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The Truth Behind the Robinson Chest

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* Editors' Follow-up, 8/6/01: Recently our good friend and esteemed author LeRoy Johnson agreed that the time had come to lift the veil of anonymity from the entertaining, albeit now fictional, prose on the origin of the mysterious trunk. Below are LeRoy's words of explaination, but first our thanks to LeRoy for choosing as his medium for mischief:

"I must confess, I did it. In my futile effort to find the hoaxter who planted the trunk, many trail buffs and would-be historians gave me their explanation on how the trunk got in the cave where Jerry Freeman found it (Jerry died of prostate cancer in March). Some even went so far as to suggest space aliens are the culprits. I wove their comments into the spoof story. These "believers" are suffering from the Roswell, New Mexico syndrome, as are those who believe William Robinson left the trunk there in 1850.

There will be people who will not believe I wrote the spoof. For those doubters, look at the first capital letter letter in paragraphs 1,2,3,4 and 5 of the story—LEROY. I had hoped this spoof would flush the hoaxter out of the cholla cactus grove, no luck. I had fun writing it and I hope you had fun reading it.

LeRoy Johnson, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Editor's Note: The following article was submitted by an anonymous donor. cannot verify that it is factual, but persons who have some knowledge of the situation believe that the author is telling a true story. If it is true it would explain a lot of the mysteries away. If it is untrue? It is still a good story. Comments anyone?


When I reached the bottom of the treacherous ridge, I made a small pile of rocks so anyone following me would know I had been there. I was now on a sharp ridge that broke into canyons both right and left.

I hadn’t gone more than a hundred meters when I came upon a rusty ox shoe and an equally rusty knife. This was certainly a godsend because here were the nails I needed to make a temporary repair of my boot. There was no shortage of rocks in the immediate area so I found two that would suffice as an anvil and hammer. This precious find came just in time because I had worn through the lace and my sole was flapping again.

I threw the ox shoe down and continued westerly when it struck me: What the hell was an ox shoe doing here on this remote and forbidding ridge?  Before I could answer my question, I noticed a small cave 50 meters away. The sun was shining directly into it and I could plainly see a box, or what I thought was a box.

By now I was wondering what Smokey and I drank the night before. Was I seeing things?  Assuredly not, because my sole was not flapping. I looked around thinking someone was pulling a prank on me but no one was in sight.

I went to the cave and found the box was a chest that had toppled from its perch of three rocks imbedded in the dusty bottom of the cave. I had to stop and talk to myself for several minutes. Try as I may, I could not convince myself I was seeing things. There at my feet were gold and silver coins, and barely visible under the lid of the chest I could see the top of a porcelain bowl and its broken handle.

I dropped to the ground and picked up one of the gold coins and tried to take a bite thinking it was one of those disgusting American chocolates wrapped in gold foil. It was not chocolate!  My wildest dreams were soon dashed— the chest was not filled with gold and silver coins. I left the coins in place and slowly righted the chest. There was dust on everything and I slowly and meticulously dusted and cleaned every item. I made a complete inventory of the chest’s contents but sad to say I lost it before the end of summer.

A letter and a manifest gave me the identity of the person who cached the chest. Obviously William Robinson thought he would retrieve it some day. At the time I was not well versed in Death Valley history to know who Robinson was. But since the second discovery, made by Mr. Freeman, I have learned a great deal about this man who suffered the same trail that almost took my life.

I knew there was a grand story here and my publisher would advance me a tidy sum for the ensuing book. Obviously no one had stumbled upon the chest since it was cached in January 1850. Had anyone done so, they would have taken the gold and silver coins.

At this point I did something I have never before revealed— I took the gold coins and left the silver and copper coins in the porcelain bowl and carefully placed it in the chest with all the other items.

In a daze that was like a London fog, I flipped a gold coin to decide what canyon to descend. The left canyon (the southern one) won and I continued my trek down it. For some distance the going was easy. Slowly the canyon narrowed and I began to have second thoughts about the coin’s choice.

I was in a dream when again a ghost seemed to awaken me— just in time, for one step more and I would have disappeared into a declivity from which there was no return— a narrow dry fall that was so tortuously twisted I could not see the bottom. By now I was exhausted so I sat down and pondered my choices. I could retreat and try the other canyon, but that might be more treacherous. As I pondered my plight again, I thought I heard voices and there high on the steep hillside far above me I could faintly see a man, or what I thought was a man. He seemed to beckon me.

