Few things stir the imag­i­na­tion more than tales of lost trea­sure and inde­scrib­able quan­ti­ties of gold, sil­ver, or rare jew­els.  This helps explain why Jonathan Swift’s lost sil­ver mines still excite trea­sure hunters in Kentucky today.  Although the leg­end is now more than two cen­turies old, inter­est in the lost mines has bare­ly dimmed over time.  Scores of adven­tur­ers still active­ly pur­sue the elu­sive prize. 

A short ver­sion of the sto­ry goes this way.  A Jonathan (or John) Swift came into Kentucky with sev­er­al com­pan­ions in 1760—well before Daniel Boone—and dis­cov­ered a num­ber of rich sil­ver mines.  They car­ried loads of sil­ver back to Virginia, return­ing peri­od­i­cal­ly for more.  They set up fur­naces to smelt the met­al and form it into sil­ver bars and coins.  Years lat­er, Swift, who had gone blind, was unable to find his mines.  There are many, many vari­a­tions on the basic story. 

A rendering of one of the purported maps of Jonathan Swift. Click to enlarge. (Image by Joe Nickel)
A ren­der­ing of one of the pur­port­ed maps of Jonathan Swift. Click to enlarge. (Image by Joe Nickel)

Supposed copies of Swift’s jour­nal and maps have been in cir­cu­la­tion for years.  The jour­nal gives detailed but prac­ti­cal­ly use­less direc­tions for find­ing the mines and furnaces:

“The fur­nace that I built is on the left hand side of a long rocky branch that heads south­west and flows north­east in a very remote place in the west.  There is a very large rock­house that faces the east, a hun­dred yards above the rock­house the fur­nace is in.  You can stand at the fur­nace and fac­ing the east you can see two mon­u­ment rocks—one 25 feet high and one 15 feet high.”

Versions of Swift’s map, such as the one pic­tured here, are sim­i­lar­ly unhelpful.

In spite of geol­o­gists’ claims that large sil­ver deposits do not occur in Kentucky, strong inter­est in the sub­ject per­sists to this day.  While research­ing this arti­cle, I did a Google search for “Swift’s sil­ver mine” that returned near­ly 700,000 hits.  “Swift Silver Mine” even has a Facebook page.  You can find mod­ern-day trea­sure hunters post­ing all over the Internet.

One of the most sur­pris­ing find­ings to me was how ear­ly the search for Swift’s mines began.  Companies of men from cen­tral Kentucky were going out on orga­nized hunts before we achieved state­hood.  In February 1792, Col. James Harrod, founder of Kentucky’s first per­ma­nent set­tle­ment, joined a group look­ing for the sil­ver mines.  Harrod did not return and was nev­er heard from again.  (His wife accused James Bridges of mur­der­ing him.)

Rev. John Dabney Shane inter­viewed many of the old cen­tral Kentucky pio­neers in the 1840s.  One of them told Shane that Capt. Billy Bush knew Swift per­son­al­ly and had Swift’s confidence. 

“Bush was the prin­ci­pal one to get out Swift’s fam­i­ly [to Kentucky].  That was after Swift had gone blind.  He with James Young, James Bridges, and Michael Stoner were the orig­i­nal par­ty, each to share equal­ly.  These were the first per­sons to go after Swift had revealed the par­tic­u­lars to them.  Each was sworn not to dis­close the direc­tions while he lived.”

Billy Bush con­tin­ued his pur­suit of the mines into his old age.  Writing about her great-uncle, Julia Ann Tevis stat­ed, “He spent his lat­er years in the vision­ary pur­suit of sil­ver mines, which he nev­er found.  Like the mirage of the desert they elud­ed his grasp, for­ev­er and for­ev­er van­ish­ing as the spot was neared.”

Many of the pio­neers inter­viewed by Reverend Shane told of their own adven­tures or spoke of oth­ers who had searched for the lost mines.  The list of names in these accounts reads like a Who’s Who of ear­ly fam­i­lies in Clark County:

William Bush
Samuel Tribble
James Wade
Septimus Scholl
William Risk
Jesse Daniel
William Calmes
Nancy Goff
Samuel Gibson
Richard French
William Barrow

Thomas Burrus
John Martin
Peter Daniel
William Eubank
Jacob Embree
Maples Hardwick
John Johnson
Thomas Lackey
Aaron Crosthwaite
James Jackson

William Hanks
Micajah Clark
Martin Johnston
William McMillan
John Bush
John Bruner
Elijah Crosthwaite
Zachariah Field
James McMillan
John McClure

The pio­neers also spoke of cer­tain Shawnee Indians who, on sev­er­al occa­sions, were said to have passed through the coun­ty into the knobs of present-day Powell County and returned with bags of sil­ver.  Several enter­pris­ing souls in the Indian Old Fields area cooked up var­i­ous means to bilk investors by claim­ing they had found the Indians’ source of sil­ver ore.  One such scheme involved drop­ping a piece of ore into a small forge that had been lib­er­al­ly salt­ed with sil­ver dollars.

