Is a cache of looted gold and silver worth millions buried in Arizona’s Skeleton Canyon?

It began with an ambush …

Gunmen shot every one of the smugglers

CASE DETAILS

Along Arizona’s eastern border is a jagged ravine called Skeleton Canyon. More than a 100 years ago, a gang of Mexican smugglers were ambushed and robbed within its steep, canyon walls. Some say the take from that robbery was buried in this area, an undiscovered treasure worth millions.

A treasure supposedly worth millions

Treasure hunters have searched for years in Skeleton Canyon. They’ve turned up bleached bones and old Mexican coins, but no treasure. Is the treasure real? It depends on who you ask. Treasure hunter Fern Hamill said he has no doubts:

“It’s a known fact that it’s a real treasure. This is one of the treasures that’s absolutely ‘real’ real.”

But Robert Palmquist, an Arizona Historian, has voiced a different view:

“No, I don’t believe that there is a Skeleton Canyon treasure waiting out there to be found.” 

The legend of the Skeleton Canyon treasure starts in a small Mexican village. Jim Hughes, a member of Arizona’s infamous Curly Bill Brocious Gang, learned that Mexican bandits had looted the town of Monterey, Mexico. They were planning to smuggle the fortune into the United States through Skeleton Canyon.

Skeleton Canyon … scene of the crime

Hunter Pritchard, director of a treasure hunting museum, speculated on the booty’s worth:

“The reports that I read, in the myriad of books and treasure magazines as far back as 1964, reported the treasure to be worth anywhere from 2.5 million dollars all the way, and I’ve seen reports of it being worth up to 8 million dollars.”

According to Hunter, Hughes rode back to Arizona and made plans with Curley Bill Brocius to ambush the Mexican gang:

“The Estrada gang had come out of Mexico, through Sonora, and were going through, what was later to become known as Skeleton Canyon. The outlaws shot the Mexicans off their mounts, and that resulted in the contraband being scattered all over the canyon.  And in order to stop the mules from scatterin and taking the loot with them, the Curly Bill Brocius gang were shooting the mules.”

Modern treasure hunters use choppers

The outlaws now had their treasure, but without mules, they had no way of moving it out of the canyon. So part of the loot was divided up on the spot. The rest was buried, to be picked up later. But two members of the gang had other plans, according to Hunter Pritchard:

“Zwing Hunt and Billy Grounds were friends and they decided that while the rest of the gang was out in the local bars spending their money, they would double-cross the gang and come back into the canyon. According to legend, they were able to find a Mexican teamster, talked him into bringing his team and his horses into Skeleton Canyon and removing the treasure, and, of course, he was later killed because they wanted to keep the new hiding places a secret. It’s very likely that the treasure is still buried within the vicinity of Skeleton Canyon, probably no more than thirty miles away.”

Zwing Hunt and Billy Grounds hid in a desert cave where they lived for close to four months. During this period, Billy Grounds wrote a number of letters to his sister, Maggie, in San Antonio. Billy wanted her to know where the treasure was hidden in case anything happened to him. Billy would venture out once a week to give the letters to a passing stagecoach. Treasure hunter Fern Hamill claims he’s seen the nine letters:

“One of the letters he was writing to his sister, he said there’s a cave at the mouth of the canyon.  I found that cave, and it goes back 80 feet and we even dug in the cave and found old ropes that were buried in there. And one of the things in the letter, it said, from our lookout you can see the turf growing back over where we buried the treasure at, down in the valley. I have found all the clues in the letters, every one of them.  When I once found the right place to look, why everything fit, and everything is there, so I know the treasure is, I’m near where it’s at. It’s there.”

Historian Robert Palmquist doubts the letters were legitimate:

“Billy Grounds, who was supposed to have written the letters, was a 19-year old Texas cowboy rustler type. It’s unlikely to me that he would have been writing home detailed letters about ‘Hey, we robbed these Mexicans and buried this huge treasure.  Here’s how to find it.’”

But Fern said he found evidence in the cave that proves the letters are real:

“Maggie was Billy Grounds’ sister, and she and a man had spent two years living in a cave out there, looking for this treasure. And we found this vase in a cave, it says ‘Maggie’ on it, ‘1885, World’s Fair.’ So I know that was Billy Grounds’ sister that was there looking for this treasure.”

