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Close up view of an Aztec Calendar

The legend of Montezuma's lost Aztec treasure

The location has been the cause of debate throughout the centuries

Image: Shutterstock

A mysterious, ancient civilisation, an exotic hoard of Aztec gold, and a centuries-old curse. When it comes to famous lost riches, the legend of Montezuma’s treasure has it all. For 500 years, the treasure, which is said to be worth billions in today’s currency, has remained elusive. Has that dampened the spirits of modern treasure hunters? Not one bit!

The hunt, it seems, is still very much on, but before we discover where gold-seeking spades are breaking ground in the 21st century, let us venture back to the origins of this tale and uncover the bloody history of the fabled lost treasure.

The year was 1519 and Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, had landed on the shores of what is now Mexico. The annals of history tell us this was a pivotal moment in the history of the Americas as it marked the beginning of the end for one of the continent's greatest empires – the Aztecs.

Leading his small army of soldiers inland, Cortés began making alliances with various indigenous people, including the Tlaxcalteca tribe, a long-time enemy of the Aztecs. It wasn’t long before Cortés found himself standing on the main causeway leading into the island city of Tenochtitlán, the capital city of the Aztecs that lay in the centre of Lake Texcoco.

The Aztec Empire had ruled over Central Mexico since the early 15th century and was made up of a triple alliance between three city-states – Tenochtitlán, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan. It’s believed around six million people fell under the domain of the triple alliance. The man who ruled over the Empire was Montezuma II, the ninth Aztec emperor.

From his palace in Tenochtitlán, Montezuma had conducted an aggressive expansionist programme since coming to power in 1502. The Aztec Empire grew in size, power, and wealth during his reign. Montezuma transformed the already magnificent city of Tenochtitlán into a cultural wonder, adding a zoo, botanic gardens, and even a library to its already impressive display of pyramids, temples, and plazas.

So, when the Spanish arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlán, they entered the realm of an empire at its peak. Tenochtitlán was insatiably curious about these European visitors and greeted them with open arms, exchanging gifts of gold and silver on the causeway. It was one of the most critical meetings in the history of the Americas, as after this moment everything changed.

It gets a little bit murky from this point in regards to exact details. Most evidence of what happened next was documented by none other than Cortés himself, writing over a year later to the Spanish King. Modern historians have cast a great deal of doubt over the accuracy of Cortés’ account, which they believe heavily slanted the narrative in favour of the Spanish.

If Cortés is to be trusted, Montezuma saw the Spanish as walking gods, fulfilling a long-held Aztec prophecy that a mighty foreign army would one day come and subjugate them. Cortés even quoted Montezuma as saying that he was only keeping the Aztec throne warm for the Spanish King. After surrendering, he invited the Spanish in, where they’d remain for the next six months.

In reality, the belief that the Spanish were gods and Montezuma’s surrender are likely fabrications on behalf of Cortés. However, Montezuma did invite the Spanish in, probably out of curiosity to learn more about them, an action he’d later greatly regret.

In the coming months, the Spanish got a taste for Aztec gold and tensions between the locals and their foreign guests became strained. Eventually, things came to a head one night in May 1520 when Cortés was out of the city. During the festival of Toxcatl when the people of Tenochtitlán honoured the god Tezcatlipoca, a massacre of heinous proportions took place.

Whilst Aztec noblemen and warriors celebrated in the Great Temple, Spanish soldiers locked them in and murderously descended upon the unarmed revellers, massacring them in their hundreds. The Spanish claimed to be saving innocent people from a human sacrifice, whereas the Aztecs argued it was out of sheer greed after the Spanish saw the gold on display during the festival.

In the mayhem that ensued, the Aztec population rose up against their foreign guests. The Spanish seized Montezuma, held him captive, and hunkered down holding a position against the besieging Aztecs. Cortés hastily returned but it was too late. The Spanish position in Tenochtitlán was untenable and in early July 1520, they looked to make their escape in the dead of the night.

Said to be clutching every piece of gold, silver, and gemstone they could get their hands on, the Spanish headed for one of the causeways. They didn’t get far before the alarm was raised and in the ensuing chaos, Cortés and his army of 500 men were nearly entirely wiped out. Montezuma was killed that night, most likely by the Spanish but others believe he was stoned to death by his own people for allowing the Spanish to ever enter their lands. The night became known as La Noche Triste (‘The Sad Night’).

This is where the legend of Montezuma’s lost treasure takes hold. The fleeing Spanish soldiers were said to have dumped it in the waters surrounding the causeway, lightening their load as they ran for their lives.

Cortés escaped but returned within the year with a new army that successfully ransacked Tenochtitlán, overthrew the new emperor, and brought an end to the great Aztec Empire. As for the fabled lost treasure, Cortés was unable to find it, sparking theories that in the year the Spanish were absent, the Aztecs dredged it from Lake Texcoco and hid it in a secret location.

That location has been the cause of debate throughout the centuries. Some believe Montezuma’s treasure was taken north towards what is now the United States. One legend speaks of a party of Aztecs leaving their city and heading northwards after the Spanish left in 1520. They carried with them all the treasures of the Aztec Empire, including those lost on La Noche Triste as well as the exhumed body of Montezuma.

Upon reaching an unknown location in the United States, they cursed the treasure before burying it. They then put their accompanying slaves to the sword, leaving just the warriors to stand guard over the hoard.

It is believed that indigenous communities in the region saw the Aztec procession including the immense wealth being moved. The rumour was passed down through oral tradition over the centuries.

A variety of locations have been suggested for the whereabouts of the treasure with the most popular being Utah, after a prospector by the name of Freddy Crystal arrived in the small town of Kanab in the early 20th century with stories of Aztec maps and petroglyphs. Those maps, he supposedly found in Mexico, pointed to a location in Utah being the fabled spot.

So far, nothing has been uncovered in the United States. The only piece of gold certifiably identified as being a part of Montezuma’s treasure was found in 1981 in Mexico City by construction workers. Tests in 2019 proved the 1.9kg bar was from the time of Montezuma and it was found on the route Cortés would have taken during La Noche Triste, suggesting that perhaps the treasure never left Mexico after all.

One bar, however, doesn’t constitute a hoard and many treasure hunters will continue the quest hoping to maybe find one of history’s greatest lost mysteries.