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Hunter’s Rise and Fall of the Mission San Saba

One of the most important sources for the San Saba treasure legends is the 1905 book The Rise and Fall of the Mission San Saba by John Hunter. J. Frank Dobie used it, a lot, when he wrote the chapter on the San Saba Treasure in his book Corobado’s Children.

It was a limited run print for a Texas Rangers convention held in Menard that year. About thirty years later John’s son Marvin published a reprint of it. It is a hard book to find to say the least.

Well, it showed up in digital form here. That website has a number of scans of works I know are still in copyright, but this book is well out of copyright so no harm in making use of it.

Regarding Hunter’s work, I think where he was right, he was really right. Where he was wrong, well, he was really wrong. He had the Los Almagres mine being next to Menard, which it is not–it is clearly in today’s Llano county. He was not the first to write about the Tres Manos Bowie story, but he was the first to really elaborate on it, and the Tres Manos story was nothing but folklore.

But, he was the only person who saw the original ruins of the presidio before it was taken apart and wrote about it. He also visited the remains of the mission before the location of it was lost for several decades. And if it was not for this book, it may never have been rediscovered. Hunter had moved to Mexico during the Civil War to avoid conscription by the Confederacy, and when he returned to Mexico he spoke Spanish and had heard a number of rumors of silver on the San Saba. Hunter is to be ignored at one’s peril, even if not everything he wrote was perfect.

If you are interested in the legend enough to make it this far, then read that book!

Revised Edition?

Getting the book to print was an exhausting endeavor for a working stiff who took up writing for the first time. Needing a long break, and moving to a different state (Texas, appropriately) since it was published, had not thought much about the book since it came out.

Met the publisher a while back at a historical conference and he said something about maybe the book getting into paper back. Or, if it goes out of print, the right to publish it reverts to myself, and I could then self-publish via print-on-demand through Create Space or Ingram Spark or whatever.

If there is another edition, would probably expand the chapter on Los Amalgres somewhat. An associate of mine is doing a great deal of research there, and it is his story to tell, but I think that there may be a connection between the two and it needs to be written about. It would include some research into mineral lease records in Menard which might clear up a mystery or two. A few typos that made it to print would be fixed as well.

And, the front pages of the book listed it as being related to San Saba County, which it is not. It is strictly related to Menard County. That mistake was made by the publisher.

Might include some more photos, illustrations, and one more map. I think this sort of book really that sort of thing.

If anyone has any suggestions, drop me a line at dcrl@pm.me

New Review: Southwestern Historical Quarterly

Came across this today. David M. Williams reviewed the book in the October 2019 edition of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. A link to the review is here.

Was not aware that the journal would be doing a review of the book, so it was interesting to read it. The conclusion was “This well-organized book is well worth reading.”

Los Almagres – San Saba link?

Los Almagres was an area in today’s Llano County that was prospected, and almost certainly mined, during the Spanish colonial era.  It is often confused with the San Saba presidio as they were in operation in more or less the same time frames.

There are Spanish era shafts in Llano County, but no one has reported finding slag around them.  Slag would be evidence of smelting with flux and charcoal in a blast furnace type arrangement.

Los Alamagres had a problem with Indians killing miners, but certain seasons of the year the Indians were not there.  Could miners have dug up ore at Los Almagres during the safe season, then transported it some safer place to refine it during the seasons the Indians passed through Los Almagres?

What would be a safe place not too far away?  Something like a stone fortress–how about the San Saba fort the Spaniards abandoned in 1772?  The San Saba Presidio area had water, and timber for charcoal — all essentials for smelting.

This hypothesis explains the following:

  1. Why the remains of a smelter and slag was found at the San Saba Presidio by Anglos later on.  A sample of the slag tested positive for silver.
  2. Why no slag was found in Llano county.
  3. Legends about mines on the San Saba — refining can be as big a job as mining, and perhaps the miners really spent most of their time there, so it entered the folklore in San Antonio.

Why not tell the Spaniards that there was silver at Los Almagres and gain military protection?  That had already been tried and protection was refused–probably due to politics as to who would be the Presidio commander.  Why refine it at the abandoned fort instead of in San Antonio?  Doing it nine days to the north of San Antonio would have kept it secret from the Spanish authorities and evaded the 20% tax.

