In February 1519 a fleet of eleven Spanish ships landed on the coast of Mexico near the modern day port of Vera Cruz. Onboard was a force of nearly six hundred Conquistadors; led by the infamous Hernán Cortés, they had come to Mexico to conquer the land and convert its people to Christianity in the name of the Holy Roman Church… And if they all got filthy rich in the process — that was okay too!
When news of the strange, white-skinned men reached the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, he must have been reminded of the prophecy of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec sun god, which stated that one day the god would return to the land of the Aztec to claim his throne – and he would be known by his shining hair and white skin.
Montezuma dispatched servants bearing rich gifts for the newly arrived gods in hopes that they would go away and leave him in charge. But Montezuma’s plan backfired – when Cortés saw the precious objects, crafted from gold and silver, he knew he’d come to the right place – he immediately set his sights on the Aztec’s capitol city of Tenochtitlán, (present day Mexico City).
On November 18, 1519, Cortés entered the Aztec capital and was received as a god at a lavish ceremony in Montezuma’s palace.
Montezuma was use to being at the top of the food-chain, so after the ceremony he once again tried to persuade Cortés and his men to leave the city by offering more gifts of gold and silver, but this just intensified the Spaniards lust for gold. Cortés placed Montezuma under house arrest and then, along with about 600 native Tlaxcalan allies, the Spaniards set up base in one of the Aztec’s many ceremonial temples.
Gathered through years of brutal conquests over other Mesoamerican civilizations, Montezuma’s treasury was vast. According to legend his horde included: two gold collars, a huge alligator’s head of gold, one hundred ounces of gold, birds and other sculptures studded with precious gems, wheels of gold and silver in different sizes and many other priceless objects.
With Montezuma imprisoned the conquistadors went about ransacking his palace where they found a secret vault so full of treasure that it took three days just to divide the spoils. It was enough to make every Spaniard rich beyond his wildest dreams – but still they wanted more…
In the following months Cortés began a bloody campaign of terror. His men terrorized the city, torturing and killing it’s inhabitants in an attempt to obtain even more treasure – including the location of the fabled city of El Dorado.
The Aztecs eventually grew weary of the Spaniard’s tyranny, and over time they began to question Cortés’ divinity as well, so when a group of conquistadors destroyed one of the cities main temples, and slaughtered it’s high priests, things turned against the Spaniards.
The Emperor Montezuma
On June 30, 1520, the Aztec people rose against the Spaniards. Cortés forced the imprisoned Montezuma to appear upon the piazza of his house in an attempt to pacify his subjects. But apparently, the people had had enough of Montezuma as well. The Emperor was stoned to death by his own people.
With their hostage dead, Cortés and his men were forced to flee the city. They retreated amid a full on uprising, attacked from all sides by Aztec spears and stones. As the conquistadors fled the city, they threw down their newly won fortunes, littering the cities’ network of concentric irrigation channels with the treasure they had stolen from Montezuma’s treasury.
Many of Cortés’ men died on that dark and rainy night. It’s said that the bodies of the dead were piled so high in the citie’s canals that one could walk across them, from one side to the next – a grisly bridge of corpses. The night came to be known as La Noche Triste (The Sad Night).
Cortés rebuilt his army and a year later returned to Tenochtitlan. On August 13, 1521, with the help of his Tlaxcalan allies, Cortés took the city back. The new Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc, was captured while fleeing the city and tortured to reveal the locations of the Aztec treasure. But even with his feet held in a fire, the doomed Emperor couldn’t produce more than a canoe full of trinkets. According to Cuauhtémoc, the treasure was forever lost.
In desperation Cortés allowed for the torturing of anybody who he thought might help him discover the location of the treasure, men, women or children.
As the story goes, the only information ever gleaned by torturing these poor people was that the treasure had been taken north and hidden at the bottom of a lake. Cortés would later search approximately 5,000 lakes in the surrounding regions in an effort to find Montezuma’s treasure…
He never did.
Where did Montezuma’s Treasure go?
There are many theories about what happened to Montezuma’s Treasure. Some historians believe that it remains right where it was dropped that fateful night when the Conquistadors fled from Tenochtitlan, buried for all time beneath layers of silt and cement of modern day Mexico city.
Others believe the treasure was retrieved from the irrigation channels by the Spaniards when they took the city back, sent to Spain, then lost at sea when the ship that carried it was sunk by a tropical storm. But surely the most interesting theory involves an incredible journey of Biblical proportion.
There’s a persistent tale handed down by descendants of the Aztecs in Costa Rica – it goes a little something like this:
When Cortés and his soldiers were driven from Tenochtitlan on La Noche Triste, the Aztec high Priests knew it would only be a matter of time before the Spaniards returned. They realize that they could not defend against the conquistador’s superior weapons forever – their civilization was doomed.
