One of the most enduring stories in Appalachian folklore is the legend of John Swift’s silver mine and lost treasure. Wolfe County and the area around Natural Bridge have been rumored to be likely spots for the lost mine. The Kentucky Life crew went to Swift Creek in the Red River Gorge to visit with historian Ed Henson, author of the novel “Swift,” to learn more about the tale.
“I’m certain it’s the oldest legend in Kentucky—the oldest recorded legend,” said Henson.
The legend is that a retired shipping company man named John Swift found a treasure of silver west of the Allegheny Mountains. He claimed that he operated a mine from 1761-1769.
“During that time, he was counterfeiting English crowns,” Henson said. “The Revolution was building up in the United States. So he claimed he was making crowns out of his anger or resentment toward the British king who controlled the colonies.”
The legend goes that he buried large amounts of silver in the area. According to legend, Swift fell on hard times when he was imprisoned in Britain for speaking up for the colonies. When he finally got out of prison and came back to the United States for the silver, the story goes, “he was blind and couldn’t find it—he had written down some cryptic notes on how to get to the mine, but he never could find it,” Henson said.
Swift’s journal—which some believe was faked in order to draw tourists—has been used for more than 200 years by treasure hunters. Among those said to have searched for the mine was James Harrod, founder of Harrodsburg, who disappeared in 1792 and was never found. Some believe he died searching for silver.
Henson’s father worked for the U.S. Forest Service and knew the Red River Gorge area well. He spent years helping people locate landmarks mentioned in Swift’s journal.
Henson said his novel is based on all the theories about the lost mine. “The legend of John Swift, it’s just a beautiful story. … The idea that people still search for it, that it’s been around since (Daniel) Boone came on the scene, I think that to me is the most fascinating part of it.”
Henson has never searched for the treasure himself, but he respects the dream of those who do. “To my knowledge no one’s found the treasure yet,” he said. “I’m okay with that. I hope the story goes on many lifetimes into the future.”