I did not then, and I do not now believe in the paranormal but even so I decide to follow my vision. Up the steep cliff I clambered and soon found a route to the west that safely took me around the dry falls.

When I reached the canyon bottom I estimated I had only an hour of daylight left so I doubled my pace and just before darkness prevailed, I came in sight of the Towne Pass highway. My luck continued because parked there at the 4000-foot elevation sign along the road was Smokey smoking his pipe.

I don’t know who was the happier. After I gulped down copious amounts of water, he wanted to know all the details of the trip, which I knew I could not relate. To do so would brand me as a quack and a thief. I gave him a step by step summary of the route but I did not tell him why my boot was oddly patched together nor did I tell him about the knife, ox shoe and chest.


I knew I could not continue my trek north through California without a new pair of boots. My luck continued when one of Smokey’s friends offered to take me to Las Vegas, an offer I jumped at. We would spend two night in this sinful city before returning to Death Valley. While there I found a sturdy pair of boots and the cobbler who was willing to take two of the gold coins in exchange for the boots.

That night I realized what I had done. I had compromised one of the most important stories in the annals of Death Valley lore. I had very limited money of my own, certainly not enough to buy the pair of boots I had exchanged the gold coins for. I would have to somehow get the money to buy the boots and buy back the gold coins from the cobbler. My luck the past week and a half had been extremely favorable so I decided to try my hand at the "one armed bandits."  I took all the money I had and went to the first teller and exchanged the 4 American dollars for quarters. I had never gambled so I walked the floor of the casino carefully observing the proper techniques to use.

I soon concluded to be an avid gambler you had to smoke and be grossly overweight— neither of these attributes fit me. Before long I saw a machine that had a strange glow or aura. I went to the machine and nervously placed one quarter in the receptacle and gingerly pulled the handle. A loud bell began to ring and the light on top of the machine began to blink. My first impulse was to run because I was certain I had broken it. Immediately quarters began belching from the machine’s bowls and kept flowing until they spilled on the floor. Within moments a crowd gathered around me and wanted to rub my hand in a foolish attempt to garner some luck.

An employee of the casino soon arrived and told me to clear the machine. I gawked at him and told him I didn’t know what he meant. He smiled, took one of my quarters, put it back in the machine and told me to pull the handle, which I did. The same thing happened again, and again people began rubbing my hands. Another employee arrived, opened the machine, and pulled a couple wires. By now I seemed to be ankle deep in quarters, which pleased me.

Despite encouragement to continue gambling from those surrounding me, I gathered together several hundred dollars of quarters and went to the cobbler hoping to buy back the gold coins but the store was closed. I had exchanged a shinny one-dollar coin, dated 1849 and a five-dollar coin dated 1834 for the boots. I was in a quandary and felt my luck had run out.

Across the street was a pawnshop and I suspected the proprietor might have gold coins. He did. However, the only dollar coin he had was soldered into a necklace and the five-dollar coin he had matched the year of the coin I traded for the boots. After I paid quite a stack of quarters for the two coins, I asked the pawnbroker if he had a torch. He did and he would unsolder the coin from its mounting but first I had to shell our another pile of quarters. After he cooled the coin, I tried to sell him the mounting. He said he didn’t want it and would throw it away for me. I met my ride and we return to Death Valley.

The dollar coin was a poor substitute for the shinny new coin I had traded for the boots. The five-dollar coin was a close match and the date was the same.

About sundown, I was again with Smokey and I told him of my extraordinary experience in gambling. I also told him a lie when I said the mass of quarters that engulfed my feet had allowed me to buy a new pair of boots. I told Smokey I very much wanted to hike another canyon off Pinto Peak so he agreed to drive me to the summit the next morning. We both figured I could make the trip in one day if we got an early start.

We were on the road by 4:00 a.m. and reached the summit by dawn. This time I did not top off my fluid level. I arrived at the cave without incident and opened the chest and began to replace the gold coins. Just at the last moment, I checked the date on the dollar coin and was chagrinned to see "1853" glaring at me.

