Lost Treasure: Montezuma’s Gold

Plundered at the Fall of an Empire, What Happened to the Wealth of the Aztecs?

Michael East
Nov 16, 2020 · 12 min read

Legends of lost Aztec gold are some of the oldest in the Americas, originating at the very point of the Spanish conquest. With superstitions of ancient curses abound, these tales have inspired hundreds of fruitless quests for a wealth that is said to be beyond comprehension. Tainted by the blood of an emperor and the ruins of an empire, this fortune is believed to be worth billions in gold, silver and gems. Inspiring authentic episodes of torture, murder and greed, many think this treasure might now be located in the United States.

Hernán Cortés | Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

It was in 1519 that a force of Spanish conquistadors landed in Mexico. Led by Hernán Cortés, the notorious army consisted of 508 soldiers, 100 sailors, and 14 small cannon. They would write themselves into the annals of history through blood and fire. Seeking to convert the Aztec population to Christianity, the men instead descended into an orgy of violence and greed as they laid waste one of the great and ancient cultures of the Americas.

Cortés soon arrived at the outskirts of the magnificent Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Legends say that the Aztecs believing that the power shown bythe Spanish displayed could only be divine and Cortés was heralded as the returned god Quetzalcoatl, who is said to be fair haired and skinned. However, most historians now believe this is untrue and at least the Aztec nobility were fully aware that Cortés was no God. Despite this, he was offered the symbolic penacho (headdress) of Quetzalcoatl de Tula, entering the city in military file over the flower-covered causeway from Iztapalapa. Th causeway was associated with Quetzalcoatl and the spectacle undoubtedly will have impressed the masses.

The Spaniards were welcomed into the capital and offered gold, emperor Montezuma partially becoming jealous of their reception as he tried to make them go away and keep his power as absolute. Equally, he received word before Cortés that Spanish reinforcements were already on their way, understanding that a reenforced garrison would be harder to defend against from inside the city. Montezuma was undoubtedly fearful for his own life, yet also fearing the potential destruction of his city. The offering merely caused the Spanish to become greedy for more and Cortés soon placed Montezuma under arrest. The Spanish then began to ransack Tenochtitlán.

The treasure was vast. Legend tells of Montezuma possessing two gold collars and a massive alligator’s head of gold. There were birds made of more gold alongside other sculptures, all encrusted with precious gems. There was 100 ounces of loose precious metal, wheels made from both gold and silver in different sizes. However, even the discovery of a treasure vault so vast it took three days to divide the loot wasn’t enough for Cortés and his men.

Throughout the coming months, the population of the capital was put to the torture and sword by the colonialists. Hundreds likely died as they tried to gain new information on the treasures of the Aztec empire. The Spanish were allowed a free hand, partly through reverence for their supposed godhood and partly through the legitimate power of the armaments they welded. Finally, however, the spell was broken. In May of 1520, the conquistadors massacred thousands of Aztec nobility and warriors during the festival of Toxcatl, a religious ceremony in honor of the god Tezcatlipoca. With the civilians locked inside the main temple gates, the slaughter was one of the worst individual incidents of murder in human history. The massacre sparked a rebellion against the authoritarian rule of the conquistadors.

Montezuma as depicted in The discovery and conquest of the new world, 1892, by Irving Washington | Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Besieged by an entire city, the Spanish tried to use Montezuma as a hostage. The gambit failed. The emperor was killed either by the conquistadors or by the Aztec population who had taken to throwing rocks and turned on the cooperating Montezuma, seeing him as a traitor. Realising their occupation of Tenochtitlán was lost, the conquistadors fled. On July 1, 1520, the Spanish made their escape, attempting to do so by stealth. The city was alerted, however, and the Aztecs attacked the fleeing Spanish, forcing them to dump their massive plunder into Lake Texcoco. It is said the bodies of the Spanish were piled so high that you could walk across the canals on their backs. Poetically, some of the Spanish were so greedy to retain their plunder that they refused to discard it, the metal in their pockets sending them to watery graves as they drowned in the canals. The night became known as La Noche Triste (English: The Sad Night).

Where the treasure ended up following that night in Tenochtitlán has remained a mystery, with many believing that it stayed precisely where the conquistadors dropped it, still lying beneath the mud at Lake Texcoco. Many attempts to recover the gold have been made by both private treasure hunters and local authorities, all ending in failure.

In 1521, Cortés returned to the city and retook it, capturing the new emperor Cuauhtémoc and torturing him into revealing where the treasure had gone. Despite holding him over a fire, Cortés couldn’t get him to expose more than a handful of gold, the emperor insisting the wealth was all gone. Torturing anyone who the conquistadors believed had information, they discovered the treasure had allegedly gone north and been deposited in a lake. Cortés is said to have searched 5,000 lakes in his quest to recover the gold, finding nothing. Despite these claims, some believe the Spanish did eventually recover some of the gold from the irrigation channels. These claims suggest that they tried to ship their loot back to Spain and the treasure was probably lost at sea.

