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The Entire National Treasure Timeline Explained

One way to spice up an action movie is to throw in an academic theme. Archaeologists have Indiana Jones, Egyptologists have The Mummy, and paleontologists have Jurassic Park. And when it comes to historians, they've got one of the most entertaining action series of all time – National Treasure.

The series follows treasure hunter Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) and his friend, Riley (Justin Bartha), as they use historical knowledge and hacking skills to find and solve clues that lead them to treasure, fame, and book deals. Just like the heroes in those other movies, Ben is motivated mainly by a respect for his chosen field — American history — but also by family honor.

As you might expect in a franchise all about history, the National Treasure movies jump between various major historical events and characters. In other words, keeping tracking of each clue and the connections between them is a puzzle in itself. So if you need help keeping your dates straight, here's the entire National Treasure timeline explained, from treasure-hoarding warlords to page 47.

It all starts with treasure

During unspecified ancient times, various civilizations battled their way into collecting a vast hoard of treasure. Over centuries, the treasure passed from one set of bloodthirsty leaders to another ... until it was suddenly lost.

However, during the First Crusade — which lasted between 1096 and 1099 – a group of Christian knights stumbled upon the treasure. Deciding that no one person — especially not a king — should have this much wealth, they formed a secret organization called the Knights Templar to hide it. (The real-life founder of the Knights Templar, Hugh de Payens, was a indeed knight during the First Crusade.) Eventually, the group snuck the treasure to America. The Knights Templar became the Freemasons, and they recruited such impressive members as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

The Founding Father Freemasons devised codes and ciphers to keep the treasure safe from the British. But over time, the clues were all lost, except one. (Great job, guys.) In 1832, Charles Carroll (Terrence Currier), the last surviving Founding Father, passed that final clue on to his young driver, Thomas Gates (Jason Earles). As for the clue itself, it read, "The secret lies with Charlotte." But by then, even Carroll didn't know who Charlotte was.

Obviously, the Founding Fathers were busy people, but they could've made protecting clues leading to a priceless treasure a higher priority.

Did Thomas Gates mastermind the Lincoln assassination?

In the midst of all this Knights Templar drama, the Gates family got dragged into another major historical event. On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth (Christian Camargo) and Michael O'Laughlen (Brent Briscoe) asked a now-grown Thomas Gates (Joel Gretsch) to decrypt a cipher in Booth's diary. But when Booth left, Thomas realized that the cipher led to a second treasure. He also realized — too late — that the men were members of the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC), a real pro-Confederacy "secret society" that aimed to start a new slaveholding country.

Hearing cries that Lincoln had been shot, Thomas realized that Booth was the assassin. He tore the decoded message from the diary to prevent the KGC from using it to find the treasure. Sadly, O'Laughlen shot Thomas, but as he was dying, he threw the pages into the fire. Thomas' young son, Charles (William Brent), rushed to his side, and at Thomas' pleading, O'Laughlen spared the boy, allowing young Charles to hear his father's last words: "The debt that all men pay." While Thomas' fate didn't play into the Knights Templar saga, keep it mind for future reference.

Ben Gates takes over the treasure hunt

In 1974, Thomas Gates' great-great-grandson, Ben Gates (Hunter Gomez), learns the story of the Templar treasure and the Gates family's quest to find it from his own grandfather and Thomas' grandson, John Adams Gates (the always excellent Christopher Plummer). However, Bens' father, Patrick (Jon Voight), interrupts, telling them the treasure is made-up nonsense that's consumed their family for too long.

Fast forward to 2004. Adult Ben has taken up the treasure-hunting challenge and convinced British entrepreneur Ian (Sean Bean) to donate his time and money to the mission. After two years of searching, they figure out Charles Carroll's mysterious clue about the secret lying with Charlotte — the Charlotte is a wrecked ship that's buried under the snow in the Arctic Circle.

In the ship, Ben discovers a meerschaum pipe. When he covers the stem in his blood (don't try this at home) and rolls it over paper, it reveals another clue. Ben untangles the pipe's cryptic message to determine there's a map hidden in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence. (The clue also mentions "the key in Silence undetected," but everyone ignores that.)

Faced with the revelation that one of history's most famous documents contains a secret map to the world's greatest treasure collection, Ian and Ben take two different approaches. Money-grabbing Ian wants to "borrow" it, while Founding Father fan Ben thinks that's practically sacrilegious — not to mention highly illegal. A fight ensues, and the party splits.

Everyone decides to steal the Declaration of Independence

Ben and Riley warn the FBI and the National Archives' Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) about the map on the Declaration of Independence and Ian's plan to steal it. When no one believes them, they decide that they must steal it first, to protect it from the less-than-scrupulous Ian. Unfortunately, Ian plans his theft for the same night. Awkward. Cue competing heist sequences.

During the subsequent car chase, Ben and Riley rescue/kidnap Abigail from Ian and hold on to the Declaration. Unfortunately, Ben realizes that the FBI will be tracking him from a credit card he was forced to use in the National Archives gift shop. Since they can't go back to his apartment, the trio goes to Patrick's house. Using lemon juice and hair dryers, they reveal an Ottendorf cipher on the back of the Declaration.

