The Legend of Jonathon Swift's Silver Mines

By Ron Elliot


Despite the fact that the expression "they’s gold in them thar hills," has its origin far west of the Commonwealth, mid-eighteenth century residents of Virginia and North Carolina may have gazed to the west and said it, too. In the 250 or so years since Europeans came here, no gold has surfaced in our state, but did you know that silver has? Well, maybe.

The tales of Swift’s Lost Silver Mines are the most enduring of all Kentucky stories. Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, James Harrod and the other pioneers are mere Johnny-come-latelies relative to the John Swift who -- according to the story -- mined, smelted and coined pure silver from the eastern Kentucky hills as early as 1760. Early accounts indicate that every Kentucky pioneer settler believed in Swift’s mines, and give some detail of the countless hours spent searching for hidden treasure. Every twenty years or so, a tale of a Bell County farmer plowing up a lump of silver or a Harlan County spelunker finding a cache of silver coins is reported, but none of them has withstood the test of time.

Facts concerning Swift’s Silver Mines are few and far between and just enough to add a dash of plausibility to the myths. In the 1740's, there was, in fact, a man named John Swift living in Alexandria, Virginia. The man had evidently been a seafarer in his younger days. By 1750, Mr. Swift began trading with the Shawnee in the Ohio valley, and may have had an Indian wife. Here the stories begin to vary. Either the Shawnee knew of silver deposits and mined them for their jewelry, or Swift stumbled across a vein of silver, or another white man found the ore and told Swift about it, take your pick. At any rate, by 1760, Swift, with a few others, was mining silver and, as there were no mints in this country, producing his own coins. On annual trips back to Virginia, they stashed silver bars and coins at various locations with the intent of recovering them when they retired from the business. After ten years or so, the men had all the riches they felt they would ever use, so Swift took what he needed and returned to Virginia.

Late 1700’s court records show that a man named Swift was tried (either in Virginia or North Carolina) on charges of "counterfeiting" British currency. As there was no established mint in the United States, the only test for coins was the purity of the silver. After a silversmith testified that Swift’s coins contained purer silver than the genuine article, he was acquitted.

Two other "facts" are in order before we press on with the story. First, there is no documentary record that Swift was ever in Kentucky. Secondly, and more significantly, during an 1854 geological survey, an old explorer led Professor D. D. Owen to the site of Swift’s silver mine. Owen examined the "kidney shaped mass of dark grey argillaceous iron-stone" and found that it contained, "some accidental minerals sparingly disseminated, such as sulphuret of zinc and lead."

So there the facts end and the legends begin. According to one tale, about 1790, Swift along with men named Munday, Jefferson and others, made a final trip to recover their stashed treasures. Despite Swift’s failing eyesight, the men located all the caches. All good stories must have an element of greed, so after the goods were found, Swift murdered his companions and made his way into east Tennessee. Another version has it that Swift was in Tennessee on the way back to his mines in Kentucky. At any rate, according to Tennessee historian John Haywood, Swift ended up at Bean’s Station in east Tennessee.

What would this story be without a tinge of sex? At Bean’s Station, Swift lived with a Mrs. Renfro, and, in return for her kindnesses, gave her his journal, which details the locations of his smelting furnaces, mines and caches. The journals do not indicate what became of Swift’s Shawnee wife. In true Long John Silver fashion, however, "X" marks the spot on some of the maps!

Where, you may well ask, does the journal locate the silver mines? "On Clear Creek (in present day Bell County) are two old furnaces about half way between the head and the mouth of the creek….they got the ore from a cave about three miles from the place where the furnaces stood." More specifically, the journal records that, "The richest ore is to be found in latitude 37 degrees 56 minutes. The ore vein of little value is in Latitude of 38 degrees, 2 minutes north." If you’re ready to strike out with pick and shovel, that describes a site near where Morgan, Elliott and Lawrence counties meet.

With the journals, the plot thickens. Just as one would expect in such a tale, there are various versions of Swift’s journal in circulation, and each of them specifies a slightly different location. In 1986, one collector said he was in possession of 28 "original" maps and 35 different manuscript copies of Swift’s journal.

All the versions are consistent on one paragraph, however, and it became "fact" when it was reprinted in Collins’ History of Kentucky published in 1874. In it, Swift records, "On the 1st of Sept, 1769, we left between 22,0000 and 30,000 dollars and crowns on a large creek, running near a south course. Close to the spot we marked our names … on a beech tree. No great distance from this place we left $15,000 of the same kind, marking three or four trees with marks. Not far from these, we left the prize, near a forked white oak, and about three feet underground, and laid two long stones across it, marking several stones close about. At the forks of Sandy, close by the fork is a small rock, has a spring in one end of it. Between it and a small branch, we hid a prize under the ground; it was valued at $6,000. We likewise left $3,000 buried in the rocks of the rock house." That description has had explorers searching everywhere from Bell County to Carter County for more than 200 years!

After locating Swift’s mines in Josh Bell County, Collins’ History then states, "Several years ago, a couple of Indians, from the far west, visited Carter County, and acted in such a manner as to excite the attention of the citizens. They remained for a considerable time, and were continually wandering over the mountains and making minute examinations of the country along the small streams. When about to leave, they told an old gentleman with whom they staid (sic) that they were in search of a silver mine which the traditions of their tribe located in that section of Kentucky; but they were unable to find it. Owing to the changed condition of the country." Alas.

One of the more intriguing legends stems from a version of the journal in which Swift states that the treasure was hidden in a,"Great cavern of the Shawnese" and that before they left, they "blocked both ends of the cavern so as to make it impossible of discovery." So, if you find a place where the ground rings hollow, dig. That just might be the lost mine.

One bit of folklore contents that the search for Swift’s lost mine is what brought Daniel Boone to Kentucky while another accuses early historian John Filson of manufacturing copies of Swift’s journal to finance his trips. A more likely version lays the same accusation at John Swift’s feet, and local stories abound almost everywhere, not only in Kentucky, but also Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Before you pack your pick and shovel and gather a grubstake, be advised that any geologist will tell you that there is no silver in any of those states.

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