Silver Mines in Texas

There were real silver mines in Texas.  On the west side of the state there was the Shafter mine district and the Van Horn area.  Those were honest silver mining areas that produced much silver.   There was also at least some mining, on a much smaller scale, at Los Amalgres, off and on in secret.  Menard and San Antonio are on the map for reference.

Texas_map1

The Shafter mines were the most important, with 90% of the silver and 70% of the gold ever mined in Texas coming from there.  One can read about them here.  One of the mines in the Shafter mine district even reopened  briefly a few years ago when silver prices spiked, but a drop in prices closed it.  Hopefully it will reopen some day.

The Van Horn mines were smaller and not as productive as the Shafter mines.  Work there ceased during WWII.

van_horn

The next map shows some of the geological features of the state.  The igneous areas are pockets of ancient volcanic activity amongst what is otherwise a sea of sedimentary rock. Those areas line up very well with the silver mines.  The one to the east is known as the Llano Uplift.  Around these areas it sometimes happened that volcanic activity pushed out into sedimentary areas, even into the usually barren limestone, and left behind minerals.  Even gold and silver sometimes.

Texas_map2

Geologists call it replacement when igneous rock protrudes into something like limestone.  However, it appears that those replacements do not reach out scores of miles. For silver, or gold, to have made it to near the old Spanish fort on the San Saba in present day Menard, it would have had to have reached out a few score miles.

There are traces of silver in sandstone about ten miles to the east of Menard.  There have been claims that at least trace silver and gold was recovered from bore samples from around Menard, but it seems that whatever has been found, no one found it worthwhile enough to sink a proper mine.

Regarding the area around Los Amalgres, there were other mines in the Llano Uplift area as well.  One well known mine was the Heath mine, which mined at least some gold. There is a good write up on it here.  There is some question as to what portion of the revenue was from gold, and how much was from the sale of stock.  The owners seemed to have the art of finding investors down to a science.  It closed during WWII.

Heath_Mine

 

Texas geology and random prospecting

In the 1840’s a geologist in a group of incoming German settlers to the Texas hill country noted that, despite rumors of silver around the San Saba River, the area was limestone and minerals in limestone would be unprecedented.  In more recent times people have looked around and noted that it was a limestone area, and that was that–any prospecting for minerals was a fool’s errand.

Limestone is a type of sedimentary rock, in particular the geological remains of ancient ocean beds. Over time the calcium-rich coral and such formed limestone.  Silver, gold, and that sort of thing is not to be found in limestone.  Limestone is good for making gravel, cooking into quicklime for cement, cooking into lime to adjust the acidity of farm land , and for a few other things.  And that is about it–a bulk commodity.  As a child growing up in south-east New Mexico, I was disappointed to learn that our corner of the state was atop this miserly substance called limestone.  That meant that no rocks on the few acres the family owned were of any value.  All those interesting rocks in the Golden Guide to Rocks and Minerals were no where to be found, and no gold nuggets waited to be dug up from the back yard either.  Although, since digging through the caliche under the few inches of top soil there was about like digging through a brick wall, opening a back yard mine would have been challenging anyway.

The consolation prize that goes with mineral barren limestone areas are caves.   Over many centuries water can turn a bed of limestone into a cavern.  Treasures of their own sort that people can enjoy.  And there are a couple of limestone caves around Menard that figure into the treasure story.

But back to the 1840’s, the German geologist did not say that minerals in limestone was impossible, rather he said that it would be unprecedented.  Sometimes unprecedented things happen–more about that in a later article.

If, in centuries past, limestone meant no minerals, would anyone in the Spanish Colonial era have bothered to prospect in the immediate area?  The answer is yes.

There is silver in Texas, and Texas used to have active silver mines, albeit not from around Menard.  But it was and is a drop in the bucket compared to the silver in Mexico. The silver mines in Mexico were not a dozen people digging out some ore from a fifty foot hole in the ground, to then smelt in a large outdoor oven.  In Mexico mines used thousands of workers and the refineries were complexes covering dozens of acres. Most refineries ended up using the mercury patio process, while others used the charcoal furnace process when the cost of mercury was greater than the gain from the increased recovery of silver.

