Who Owns Buried Treasure?

In 1894, two boys found a tin can filled with gold coins in an old henhouse, putting in motion a legal quandary—are finders really keepers?

Throughout their childhood, brothers Waldo and Chalmus Danielson burned for justice. In the spring of 1894, in the Rogue Valley of southwestern Oregon, the brothers found a tin can full of gold coins while cleaning out a neighbor’s chicken coop—only to have the neighbors cheat them out of it, they claimed. As teenagers, the boys sued to get the treasure back. Not only did the resulting ruling reject the idea that landowners automatically own any valuables discovered on their property, it established an important and frequently cited legal precedent in American property law: Finders of abandoned valuables may claim right of possession. Not bad for a couple of kids.

The story begins the day W. B. “Dee” Roberts hired Waldo and Chalmus, then ten and eight years old, to clean and remove rubbish from an old chicken coop on the farm that he and his business partner, P. B. O’Neil, owned near Phoenix, Oregon (population about 270). As they worked, the boys made a startling discovery. “I was in the back end of the building, spading through the trash,” Waldo later testified in court, “and the point of the shovel struck something hard.”

Deep under mounds of refuse and soil, Waldo discovered a rusted and sealed half-gallon fruit can. He was about to toss the can into a container with the other trash, but the vessel, which felt unusually heavy, piqued his interest. After lifting the lid with a pickax, he found several tightly packed tobacco sacks, full of five-, ten-, and twenty-dollar US gold pieces.

Chalmus suggested taking the cache home, but his older brother insisted on showing the treasure to Roberts. Perhaps Waldo was proud of the discovery, or maybe he anticipated receiving a big reward in return for his honesty and transparency. Regardless, he and his brother lugged the can over to the family’s porch. “What you got?” asked Roberts. “A can of gold,” the boys replied.

Things escalated quickly. Mary Roberts, Dee’s wife, suddenly appeared and demanded the tin. The boys handed it over, and she shut the front door in their faces. Thirty minutes later, after the Danielson brothers had resumed their work, Dee appeared. He offered them a reward of five cents each (roughly $1.50 today). “We put the money there some time ago,” he said, as the brothers later testified in court, “and were going to buy something with it. Don’t say anything about it, and the Lord will bless you.” The face value of the coins, he added, was over $7,000 (approximately $205,000 today). A few weeks later, the Rogue River Courier reported, each of the boys received from the Robertses a new suit and a repeated warning not to tell anyone about the existence of the gold coins.

Waldo and his younger brother lugged the can over to the Roberts’ family porch, “What you got?” asked Dee Roberts. “A can of gold,” the boys replied.

Concealed stashes like the one found in the chicken coop were not unusual in the late nineteenth century. Banks frequently failed during financial crises—there had been panics in 1837, 1873, and 1893, the year before the boys found the treasure—and depositors could lose everything they had, so many Americans hid money and valuables in or around their homes: in attics and cellars, in secret compartments, or in holes in the ground. Hiding or burying personal savings or treasure was also a way to protect it from robbers or law enforcement, particularly if the goods had been illegally acquired. In addition, a gold rush in Oregon in the 1850s—during which some prospectors made fortunes in the southwestern part of the state—created the possibility that lucky miners who hit pay dirt had hidden their earnings. Decades after the gold rush, when money could be dug right out of the earth, many people in the area still believed that “finders keepers” was the law of the land.

For years, Waldo and Chalmus stewed over the loss of the treasure they had found. Had Dee Roberts told the truth about how the money-filled fruit can made its way into the chicken coop? Was the Roberts family really entitled to keep the whole stash? What would the law say? Members of the Roberts family belonged to the same church as the Danielsons, and even to children, the parsimonious reward and Roberts’s dispensation of the Lord’s blessing in return for their silence must have seemed galling and hypocritical.

Try our new streaming service for free.
No algorithms. Just the best television + film hand-picked from around the globe.

Nine years later, in 1903, Waldo and Chalmus, now 19 and 17—ages at which their accusations would carry credibility—engaged two lawyers and took legal action against the Robertses and their farming partner, P. B. O’Neil. The boys’ mother, Minerva Danielson, agreed to act as a guardian ad litem in a lawsuit in which the brothers claimed rightful possession of the treasure and charged the landowners with wrongfully taking and keeping the money. Newspaper reporters learned of the lawsuit as soon as it was filed and called it the “Tin Can Case.” The dispute took on the flavor of a David and Goliath story, seasoned by the mixed reputation of O’Neil and the Robertses, who, as the Portland newspaper the Morning Oregonian explained, were considered cheapskates by their neighbors, accused of “squeezing the eagle on the dollar a little too tightly to make themselves popular.”

