DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, California (AP) -- An archaeologist's search of a cave yielded a wooden chest filled with gold and silver coins that may have been hidden 149 years ago during an ill-fated Gold Rush expedition across Death Valley.
Archaeologist Jerry Freeman uncovered the treasure in November as he recreated the steps of a group known as The Lost Pioneers of 1849. He and four others retraced the entire journey in December.
"I was just blown away," Freeman said Monday. "Nothing prepared me for this."
The chest was propped up on boulders and a board but remained hidden, and was in mint condition. The find is worth an estimated $500,000, said Freeman, a 56-year-old semi-retired substitute high school teacher.
The National Park Service is examining the find to determine if it is authentic but has not raised any questions so far.
With the coins were well-worn baby shoes, photographs and a letter documenting the wagon train trek of '49er William Robinson, who was among some 100 men, children and women seeking the gold-laden foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The group wound up in the merciless California desert.
The letter was tucked inside a small hymnal.
"My Dear Edwin," Robinson wrote. "Knowed, now we should have gone arownd.... Ifen I don't raturn by end of fifty I wont never come."
Robinson died 26 days later on January 28, 1850. According to journals, Robinson drank too much cold water at the first spring the party came to at what is known today as Barrel Springs near Palmdale. He lay down for a nap and never awakened.
The group, well-known to historians, was originally from the Midwest. The pioneers started out from Salt Lake City in October 1849, on an ill-conceived attempt to skirt the southern end of the Sierra Nevada, and ended up crossing Death Valley.
Most of the rest made it to what is now Valencia, in Los Angeles County, some 300 miles southwest of their destination. Freeman said he believes 13 died on the trek.
The team found a manifest of the trunk's contents dated January 2, 1850, along with nearly 80 pieces of currency, including $5 and $10 gold pieces and a number of silver dollars. None of the money appears to have dates after 1849, Freeman said.
There was also a holstered pistol, a wooden powderhorn, a locket adorned with pearls and china bowls. A knitted shawl covered it all.
Freeman said he hopes to donate the find to a museum.