In the 1700’s the miners in Mexico had a quota of so many bags of ore per day.  Then they could fill a bag or two for themselves.  They would then take their own bags of ore to an independent refiner for extra income.  If a person knew what they were doing it did not take much to set up a crude smelter in a small area.  The mine owners did not like that. They complained that the choice, high grade, ore went into the bags of the miners.  The miners complained that they were poorly paid for the hard and dangerous work they did.  In such circumstances workers start complaining, and the complaining spreads, and words turn to actions. That was good for neither the wealthy mine owners nor the tax revenue of the Spanish crown.

There was a way to deal with labor agitators: send them to Texas to be Presidio soldiers.   That would get them out of Mexico, away from the mines, for years.  Not all soldiers were ex-miners, but some were.   They were not trained geologists.  It is not at all condescending to suspect that they did not know the difference between sedimentary rock and igneous rock and any other kind of rock.  Most people today could not tell the difference either.  To them rock was just something to dig through to find ore.

Presidio commanders were notorious for getting rich off of the Spanish Crown while the soldiers were given low wages.  The soldiers were not paid by the Crown, rather the commander was.  The wages to the soldiers were not even real wages, but script to the company store.  A store owned by the commander.  Soldiers often served beyond the normal retirement age of soldiers because they  could not pay off their debts to the commander.  It seems reasonable that they would spend their free time prospecting. Finding a rich mine might be the ticket to paying off their debts and retiring, maybe even retiring well.  And they knew how to dig holes in the ground.  They did not know that limestone was supposed to be a fool’s errand.  So they probably dug holes here and there as they could, preferably within running distance of the Presidio lest the Comanche turn up and turn the exploratory shaft into a mass grave.

So it seems likely that a number of randomly placed exploratory shafts would have been sunk in a several mile radius around the Presidio on the San Saba River.  In more recent times they have possibly been found by treasure hunters who took them to surely be the remains of rich mines that were abandoned after Indian massacres. Could be, or could be soldiers who desperately wanted to find a vein of silver that would be their ticket to an easy life back in Mexico.  Apparently one such hole was found not that many decades ago near the Menard water tower.  Perhaps Gooch’s Folly was another.

There are many old newspaper articles about someone in Menard County who found a hole on their land, and was just sure that was the mine.  Then nothing more came of it. At first I suspected that they were all part of schemes to sell mining stock. But perhaps they were more often the honest discovery of a somewhat random exploratory shaft that miners-turned-soldiers hoped would be their ticket back to Mexico a century and a half earlier.

Review of C.K. Eckhardt’s The Lost San Saba Mines

There was a book written in 1982 by C. K. “Charlie” Eckhardt titled The Lost San Saba Mines, One Man’s Search for the Ancient Treasure in the Hills of Texas.  It was apparently widely printed by Texas Monthly Press and is readily available used.  Seeing as how there was a book printed on this subject, why write a new one?

First, a little about Eckhardt himself.  He ran a barber shop in Seguin, Texas.  Out of his unending interest in Texas history he wrote a newspaper column on Texas tales and also wrote several books on Texas history and folklore. Treasure stories fascinated him just as they do many other people.  He personally knew the grandson of one of Jim Bowie’s men who were at the epic battle in 1831 when Bowie attempted to locate the mine.

It was anything but a scholarly work, and it was not supposed to be one.  There are no citations and J. Frank Dobie’s Coronado’s Children was listed as a “primary source”. Dobie’s book was, most of it, second or third hand folklore and was not a primary source in the academic sense.  It is not meant to look down on Eckhardt’s book by referring to it as mostly folklore.  He recorded a few new stories that he heard, and it is a good thing that someone recorded them least they be lost forever.  It was a book for a wide audience and good stories were what that audience wanted.

Eckhardt correctly points out that there are two major San Saba legends, that of  Los Amalgres and that of the Broken Metate / Silver Creek.  Regarding Los Amalgres, he placed those mines, correctly in my opinion, in the Llano County area (others claim that Los Amalgres and Silver Creek are one in the same).  He followed up the Los Amalgres story with a tale about Harp Perry, supposedly an Anglo who came to Texas when it was Mexican territory and illegally mined and refined silver.  The Harp Perry story was in Coronado’s Children, but Eckhardt added to it and included a surprise ending.

