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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.

 

Upcoming TV Episode on the Lost Bowie Mine

The Travel Channel, some months ago, launched a new TV Series named Lost Gold.  Two brothers travel the country looking into legends of lost treasure.  One of the upcoming episodes is “Jim Bowie’s Lost Silver Mine.”

In 1831 Jim Bowie, his brother, and a group of men, went looking for a silver mine near the San Saba River, within a mile or so of the old Presidio in today’s Menard, TX.  They fought an epic battle with the Indians instead, and barely made it back to San Antonio alive.  The Lost Bowie Mine and the San Saba Treasure are sometimes used interchangeably.  Mysteries surround the expedition: where was the mine they were after, and where did the fight actually take place?  The book has a chapter on Jim Bowie and his expedition.

Several months ago, the Lost Gold TV crew to took some footage inside the cave and at the alleged McCaslin grave site.  Personally, I do not know what will be in the episode, but it is surely worth a chance if one has cable TV.  The TV listing is here:  Show Description

The archives at UT Austin

Very early on in my research for the book, one of the most useful resources were the various archives at UT Austin.  The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History is a vast source of Texas history.  Most relevant to the San Saba story, it holds the papers of J. Frank Dobie, including his file, with correspondence and interview notes, regarding Coronado’s Children.  In that same file is the unpublished manuscript that William Longworth wrote.  Another archive at UT Austin is the Harry Ranson Center, and material from there turned out to be useful as well.

A search of the Dolph Briscoe website indicated that there might be some useful materials there, but I was living far away from Austin at the time. So I engaged the services of a professional researcher.  I think I was lucky to have found a good one.  His name is Ralph Elder.  He was very familiar with the various archives at UT Austin and I think he went on three research visits in total.  For the first search he went above and beyond what I asked for, and he found some fascinating material.  If anyone is interested in using him to locate and photograph materials at the various archives at UT Austin, he can be reached at Ralph.L.Elder@gmail.com .

The 1868 Texas Almanac

In late 1867 the 1868 Texas Almanac was published.  On page 83 there was a most curious article written by one J. A. Quintero.  I can not help but think that the San Marcos men, who visited the area around the San Saba River in late 1868, had read that article.

Jose Agustin Quintero (1829 – 1885) was quite a character.  Born to a Cuban father and an English mother in Cuba, he became a lawyer in Cuba and supported the revolution there.  He was arrested by the Spaniards, but escaped Cuba after being sentenced to death.

He ended up in America.  In 1856 he became the editor of a newspaper in San Antonio.  When the Civil War started, he joined the South.  He was sent to Mexico as a secret agent.  He spent a lot of time in Matamoros opening a trade route where cotton was shipped out–about 20% of all cotton exported during the war.   Ironically, much of that cotton ended up in the textile mills in the North via middlemen.  The Mexican governor, interestingly enough, was interested in seceding from Mexico and joining the Confederacy.

After the war Quintero became a lawyer and then a journalist in New Orleans.  In 1867 he was appointed Consul for Costa Rica and Belgium, but just before that he wrote the article that appeared in the Texas Almanac.

The article was mostly a series of letters that were supposedly written by minor officials in the Mexican government in the 1820’s.  They were given to Quintero in 1863 by  Don Manuel Rejon, a Mexican government official who was executed about a year later by the Mexican government when the political winds shifted.   Quintero’s introduction to the letters said that Emperor Iturbide had an interest in the mines, and the director of the military academy in Monclova had written a report, but it was not acted on when Iturbide lost power in 1823.

The letters claimed that the mines were 45 leagues north-west of San Antonio, in the “San Saba hills,” and that they were of untold richness.  The name given for them was Los Almagres.  The article ended with a Sebastian Rodriguez, of Monclova, claiming to have visited the “San Saba Hills” and to have seen the mines himself in 1822.

It is really anyone’s guess as to what it all means. For one thing, if a secret agent of the Confederacy had intelligence that there were immense silver and gold mines 45 miles north-west of San Antonio, may that not have been of interest to the Confederates?  The Confederacy, at that time, had a POW camp at Fort McKavett, about 20 miles away from the future city of Menard.  Use captured troops for miners, and fund the war effort–what is not to like about that plan?  Did the Confederates ever mount an expedition to the San Saba?  There does not seem to be any record of it.

Why did not Quintero himself form a syndicate and mount an expedition himself after the war?  The Comanche were still a problem, but not so much that Menardville was not already taking shape even before Fort McKavett was reopened with federal troops in 1868.

Whatever the story is behind the article, if it was not the reason the San Marcos men to the San Saba in 1868, it at least motivated them.

 

 

The McCaslin Relics

There are about as many sites for where the 1831 Bowie battle with the Indians took place are there are sites for the legendary lost mine.  The State of Texas decided it was far east of Menard when they were passing out roadside historical markers.  Personally, I think it was a few miles east of Menard, north of the river.

But some people think it was to the north west of town, near the egg-shaped basin.   In the 1930’s Judge Norton and Princess Wenonah found a skeleton to the north of where their main diggings were.  There was a knife, a horse bridle, and a rifle barrel near the corpse.  Norton and Wenonah concluded that they had found the grave of Thomas McCaslin.