The priests dug up the body of their fallen leader, Montezuma, then led a procession of more than 2,000 men on a mass exodus in search a new land to the north, a land that would be safe from the barbaric Spaniards.
The priests took with them the collected treasures of the Aztec empire, tons of gold and silver in the form of sacred religious objects they would need to reestablish their once great civilization.
According to the legend, the treasure-bearing slaves traveled in a northwesterly direction for many moons, and when they came to a mountain on the edge of a desert, the treasure was hidden and the slaves put to death.
There is much disagreement about just how far north the exodus traveled, but certainly the most interesting theory circulating among the treasure hunting community is that the treasure was carried over two thousand miles to southern Utah… Yep, that’s right… Aztec treasure in Utah.
The Strange Story of Freddy Crystal
According to legend, In 1920 Freddy Crystal, a miner and amateur treasure hunter was in Mexico city searching through an old church that had been tagged for demolition when he found a treasure map tucked inside a long forgotten manuscript.
The manuscript, written by a Spanish Friar at the time of the conquest of Tenochtitlan, stated that the map had been drawn using information gained during the torture of one of the original Aztec porters of Montezuma’s treasure, and if followed would lead directly to the cache. According to the manuscript the Spaniards tried for many years to follow the map but were unfamiliar with the territories to the North and eventually gave up in frustration.
Crystal had spent time in Utah several years before trying to decipher Aztec petroglyphs on the canyon walls, so when he saw the old map he realized that some of the landmarks depicted on it were similar to the geography of Southern Utah… or rather, one place in particular that was on the outskirts of a little town by the name of Kanab.
The Treasure Hunt of the Century
Crystal made a bee-line back to Southern Utah where the map lead him to Johnson Canyon. He immediately found signs that he was in the right place, Aztec petroglyphs littered the area and clues on the map eventually directed him to an ancient set of stairs cut directly into the side of White Mountain.
Crystal followed the steps up to a sealed entrance which he broke down revealing a long dark corridor. On both sides of the corridor were ancient statues. Crystal thought he’d hit the jackpot – now he just needed help excavating the plethora of tunnels in the surrounding area; so he headed into the town of Kanab to try and recruit diggers.
The Kanabites were well aware of the Aztec petroglyphs in the area and had heard stories of Montezuma’s Treasure since they were kids, so when Crystal presented his collection of clues it started a veritable gold rush.
Many of the tunnels in Johnson Canyon are still accessible, though the Department of Oil Gas and Mining (OGM) announced recently that they were going to begin back-filling the tunnels. A Utah group called Gold Rush Expeditions is spearheading the drive to keep these historic tunnels open for future generations to explore.
Hundreds of people volunteer for the chance to participate in the greatest treasure hunt of all time. A coalition was organized by the town council in which people could volunteer a certain number of hours per week to the excavation in exchange for a share of the treasure; at one point as many as 75% of the population of Kanab was involved in the treasure hunt.
The excavation went on for almost three years, clearing deadfall after deadfall, finding relics and ancient items, but never the gold. Finally, with the tunnels all reopened and no gold found the townspeople drifted back to their day to day lives and forget about the tunnels up in Johnson canyon.
Some believe the treasure was actually buried at the base of White Mountain, which unfortunately is now buried under tons of rock and dirt from the Crystal excavations.
Other Theories on the Treasure’s Location
There are many other theories about what happened to Montezuma’s Treasure, but none of them are half as fun as the Utah theory:
The Grand Canyon
There are similar legends of Aztec Treasure in the Grand Canyon which you can read all about in this article called The Aztec Treasure Cavern, originally published in Treasure Magazine.
Some believe that when the inhabitants of Tenochtitlán got wind of the Spaniards return, they buried the remains of the city’s treasure in and around Lake Tezcuco to prevent it from falling prey to the gold-crazed Conquistadors. Today, a vast treasure trove may still remain hidden beneath nearly five centuries of mud and sludge on the outskirts of Mexico City, the modern day incarnation of Tenochtitlán. Generations of treasure seekers have sought the lost hoard without success. A former president of Mexico even had the lake bed dredged, but no treasure was found.
According to information first discovered by an archaeologist named Thomas Gann, Montezuma’s treasure was not sent north, but south into the jungles of Guatemala to keep it from the Spanish.
The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine – Arizona
Some believe there’s a link between the Legendary Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine and Montezuma’s Gold. Jacob Waltz, (the Dutchman) found a source of pure, raw gold in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, a location geologists say is devoid of gold deposits. It’s this apparently lack of mineral evidence which has led some researchers to speculate that the Dutchman may have actually stumbled over Montezuma’s fabled Lost Aztec Treasure.