In the spring of 1903, judge Hiero K. Hanna heard the arguments of both sides in the case, called Danielson v. Roberts. Hanna—a native New Yorker who had followed a wagon train to California to prospect for gold but eventually decided to study law—had served on and off as a Jackson County circuit judge since 1880. Waldo, Chalmus, and their advocates argued to the court that the can of gold was abandoned property, that its “finders”—the legal term used in this case and many others—were entitled to possess it, and that Dee and Mary Roberts had fraudulently deprived them of it.

During several days of arguments, the brothers gave nearly identical testimony as to the events of nine years prior, including the assertions that Dee had told them there was over $7,000 worth of gold coins in the can. The Robertses’ lawyers counterargued that there really had been only $1,000 in the can, and that Mary Roberts herself had buried the money in the chicken coop. Pointing out that the plaintiffs, Waldo and Chalmus, could not prove the money was lost, the defense made a motion for a nonsuit, calling for an ending to the proceedings on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Judge Hanna agreed and dismissed the case.

In December 1903, unwilling to let the verdict stand, the Danielsons and their lawyers appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, which soon reversed the nonsuit and sent the case back to Jackson County for trial. In his opinion, Justice Robert Bean noted that the dismissal of the suit had been based on the assumption that a member of the Roberts family had intentionally buried the gold coins in the henhouse. But the court did not believe this assertion; Bean noted the age of the metal container that held the coins and the fact that the henhouse itself was 40 years old. He observed that many owners and tenants had occupied the farm over the previous decades. Most importantly, he also pointed to the common-law principle that if the original owner of lost valuables is not known, the finder of said valuables is entitled to their possession “against all the world except the true owner.”

This principle has roots in legal scholarship going all the way back to 12th-century discussions in English law of the disposition—the legal term for the distribution of money or property—of found treasure. At issue here was who should possess the found treasure. “This case,” says John V. Orth, William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law, “was not about who owned the money,” a person of unknown and probably unknowable identity who left the coins in the henhouse, “but instead, who was entitled to possession of the money, between the boys and the occupant of the land.” Judge Bean declared that as the finders, the brothers deserved a new trial to help determine whether they could keep the fortune, absent the true owner who abandoned it. “If someone came forward later and could prove that he was the person who buried the money, the boys would have to turn it over to him,” Orth explains. “Of course nobody ever did.”

In his Oregon Supreme Court decision, Judge Bean drew on a vast body of earlier cases, both from US history and from English common law, which dealt with often-subtle distinctions between the phrases “lost property” and a “treasure trove.” The concept of “lost property,” Bean wrote, is property found on the surface of the ground that the owner parted from involuntarily. (If you unknowingly drop your wallet in the street, the wallet is lost property.) The phrase “treasure trove,” however, designates money or valuables deliberately hidden for safekeeping and originally owned by people who cannot be traced or tracked; a pirate’s buried treasure would fall into such a category.

Bean cited a case from English law dating back to 1722 in which two parties—a chimney sweep’s son and a goldsmith—claimed possession of a jewel that the boy had found in the road and taken to the goldsmith for identification. (Realizing the boy was not the original owner, the goldsmith tried to claim possession.) Because the boy had been the finder, the court found he had priority in the right of possession over anyone else, except the original owner of the lost jewel, whose identity was unknown and, in this instance, deemed irrelevant. This 1722 case, Armory v. Delamirie, concerned itself with who, of all the claimants, had the best right to possession of the property when the original owner was unknowable.

“If someone came forward later and could prove that he was the person who buried the money, the boys would have to turn it over to him. Of course nobody ever did.”

For centuries, legal disputes in England and the US over the possession of lost property and treasure troves have ruled in favor of the finder. In Bridges v. Hawkesworth (1851), a customer visiting a printing business in the London borough of Westminster found an envelope full of cash on the floor. Since the original owner was unknown, both the customer and the business claimed possession of the money. (The court gave possession to the customer, citing Armory v. Delamirie.) Nearly a century later, in Hannah v. Peel, an English case from 1945, the court gave possession of jewelry found above a window frame in an unoccupied home in Shropshire to the finder, a new tenant, rather than to the homeowner. Similarly, in the American case Erickson v. Sinykin (1947), a man hired to redecorate hotel rooms in Minneapolis found $760 in cash hidden beneath one of the carpets. The hotel owner challenged the decorator’s right to possession, but the court ruled in favor of the finder.

