Appalachian Legend and Lore: Swift’s Silver Mine

Appalachian legend and lore is plentiful. Tales are passed down about people, places, and mysterious things. One of the most widely publicized is that of a lost silver mine. The legend entwines Kentucky and Virginia origins that end with the same tangled mystery.

Lost Silver Mine Origins

It began around 1760, more than two decades before our chunk of North America was deemed the United States. An Englishman named Jonathan Swift was on a mining expedition in the Kentucky Appalachia area. He followed a wounded bear for fur and food. The bear went into a cave in Native terrain containing an abundance of silver ore. Gathering his weight in the precious metal, Swift returned to camp to begin cashing in.

Virginia’s version starts with a settler named Hans G. Frenchman. A local tribe captured the unlucky homesteader. They took him deep into the Appalachia Mountains, where he saw the abundant silver ore in a cave.  Eventually, Frenchman made a daring escape for freedom. He later ran across Jonathan Swift and told his harrowing tale. Swift was mesmerized by the idea of a silver mine so rich in ore. The two men traveled back to the mine, gathering a fortune in silver.

Swift’s Life Journal

Swift spent all his time traveling back and forth to the silver, garnering his fortune. The years were spent with infighting, a revolt among sailors, and vicious attacks by local Natives. All his pursuits and profits over the next nine years were kept in a journal. Each detail of the route, landmarks, and bounty, carefully dictated in his penmanship.

Image by Nyttend

Sometime after that 9th year, Jonathan suffered an extreme bout of illness. The sickness caused permanent loss of vision. The silver hoarder could no longer find his treasure cave, nor any carefully chosen hiding spots.

The only thing remaining was his carefully dictated journal. Swift later gave it to a woman known as the Widow Renfro.  The silver baron was said to have a fondness for her born of many years. The information contained therein was passed down and shared with others via the Renfro descendants.

Finder’s Keeper

An early mapmaker and historian in Kentucky, John Filson, recorded 1000 acres that supposedly contained the Swift mine in a treasury warrant of 1788.  That began getting attention, and people started to search for the lost silver horde.

In 1886, Harper’s Magazine, a renowned publication during the mid to late 1800s, stated:

John Swift said he made silver in large quantities, burying some $30,000 and crowns on a large creek. Another $15,000 was a little way off, near some trees, which were duly marked’, a price of $6000 close by the fork of a white oak, and $3000 in the rocks of a rock house. All of which, in the light of these notes, it is allowed anyone who will to hunt for.

The gist is finder’s keeper. Treasure hunters that put forth the effort to find the silver can keep it. Sounds fair, right?

Appalachian Legends Live On

Swift’s silver mine has been a mystery for centuries. The possibility of riches has seen many a treasure-seeking expedition throughout parts of Virginia and Kentucky. Decades from now, dreamy-eyed adventurers with high hopes will still be spelunking for silver, hoping to find what Swift lost.  If you happen to be one, we wish you the greatest success!  

Nothing can compare to a tale woven by a good storyteller. Appalachian legend and lore is chronicled by some of the best. A few details may be questionable after centuries of retelling. Still, all hillbilly lore is based on a little truth. That being said, there is likely a version of Swift’s silver mine just waiting to be rediscovered.

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