This location change actually works out because Ben has discovered that the "Silence" mentioned in the meerschaum pipe refers to the Silence Dogood letters – pseudonymous letters Benjamin Franklin wrote to The New-England Courant as a mischievous teenager. And the cipher on the Declaration corresponds to letters in Franklin's messages. Now, in reality, no one owns the original copies of Franklin's letters. In National Treasure, Patrick Gates inherited them from his father ... except he's donated them to the Franklin Institute, like a chump who doesn't believe in secret treasure. So Ben, Abigail and Riley take off for the Franklin Institute in Pennsylvania.

The House of Pass and Stow

At the Franklin Institute, Team Ben enlists a schoolkid to use the Ottendorf cipher to find the corresponding letters in the Silence Dogood letters. But just after they leave, Ian arrives and pays the child for the information he gave our heroes.

The new clue hinges on being at "the House of Pass and Stow" at a specific time, in order to see where the sun hits. All three members of Team Ben deduce this is a reference to the Liberty Bell, which was cast by John Pass and John Stow, and this leads them to Independence Hall, where the bell was originally kept. To work out the time, Ben takes a massive deductive leap and looks at the depiction of Independence Hall on a 2004-era $100 bill, which was based on a painting done by a friend of Benjamin Franklin's in the 1780s. And in the illustration, the clock is set to 2:22.

By then, it's nearly 3 PM, so Abigail and Ben despair. But Riley points out that the painting was done before the introduction of daylight savings time. To see the sun in the same position it would've been in at 2:22 PM in the 1780s, they have to go to Independence Hall at 3:22 PM. One point to Riley.

Showdown at Independence Hall

As Team Ben heads to Independence Hall, Ian has also figured out that the Declaration and Silence Dogood clue were pointing to the Liberty Bell's location. However, unlike Ben, he doesn't know that the Liberty Bell was removed from its original steeple in 1876 and replaced by the Centennial Bell.

Ian goes to see the Liberty Bell itself, which was displayed in a small pavilion in Independence Mall until October 2003. (As the movie was released in 2004, this plot point is sadly inaccurate.) Team Ben instead goes to the Independence Hall bell tower depicted in the painting from the $100 bill. Sure enough, at 3:22 PM, the sunlight casts a shadow that settles on a brick wall near the steeple. There, Ben finds a brick with a Masonic symbol and proceeds to desecrate another national monument by chiseling it out of the wall. Inside, he finds colored glasses that he assumes were created by Benjamin Franklin.

Looking through them at the back of the Declaration, Ben sees a message referring to New York's Trinity Church. Before he can read more, Team Ian arrives, and Riley, Abigail, and the Declaration are captured. As for Ben and the glasses, they wind up in the hands of the FBI, led by Agent Sadusky (Harvey Keitel). The FBI sends Ben to a rendezvous with Ian at the U.S.S. Indianapolis in New York, hoping to catch him and recover the Declaration. Instead, Ian "rescues" Ben, and both teams head to Trinity Church.

X marks the spot at Trinity Church

In Trinity Church, Ian agrees to hand over the Declaration if Ben reveals the next clue. Ben doesn't have much room to argue, as Ian has taken Patrick hostage. Using the glasses, Ben finds out they need to look "beneath Parkington Lane," a reference to a crypt in the church, complete with Masonic symbols. Inside, they find a tunnel leading underground.

After encountering several booby traps, the treasure hunters hit a dead end, lit by a single lantern. Patrick makes up a fake clue, telling Ian that the lantern represents the Old North Church in Boston, where, in 1775, Paul Revere lit two lanterns to warn that the British were coming. Patrick's gambit works, and Ian heads for Boston ... leaving Team Ben trapped underground.

However, Ben finds a hole in the wall that fits the bowl of the meerschaum pipe. With the pipe in place, a door opens, revealing a room full of treasure and, perhaps more importantly, stairs.

At the top of the stairs is Agent Sadusky, who turns out to be a Freemason. Ben hands over the Declaration, and in exchange for telling the FBI about the treasure, he gets clemency for everyone in his party, credit for the entire Gates family and Riley (sorry, Abigail), and a 1% finders fee. He also tells Sadusky where to find Ian. As a result, Ian is arrested, Ben and Abigail become a couple, the Gates family is proven right about the treasure, and Riley buys a Ferrari.

The Gates family name needs saving again

In 2007, Ben Gates is singing the praises of his great-great-grandfather, Thomas, for destroying pages from John Wilkes Booth's diary, thus preventing the Knights of the Golden Circle from finding a vast treasure and starting a new Confederate army. However, antiques dealer Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) claims that he has one of the missing diary pages, which lists Thomas as the mastermind of Abraham's Lincoln assassination.

Outraged, Ben decides to get the gang back together to clear his family name. Riley is easy to recruit as he wrote an unsuccessful book about the Templar treasure, and his "creative" accounting has landed him with a massive tax debt. Abigail, on the other hand, is trickier, as she and Ben have broken up. But her curiosity gets the better of her, and they all head to the National Archives where they examine the diary page that Mitch discovered. They find there's the imprint of a cipher on the back of the page, leading to the aforementioned treasure. Ben realizes if he can find the loot, he can prove that Thomas' only involvement with the KGC was unwittingly deciphering the code for them.

