Jan 15, 2020
The alluring glimmer of gold, silver, and a life free of financial worry have been the driving forces behind treasure seekers for centuries. Following are some of the most exciting—and often dangerous—treasure hunting endeavors from history and modern day.
Raiders of the high seas. Perhaps the most notorious treasure hunters ever known were the pirates of yore. With dreams of a life of luxury and ease, many seafaring men tried their hand at piracy only to meet their demise by disease, injury, or the depths of the wild Caribbean. According to Forbes, however, some of these daring men reaped the benefits of this perilous lifestyle, landing them on the list of “Top-Earning Pirates.” Black Sam, or Samuel Bellamy, amassed a total of $120 million with his pillaging of the Whydah Gally in 1717, earning him that top spot as the world’s richest pirate. Unfortunately, his wealth was short-lived as he was swallowed up by the ocean in a storm on his way back to New England less than two months later. Other pirates such as Black Bart and John Bowen also boasted of great riches during their careers but, unfortunately, either died painful deaths or squandered their loot on booze and women. Such was the life of a pirate.
49ers. In 1848, the discovery of gold in the hills of California sparked the legendary California Gold Rush. By 1849, tens of thousands of prospectors had arrived in California with high hopes and a life of wealth and luxury in their sights. The conditions in which these fortune seekers worked, however, were anything but luxurious, and very few saw their dreams come to fruition. In the Library of Congress is a preserved letter written by a Mr. Sheldon Shufelt to his cousin, documenting his journey to the gold-laden hills of California and his experience as one of the many “49ers” in search of the glinting, yellow metal. “Many, very many, that come here meet with bad success & thousands will leave their bones here,” Shufelt wrote. “Others will lose their health, contract diseases that they will carry to their graves with them. Some will have to beg their way home, & probably one half that come here will never make enough to carry them back. But this does not alter the fact about the gold being plenty here, but shows what a poor frail being man is, how liable to disappointments, disease & death.” On his way home, Shufelt, himself, died of a tropical disease he contracted while held for ransom in Panama by Spanish bandits.
Today’s miners. Modern times have not seen the assuagement of man’s hunger for gold. Today, the gold industry thrives, and mining technology has improved to meet the demand of gold buyers world-wide. Still, even modern day mining contains its fair share of perils. In South Africa, the Mponeng mine is a gold-infused treasure trove and, spanning the length of ten Empire State buildings in depth, one of the deepest gold mines on Earth. Every day, miners are lowered down into the deep abyss of Mponeng where they work long hours and risk their lives to produce the world’s most coveted mineral. Nick Watt with ABC News writes, “Our insatiable desire for gold is pushing the South African miners deeper underground than man has ever gone before.” While the number of mining deaths has greatly decreased since earlier mining endeavors, the dangers of a miner’s life still exist. Poisonous gas and rock slides are among some of the many dangers a miner faces every day.
An archaeologist’s nightmare. The pirates of olden times plundered unsuspecting sailors atop the open seas, but modern day gold seekers take to the bottom for their desired fortunes. Treasure hunters with diving equipment: the bane of marine archaeologists’ existence as they often damage historical artifacts and deprive museums of valuable relics. Nevertheless, fortune-hunting adventurers like Captain Robert Mayne tirelessly search for beckoning, ocean floor caches—sometimes spending a lifetime in pursuit.
Bering Sea miners. Risking more than a lifetime lost to the hunt, Bering Sea gold miners face the looming approach of injury and even death as they take to the frigid waters of Alaska. Gold lay at the bottom, and these gold-hungry divers risk everything to obtain it. In one episode of the Discovery Channel’s “Bering Sea Gold: Under the Ice,” Zeke Tenhoff experienced a close call when he became disoriented and trapped beneath a thick layer of ice resting on the surface of the water. “At first I wondered why a sane person would ever do something so dangerous and potentially lethal,” said one of the show’s less experienced divers, Emily Reidel in an interview with Fox News. “I really had to question whether I was ready to face death and if I could get beyond my fear of drowning.” But like any other mortal suffering from gold fever, the gold miners of the Bering Sea persist with endurance in the treacherous endeavor.
From pirates to gold miners, the appetite for treasure has propelled many dreamers into the discovery—or pillage—of a lifetime. Some do it professionally. Some do it for pure thrill. But all are in it for the gold.