In 2019, evidence to support the theory that the gold never left Mexico was revealed when archaeologists confirmed that a gold bar found in 1981 was from Montezuma’s treasure. Discovered by a construction worker in Mexico City, the immense gold bar weighs 4.25 lbs and is believed to have been on the route taken by Cortés out of Tenochtitlán. Researchers at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) analysed the bar. They noted that the composition of the gold matched other relics recovered from Tenochtitlán’s main temple.

Representation of the possible appearance of the city of Tenochtitlan prior to the arrival of the Spanish. | Diego rivera, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

One legend told in Costa Rica says, however, that Aztec high priests knew too well that Cortés and his conquistadors would be back soon enough. Understanding they were outgunned, the priests exhumed the body of Montezuma and began a mass exodus from their capital. 2,000 Aztecs marched north in search of their ancestral home of Aztlan, believing that would be safe from the colonialists. On this journey, they took all the great treasures of the Aztec civilisation. These included those that had been discarded on La Noche Triste. The procession marched north-west until they reached a mountain of seven caves known as Chicomoztoc. The seven caves of the Chicomoztoc represents the birthplace of seven Aztec tribes. Knowing they were safe, the slaves were put to the sword, and the treasure was buried.

Some have theorised that the seven caves are located in seven different locations and link this with Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s quest for the Seven Cities of Gold. This pursuit may indicate the conquistadors never recovered the treasure.

In 1527, the Narváez expedition set out to establish colonies and garrisons in Florida, with the endeavour ending in disaster as only four men survived from an initial number of 600. These four included Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and a slave by the name of Esteban Dorantes. Returning to New Spain, the survivors told tales of great cities and riches, and Coronado set out to find the fabled Seven Cities of Gold that were seemingly located across the New Mexico desert. Coronado discovered that there were no gleaming cities, and there was no gold. However, it is said that indigenous communities in the region still talk of the thousands of strangers carrying an immense wealth long ago.

Pre-Hispanic serpent head in a corner of the Palace of the Counts of Santiago de Calimaya (today the Museum of Mexico City). Historic Center CDMX. | Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata, Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Some believe that this legend indicates the treasure made it’s way out of Mexico entirely, with one claim from the archaeologist Thomas Gann suggesting that the myth of the riches headed north was likely false. Gann believes that instead, it is far more likely to have headed south into Guatemala. However, many believe the legend as it is told and see the treasure as being located in the south-west United States, with the Grand Canyon, Utah and Arizona featuring most prominently in the legends.

It was in 1867 that James White succeeded in passing through the rapids of the Grand Canyon, having strapped himself to a raft of three logs. His desperate journey had been forced upon him after his prospecting party was attacked by natives in western Colorado. After coming ashore at the Mormon farming settlement of Rioville, White remembered having taken shelter in a cavern a week into his ordeal. The inadvertent castaway claimed inside the cavern he had seen golden relics, huge idols and both silver and gemstones in abundance. After his tale became public knowledge, a local journalist showed him pictures of Aztec artefacts, and White confirmed the similarity. While the memory may have been an illusion of a man dying of thirst and hunger, interestingly he claimed to have never seen anything like it before and refused to ever accompany an exhibition to locate the cavern.

The tale would’ve been long forgotten if it hadn’t appeared again in 1902 following another near tragedy. Jake Johnson, a desert prospector, was working alone in the badlands south of St. George, Utah when he broke his leg. Suffering from exposure, Johnson was near death when he was found by members of the local Paiute tribe. Johnson was nursed back to health and one evening when out hunting, he saved the life of a young woman from a mountain lion, becoming like a brother to her warrior companion. One evening, around the campfire, the warrior spoke of a local treasure.

The Little Grand Canyon along the San Rafael River in Castle Country of Utah taken in March of 2004 | Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The native told of how legends of his people spoke of a large party of men who had come that way with slaves and containers full of gold and jewels. The big group entered the Grand Canyon and existed at the south rim without the gold. The slaves were killed, and half the men stayed on guard. Eventually, these Aztecs integrated into the local tribes when their companions failed to return. The location of the gold was still known to the Paiute, and the young warrior stated that it must never be known to outsiders as the legend said that it would spell the end of the Paiute if it were ever lost.

Of course, he then agreed to show Jake Johnson the cave. Johnson told his brother, and both men met with the warrior in September of 1903, an agreement made that they may remove as much treasure as they could carry in exchange for Johnson’s good deed. The men were blindfolded and taken a day south of Pipe Spring before going the rest of the way on foot. Entering some volcanic caves, the party descended and joined an underground cavern. Inside was riches beyond compare, just as James White had declared 40 years prior. Returning home, the men sold their treasure for $15,000, $450,000 in today’s currency.

