A search for treasured old friends


G. Sam Piatt - PDT Columnist



I have many failures; a few achievements.

Today I’m kicking myself for a sad failure: failure to keep in touch with old friends.

It had been two years since I had seen John Byrd. A phone call failed to produce an answer and so I had made up my mind to drive the 40 miles to his isolated Carter County home on Cedar Run, located a few miles southwest of Carter City. We would set on his high side porch. We would whittle and gossip and watch the deer and the wild turkeys in the meadow.

And talk about silver – the color of moonbeams, and the stuff dreams are made of.

At a book signing May 12 at the Jesse Stuart Foundation, a talk with one of the other authors, Marsha Walker, revealed that she had a friend who was a friend of John Byrd’s.

It also revealed that John had died about a year ago. Apparently he had been working under one of those old vehicles of his when an aneurysm burst and killed him.

John was a firm believer in the John Swift Silver Mine, and spent his adult life searching for it. The search was in vain, but he never gave up on eventually finding it.

A SECRET HUNT

I hooked up with John and his treasure-hunting crew in the early 1980s while working as a reporter for the Ashland Daily Independent.

They were armed with what they believed to be an authentic copy of the journal Swift kept when he and his companions were allegedly mining and smelting rich veins of silver somewhere in eastern Kentucky during the 1760s.

They didn’t mind having a newspaper story about their efforts, but they didn’t want this particular place we were headed for revealed.

So I spent the last 45 minutes of our drive across the back roads of eastern Kentucky in the back seat, blindfolded. Once we parked, I was led, by a treasure hunter on either side of me, still blindfolded, for another 20 minutes through what seemed to be deep woods, up a ravine, and along a flat.

Once the blindfold was removed, I was standing among some huge boulders scattered at the base of a cliff. On the side of one boulder were mysterious carvings that appeared to be centuries old: a turkey foot, an arrow pointing ahead, the initials JS, and a date, 1767.

We forged ahead in the direction of the arrow and around the base of the cliff until we came to a tunnel leading in under the cliff. The mouth was nearly obscured by overgrown vegetation. Bending at the waist, we went single file into the man-made shaft, which was about five feet in diameter. It turned left and right and ended about 75 yards into the mountain.

They were excited about having found so many of the curious marks and directions which Swift had posted in the journal to mark where rich lodes of minted coins were hidden. They had probably discovered more of these signs than anyone else had found in the 200-plus years men and women have sought the treasure.

“I believe where we were that day was where Swift and his men mined a vein of almost pure silver,” John said later.

Something was mined from that shaft, for sure, and there is no record of anyone ever extracting iron ore, coal, saltpetre or any other mineral from that area of Menifee County, which Byrd finally revealed to me was where we were on the day of the blindfolded hunt.

GAYSON LAKE

Some sources name the Little Sandy River as a place where one of Swift’s silver caches is hidden. A few years later, this treasure-hunting group, going into the headwaters of Grayson Lake during the fall drawdown, followed signs and carvings on rocks similar to those described in Swift’s journal. They led them to a rock house (a recess under a cliff) where they found the remains of an ancient charcoal-fired smelting furnace.

It’s a generally accepted historical fact that there was a Jonathan Swift, who was a sailor with an early background in mining. He came to Alexandria, Va., in the mid-1700s. Early records in Alexandria reveal that a Jonathan Swift was tried in that city in the late 1700s on charges of counterfeiting English currency. A silversmith who testified in the trial said Swift’s coins contained a purer silver than the genuine article.

Swift went blind in his later years, the legend has it, and was unable to locate the places where he had secreted the coinage away in the rugged mountains.

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G. Sam Piatt

PDT Columnist

Reach G. SAM PIATT at gsamwriter@twc.com or (606) 932-3619.

Reach G. SAM PIATT at gsamwriter@twc.com or (606) 932-3619.