Tiny Buddha “Artifacts” In North Fork American River Turn Out, Shockingly, To Be A Farce

March 5th, 2006 Robyn Suddeth

North Fork American Buddha HeadsWhat do you get when you mix a quirky artist with an even quirkier idea, a janitor in search of treasure, a store owner with a knack for business, and the federal government? Apparently something akin to a Shakespeare comedy in which even the most honorably-motivated characters turn out fools, and mischief is an entity with motivation and momentum all its own.

It would actually be quite appropriate for the quircky artist, from whom sprung the entire chain of Buddha head events, to end an account of the story with an apology of sorts similar to Puck’s famous lines at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear…

But that’s for later.

Disclaimer thus being said… here is the much awaited, amazingly true, story of the Mysterious Buddha Heads.

It all began on a washed out sandbar of the North Fork of the American River, on a cold January morning. Prospector Herman Henry set out to find his fortune, toting dredging equipment and supplies for a long day of treasure-seeking.

Midway through the morning, Henry let out a whoop into the crisp winter air. In his hands were tiny Buddha head carvings that he believed could be valuable artifacts from a Chinese dig site. Finally, all those days of toil were paying off! After hours of feverish excavation, Mr. Henry left the river that day with about 400 of the precious carvings.

Soon thereafter, Mr. Henry hurried over to his quaint little neighborhood convenience store (endearingly titled “Better Than Naked”), and pitched his find to store owner Jim Bowers.

Now, as stated before, Mr. Bowers has an incredibly keen business sense. So, of course he recognized a good opportunity right away. He quickly agreed to buy 200 of the tiny Buddha heads, paying Herman Henry $300 in cash and another $2700 in gold and quartz. (A small price to pay for such treasures!)

Mr. Bowers quickly began selling the tiny Buddha heads to customers for as much as $100, and even made T-shirts with a picture of the Buddha heads on the front and sold those for $14.00. Many people left feeling they had just acquired something of extreme value.

What Mr. Bowers did next is of extreme importance to the story. This is where his knack for good business really comes into play. AFTER selling many of the Buddhas for as much as $100, he began looking into their authenticity. (Anyone see the genious there?)

He went to a local paper, The Union, and inquired into old articles, believing that the Buddha heads may have been washed down from an upstream house in the 1964 flood. The Union then promptly published a short story about the mysterious Buddhas, which Mr. Bowers hoped would attract more visitors to his store.

Enter the feds.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bowers encountered the federal and state government instead.

(Apparently, it is a crime to take historical artifacts out of a state park… Who knew!?)

On Wednesday, February 22nd, Federal Authorities ignored Mr. Bowers’ indignant questions to them concerning whether or not they had a court order and what his civil rights were, and siezed the remainder of the carvings. Then they moved on to begin the manhunt for our good friend, Mr. Henry the Prospector, who had unwittingly defrauded the government when he removed the artifacts that cold morning on the American River.

At this point, local news channels and papers began catching wind of what was turning out to be a rather interesting and exciting story. Before residents of Henry and Mr. Bower’s hometown knew what was happening, TV news station CBS 13 got all wrapped up in the excitement too, and decended upon them with a fury.

In an evening broadcast the very next night, reporter Patti Lee told viewers that “the thumb-sized, white carvings may be hundreds of years old. And now federal and state investigators are looking into the discovery and are looking for Mr. Henry.”

She then said: “CBS was able to locate Henry Thursday night.” (In Local News Team vs. Highly-Trained Federal Agents, Local News Team currently ahead by one.)

Moving on.

In the ensuing interview, Mr. Henry told viewers that he didn’t think that he had done anything wrong, but had hid because he didn’t want to go to jail. Oh, and he had buried the remainder of his little stash of statues.

So for a quick little review of the story so far: We have a prospector who thought he had finally found his long-lost fortune, now all of a sudden on the run from the law. Then there’s the store-owner whose good business decision had turned into a siezure of his most popular item by the government, after which, he angrily told CBS 13, “They didn’t give me a reciept or nothing.” And of course there are the state and local authorities themselves, who were trying to discover the actual origin of the tiny Buddha heads while finding it difficult to locate a man who had just given an interview on national television. And what of all those people who had spent all that money on a little Buddha head or even a cute T-shirt? They were surely glued to the television, waiting to find out from the news what their newest possession was truly worth.

Enter aforementioned quirky artist.

Meanwhile, watching his television set at home, Sierra college ceramics professor Casey O’Conner was surprised to hear about something that was beginning to sound strangely familiar… 400 little buddha carvings found in the American River.

“Odd,” he thought, “I had created and then planted about that many tiny Buddha carvings into the American River just last year!”

When he saw all the hoopla that was surrounding his creation, he began to realize that he had better tell someone the truth. So on March 3rd, he called up local authorities and confessed to being the source of the mysterious Buddhas.

Crushed were the dreams of so many who were waiting for news of their newfound fortune!

When Mr. O’Conner was asked why he had created and planted the decieving Buddha carvings, he replied that he had hoped they would eventually catch someone’s gaze and “instill some wonder.” He insisted that he never meant to cause such confusion nor had any sort of mischievious intent. (Hmmm… he sure looks mischevious in the picture up above.)

And so, in the end, all those people who had been caught up in the magic of a possibly important discovery, ended up the butt of a joke rather than the envy of all their neighbors. As for Mr. Henry himself, his dreams had ironically already been crushed in a surprising twist to this tale: all the excitement surrounding his name had alerted police to a few existing outstanding warrants for his arrest, and he had been taken to jail on February 24th for charges completely unrelated to this story. Apparently he was doomed from the start.

Mr Bowers, however, has not given up hope. He told CBS that he thinks “those things will actually increase in value because of the legend they created all by themselves.”

For the trouble his carvings caused, Mr. O’Conner gives us a statement almost as eloquent and sophisticated as Shakespeare’s from A Midsummer Night’s Dream…

“I’m kind of sorry.”

Puck, consider yourself outdone. And with that, folks, this lovely little tale tale comes to a close. If you find that a moral of the story is missing, then perhaps we can say it is this: If something seems too good to be true, … you might want to check that out before telling the world about it.

Related Articles and Sources:

Picture taken from Andy Alfaro, the Sacramento Bee

Sacramento Bee: Tiny Buddhas, Big Flap

CBS 13: Man Finds Hundreds of Buddha Heads in American River

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