*   *   *

Nationally-known his­to­ry detec­tive and skep­tic researcher, Joe Nickell of Wolfe County, inves­ti­gat­ed these leg­ends.  He claims there is no cred­i­ble evi­dence that Swift’s sil­ver mines ever exist­ed.  Nickell sug­gests that, ini­tial­ly, it was a hoax per­pe­trat­ed by John Filson to pro­mote his land sales.  According to Nickell, the first his­tor­i­cal record of Swift with a “sil­ver mine” may be Filson’s 1788 land claim (referred to as an “entry”) in Fayette County:

“Robert Breckenridge and John Filson as Tenants in Common Enters 1000 acres of land…about Sixty or Seventy miles North Eastwardly from Martins Cabbins in pow­ells Valley to Include a sil­ver mine which was Improved about 17 years ago by a Certain man named Swift.  At said mine the said Swift Reports he has extract­ed from the oar a Considerable quan­ti­ty of Silver, some of which he made into Dollars and left at or near the mine, togeth­er with the apper­a­tus for mak­ing the same.”

This entry was made at a time when Filson was being harassed by cred­i­tors.  He dis­ap­peared lat­er that year while try­ing to estab­lish a town at present-day Cincinnati.  After Filson’s death, Nickell points to anoth­er scoundrel, Eli Cleveland, who com­posed his own ver­sion of this fic­tion to spring on an unsus­pect­ing public:

“April 1791.  Eli Cleveland and John Morton enters 1483 acres of land…on a branch of Red River to Include an Old Camp in the Center where there is some old troughs at said Camp by the branch side.  The said Camp is a place dif­fi­cult of access Supposed to be Swift’s Old Camp and oth­ers includ­ing a mine said to be occu­pied for­mer­ly by said Swift and others.”

Soon after this, oth­er swindlers joined in the game.  For exam­ple, an illic­it trade devel­oped sell­ing “true copies” of Swift’s jour­nals and maps.

Neither his­tor­i­cal evi­dence nor geol­o­gists’ expert opin­ions has man­aged to stop the search for the lost mines or the out­pour­ing of books on the sub­ject.  The Red River Gorge remains a prime loca­tion for today’s trea­sure hunters.  Landmarks in Wolfe County are named Silvermine Arch and Swift Camp Creek (where Swift sup­pos­ed­ly got hurt and lay sick for a time).  Campton has an annu­al Swift Silver Mine Festival on Labor Day week­end.  Not to be out­done, there are enthu­si­asts out there tout­ing the case for the lost mines being locat­ed in Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia or Alabama.

Sources

Thomas D. Clark, The Kentucky (Lexington, KY, 1942), pp. 30–41; Charles Kerr, edi­tor, History of Kentucky, Vol. 1 (Chicago, IL, 1922), pp. 110–133; Joe Nickell, “Uncovered—The Fabulous Silver Mines of Swift and Filson,” Filson Club History Quarterly (1980) 54:325; Lincoln County Entry Book 2:299; Warren H. Anderson, Rocks and Minerals of Kentucky (Lexington, KY, 1994), p. 50; Robert H. Ruchhoft, Kentucky’s Land of the Arches (Cincinnati, OH, 1976), p. 20; Michael S. Steely, Swift’s Silver Mines and Related Appalachian Treasures (Johnson City, TN, 1995), p. viii; Julia Ann Tevis, Sixty Years in a School-Room, (1878), p. 289; Harry G. Enoch, Captain Billy Bush and the Bush Settlement (Winchester, KY, 2015), pp. 117–122; Draper MSS 11CC 53, 89–90, 98, 12CC 41, 43–44, 125, 203, 211; Clark County Chronicles, Winchester Sun, April 10, 1924; Swift’s Map was tak­en from Joe Nickell’s arti­cle in Filson Club History Quarterly, October 1980.

  • Harry is a Mt. Sterling native who has lived in Clark County since1999. He has a pas­sion for the past and has researched and writ­ten exten­sive­ly about the his­to­ry of this area.