Not much evidence for this theory, but it certainly explains a lot.

 

Will be Presenting at the East Texas Historical Assoc. Meeting Oct 12

If you are anywhere near Nacogdoches, TX on October 12, think about attending the 9:00AM session on A Historical Look at Treasure Legends.  It will be hosted by Wes Ferguson of Texas Monthly, and will consist of a talk by Gary Pinkerton (True Believers: Treasure Hunters at Hendricks Lake) and myself (The San Saba Treasure: Legends of Silver Creek).  We will both be speaking for about 30 minutes, then there will be a Q & A session.  After the session I plan on signing books at the Univ. of North Texas Press table.

The event is at the Fredonia Hotel, and I think one can register at the event, but probably better to do it ahead of time here.

The Spider Rock Treasure

Got a copy of a book recently on the Spider Rock Treasure.  A quick introduction to it is here.  The short version is that in the very early 1900’s, some engraved rocks were found in widely separated locations in Texas.  The cryptic engravings seemed to go together and point to something.

The book is Abridged Notes of a Spider Rock Treasure Researcher & Other History Events in Texas.  The author is Bill Townsely.

My early research into the San Saba story was greatly aided by an online article that Bill had written, and we corresponded and spoke on the phone about the legend.

Bill is interested in the San Saba treasure stories, but he is especially interested in the Spider Rock treasure.  His book, implied in the title, is along the lines of a scrap book.  It has over 200 pages of newspaper articles, bits of evidence, biographical details on the many treasure hunters, and interview notes–many of them clearly written by hand.  If is one is looking for the primary sources for this story, here they are.  It includes a lot of color photos and maps.

There is a series of articles in the back of the book to get one up to speed on the story, then one can browse around in the book.  As in the San Saba treasure history, many unique people had a go at the Spider Rock Treasure (and still are).  Even if one has no interested in looking for the treasure, still an interesting read.  I am looking forward to spending many hours following the threads in the book this Fall.

Anyone interested in buying a copy can contact Bill via email

Cactus Book Shop

On the way to Bandera, TX the other day for a book signing, dropped in on the Cactus Book Shop in San Angelo, TX.  Had heard that the store had a lot of books on the history of the Old West, and was not disappointed.  Left with a couple of books I could not do without.  It is a good thing I live a distance from there or I would be out a lot of money every month.

While there, I autographed several of the San Saba books that were in stock.  If you are after a signed copy, you can order from him over the phone (number is on the store website, via the link above).

Book Signing – May 18

May 18, 2019, at 2:00PM there will be a book signing at the Frontier Times Museum in Bandera, TX (Bandera is not too far from San Antonio).

It is particularly fitting as the museum was founded by Marvin Hunter, the son of John Warren Hunter.  Both of them figure into the San Saba story to one degree or another.  Visiting the museum was on my to-do list when I relocated to Texas earlier this year, so getting to do a book signing while visiting will be a bonus.

Plan on giving a short talk before hand, accompanied with some graphics and pictures–some of which are not in the book.

Overview

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 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.  People worked at that same site, off and on, from 1868 to 1990.

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.  It is the first painting ever made of a historical event in Texas.  It shows the two slain priests with the weapons by which they were martyred.

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.

sansabadestruction

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, only good for crushing into gravel.

The Lost Gold Episode

Just finished watching the travel Channel’s Lost Gold episode on Jim Bowie’s lost silver mine.  First impression is that it was better than I thought it would be, given how a lot of TV shows go these days.  They had some good footage from within the cave, and that is the cave in the book.  For some reason, they did not show the bulldozer that Wallace Merrick managed to get into it.  Time constraints, I suppose.

Back to the beginning of the show, the brothers in the TV show made the same mistake that past treasure hunters made: the assumption that if there was a Spanish fort somewhere, there had to be silver or gold nearby.  Sometimes there was, but sometimes there were other reasons to establish presidios.

The Spaniards established the presidio to protect a nearby mission.  The mission was founded in an effort to absorb the Apache.  The Apache themselves had proposed such missions years earlier.  No, the Apache were not really interested in living in missions, but they did like the idea of a presidio to fend off their mortal foes, the Comanche.  And it was the Comanche, and other northern tribes, who destroyed the mission about a year after it was established.   It was about 2,000 warriors versus less than 100 Spanish troops at the presidio, and even fewer at the mission itself.  The mission was destroyed, but not the presidio.

