The People Still Searching for Forrest Fenn’s Treasure
The treasure was found by Jack Stuef in June 2020, but for a dedicated community of internet sleuths, the hunt isn’t over
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As she has for eight years, this search season, Cynthia Meachum headed into the woods of Yellowstone National Park to look for the place Santa Fe art dealer Forrest Fenn hid a bronze chest full of gold and jewels over a decade ago. The thing is, by most accounts, the treasure is gone.
“We had such a trust with each other that we could talk about anything,” Meachum said of her friend, who died in September 2020. But for as much time she spent with him, and as much as she knows about the eccentric Fenn, she doesn’t know the place he loved so much that it was where he hid his famous stash. While her chances at fame and fortune are gone, the opportunity to learn more about her late friend keeps Meachum venturing into the woods.
On Reddit, one hunter compiled a spreadsheet of more than 300 email conversations between searchers and Stuef, which grows every day.
On June 6, 2020, Fenn announced his famed chest had been found by “a guy from out east,” who solved a poem in his memoir, Thrill of the Chase, full of clues to locate it. Most media outlets declared the million-dollar hunt over. A slew of lawsuits from people who claimed that they were the rightful owners of the treasures followed. Facing the possibility he’d be outed in court, the real finder, Jack Stuef, a 32-year-old med student from Michigan, opted to come forward via an Outside article, though he would not reveal the exact location where he dug up the chest—only that it was retrieved in Wyoming. With no treasure to find and the winner finally revealed, the vast majority of people once interested in the decade-long story simply stopped caring. What’s a treasure hunt without its treasure?
But a core group of devoted hunters kept searching for the spot the treasure was once buried. Whether driven by a personal connection to Fenn, a desire for closure, or the pure excitement of trying to decipher the poem and explore the woods with their friends, for many searchers, Stuef’s refusal to say where and how he found the chest means the hunt continues.
And the internet sleuths dig deep. Fenn subreddits, YouTube channels, and message boards are still flooded with solves based on emails Stuef sent about search techniques that worked for him. On Reddit, one hunter compiled a spreadsheet of more than 300 email conversations between searchers and Stuef, which grows every day. Another online sleuth built an algorithm that searched the most popular Fenn-based YouTube shows to see if anyone named “Jack” had been mentioned before Stuef’s name was revealed to the public. Using this method, he discovered Stuef had called into and emailed the YouTube show “A Gypsy’s Kiss” under the pseudonym Jack from Philadelphia, which provided even more material to comb through.
Mike and Kristy Cowling, a married couple who run two Fenn-themed YouTube shows and The Hint of Riches (THOR), a popular Fenn message board, say traffic is higher than it’s ever been. When asked whether the solution was worth more than the chest full of gold, Mike Cowling said, “I can’t say it’s more valuable, but I know there are searchers who would pay just as much for the solution.”
While some stick to internet clues, others believe boots-on-the-ground searching is a necessary part of finding the spot. On Medium and in subsequent emails, Stuef explained that Fenn’s original blaze (the final clue marker meant to alert searches that they had found the exact location) had been damaged by a sudden, natural event, which made it hard for him to recognize. Plus, he mentioned, someone created a fake blaze to throw off searchers around 1,000 feet away from the real one.
Clues like these led Meachum and her search partner, a 38-year-old software engineer named Justin Posey, on their annual trip to northwest Wyoming. As they follow trails and wander through the woods, they look for three tangible signs of the treasure’s former location: Fenn’s blaze, a fake blaze, and a divot. But the pair has one special advantage on their side. After reading about ore dogs that helped miners sniff out zinc, copper, and nickel, Posey got an idea. He trained his dog, Tucker, to smell out bronze in search of the treasure. And now, as they search for a divot instead of a chest, he’s relying on Tucker to sniff the soil for any lingering scent.
The abrupt ending to the treasure hunt, and the fact that it came just before Fenn’s death, has led some to believe that their time would be better spent investigating Stuef’s story than where Fenn hid the treasure. Following a crowdsourced professional investigation into whether Stuef’s chest photos were digitally manipulated, Kristy Cowling published a poll on THOR asking if Stuef was the finder. Nearly 30 percent of respondents answered “no” or that Stuef was a “proxy.”
One of the most popular conspiracy theories is that Stuef found the treasure on private property, somewhere tourists aren’t allowed to go, or in Yellowstone National Park, and can’t admit it lest he open himself up to legal questions around who the treasure really belongs to.
The other theory that’s gained the most traction is that Fenn sensed his life was coming to an end, but he didn’t want to burden his family with the hunt, which had stirred up lawsuits, fatal accidents, and even a fear of kidnapping. So, goes the theory, Fenn opted to end the hunt by hiring Stuef, a former journalist with bylines in Buzzfeed, New York Magazine, and The Onion, and tipping him off to the treasure’s location.
In March 2021, Greg Alan, an inventor and Fenn YouTuber who runs the YouTube channel “Treasure Seekers, Brutal Truth,” conducted an in-person investigation to discover whether the Santa Fe office Stuef and Fenn said they’d met in was in fact a legitimate office in Santa Fe. Some people believe the photos of Stuef and Fenn were either Photoshopped or took place in Wyoming. A week later, Alan appeared on the Cowlings’ YouTube show, “Forrest Fenn Treasure Found,” to outline his discoveries. The video, which confirmed that the Santa Fe office was a real office, quickly racked up 14,000 views.
Online conspiracies like Pizzagate and QAnon have gone from message boards to armed men storming pizza shops and government buildings, so there’s a very real fear a searcher might go too far.
Others, like David Woodard, a former law enforcement officer who creates videos under the name “I Solved Forrest Fenn-First Place Thrill of the Chase” believe Stuef’s refusal to explain how he solved the poem stems from not having solved the poem. Woodard believes he followed and discovered Fenn’s blaze in New Mexico, but says he feared the professional ramifications if he was arrested for digging it up on public land. He believes Stuef was told the solve by people Woodard confided in about his own discovery, dug up the chest, and has been lying about it ever since.
As might be expected after years of examining a single poem for hidden messages, many conspiracies are based on a thorough investigation of the available texts. For example, Stuef’s email address to searchers, “firstname.lastname@example.org” anagrams to “Jack hid cache” using a basic A=1, B=2 code. Or that Fenn congratulated “the finder,” but never explicitly congratulated Stuef before he died. The nitpickiest of the nay-sayers will point to Fenn’s statement on dalneitzel.com, a now-closed Fenn-themed blog, that read “the finder understands how important some closure is for many searchers, so today [July 22] he agreed that we should reveal that the treasure was found in Wyoming.” The statement, they say, reads that Fenn said he and Stuef agreed to say it was in Wyoming, not that it actually was.
Online conspiracies like Pizzagate and QAnon have gone from message boards to armed men storming pizza shops and government buildings, so there’s a very real fear a searcher might go too far. Kristy Cowling said she’s had to take down personal information about Stuef and his family from her website. She views her YouTube channel and message board as a method to keep searchers and conspiracy theorists in places that are more positive and closely monitored and moderated than others. Still, she said Stuef told her that he’d have to look over his shoulder for the rest of his life.
Knowing the treasure hunting community well, she agrees “he absolutely will.”
If Stuef won’t reveal where he found the treasure, will the hunt ever end? Kristy Cowling believes at least ten people—lawyers and family members—know the location, so it will come out eventually. But whether motivated by new clues, a personal relationship with Fenn, or the community itself, the searchers who still care aren’t likely to stop looking anytime soon.
“There are people who have devoted the last ten years of their lives to this thing,” Mike Cowling said, “and they’re not going to just let it go.”