The following paper was presented at the April 2018 meeting of the Texas Folklore Society held in Lubbock, TX
“J. Frank Dobie’s San Saba Treasure Story – From History to Legend to History”
If any one person comes to mind when the subject of Texas Folklore comes up, it is probably that of J. Frank Dobie. I know it is for me, as many years ago, my introduction to Texas folklore was through one of his stories. The story had to do with one of the San Saba treasure legends, from his 1930 book Coronado’s Children.
The story started in the 1840’s, and involved a farmer named Dixon, who was living in San Marcos, Texas. He heard about a cave full of silver near the San Saba River. Three of his neighbors thought that if there was a mine there, records of it would be at the old Spanish colonial capital of Texas, in Monclova, Mexico. So, the three neighbors, Greenberry Ezel, Wiley Stroud, and Sam Fleming, pitched in for Dixon to go to Monclova to find a map. Dixon went there, but the church would not let him see the archives. However, a friend of his was living in Monclova, and, luckily, his daughter worked at the church. She found the map and, in 1858, she met Dixon in San Antonio and gave it to him. She said that the map led to a mine where thousands of silver bars were stored. If his group would go there and get the silver, and give her a one-fifth portion, then she would give them another map, a map to a dozen or so silver mines hidden around the San Saba.
They were about to go look for it, but the Civil War broke out, and it was 1868, one hundred and fifty years ago this year, before they went.
They were to start at an old Spanish fort, near today’s town of Menard, then go three leagues west up the river, then one league north up a creek, called Silver Creek these days, and look for a pile of rocks. Under the pile was half of a metate, a Mexican corn grinding stone. They were then to look for a series of copper pegs to the south, and then to the west. To the west they were to find the other half of the metate buried between two trees. They found them all, and then they were to dig where some lines from those landmarks crossed. They were to dig straight down to get to an old mine shaft.
They dug, and they thought the earth had been dug before. As they dug deeper, they could not hoist out large rocks. The men argued with each other, and they gave up. They returned to San Marcos without any silver.
They never returned, but others took up the project. In particular, a treasure hunter from San Antonio named William Longworth. He reopened the mine during the first world war, but it flooded with water. Longworth’s partner, a lawyer from San Antonio, brought in new pumps to try to get the water under control. And that was where the story ended.
It was a story of general interest because the supposed mine shaft was actually discovered. Most lost mine stories leave the location of the mine lost, but this is one of only a very few stories where the location of the mine was, and is, known. It was only a question of finding, and then reopening, one particular tunnel in the mine.
And the story was of particular interest to me as Sam Fleming, one of the four men from San Marcos, was my great grandmother’s grandfather. He lived with her family in San Antonio for a time. That great grandmother lived to be almost a hundred years old, and I remember her well.
I had heard the story when I was young, and for some reason, the day before Thanksgiving, four years ago, I did an internet search to see what had happened in the 84 years since Dobie’s book was published. There was no news regarding the mine, but the search found a preview of Dobie’s book.
The book included a description of where the mine was, and a rough map of the area around the mine itself. I had last read the book in the early 1990’s, before the internet. Now, using satellite imagery, I was able to locate the starting point of the treasure hunt, the old Spanish fort at Menard. Converting leagues to miles I was able to follow the route. It did not take me to the site, but it got me into the general area. Hearing about the legend was one thing, but actually seeing the land was something else. Seeing the land made the story real to me. I resolved to find out what was behind the legend, and what happened there after Dobie’s book was published.
Before I go on, after much study I do not think that there is, or was, a large stash of silver buried near Menard. But the history behind the legend, the legend, and the things people did because of the legend, were too good to keep to myself. The result of that research is a book that the Texas Folklore Society will be printing this Fall.