Because of the fine distinction between lost, abandoned, and hidden property, legal experts take vastly different views of cases like these. In Goddard v. Winchell (1892), for instance, when a man leasing an Iowa pasture from its owner saw a meteorite fall from the sky and embed itself in the ground, he dug it up and sold it. The court found that the landowner was the rightful possessor of the meteorite. And in Schley v. Couch (1955), the Supreme Court of Texas ruled that the owner of a residential garage had a greater right to possession of $1,000 in currency buried beneath the structure’s dirt floor than the workman who found it. “I’m a finders keepers guy,” Professor Orth says. “If the finder isn’t trespassing and isn’t employed with instructions to turn over any finds, I’m very much inclined to let the finder keep it until somebody with a better claim comes along.”

In December 1904, a year after the Danielsons brought their appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court, their case returned for another weeklong trial in Judge Hanna’s Jackson County District Court. Though the Robertses stuck to their assertion that they had buried the gold coins in the henhouse during a time of economic uncertainty, the Danielsons continued to argue that they should have possession of the abandoned money, asking for a judgment of the full $7,000 plus interest, bringing the total to about $12,000 ($330,000 today).

Though nine jurors ultimately voted in favor of the brothers’ claim to the money, three sided with the Roberts family, prompting Judge Hanna to order yet another trial to take place the following year. Before that could happen, however, the parties reached a compromise. (Mary Roberts was rumored to have been in poor health and strained by the unsympathetic attention the case brought her and her husband.) O’Neil and the Robertses agreed to pay the Danielsons a settlement of $6,000 plus interest, totaling more than $10,000 ($277,000 today), with each side bearing the sizable cost of its own legal expenses. “While the compromise was unexpected,” a newspaper correspondent explained, “it was apparent that a jury could probably never be gotten together to agree on a decision, and indefinite lawing looked probable.”

The Danielson brothers’ claim to possession of buried treasure was echoed in a 2013 case, when a couple walking their dog found $10 million in gold coins buried on their property in rural Northern California.

Not much is known about what happened to the Robertses and O’Neil after that; their names and biographical details fade from the historical record. The fate of the Danielsons is also somewhat murky: After dividing the proceeds of the settlement, Waldo and Chalmus, by this time 21 and 19 years old respectively, went their separate ways. Waldo married and used his share to buy a part-ownership stake in a foundry in Medford, Oregon. On November 23, 1905, when he was just 22, he was sitting on a wheelbarrow by the front door of the foundry after finishing his day’s work when a pile of bricks rained down on him, knocking him unconscious. He never recovered and died two days later.

What happened to Chalmus’s share is unknown. He remained in the Medford area until about 1914 and eventually moved to Sacramento, California, where he worked as a mechanic. He doesn't appear to have ever married, and he struggled to find employment during the Great Depression, claiming annual earnings of only $400 in 1940 ($7,000 today). In the 1960s, Sacramento city directories listed Chalmus as retired and living alone in an apartment. He died there on May 15, 1970, at the age of 84.

The case that the Waldo and Chalmus set in motion has been cited at least 17 times in legal decisions since 1904. “It’s one of the leading cases on the question of found property,” says Orth, who often calls it to the attention of students in his property-law classes. Danielson v. Roberts was cited in a US federal court decision in 1960, in a case in which a ship’s assistant steward found $3,010 in cash scattered on the floor of one of the boat’s restrooms. He deposited the money with the chief steward, and after three years without a claim, asked for possession of the funds. (A lawsuit was brought after the ship’s owner claimed it as his own; he lost the case.)

The Danielson brothers’ claim to possession of buried treasure was also echoed in a 2013 case, when a couple walking their dog found $10 million in gold coins buried on their property in rural Northern California. It was impossible to know who originally buried the money—the coins all dated from the 19th century—so possession of the treasure went to the couple, though they were also required to pay federal and state income tax on their find, roughly 47 percent of the coins’ worth.

If a legal case like Danielson v. Roberts were tried today, the result could very well go the same way it went in 1904—in favor of the finders. “If the person presently occupying the land hadn’t been there very long and had no plausible explanation of how [the money] got there,” Orth says, “there’s a reasonable chance the boys could win that case again today.” But as the Danielson brothers learned, there’s a difference between winning and thriving; the fantasy of discovering buried money and fighting off adversaries to keep it can ultimately yield to more powerful forces, like the weight of falling bricks or financial bad luck. Treasure seekers should dig deep, but with proper humility.

Share this story