A Sheriff’s posse finally cornered Billy Grounds and Zwing Hunt. During the shootout, Billy was killed and Zwing was seriously injured. As the story goes, after his capture, Zwing revealed the secret location of the treasure to his uncle. His uncle then drew up a detailed map.

Robert Palmquist doesn’t buy it:

“It seems to me that it’s another typical treasure hunting yarn. We never get to see the map, we never get to examine it for its genuineness or see if it matches up with any handwriting samples we might have.”

Fern Hamill said that he’s seen the map that was made by Zwing Hunt’s uncle:

“The map shows the canyon and it shows where the cave is, everything matches. But on account of the earthquake in 1886, I think the treasure is around twenty feet deep. Part of the mountain caved off on it.”

Is there really a treasure buried in Skeleton Canyon? Or is it just another tall tale from the days of the Old West?

According to Hunter Pritchard, the story is at least plausible:

“I think the Skeleton Canyon treasure is a very plausible story from the standpoint that every time it would rain somebody’s skull would show up or another coin would become evident.  And compared to a lot of other stories, it’s got a lot more plausibility than, I would say, the Lost Dutchman Mine, for instance.”

Historian Robert Palmquist has voiced his doubts:

“It is possible that there’s a Skeleton Canyon treasure out there to be found somewhere.  But the initial report given in the local press indicates  that there was a very small amount of money taken, which would have been spent very, very quickly. I don’t think there was a treasure, given historical sources, to find.”

As for Fern Hamill:

“When I find the treasure I’ll stop looking for it. Because I know it’s real. This treasure is real and I know I found the right place, where it’s at.”


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

 

36 Comments

  1. Doyle

    If someone found the gold and silver I’m sure they would remain anonymous in order to gain any wealth from the find.. 1) It’s stolen – it would be quickly confiscated by the FBI. 2) It’s on Federal land, and belongs the federal government. 3) There would be a tremendous amount of tax you would have to pay. .4) Our government would find some way, some how to take the gold and silver away from you.

    Reply

  2. Anonymous

    When we found him, he was dehydrated and I’m not sure how true his rambling story was, but this is what I remember most. He was talking about finding a small cave in a creek bed in Pine canyon, made it seem like it was lived in by the illegal who found it years ago, apparently the guy was forced to stay in the cave for awhile because he was sick. In this little cave there is supposed to be a small table, chair, and little bed. But what thru me most is when he said he was being chased by Indians who he said live in the area. His story was a bit bizarre, but I’ve heard all kinds of stories about the Skeleton canyon area, I’m just glad he wasn’t hurt.

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  3. Anonymous

    Kit, nice work saving that lost hiker, I know that terrain is pretty rough this time of year. Did he happen to talk about the written directions or where in Pine canyon he was looking? I’m curious to know what was said in the written directions, I’ve heard so many stories and am looking to piece it together.

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  4. Anonymous

    Marc, I’ve made 17 trips over about 25 years 1,000 miles one way. You should check out the
    Pioneer’s Library in Tucson. They also have a treasure map to the Lost Skeleton Canyon Treasure, that describes the treasure. I.E, the 2,974.5 kilos of smelted but unrefined gold bullion. Sam

    Reply

  5. Anonymous

    The treasure is 2,974.5 kilos of smelted but unrefined gold bullion. 90 bars @ 33.05 kilos ea.
    Sam Peppiatt

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  6. juan from tucson

    Please be careful in this area. Rattlesnakes are not the danger, drug smugglers are.
    Great stories here in southern az about lost treasure. Iron door mine, Huachuca canyon lost treasure, etc.
    Makes for an exciting vacation hunting treasure, but the dangers are from south of the border.

