One of the most enduring treasure legends in America is that of the lost San Saba Mine. Any lost mine or buried treasure in Texas to the north of San Antonio, to the west of Austin, and south-east of San Angelo is usually called the San Saba treasure.
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Update: A book, The San Saba Treasure, Legends of Silver Creek, will be published in 2018 by the Texas Folklore Society (an imprint of the University of North Texas Press). Check pack for more information. If you are interested in the Texas Folklore Society, their website is here.
There are many San Saba legends. One of the most popular legends was recounted by J. Frank Dobie in his 1930 book, Coronado’s Children. As recounted by Dobie, In 1868 Samuel Flemming (one of my ancestors) went with three other men, Wiley Stroud, Greenberry Ezell, and Col. Dixon, to the San Saba River, near where Menard, Texas sits today. They had a map from Mexico that led them from an old Spanish fort (the illustration above) to an old mine shaft, the San Saba Mine. At the bottom of the mine shaft there was supposed to be several tons of silver bars. They found the old mine, but were not equipped to excavate it. Years later people did excavate it, but then the mine flooded, and it took decades before people managed to finally pump out the water. In the 1970’s an enterprising individual, the person who patented the machinery used by the modern shrimp industry, bought the land and managed to get a bulldozer into the mine, apparently by taking it apart and reassembling it. People worked at that same site, off and on, from 1868 to 1990.
Since becoming interested in the legend I have done a lot of research into the story, including a visit to Menard itself and to the supposed site of the mine. I am doubtful that the silver in the legend ever existed, but it is still a fascinating story and the history of the area is very important.
In the 1700’s the Comanche and the Apache fought over the area and the Apache decided to side with the Spanish. They really had no choice as the French were supporting the Comanche with arms and horses. The Apache asked for a mission to be set up. They were not interested in a mission to live in, but they were interested in having a Spanish presidio, a fort, nearby to fend off the Comanche. So in 1757 the Spaniards set up a mission and presidio near where Menard, Texas sits today. A year later the Comanche, and other northern nations, destroyed the mission and murdered several Spaniards, including two priests. After holding out in the presidio for years, the Spaniards eventually withdrew back to San Antonio. That marked a turning point in the Spanish involvement in what is today Texas.
The image below is a painting that was made regarding the destruction of the mission in 1757. No, the painting does not point to the treasure. The artist was never in the area and the mission and the presidio were reversed relative to the river and the mountains in the background do not exist. It is, however, the first painting of a historical event ever made of an event in Texas. It shows the two slain priests with the weapons by which they were martyred. In 1941 the US conference of Bishops nominated them for sainthood.
The massacre was one of many firsts. The first, and only, time a mission was completely destroyed. The first time that the Spanish troops were up against Native Americans who were armed with muskets and mounted on horses. The French supplied them with arms. Whereas before small numbers of Spanish troops could fight back large numbers of natives who were only armed with bow and arrow, the muskets and horses leveled the playing field. The Spanish were never again to be completely safe in Texas.
Shortly after the Spaniards abandoned the mission, rumors of silver mines in the area circulated in San Antonio. Stephen Austin included it on his maps of Texas. In 1831 Jim Bowie, of Alamo fame, went looking for it, and found an epic battle with a band of natives instead. Did he ever find the silver? Due to Bowie’s involvement it is sometimes called the “Lost Bowie Mine.” The Comanche dominated the area for more than a decade and it was not until German settlers, under the Fisher-Miller land grant, moved into the area that explorers again searched for the mines. Then 37 years after Jim Bowie had a go at it my ancestor went looking with three other men. Since then several groups of people have tried to locate the treasure. It is sometimes referred to as Los Almagres, but in my opinion that mine was a good distance to the east, in today’s Llano County.
In the twentieth century a number of interesting characters had a go at it: an electrician turned treasure hunter named William Longworth, a train engineer turned prominent San Antonio attorney named Julius Norton, and a pet shop owner turned vaudeville rattlesnake dancer named Martha “Wenonah” Learn. Those three died destitute, and one of them died under mysterious circumstances a stone’s throw from where my relative had dug 75 years earlier. It was only about 1990 when the digging finally stopped for good. The only thing ever found was limestone, valuable only for crushing into gravel.
All site text Copyright 2017 David Lewis
Keywords: San Saba Mine, San Saba Treasure, Lost Bowie Mine, William Longworth, Julius Norton, Wenonah, J. Frank Dobie, Jim Bowie, James Bowie, Alamo, Menard, Coronado’s Children, The Broken Metate.