The story about Harp Perry was interesting.  But regarding Los Amalgres in general, information has come to light since the book was written.  On James Stotts’s Llano County ranch some old Spanish Colonial era mines were found after brush was cleared several years ago.  One can read about it here and here.  Those may well be the Los Amalgres mines. James Stotts took an interest in the history of them and did some research.  That research included arranging for a painstaking professional translation of the Miranda papers (the colonial-era reports of a Spanish official who was sent to find and report on silver deposits in that area–Eckhardt included earlier translations of them in his book).  That new translation cleared up some confusion about the reports, and changes the story, in my opinion.  That translation and other materials were in a book that Stotts wrote.  A year or two ago one could buy that paperback book, The Los Almagres Mines: Lost in Texas 250 Years, from his ranch’s website, but the site appears not to be operating now. Could try a used book store.   I prefer Barnes and Noble for used books these days (have had some recent bad experiences with used book sellers on Amazon, not so with Barnes and Noble and the prices seem to be the same).  The point is, what Eckhardt wrote about Los Amalgres is somewhat out of date and there are better books on that subject out there.

The portion of the book about Silver Creek (the main legend of interest around Menard) is disappointing.  Like many other writers he mostly copied what J. Frank Dobie wrote in Coronado’s Children.  He wrote that he heard stories from a Menard local about Wenonah, and those stories seem to align very well with the book The Free State of Menard, a book written in 1946.  The local may have done little more than read that book.

Regarding Silver Creek he got as much wrong as right.  He wrote that Wenonah was buried near the mine–she was not.  He wrote that Norton died in 1948–he did not.  He wrote that the San Marcos men went to Silver Creek in 1866–they did not.  He gives the impression that he was at the mine site at Silver Creek.  But even to me, someone who only spent a few hours at the site, he simply got too many details wrong.  The area was protected by armed guards in those days, and apparently he could not get past them.  A person I spoke with, who has spent as much time as anyone at the site, did not think much of Eckhardt’s book at it related to Silver Creek.

On the history of the mission on the San Saba he apparently wrote about the stories he heard or assumed, and not about the established history of the mission.  By 1982 The San Saba Papers were in print as was The San Saba Mission by Robert Weddle and those sources contradict Eckhardt over and over again.  The bottom line is that what ever he  added to Dobie’s story was incorrect.  And Dobie’s story was not all correct to begin with.

Eckhardt’s book is valuable in its description of mining stock sold in Texas in the olden days.  Those colorful, pretty, but worthless, mining stocks were eventually relegated to out-house duty.  The selling of shares in mining or treasure projects figured into the development of treasure legends.  Some of the legends may have come about from stock sellers attempting to gain investors.  It also made treasure legend evangelists of the stock buyers, at least for a little while.

The book makes a lot of Matthew Doyal’s grandson, whom Eckhardt knew.  Matthew Doyal (or sometimes Doyle) was one of Bowie’s men when he searched for the mine in 1831.  The grandson told a unique story about the Bowie mine, or more accurately the lack thereof.  There is, however a good cause to discount that testimony entirely for a reason probably unknown to Eckhardt through no fault of his own.

Overall, it is an entertaining book with some good stories.  If one liked reading Coronoado’s Children one will like this book as well.  Reading it is  like being the fly on the wall in Charlie’s barbershop when an old timer came in for his yearly hair cut and a good story got started about what so-and-so claimed about a lost mine out that way.  The book has been out of print for years, but used copies are still available on-line for not much money.  As opposed to attempting to sort out the history from the legend, it goes over the legend and adds more too it. Nothing at all wrong with that.  The book I have in the works is focused foremost on the history behind the legends, and then on the folklore and legends.

 

By the way, anyone from the southwest who sees the cover of Eckhartdt’s book will immediately note a silly mistake: it shows a Texas cowboy in front of some saguaro cactus.  We who grew up in the desert can usually tell where a picture was taken from the type of brush and cactus in the image. And a saguaro cactus east of the Arizona state line is a howler.  But in his defense, according to newspaper article at the time, Eckhardt did not see the cover until after the book went to press and it was too late to do anything about it.