The group is able to find the five-letter key to the cipher when Patrick recalls Thomas' last words, which Charles passed on to him — "The debt that all men pay," which is "death." With that keyword, they decipher the message as "Laboulaye's Lady," a reference to the Statue of Liberty in Paris. With the help of a drone, they uncover a message on the torch. Ben then figures out that it's sending them to the Resolute desks in Buckingham Palace and the Oval Office.

Breaking into Buckingham Palace

Team Ben heads to Buckingham Palace, and thanks to a fake argument between Ben and Abigail and a little hacking work from Riley, they end up in the Queen's office. Under the Resolute desk, they find the trademark of a man who made Chinese puzzle boxes, leading Ben to surmises that the four desk drawers must correspond to a four-digit combination lock. When they try the date "1879," which was on the message on the Parisian Statue of Liberty, a secret drawer pops open, revealing a plank covered in carvings in an ancient language. Naturally, Ben steals the plank, and the three escape.

However, as they leave, Mitch shows up. Unbeknownst to Team Ben, he's already cloned all Ben's devices, so he's aware of every development they discuss over the phone. A car chase ensues, and a desperate Ben runs a red light. He then uses the stoplight camera to take a picture of the plank — which Riley retrieves from the police database — before throwing the plank into the Thames. Unfortunately, one of Mitch's henchmen retrieves it.

Breaking into the Oval Office

Back in D.C., Patrick identifies the language on the plank as belonging to the Olmec civilization, the oldest Mesoamerican culture. But the only marking Patrick recognizes is "Cibola," a reference to the mythological Native American city of gold that was supposedly shown to an enslaved man named Esteban. (The movie is also unclear which Native American tribe the city is supposed to have belonged to, as the Olmec ended in 400 BCE, but the real Esteban, or Estevan, lived in the 16th century.)

Needing answers, Ben, Riley, Abigail, and a reluctant Patrick visit Ben's mom, Emily (Helen Mirren), the world's preeminent expert in lost Native American languages. After a testy exchange with Patrick, Emily translates the plank into English, saying, "Find the noble bird. Let him take you by the hand and give you passage to the sacred temple." However, she says that the message is incomplete, meaning they have to take a quick trip to the White House.

Returning to D.C., Abigail and Ben attend the White House Easter Egg Roll, where they trick their way into the Oval Office. Here, Ben checks out the president's Resolute desk, but he finds the second plank is missing. Instead, the drawer is stamped with a mark — the presidential seal, only with the olive branches replaced by a scroll. Ben takes a photo, and Riley later identifies it as the mark of the "President's Secret Book."

Kidnapping the president

Riley explains that there's a legendary book passed from president to president, with inside information on important topics. Agent Sadusky confirms the book's existence to Ben, but he says only the president knows where it is.

So Ben sneaks into the president's (Bruce Greenwood) birthday party at Mount Vernon, where the commander-in-chief recognizes him from the Templar treasure coverage. Ben lures the president into a secret tunnel, traps him, and asks him about the book. The remarkably calm president tells Ben it's in the Library of Congress and gives him the entry code to the book's location. The president also politely points out that if Ben doesn't find the treasure, he'll be charged with kidnapping the president — not a great outcome. He also asks him to look at page 47 when he finds the book.

With the FBI on their tail, Team Ben (minus Patrick) heads to the Library of Congress and finds the book in a secret compartment. It reveals that Queen Victoria sent the Booth cipher to Confederate General Albert Pike, as she wanted the Confederacy to win the war to keep the US weak. Ben also learns that in 1924, President Coolidge found the plank in the Oval Office Resolute desk and destroyed it, though fortunately, there's a photo of the plank in the book. Finally, Ben discovers that Coolidge commissioned Gutzon Borglum to carve Mount Rushmore to disguise the entrance to the treasure. Fortunately, there's a photo of the plank in the book, so it's a happy ending ... right?

The City of Gold

Ben texts a photo of the plank to Patrick, who takes it to Emily for translation. But Mitch has already intercepted it the message, and he decides to kidnap Ben's mom.

Soon after, Team Mitch and Team Ben meet at Mount Rushmore, where Mitch reveals he has the letter Queen Victoria sent to General Pike, containing vital clues on how to find the entrance. Team Ben and Mitch (minus his henchmen) search for the entrance, and using Mitch's clue, they discover a hidden lever that opens a door leading into the side of the hills.

After various booby traps, they find the City of Gold, but the cavern starts to fill with water. After initially threatening to leave Ben propping up the only door out, Mitch sacrifices himself so the others can escape, asking that they give him credit for finding the city.

The Gates name is cleared — again — and Emily gets to excavate Cibola. The president meets Ben, Abigail, and Riley, and he gamely pretends the whole kidnapping thing was a misunderstanding. He also asks what Ben made of page 47, to which Ben replies, "I believe I can help with that, sir." The only mystery now is, when will National Treasure 3 be released?