Popular TV show tells of Aztec gold in Utah. But how likely is buried treasure, really?

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“Mystery at Blind Frog Ranch’s” Eric Drummond and Charlie Snider watching the chain that is attached to the box, as Duane Ollinger backs up the big CAT to pull it out, photo courtesy of the Discovery Channel

UTAH (ABC4) – Tales of buried treasure have filled our cultural lexicon since the beginning. From El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, to the Knights Templar treasure, to Blackbeard’s pirate treasure, these riches have inspired stories that have been passed down for generations, and subsequently turned into fodder for books, TV shows, and movies.

Now, a new buried treasure – one that is rumored to be located in Utah – has captured public attention. Mystery at Blind Frog Ranch, a Discovery Channel series that is set to debut its second season on Friday, chronicles Duane Ollinger – and his son Chad’s – search for Aztec gold in Utah’s Uinta Basin.

But how likely is it that there are actually riches to be found buried deep in Utah’s soil?

Hard to say, according to local experts.

Richard Paine, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Utah, says large quantities of Aztec gold certainly do exist.

“The Aztecs, when the Spanish arrived, had a lot of gold,” Paine explains. “One of the main, big motivators for the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs was that they were just enthralled by the amount of gold.”

They were so enthralled, Paine says, that they were led to believe many tales of hidden treasure told by various peoples in Mesoamerica – which encapsulates modern day central and southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. Paine isn’t sure exactly how true these stories are, though.

“My personal suspicion is that most of these stories were local people trying to get the Spanish to go someplace else,” he says. “But the idea that there was gold to be captured and hidden away is certainly possible.”  

And according to Gregory Smoak, director at the University of Utah’s American West Center, the Mesoamericans might not have been the only ones contributing to fictional legends. He cites the myth of the Seven Cities of Cibola, which were rumored golden cities that fascinated Spanish conquistadors hoping to follow in the footsteps of Cortés and Pizarro.

“[The Seven Cities of Cibola] is sort of a foundational story of the American Southwest,” Smoak says. “I think it shows this kind of thirst, this idea of wealth out there that drives people to the American Southwest.”

A similar quest for riches might be driving modern-day treasure hunters – like the Ollingers, Smoak hypothesizes.

In his oral history of similar legends, Smoak also references the tales of riches at the Lost Dutchman Mine, a forgotten gold mine rumored to be hidden in the southwestern United States, and Skinwalker Ranch, another ranch in the Uinta Basin that inspired a History Channel series focusing not on riches, but rather on paranormal activity.

And paranormal activity is certainly a factor at Blind Frog Ranch, too.

“I’m a pilot, so I know what different airplanes are. I know the sound of jets and the color,” Chad Ollinger says. “You see every single night, not exaggerating, something zipping across the sky, coming in close, blinking, super bright lights, like a flash camera, and then doing it a few times, and then just leaving or making these little jagged lines,”

So maybe there are UFOs, but as far as gold, experts are unsure that it’s in Utah.

“In the 16th century, and really through the Spanish American war, the Spanish controlled much of what today is the American Southwest,” Paine says. “Utah was part of Mexico and New Mexico and California and so even though Spanish settlement really didn’t get into Utah very much, it did get into the kind of wider areas.”

But where Smoak and Paine are skeptical, Ollinger remains convinced. He says that, though the show is highly entertaining and full of cinematic twists and turns, the treasure hunt is not fabricated for production value.

“This is a real project,” Ollinger says. “We 100% believe that there is gold in the ground here, and that’s what we’re looking to find.”

So maybe there’s gold in Utah, and maybe it’s buried at Blind Frog Ranch. Or maybe it’s somewhere else. And if the Ollingers don’t find it, maybe some other lucky Utahn will.

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