At that point, the presido had nothing left to protect.  The commander suggested that it be moved to Los Almagres (to the east) to encourage miners to come in.  The authorities declined.  They had promised Miranda the post of commander, should a presidio be opened at Los Almagres.  Instead of arbitrating a squabble between the current San Saba presidio commander and Miranda, why not just keep the status quo?  Instead the wooden presidio was rebuilt as a stone fortress.  However, Spaniards did mine Los Almagres, at least on a small scale.  There are examples of Spanish era shafts (and tailing piles and smelters of various vintage) on the Stott’s ranch in Llano County.  Really, the San Saba treasure and the Los Almagres Mines should have been two separate episodes.

In the last several years of the presidio, it was a veritable prison–for the Spaniards.  The Comanche harassed and often killed anyone who went outside of its walls.  The Spaniards could not ranch or farm and food had to be sent in on mule trains.  Mule trains that were raided as well.  Eventually the surviving Spaniards at the presidio abandoned the post.  Not a very likely area in which to establish a massive store room for silver bars to be taken in from somewhere else.

It was, as per Caiaphas Ham,  Jim Bowie’s brother Rezin who visited the San Saba area, with a guide, in 1829 to search for a mine.  And it was most likely Rezin who scratched his name (“Bowie, and his men” in Spanish) on the gate post. Jim Bowie’s main source of wealth was in land speculating.  His fraudulent land deals in Louisiana were falling apart and his vast land holdings (as a Mexican citizen) in Texas were not yet worth anything.  So, why not check out what Rezin had looked into?  No, he probably was not interested in mining it himself, but he was a natural leader and after making a claim, he no doubt would organized a company to do the mining for him.

According to Jim’s report after the 1831 expedition, the mine was supposed to be within one mile of the presidio.  In 1832 he launched another expedition.  He later speculated that the shallow shaft had been eroded away, or had been filled in by the natives.  There is no indication that Jim Bowie had any knowledge of the Los Almagres mines to the East.

As to why people had such an interest in the cave that was shown on the TV program?  In 1868 four explorers from San Marcos, Texas went looking for a mine, or at least mineral deposits, around the San Saba River.  There were stories that a mine was on a creek feeding the San Saba (there is also a story that they had a treasure map).  They almost certainly found the egg-shapped basin, and possibly the cave as well.  Before a plate was put in place in the 1970’s (to keep silt out), one could go from the basin to the cave.  Those explorers went home with no silver, but they had stories of the trip.  Those stories got other people interested, and people did not stop pestering that plot of land for the next 120 years.  Their story was what put the crude map to the site in Dobie’s Coronado’s Children.

Regarding the presidio, a geologist named Ira Collier found evidence of an assay lab at the old fort in the 1930’s.  There was also slag (a by-product of refining) found there as late as at least the 1950’s (probably the 1960’s), and the slag tested as having residual silver in it.  So the Spaniards there were testing silver bearing mineral samples, and were possibly even refining ore.  How much, where it came from, and where it went, is a mystery.  Personally, I do not think it went into the cave.

The real treasure there,  in my opinion, is the real history of the area.  When the historian at the presidio on the show said that the site was the second most important historical site in Texas, he was correct.  When the Spaniards lost the presido and the mission, that was as far north in Texas as they ever went.  Had that mission and fort succeeded, the alternate histories one could come up with are staggering.

Another treasure is the story of the people who looked for the mine.  Obviously Jim Bowie, but from the 1860’s onward, a nearly continuous stream of people looked for the silver.  One was a prominent, self-made, attorney from San Antonio, who died mysteriously at the site.  Another was a rattle snake dancer who knew Houdini.  Yet another was the man who designed the machinery the shrimp industry uses to this day.

I suppose the show was about the best that could be done for a program that ran about 40 minutes (less commercials) that tried to cover the Los Almagres mines and the San Saba legends.  At about 20 minutes per legend–not much can be done.  Of course, I hope that people are interested enough to buy my book on the subject, but I also hope that people take a deeper look at the history of the area and also keep alive the stories of the treasure hunters over the years who spent decades of their lives looking for the treasure.