 

Gooch’s Folly

In the late 1800’s the treasure hunting around Menard(ville) reached a fevered pitch. People who caught gold fever were convinced that they had found the location of the treasure, or a rich mine, only to be scorned by the locals when they came up empty-handed.

One of the strangest cases was what came to be known as Gooch’s Folly. Ben F. Gooch was a wealthy stock man from the nearby town of Mason, well a nearby town as distances in rural Texas go. Sometime between 1873 and 1876 Ben, and a fellow named Cabinis, became convinced that there was a rich mine buried straight down below a hill north-west of town. The story was that the Spaniards had worked the mine before being slaughtered by the Indians. There was great secrecy surrounding Gooch’s project to sink a hole straight down to the ore. The only thing that was found, according to one of the workers after the project was abandoned, was plug of tobacco that one of them had accidentally dropped down the hole.

Moving forward a decade and a half, to 1894, a J.K. Patterson heard about a mine around Menard(ville). A man named Short told him about it. Short recalled seeing a smelter near the old Presidio when he first came to the area in the early 1870’s and he remembered that the directions to the mine were to travel 3 miles due west from a big spring above town. While they were mulling things over they met up with fellow named Johns who had a map that gave different directions to a mine.  The direction to that mine was to follow a particular dry creek north from the San Saba River. They were all in a mining mood so they set out to see just where the two lost mines were. They formed two groups, each one tracing a different route. They were sure that they were standing above rich ore when both groups converged on the very same spot. If two different maps pointed to the same spot then it had to be a sure thing.

So a project was started to dig down to the mine. After a month of digging they were ecstatic as large timbers and other surface debris were pulled out of the shaft from forty feet down. Someone had been there before! Sure had, they were re-digging the same hole Gooch had dug 15 years earlier. When a local informed them of that, they wondered why that Gooch character had not dug deep enough, and back to digging they went.  Only they did not so much as find a plug of tobacco when they gave up.

Old Man Mullins

Old_Man_Mullins

Frank Mullins appeared in Menard in 1913 with $15,000 to invest. With $6,000 the 43 year old bought what was thought to be the oldest house in town, a log cabin believed to have been built in the 1860’s. The cabin was on a seven acre plot of land a block away from downtime. The land had been used for parking wagons brought to town by the area ranchers.

Instead of developing the land near the growing town, he developed a case of gold fever and dug holes in it. He never had a map, instead he would dig holes wherever his fancy led him. They were four feet deep and each day a new hole was made.

It once occurred to him that there might be something under the cabin, so he removed the floors and dug, then removed the cabin entirely. Thus was the oldest building in Menard lost.

First_House

After seventeen years of apparently fruitless searches he actually found something, a jar of coins. In pioneer days banks were few and far between and people often buried their life savings in glass jars somewhere out of sight, maybe under the second fence post to the right of the barn—something like that. If they died unexpectedly then the coins stayed there. The jar of coins was worth $2,000. It was enough to keep him going for the next fifteen years.

Old Man Mullins passed away in 1945, his $15,000 investment yielded one very dug up plot of land and $2,000. Compared to other treasure hunters in the area he did well.

The Huff Diary

There were two routes to cross Texas for those traveling to the 1849 gold rush.  One of them crossed the San Saba River near the old Spanish presidio.  One of the earliest records of the abandoned presidio and various rumors of the mine were in the Huff Diary.  That a route to the California gold rush went past the old presidio may be very important in unraveling the larger treasure legend.

The diary can be read here.  There was some controversy about the diary when it was discovered and made public some years ago.  An article by one of the people who first examined the dairy is here.  My impression is that the diary was written by William Huff, but it was probably a final draft written after the gold rush, based on notes taken during the trip.  First draft, final draft, does it really matter?

There was a map to the mine in the diary, but it is useless, something like a random X next to the river.  Of much more interest was what Huff wrote about what Jim Bowie told him about the mine and what a couple of Tejanos  told him about their experiences at a mine north of San Antonio when they were children.

In celebration of the diary, in 2005 some school kids retraced the wagon train route.  It appears that despite the controversy with the diary that a fun time was had by all in the end.

