Mr. John Griffin and the Boston Common Treasure

Detail of 1814 map of Boston Common by John Groves Haley.

As anyone who as ever spent time doing genealogical research can tell you, searching through historical records can oftentimes feel like a little bit of a treasure hunt. When I noticed an unusual headline printed in The Boston Statesman on October 4th, 1852, I found myself immersed in a real-life treasure hunt.1 The article read:

Treasure Buried on Boston Common- A Mr. John Griffin petitioned the city government yesterday for permission to dig a hole on Boston Common six feet in diameter for the purpose of obtaining $1000 which he asserts his father, John Griffin, who served in the war of the Revolution, secreted during the “Troubled Times” preceding the war. Griffin says he is poor and wants the money bad. The petition was referred to the Committee on the Common.

Naturally, I was curious to learn more about this. My next step was to access the minutes of the Boston City Council meeting for 27 Sept 1852, to look for any reference to John Griffin and his petition. In the summary of the meeting, I was able to find evidence that Mr. John Griffin did appear before the council to ask permission to dig up the treasure, however the council deferred their decision to the Common and Malls subcommittee.

I soon discovered that the minutes for the 1852 Common and Malls subcommittee had not survived, and I felt that this might be the end of the story. However, I put a call into The Boston City Archives to see if anything from the petition might be preserved. To my surprise, even though the minutes of the proceedings were gone, John Griffin’s full petition did survive.2

The undersigned respectfully represents that his father John Griffin, who died in Nottingham, New Hampshire in the year 1837, served in the Army in the war of the Revolution, and that prior to his death he informed said petitioner that in the troubled times preceding the war, he had hidden on Boston Common a box containing over $1000; that full directions and measurements from standing monuments were given to said petitioner enabling him at this time to fix accurately upon it, as he believes. The petitioner has no property with which to support a family of a wife and three children and that he desires to declare this property for their benefit. That said spot is not near the base of any tree whose roots might be injured by digging near them, nor is it covered by turf, but that it sits seated in a path on the said Common. Wherefore your said petitioner prays that he may be allowed to dig a hole on the spot…

On the front of the docket there is a note from the chair of the committee indicating that the proposal to allow John Griffin to uncover his father’s buried treasure was rejected.

Seeking to learn more about Mr. John Griffin, I was able to find a John Griffin who was born around 1784 and living in Nottingham, New Hampshire in 1860. He was recorded as a town pauper residing in the Nottingham Town Poor Farm. If this was the same man who petitioned the town court, it appears that he was not able to escape the financial woes he mentioned in 1852.3

By 1870 he was living at the home of his daughter in Orleans County, Vermont.4 We found that John Griffin died on 17 Jul 1872 in Derby, Orleans County, Vermont at the age of 89.5 His death record lists his parents as John and Rebecca Griffin. We also know he had three children, John, William, and Miranda Griffin. This corroborates what we know about the man who petitioned the Boston City Council in 1852. John Griffin is buried in the East Main Street Cemetery in Orleans County, Vermont, taking with him what he believed to be the knowledge and location of buried treasure under Boston Common.



1 Boston Statesman, Saturday October 2nd, 1852, Page 1

2 Petition of John Griffin dated 22 Sept 1852, Boston City Archives.

3 1860 United States Federal Census: Place: Northwood, Rockingham,
New Hampshire; Post Office: Nottingham Roll: M653_678; Page: 38

4 1870 United States Federal Census Place: Newport, Orleans, Vermont;
Roll: M593_1623; Page: 216B

5 Vermont Vital Records, 1720-1908 for John Griffin

About Jonathan Hill

Jonathan Hill is a full-time researcher at NEHGS; he earned his BFA from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jonathan previously served as a board member on the Friends of the Town of Bedford Cemeteries. He has contributed to the Green-Wood Cemetery’s Civil War Project and to many other historical volunteer projects across the country.

10 thoughts on “Mr. John Griffin and the Boston Common Treasure

  1. Ah! but what of his father, the one who buried it. Did he live in Boston, did he serve in the military, why Boston Common? Any recent updates on discovery ….certainly the Commons has been thoroughly explored by shovel or GPR in recent maintenance and renovations?

    1. Hi Janet. So far I have been unable to find much information at the present time on the father John Griffin. The petition states that he died in 1837 in Nottingham NH but at this time I have found no documentation of that in town records. Though that doesn’t mean it isn’t true as many deaths went unrecorded on official documents in rural New Hampshire in the 1830s. As far as military service, there were many men who served in NH and MA during the American Revolution with the name John Griffin. Without any more specifics it’s hard to pinpoint which man is the correct John Griffin. I am going to continue my research in the future and may do an update if I find anything of interest. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Is the Boston Common path layout the same as in 1852? I would think that even a limited GPR search could be challenging (if possible at all), due to the hilly ground which will have been much disturbed even before Mr. Griffin père buried the box, tucked the plan in his back pocket, and took off with his shovel. Even when successful, GPR images are not usually clear enough to reveal details of buried objects, but can indicate areas of soil disturbance. Of that there is plenty! At the time of the Revolution the Common had been in use by colonial settlers for almost 150 years, and by Native Americans for millennia before that.

  3. Reminds me of the book ‘Back Bay’ author’s last name was I believe Martin. He wrote several other books also. Great read.

    1. I was just thinking about that book earlier today. Read it forever ago (in fact, proba.bly before I left Boston eons ago!). There’s a copy somewhere buried in my home. Agree: great read.

  4. This is actually a sad story. I think you should try to chase down the descendents of John’s kids to living descendants today – maybe they will have an update on the treasure, or, maybe they will be very surprised to learn of it.

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