This would not do so I took my knife and carefully obliterated the "5" and part of the "3" hoping the next lucky person would deduce the coin was struck in 1843.

Again I went through the chest and carefully copied the letter and list of items Robinson had inventoried in 1850. I suspected the strong winds would again topple the chest from its perch so I planned ahead and brought a small bottle of glue for this purpose. After dabbing some glue on the rim of the body of the chest, I closed the lid. Now if winds again toppled the chest from its perch, the contents would not spill on the ground and be blown away. I then took the canyon to the right of the sharp ridge.

Fortunately this canyon was free of major barriers and I was able to circumvent the two dry falls by traversing the right bank of the canyon. "Ghosts did not visit me" during the trek so I concluded this was not the canyon the destitute pioneers used after placing the trunk in the cave.

Smokey was waiting for me when I reached the road. After we parted on the summit, he again got stuck in the mud hole and spent a couple hours extricating the truck.


After Mr. Freeman, I began looking into the background of William Robinson. Seemingly all that was known about him is he died somewhere in the Mojave Desert. I began tracking his roots and I discovered Robinson’s middle name was Byron. This was a significant discovery. One of Robinson’s traveling companions was a man by the name of William B. Roods (some times misspelled Rude or Rudes). Roods inscribed his name and the date 1849 on a large boulder along an Indian trail that joins Jayhawker Canyon with Cottonwood Canyon. Historians have always assumed the "WBR 1849" inscription at Jayhawker Spring was etched by Roods— such is not the case. Robinson is the ’49er who left his calling card at the spring.

Many years have passed since I discovered the trunk and preserved the artifacts from certain destruction by the harsh elements that prevail in the Panamints. I renewed my interest in the Jayhawker’s route with the intention of writing a book. In the course of my research I discovered one book already existed: John Southworth, Death Valley in ’49. I wish this book had been published when I discovered the chest because the chest is the important piece of evidence that validates the route Southworth deduced.

I may return to Pinto Peak and hike the Brier route as delineated in Southworth’s book. Possibly they too left some of their cherished possessions along the trail. If I can find a cooperative ranger to drive me to the summit of Pinto Peak, I will continue my field research.


William Byron Robinson had no descendants because he had not married before joining the rush for gold. He was betrothed to a Lydia Bryant. William had promised to send her money as soon as he struck it rich. She planned to sail to California and William would meet her in San Francisco.

In the course of my research, I discovered descendants of William’s brother who are presently living in Oregon. They confided in me many details and showed me another hand written letter that William had sent to Lydia. This letter was given to Lewis Manly somewhere in the desert. Possibly William had a premonition he would not make it to the gold fields. Manly alludes to this letter but does not specifically mention it in his famous book on the Death Valley ’49ers. The descendants also have the transmittal letter from Lewis Manly, which I saw and read.

Because of promises made to the descendants, I can not reveal further family details. However, I am free to explain some of the additional discrepancies that would-be historians have noted. The two photographs are of William’s brother and the brother’s two daughters. These were taken in San Francisco in the late 1860s. The two porcelain bowls are those of William Robinson’s sister-in-law. They were exchanged for the two bowls that once belonged to Mrs. Brier. These bowls were returned to a descendent of the Brier family and their whereabouts are unknown to the Robinsons.

As to the "grub stake," both Lewis Manly’s letter and Robinson’s letter use the words "grub stake."  Both these letters are on fragile paper, apparently torn from an old book. They have been folded and unfolded many times and are falling apart. I bought for the descendants archive-quality Mylar document holders and the letters are now relatively safe from additional deterioration.

Much more was told to me about William’s life and death that I can not now reveal. I can tell you that Lydia died of a broken heart when she received news of William’s death. She died on October 13, 1850 and on her tomb stone is this inscription: "My heart beats with yours."

I am continuing to work with the descendants and they are now willing to donate their artifacts to a major museum. It may take several years to complete the negotiations. In the meantime, they and I hope the above will put to rest the controversies surrounding the treasure chest that Robinson left in the cave on January 2, 1850.

 I had planned to write a book detailing my discovery. As of now, my attorney and publisher discourage me from doing so. Now that my innocent tampering with the chest is documented, maybe some day I can step forward with all the information surrounding the Robinson Chest.