.