Before I started to work on the story running in the July 2009 issue (“Sleeping Booty”) about California musician Nathan Smith’s quixotic attempt to find a lost Spanish treasure ship near the town of Refugio, north of Corpus Christi, I assumed that there was no buried treasure at all in Texas.
I made, um, a slight miscalculation.
Texas, I learned, is full of buried treasure—or, to be a bit more accurate, full of stories about buried treasures that no one has been able to find. In one Internet posting, I read the following: “Texas has more buried treasure than any other state, with 229 sites within the state’s borders. The total value? An estimated $340 million.”
And as I write, the treasure hunters are out there, hunting, hunting, and hunting. Many of them are wandering through the beaches and backlands with nothing more than metal detectors. Others have mounted full-scale salvage expeditions with backhoes and monster trucks and whatnot. “They are convinced that booty galore is waiting to be found,” J. Barto Arnold, the former marine archaeologist for the Texas Historical Commission, told me. “I once made a scientific study of all the known shipwrecks, from ancient to modern, that occurred off the Texas coast. I determined that there were maybe five that might have contained some sort of treasure. But all the treasure hunters declared that I must be hiding the truth. No matter the evidence, they knew there were more ships filled with riches.”
Let’s be honest, everybody loves a good treasure story. Is there anything better than the tale of someone discovering a hidden clue, figuring out an obscure reference, finding the final piece of the puzzle, and then discovering a fantastic stash of gold or silver?
Well, my beloved fellow Texas readers, though I have no idea whether anything I’m about to pass on to you is the slightest bit accurate, here are six of the supposedly great Texas treasures still waiting to be found. The information comes from books and treasure hunting Web sites (the best of which are legendsofamerica.com and treasurefish.com).
So read this, get up, and go after your pot of gold. Just let me know if you find anything so I can break the story first.
1. The Sam Bass Loot In perhaps his greatest venture, Texas’s legendary stagecoach and bank robber Sam Bass traveled to Big Springs, Nebraska, with his sidekick Joel Collins and held up the Union Pacific Railroad. They got away with three thousand freshly-minted 1877 $20 gold pieces. Although $25,000 worth of coins and jewelry have been accounted for, no one knows where the rest of the loot went, and Collins and Bass were killed before they revealed anything. Legend has it that Bass’s part of the money is in Cove Hollow, about thirty miles from Denton.
2. East Texas Gold From Mexico In 1839 Mirabeau B. Lamar, the newly inaugurated successor to Sam Houston as President of Texas, sent the Texas Army out to get rid of the Cherokees. A huge battle ensued between the two groups near what is now known as Tyler. The Cherokees started getting their butts kicked. As they retreated, they headed into what is now known as Upshur County. (All you English teachers out there, stop making fun of me for using the “what is now known as” phrase two sentences in a row.) A few of the Cherokees were accompanied by agents of the Mexican government who had promised a lot of money to the tribe if they were able to drive out the Texans. Eventually, the Mexicans unloaded the money—gold and silver coins—so they could make an escape. Many treasure hunters are convinced the money continues to lie beneath the mud of Little Cypress Creek in Upshur County.
3. Singer Treasure on Padre Island In the mid-nineteenth century, a man named Isaac Merritt Singer made significant improvements to the sewing machine. He built a new kind of sewing machine, and in 1851 he started I.M. Singer & Co., which was renamed the Singer Manufacturing Company in 1865. Meanwhile, his younger brother John was exploring the coast of Texas. At one point, while wandering the beaches of Padre Island, he came across a bunch of Spanish coins. He also might have—(might have, I remind you)—come across a wooden chest containing what was then $80,000 in jewelry and coins. According to legend, Singer hid the money he found in a large sand dune that he called “Money Hill.” But as fate would have it, he and his family had to abandon their Texas home during the Civil War because they were considered Union sympathizers. When they returned after the war, Singer could no longer find Money Hill because the sands had shifted and erased all the landmarks that he once knew. It is now thought that the money is on the southernmost tip of Padre Island.
4. The Lost Padre Mine Somewhere in the Franklin Mountains overlooking the Rio Grande River in El Paso County is the Lost Padre Mine. Back in the 1580’s, Spanish conquistadors and priests often passed beneath the peaks of the Franklins on their way to New Mexico to colonize the Indian villages. According to one legend, a group of priests put about three hundred burro loads of silver in a mine on one of their expeditions to New Mexico. They then filled in the shaft. Another legend has it that in 1595, Juan de Oñate hid five silver bars, 4,336 gold ingots, nine burro loads of jewels, and four priceless Aztec codices (books or manuscripts) in the mine. My favorite part of the legend is that the Guadalupe Mission in El Paso was built in way so that the shadows of the mission point to the Lost Padre Mine.
5. The Lost Treasure of Hendrick’s Lake The infamous pirate of the Gulf Jean Lafitte took a $2 million fortune in silver from a Spanish galleon and supposedly buried it in the Sabine River near the East Texas town of Sabine. Ho-hum, right? Just another myth? Well, according to a story by Mary Rogers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, there is evidence that in the early 1800’s the theft did happen and that Jean Lafitte’s men, afraid that they were about to be ambushed, pushed several wagons loaded with silver ingots into the muddy waters. Some fishermen in the last century pulled several silver bars from those very waters with a hoop net. That set off a huge treasure hunting stampede. In 1884 treasure hunters were all over the Sabine and a nearby lake that had been fed by the Sabine.
The story died down but regained momentum when treasure hunting became popular again in the fifties and when True West magazine printed an article about the long-forgotten silver prompting treasure hunters to flock to Carthage and Tatum. After getting some readings at the bottom of the lake (Hendrick’s Lake), two Dallas oilmen actually brought in a giant crane and attached a drag bucket to the cable. But they got nothing. More than once the crane almost toppled into the water. The oilmen then built a raft with a hole in the center and sank large pipes into the goop on the lake bottom. They lowered another contraption through the pipe to the lake floor. A light came on when the probe hit metal. But a giant storm hit the area, destroying the raft and washing away all the evidence.
Later, someone else who got high metal readings tried to dynamite the bottom of the lake. But alas, nothing came of it. There are still treasure hunters to this day who believe the Lafitte fortune would be found if the lake was drained.
6. The Lost San Saba Silver Mine This lost mine, with its rich vein of silver, has been what one treasure hunter writer has called “the Holy Grail of Texas treasure seekers.” In 1756 a Mexican official traveling through Texas learned from Indians of an exposed strain of pure silver that ran through a certain hill in Central Texas. In the early 1800’s, Stephen F. Austin, on his first trip to Texas, also heard about a rich silver mine on the San Saba River and a gold mine on the Llano. He sent soldiers to look for it, but they found nothing.
By 1829, the mythical “lost” silver mine of San Saba began appearing on Austin’s maps of Texas. More maps appeared showing various locations of a lost silver mine. Just about every book written about Texas in that era mentioned it. James Bowie went on an expedition to find it.
So where is it? An historian named Herbert Bolton, using the original journals of the Mexicans from the eighteenth century, found what is now known as the Boyd shaft on Honey Creek. In 1909 members of the United States Geological Survey visited the site, which they described as being unproductive. But to this day, treasure hunters are unswayed. They know it’s there. They know it.
And the search goes on.