In November 1998, self-styled archaeologist and "rut-nut" Jerry Freeman made an astonishing discovery in a Panamint Mountain cave above Death Valley, Calif. Two years earlier, Freeman had led five adventurers on a 32-day, 330-mile trek that attempted to trace the trail of the "Death Valley Forty-Niners." The gold-rushers had left their guide, Jefferson Hunt, a Mormon Battalion veteran, behind on the Spanish Trail in November 1849 to find a mythical shortcut to the gold fields.
What they found instead was Death Valley. Freeman wanted to find their trail. In pursuit of that goal, Freeman crossed 100 miles of the Nevada Test Site without Air Force permission and may have secretly entered the military's mysterious "Area 51."
Later, Freeman tried to find the trail the "Jayhawker" company had used to escape Death Valley in January 1850. Setting out due west from Pinto Peak, he followed the route John Southworth had proposed in 1978.
Near Jayhawker Canyon, Freeman claimed he found an ox shoe, a significant discovery in itself. As he looked around, he spotted a cave on a nearby mountainside. Investigating further, he discovered an old trunk.
"When I opened the chest, it popped," he said. What he found included seven gold coins, jewelry, books, pictures, a canteen, a flintlock pistol with a holster, powder horns, a property manifest, a doll, children's shoes and a letter from William Robinson, who escaped Death Valley but died after drinking too much water.
"I was just blown away," Freeman maintained. "Nothing prepared me for this."
His actions soon disproved Freeman's claim to be an archaeologist. Instead of reporting the find to the National Park Service, he carted away the trunk. After the story broke on New Year's Day, he appeared on "Good Morning America" to tout his amazing discovery.
Naturally, the Park Service had a few questions and, on the advice of a friend, Freeman surrendered the trunk.
"The artifacts, if they can be authenticated, could represent a unique opportunity to learn more about the people who took such pains to cross the desert in search of gold during the 49er period," said Superintendent Richard Martin. "But I want to emphasize that historical artifacts belong to the public and should not be removed from the park."
Within three weeks, the Park Service had proved that the trunk was a fraud. The date on an 1853 coin had been clumsily altered. The bottom of a bowl had 20th century adhesive from a price sticker. Two photos were tintypes, a process that did not exist in 1849. The park announced it would "determine what, if any, other actions will be taken relative to this find."
The government never filed any legal charges, and Freeman died last March. Freeman went to his grave believing the trunk and its contents were authentic. Despite his highly questionable actions, he seems to have been a victim rather than a perpetrator of the hoax.
"I will go to my grave believing William Robinson left his things in the desert so long ago," Freeman said before he died. "But my reputation as an archeologist and Death Valley historian is in ruins."
Leroy Johnson, the granddaddy of Death Valley historians, believes someone stashed "the bunk trunk" in the late 1970s.
The forgery was complex and sophisticated, but it wasn't nearly so complex as the past. One inconsistency would have revealed it to be a hoax, and it didn't fool the experts. History, like the truth, is impossible to fake.
Will Bagley is a Utah author and historian.