    Reply

  7. Kelly Brown

    Well I think the problem is perceiving that the information available literal. the story has been regurgitated retold so many times there is no telling what all is fact and what all this fiction. they probably lost far more of them than most people can imagine due to the mules running off.as far as Billy grounds and Swing Hunt robbing the tombstone Milling Company does make one wonder as to WHY? None the less it’s and interesting story. Geronimo tells a very simular story with less exaggeration and fanfare so I would belive the event took place. I was recently taken to this area and did a survey. We did locate two 2’x2′ gold and silver signatures at 4′ deep approximately 1,000′ from the 10′ cascade or drop. But the conductive values were too low to be considered to be processed metals. But did have a fair division of a plus 20. Processed silver typically will give a +30 and gold a +40 so I called it a natural pocket because iron magnetite was associated with it. however while driving back home just happened to listen to The Autobiography of Geronimo describe the robbery in skeleton Canyon from his perspective and the understanding that the head of it. so that makes me feel the story is legitimate

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  8. Pedro

    My family and I used to take day trips into skeleton canyon when I was a kid. We’d take short hikes and picnic by Devils Kitchin. I remember cooking ribeyes over an open fire and enjoying the scenery. It’s a beautiful area, now that I’m older and know the history of the Chiricahua Indians I’d like to go back and hike it again, maybe even camp in the area.

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  9. SCApache

    This is interesting to know of this lost treasure. I took a drive to see the monument for the first time ever, and would have loved to see where Geronimo surrendered, if ranchers live there, wish they would open it up to those who would like to see the actual place. Looked from a distance from the monument, does look rough that way but with horses or four-wheels I am sure you can get there. And true on some the ghost stories about them being protected by apaches that have passed on.

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  10. Latoya Hubbard

    This old Wild West story is REAL ! I believe that the pioneers that hide the bars of gold are still in tacked right where they left it centurys ago. (Through) I will rely heavily upon my dreams to lead me there. Be more than fair to share with me 1 bar, as a gratitude for aid in this endeavor. Do not reveal to any race, or their may be trouble. Sir, and somebody has to tell me a Wild, Wild, West Story ! Respectfully yours, LaToya Hubbard

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  11. Chuck Ehyee

    My wife and I did some camping in cave creek over the weekend. We ended up at the Rodeo Tavern for a few drinks, couldn’t help but overhear a couple of guys taking about some hidden silver in the canyon. They had some maps drawn out and were looking for the easiest way into the area. It was exciting listening to them chat about the area and the hope of finding the silver. This sight has intrigued both my wife and I. We too will be in search of the silver!

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  12. Samuel

    So I just came back from week of searching. I contacted some locals and they gave me some insight on where to go. Lots of walking and I came across many of the landmarks that were shared in the directions and stories. There is a lot of trash left by UDAs so if you’re planning on going be careful and pack water. Unfortunately I came up empty handed.

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  13. Grandpa Hamill's oldest granddaughter

    Oh How I miss you Grandpa Hamill. I will keep my promise to you and will head out that way sometime in February. Thank you for handing me down the map and a very vivid location. I remember going out in that area with you when I was just a little girl and we found some old gold coins. I still have them locked up and safe plan on handing them down to my girls when they are old enough. Also found some real old glass bottles out in that area too. But in the last few years it really has changed out there and has gotten a lot worse to hike.

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  14. Kit

    I was out there looking for a missing person last month, sister hadn’t heard from her brother for a few days. Parked his car in Apache and left on foot, was looking for some Silver bricks hidden in a den somewhere in Pine Canyon. He ended up getting lost and dehydrated, says he’s going back as soon as he gets time off at work. He didn’t have a map, only written directions from a guy from Mexico who heard the story from an uncle who was lost crossing illegally years ago.

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  15. Douglas Resident

    Any one from the area actively hunting for this treasure? Where can I get a copy of said map and letter?

    Reply

  16. Bob

    Snakes are pretty bad right now, I recommend taking gators and snake repellant. As far as the road goes, the only way in is through gate-key access. It’s to dangerous to hike in that terrain right now, way to hot. Unless you have a good lead on the whereabouts of the treasure, take lots of water.

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  17. Sammy

    Thanks Bob. I think I might take a trip out there soon, just a little afraid of the rattle snakes. I’ve been across the road to Horseshoe before and had a close call. Can the public access devils kitchen?

    Reply

  18. Bob Vance

    Sam I’d recommend heading towards Devils Kitchen and work the creek beds, I found some coins back in that area. I found a few coins with LM labeled on them.

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  19. Solider of Fortune

    Great story on the Treasure of Skeleton Canyon, sounds like a fun adventure. Does anyone know the combination to the lock on the gate? Only way in seems to be on foot.