Dobie recorded a lot of treasure folklore. Texas is full of lost treasure stories, and no wonder, given all the Spanish, and then wild west, history of the state. There is much Spanish history near Menard. And there actually was some silver mined in the Spanish era, perhaps not on the San Saba River, but a couple of days to the east at the Los Almagres mines in today’s Llano County. That is in a mineral bearing area known as the Llano Uplift, while Menard is in a limestone area and only trace silver exists anywhere nearby. Probably stories of mines north of San Antonio mixed the two together.
It is often believed that, if there was a Spanish fort, or mission, in an area, it could only mean one thing: the Spaniards were, obviously, enslaving the Indians to mine silver or gold. And, in fact, in 1757 a fort and an Apache mission were established on the San Saba River. But, the mission was destroyed by the Comanche shortly thereafter, and very few Indians had ever lived at the mission in the first place. Why the mission was founded there is a stranger-than-fiction kind of story that had to do with a rivalry between the Apache and the Comanche, and had little or nothing to do with silver.
The fort survived, but was abandoned in 1772. The area around the San Saba River was Comanche territory. Rumors of mines on the San Saba River circulated, after Mexican independence, but few were brave enough to go looking.
One person brave enough was Jim Bowie. Along with his brother, and several companions, they made an expedition in 1831. They did not find a mine, but did find an epic battle with the Tonkowas. An account of the fight was widely published in the 1800’s. So Bowie’s search, even a failed search, strengthened the legend. It is sometimes called the lost Bowie mine.
The area around the San Saba River was off limits until German settlers made peace with the Comanche in 1847. The first generation of settlers were amazed at the easy living the Texas Hill Country had to offer. They saw no reason to hunt buried treasure when fertile land, plentiful game, free timber, and practically self-raising livestock were a treasure compared to what they had left in Europe. The next generation, however, only knew the hard work they had grown up with, and they were ready to hunt for treasure.
Nearly all of what Dobie wrote of this particular legend was from the treasure hunter William Longworth. Longworth was a life-long treasure hunter and Dobie used his stories in other books and articles through the years. Longworth had met a relative of my ancestor in San Antonio in 1902. That relative told Longworth the story of the San Saba mine. Longworth then devoted years of his life to reopening it. He took out a long lease on the site, removed a lot of dirt from the tunnels, and thought he was within a score of feet from the silver and that he only needed to dam off some water to get to it. But, circumstances caused him to relinquish the lease to his partner from San Antonio. After that, he was happy to tell the story to Dobie. And a few years later, Longworth wrote a book of his own that had a chapter about the mine, but, it was never published. I suspect that Longworth pieced together the story from a bare outline of historic events and people, and the story sort of evolved over time.
Yes, in late 1868, four men from San Marcos really did travel to the San Saba near Menard and they found what they thought was a mine. There is an unpublished Fleming family history that confirms that and gives some detail not found in Dobie’s account.
From an affidavit that Fleming’s son-in-law made out to Longworth, in 1868 the San Marcos men found a large limestone hole that was partly filled in with dirt. And they thought that was a filled in mine shaft. There was no mention of metates and pegs. In my opinion, they did not follow a map with pegs and metates. They probably found the limestone basin because the location ties into some possible locations for the mine, as implied by Jim Bowie’s brother in his story about their 1831 search for the mine, and as suggested in a book written by a German settler to the Hill Country. And they probably went looking in 1868 after one of them, a confirmed life-long treasure hunter, read a story about the San Saba mines in the 1868 Texas Almanac.
However, an account made by Jim Bowie, to the Mexican Government (the expedition was prior to the Texas revolution), narrowed down those possible locations to one area near the fort. While his brother’s account was widely printed in the 1800’s, Jim’s account was almost unknown for many decades. If the San Marcos men did their homework, given what was available to them, it would have led them three leagues up or down the river, and then up or down a creek.
There is a limestone basin there. Popularly called the egg-shaped basin. It has dirt in it, and a pecan tree grows from it. At one end of the basin is the entrance to a limestone cave. Not a mine shaft, but a natural cave. Much of it is flooded with water, including the entrance from the basin. It may connect to the nearby Powell’s Cave—the second longest cave in Texas.