Like Cortés before them, the men were not satisfied with their haul and began to look for the cave without the help of the Paiute, intent on taking everything. Struggling, they published their story in the Salt Lake Mining Review and caused a gold rush. It was all in vain, however, and neither the gold nor the cavern was ever found. Since that time, the Hoover Dam has completely changed the geography of the area. Many believe that the cavern, if it existed, is likely under the waters of Lake Mead.

Aerial view of Lake Mead in Clark, Nevada | GillyBerlin, Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

Those who favour a Utah resting place highlight the legendary 1920 hunt of Freddy Crystal, a miner and treasure hunter. Crystal was allegedly in Mexico City and searching an old church when he discovered a document. Written by a Spanish monk, the manuscript dated back to the time of the fall of Tenochtitlán and contained a map that had seemingly been obtained from one of the Aztec porters by way of torture. Conveniently, the document revealed the Spanish had failed to get the treasure as they were unfamiliar with the geography of the United States.

Crystal, however, knew the area well, having spent time in Utah inspecting petroglyphs on the walls of the canyons there. He had already believed the treasure was in Utah long before travelling to Mexico and finding the map through his amazingly good fortune. The treasure seeker made his way to Johnson Canyon and found more petroglyphs in the area, eventually coming across a set of ancient steps at the White Mountain. Making his way up the steps, Crystal found a sealed tunnel which he broke into, discovering blue limestone blocks that were not native to the region. He made his way to the local town of Kenab and recruited assistance in an excavation, prompting much of the population to aid his effort. Such was the secrecy of the endeavour, the town council banned the word “treasure” from being said in public.

Travelling 20 miles with tools, food and water, a significant effort was undertaken to dig out the gold. The frenzy led to much of the mountain being pockmarked by shafts, tunnels and piles of spoils, covering the area in tons of rock, dirt and detritus. After three years of excavations, no gold was found. Some believe that the treasure had, in fact, been located at the base of the White Mountain all along. Consumed by his failure, Freddy Crystal seemingly vanished into thin air.

The story of Freddy Crystal and the Utah Aztec gold rush came to national prominence in October of 1948 when Maurine Whipple wrote a notable article on the affair that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, quickly spreading to other media outlets. Most retellings of the tale are based on the original article by Whipple, with embellishments such as booby traps and relics.

White Mountain, Black Rock Desert, Utah | James St. John, Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

In his 1982 book Lost Mines and Buried Treasures Along the Old Frontier, the historian and treasure hunter John Mitchell revealed that during the Mexican-American War, an aristocrat by the name of Don Joaquin had Apache slaves dig at the Sierra Estrellas, a mountain south-west of Phoenix, Arizona. Before Don Joaquin could make off with the treasure, an intervention by the US Army led to a revolt amongst the slaves, and the Mexican contingent were forced to rebury the prize at Montezuma’s Head. One man survived to tell the tale and attempted to recover the treasure in the 1880s, failing as the area was still controlled by the Apache.

There are many other locations suggested for the treasure, with Casa Grande, and Montezuma Castle in Arizona being mentioned alongside locations as far apart as the Superstition Mountain Range in San Diego, Del Rio in Texas and even Illinois and Kentucky.

While we can never discount men’s ability to tell a tall tale and tendency to embellish the past and their own histories, the commonality of the stories of the Aztec exodus north is undoubtedly intriguing. Yet, stories and legends are all they genuinely amount to, with no verifiable proof that a single nugget of Montezuma’s gold ever left Mexico. On the contrary, archaeologists have found concrete evidence that at least part of the treasure was still to be located in Mexico City. But one bar doesn’t make a hoard, and there are still billions in lost gold unaccounted for. Whether this wealth was reclaimed by the Aztecs, lying undisturbed for centuries, or plundered like so much besides, the legend of Montezuma’s lost gold is one that will thrill readers and treasure seekers alike for many centuries to come. Yet, it comes with the solemn lesson that greed is always timeconsuming, foolhardy and often deadly.

I am a freelance long-form writer who writes on true crime, politics, history and more. I am entirely self-funded and if you liked this article, please consider a donation via Patreon as a token of appreciation or directly via PayPal. You can join my mailing list for the latest articles and also like my Facebook page. I’m also active on Twitter. I can be contacted for projects through my website MichaelEastWriter.com where you’ll also find lots more content.

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Michael East

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Freelance writer. Writing on true crime, mysteries, politics, history, and more. | https://linktr.ee/MichaelEast

The Mystery Box

A publication about unsolved mysteries from the deep ocean to space and from antiquity to present day.

Michael East

Written by

Freelance writer. Writing on true crime, mysteries, politics, history, and more. | https://linktr.ee/MichaelEast

The Mystery Box

A publication about unsolved mysteries from the deep ocean to space and from antiquity to present day.

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