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  20. Anonymous

    large amount of gold was stolen to Jose maria Martinez from cinco minas mexico some coins maybe have the inscription LM or HCM

    Reply

  21. Sammy

    I heard they got some rain out there recently. I wonder it now would be a good time to take a metal detector and see what might come up. Anyone have thoughts on where to start?

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  22. Samuel

    Such history in S. AZ! I think it’s amazing that so many people are tied to knowing where the treasure “truly is” yet each story claims it’s in a different area. I guess that’s why people call it treasure hunting.

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  23. Desert Rat

    LOL yea its out there Kewl thing is I grew up in the area. Have a copy of the map and stop to laugh every time the story changed over the years. Seems some haven’t done much research before making up a new version. Nice that I got to speak to people who lived here in the 1800’s I do know where places are others cant even find I also know why they are called what they are much like Davis Mountain. I have personally seen found and know where 75% of the land marks are at. And yes I have a copy of the real hand drawn map and letter written not by the outlaws but by the lady who worked in the jail right before they were Hung to Mail home. This has been in the family for years and years, and match’s the real history recorded in courthouse’s. First you must know where they were Hung to know which way they went. None were hung in AZ. or Tombstone in fact they never set foot in Portal AZ or Tombstone HAHAHAHA. The east foothills of Rodeo NM was about as close as they got to Portal AZ in there final days.

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    • Bob clark

      I have a very very old hand-drawn map measures about an inch and a quarter wide by 2 1/2 inches tall it mentions Davis mountain and on the back it says March 14, 1852 from point marked square to point circle s to circle m at a compass crossing you will find the contints of this map. B.B.J. S+S If this fits with your information perhaps we could team up

      Reply

    • Kelly Brown

      Your post is a little confusing, Hung? who was Hung? the letters were hung? or a person was hung? Have you found the stone with the two crosses? I just recently have been introduced to this story by an old timer who has chased it for over 25 years. I didn’t really believe that it was true until I listened to an audio on Geronimo’s autobiography and Geronimo tells basically the same story but not as grandiose. I really don’t know much about this story but familiar with treachery and greed in human nature I would assume Zwing and Billy had divided up the main treasure at some point in time and each had their own personal cache apart from what may have still been from the mail loot. Nonetheless I think that it is possible the Zwing had his letters and maps telling about his personal cache so likewise with Billy. My old timer friend was focusing on the description of the springs. After him sharing what he has learned I am assuming there probably isn’t any large cache still out there. Given the story some of the loot was lost by the fleeing mules and then the gang members took what they could carry, then Zwing & Billy carted off what was left to bury, Then at sometime Zwing and Billy reburied their own personal cache.

      Reply

  24. Rick

    If it is out there and you find it, then what? Who can cash it in?

    Reply

  25. Treasure hunter

    Has anyone truly gone out there? How did you gain access?

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  26. Wyatt

    It’s still out there

    Reply

  27. Cicada

    Due to American gringo greed I must stay ananymous … my grandfather knows where’s this treasure although their not silver coins but silver chunks more like pieces of silver worth millions.. Around 8 tons

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  28. Glen S. Steelman

    My partner and I have made many trips to Skeleton Canyon area and have read all the stories about the so called treasure. I personally don’t think if there is a treasure it’s not in
    Skeleton Canyon it’s north 45 miles around Portal AZ. Read the history about the area and Galeyville where the cowboys hung out. Then read the book ‘Coor’s and Jack. Over the hill my a*#… There is a lot of fiction but some truths too…

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  29. NIck meyer

    i’d love to like find the gold and put it in a museum

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  30. Marc F.

    What is the longest that someone has been out there looking for this treasure? Outside of this worth being a lot of money this is another piece of Wild West history and even more linked to the lore of Tombstone due to some of the character’s involved. I love reading anything I can find on Tombstone and have been there a few times. I would love to be able to go back in time to 1880’s Southeast Arizona and be apart of that time in America West history….Do you have anything else that I can read?

    Reply

  31. Brian Massey

    If there is something left out there in Skeleton Canyon it has probably been moved around by water run off flooding the valleys whenever it rains. The elements of nature and earthquakes will move it around and destroy its contents but I think it has either been found by now or relocated by all the elements out there.

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  32. John Forrey

    If Zwing and Billy had a fortune buried in Skeleton Canyon, why were they robbing the Tombstone Mining and Milling Company???

    It doesn’t add up.

    Reply