The San Saba Mine in Fiction

I am aware to three fictional stories about the San Saba legends, that is, stories that concede that they are only stories.

The first San Saba-ish story from the Texas Hill Country is popularly reckoned to be Burred Treasure, a short story O. Henry wrote in 1908.    He may have pondered the local treasure stories while he was living in Austin, Texas in the 1880’s.  It did not mention the San Saba treasure by name, but had elements common with the San Saba stories: a man writing down the directions to ten mule load of Spanish treasure in the 1860’s, for a twentieth century treasure hunter to pursue.

The earliest story that refers to the San Saba mine by name is The Red Paper, by C.C. Hotchkiss, a 1912 novel.  No meaningful information on the legend (it actually put it some distance away from Menard and had the Texans covering it up), but it shows how wide-spread the legend was in pre-WWI America.

More recently is The Bowie Secret, by Bob Balch, a 2013 novel that goes from Jim Bowie up to the present.  A work of fiction, but included some real people and places from around Menard.  Some of the same people I met with a couple of years later.  Mr. Balch is a Texas attorney and his take on how messy things could be, legally, if someone ever found a stash of silver is enlightening.

Of course, there are many books out there that are de facto works of fiction, and some of them have influenced the folk lore and legend concerning the story.  Most of the books about Jim Bowie are, frankly, works of fiction where an ounce of history, if even that, was spun into a pound of book.  Jim Bowie’s Lost Mine by M.E. Francis (1966) is a prime example.

Will finish this post with a cartoon from 1945.  J. R. Williams was a popular cartoonist in his day.  He drew cartoons about his experiences, from being in the cavalry to working in a machine shop.  The cartoon below shows how wide-spread the San Saba legend was in those days.

San_Saba_Cartoon

Wenonah

Martha_Learn

Martha “Wenonah” Learn — Vaudeville performer, San Antonio business woman, and treasure hunter.  She knew Harry Houdini.  For a few years she performed a rattle snake dance on the stage.  Spent the last 13 years of her life living in a shack near the mine site.  She, one of the most interesting women that Texas ever produced, is buried in an unmarked grave in the Menard cemetery.  The Menard museum (open Saturday afternoons) has some of her artifacts.

wenonah

She was featured in a book by Gene Fowler, Mavericks A Gallery of Texas Characters. That book seems to have focused exclusively on her vaudeville snake act.  The source of Mr. Fowler’s information was apparently drawn from the notes of a San Antonio photographer who took some publicity photographs of her.  He seems to have confused her name with that of her daughter. Wenonah’s stage career only lasted a few years and was but a small part of her fascinating life.

Judge Norton

Julius_Norton

Railway engineer, attorney, inventor, leading citizen of San Antonio, and treasure hunter.  Was involved in the search for treasure  from about 1918 to 1943.  How he first came to look for the treasure is a bizarre story, as is the story of how he came to hold the mineral lease.  Died alone under mysterious circumstances at the mine.  His son took up the search afterwards and nearly died himself.

William Longworth

William Milton Longworth (1869 – 1937) had more to do with popularizing the San Saba legends than just about anyone.  He was J. Frank Dobie’s primary source when Dobie wrote Coronado’s Children.  Longworth was usually employed as an electrician in San Antonio, but he sought out buried treasure when ever he could.  As a child he spent time with his father in California, and the lure of the gold mines was to haunt him for the rest of his life.  When he showed up in Texas he went to work right away to find a mine of his own.

As an electrician he developed a sort of metal detector, he called it his “radio sleuth.” The principle behind it may have been sound, but he may have overestimated its ability to detect metal scores of feet away.  Besides treasure stories in Texas he also searched for pirate treasure in Florida.

He held the lease on the supposed San Saba mine for several years after World War One. How he lost it was probably due to a family crisis.  No matter, he moved onto other legends.  If there was a hot new treasure story in Texas, Longworth was not far behind.

Longworth stayed in touch with Dobie from the time he told Dobie about the San Saba treasure up until his death.  Dobie was a busy man, but took time to write back to Longworth when he could.  Longworth had hoped to follow in Dobie’s footsteps and write a treasure legend book of his own, but it was never published.