That basin is significant for two reasons. First, it definitively locates the alleged mine. There is only one such basin in the area, and Longworth’s written account of the treasure refers to it. Second, Dobie knew of the basin because a drawing of it was in his San Saba notes, yet he left it out of his story as it would have minimized the importance of the supposed secret location of the vertical shaft that led to the very same cave. By that omission, Dobie made the map, with the copper pegs and such, central to the story and “proof” that “something had to be there”.
After Coronado’s Children was published, the San Antonio Lawyer, that Dobie wrote about, left his wife, took over the project, and worked there until his death 13 years later. A lady popularly known as Princess Wenonah, who had owned a San Antonio reptile business, and before that had been a vaudeville rattlesnake dancer, was at the site during that time as well, until her death the same year.
Between the 1940’s and 1990, other people worked the site. Those people were almost certainly inspired, at least in part, by Dobie’s story. In the 1960’s, professional mining engineers were brought in. One of them even managed to get a bulldozer into the cave–it is still there. The person who worked the lease the most was a construction site foreman named Hardy Merrick, from Abilene. He was usually joined by an attorney from Del Rio.
They finally got the water under control with modern pumps. The next step, according to a supposed map, was to find a hidden tunnel leading to the north-east.
Holes were drilled from within the cave, looking for that tunnel, but none was found. So holes were drilled in other directions, thinking that maybe the Spaniards had their directions wrong. But nothing.
So they started sinking vertical shafts from the surface. By now the legend was that there were five different treasure rooms, so odds were that they would hit at least one of them. Somewhere between 50 and 100 vertical shafts, several feet in diameter, some 50 feet deep or deeper, were sunk all around the creek. But nothing.
In the 1970’s, a son of Hardy Merrick bought the land. That son, Wallace Merrick, retired to the area and took up the search. Wallace partly financed the land, and his mining efforts, through a company he had started years earlier in Texas. That company produced the shrimp processing machinery that he invented. It is still active today. It made shrimp affordable for the masses. So, the next time you eat some shrimp, consider that the machinery that processed it was invented to raise money to look for the treasure popularized by Dobie.
Eventually, all that could be done, was done. Some thought the silver had been found years earlier—there is a local legend about an armored car driving to the site when Norton was there. Others suspected that it was a scam to sell shares in the project. But most of the locals thought it was a silly legend. For decades wild-eyed treasure hunters had been digging all around the town—around the turn of the century there was a cottage industry in San Antonio that created fake treasure maps, almost always centered on Menard. So failed treasure hunts were nothing new.
Wallace Merrick died not long after purchasing the land, and when Hardy Merrick died in 1990, the hunt was over. Even before Wallace’s death, he seemed to have given up on the site and was looking into other treasure legends around Menard.
Researching treasure legends is very difficult, because the people in the past usually tried to hide what they were doing, and people in the present tend to assume that anyone interested in treasure legends is delusional at best, and dangerous at worst. But a relative of mine is a personal friend of the current land owners, and that opened doors. I was allowed to visit the site, and it was exciting to look through the cave, and to stand at the basin where my ancestor stood so many years ago. But it is, really, just a cold, wet cave. If given permission to visit it again, I am not sure that I would. The land owners raise cattle there now, and they share the opinion that there never was any silver.
So, one afternoon, a few years ago, I took a quick look to see what came of the story. That moment of curiosity led me through a story that began with a 1750’s Spanish mission, led to an Indian massacre, to Jim Bowie, to supposed Mexican treasure maps, to post-civil war expeditions, to a rattlesnake dancer, to J. Frank Dobie, to the inventor of the modern shrimp industry, and to other interesting eccentrics that Texas is so good at producing. It led me to the bottom of a cave in Menard where lives and fortunes were lost, and it led me to be here in front of you today. I am sorry to say that it will not lead anyone to a pile of silver bars, but the history behind the folklore, the folklore itself, and the history that resulted is treasure for us all.