Thomas McCaslin was a mechanic brought out west by Jim Bowie.  Jim had promised the Mexican government that he would set up an agricultural mill, and McCaslin was to help set it up.  Before setting about on the mill, the Bowie brothers made a trip north to the vicinity of the San Saba river to look for a mine that was supposed to be within a mile of the old presidio.  Apparently, a guide had taken Jim’s brother to it previously.

Part way through the trip, the group was warned by the Comanche that a band of Indians was after them, so they made full speed to the old Presidio to take shelter.  They forded the San Saba, and then…got lost.  Eventually they headed further north to take shelter for the night.  They had their legendary battle next day at dawn.  Many were injured, but McCaslin was the only fatality in the group.  McCaslin was buried near the location of the fight.

Besides the historical curiosity of where the fight occurred, many treasure hunters believe that the fight took place near the supposed mine. So, find the make shift “fort” and/or McCaslin’s body, and you are close to the mine.  Supposedly.   Jim Bowie’s account made it clear that the mine was supposed to be within a mile of the Presidio.  Many were confused by the more commonly printed account by Jim’s brother.  His brother said that the camp was six miles from the fort, and the mine was a mile distant.  So, was the mine one mile distant from camp, or one mile distant from the Presidio?  Jim Bowie’s account was clear that the mine was supposed to be one mile from the Presidio.

Back to Norton and Wenonah, they never had anything to say about what they were doing at the mine site over the thirteen plus years they stayed there.  All except for one thing: the McCaslin body.  They even erected a cross made from oil field pipe over the body and fixed a brass plaque to it, proclaiming it to be the body of McCaslin.  Perhaps they promoted the find as a way to help sell stock in the mine.  Or, as one person who knew them suggested, it was a distraction to throw other treasure hunters off the track (supposedly they found yet another body a distance away, and it was the real McCoy, or at least the McCaslin.)

Some concluded that bridle, knife, and barrel were grave goods that proved the body was an Indian, buried according to their customs.  But the accounts at the time were that the items were near, but not necessarily in the grave.  It is unfortunate that archeologists were not consulted to date the artifacts and to give an opinion on the race of the skeleton.

So what did happen to the artifacts?  Years later Wenonah was sick, and out of money.  She moved to the Bevins hotel in Menard.  She was a trend setter–today it is the Menard Manor, a rest home.  She needed money, and it just so happened that a collector of old west artifacts had an office in the hotel.  She put up the bridle and the knife as collateral for a loan.  She died without ever reclaiming them.

The new owner, according to a newspaper from the 1960’s, was Bill Volkmann.  The image below shows him, with the knife resting on a book to his side.  He is holding the bridle.  The article claimed that the barrel made its way to a lady in San Angelo.

Volkmann

There is also an account that the artifacts were briefly owned by a local attorney before being stolen.  Those artifacts could help clear up the mystery, but they seem to been lost forever.

Rise and Fall of the Mission San Saba – Hunter and Dobie

In 1905 there was a Texas Ranger’s reunion in Menardville, TX.  A local newspaper man and former teacher named John W. Hunter printed up a booklet about the area, The Rise and Fall of the Mission San Saba.  It had three parts–43 pages on the history of the Spanish involvement in the area, especially in regards to the mission and presidio.  22 pages on the legendary mine.  And the remainder of the book was on notable citizens (in the first printing), and a sketch of the area (in the second printing).

There is a lot packed into those first 65 pages.  The focus here is not so much what Hunter wrote, but what Dobie copied.

From Dobie’s Coronado’s Children:

Sometimes the name of the fabled source of wealth is Los Almagres; sometimes Las Almagres; again La Mina de las Iguanas…oftener the name is simply the Lost San Saba Mine or the Lost Bowie Mine….It changes its place like will-o’-the-wisp…

From Hunter’s The Rise and Fall of the Mission San Saba:

History and tradtion all attest the existence of a silver mine so often referred to by the old chroniclers as “La Mina de las Almagres,” “La Mina de las Amarillas,” and in modern times as “The Bowie Mine.”…It was the will-o’-the wisp…

Dobie obviously read the book and borrowed not just the stories, but some of the literary flourishes as well.  Most of what Dobie wrote about Silver Creek was straight from William Longworth (and that includes the La Mina de las Iguanas part), but the Bowie section in Dobie’s book is very close to the book by Hunter.

That is not altogether a bad thing.  Hunter, in my opinion, was either really right, or really wrong, on everything he wrote.  An example of where he was really right was his little book listing where the lost mission was, while professional historians and archeologists scampered about the countryside in a futile search for decades.  It was found in the 1990’s when someone simply read his book and looked up property records (Hunter wrote that the mission remains were on the old Hockensmith place) and sure enough, that lot of land had the remains.  Hunter showed up in the area in the late 1800’s.  He saw the presidio mostly as the Spaniards had abandoned it.  He saw the debris of the mission.  He spoke to people who had spoke to Bowie, et al.

But at other times, he was really wrong.  He did talk to a lot of old timers, and sometimes they knew what they were talking about, and sometimes they really did not.  Or they had picked up idle gossip along the way, and made it respectable by telling it as a card-carrying old timer.   That includes the account of Bowie being adopted by an Indian tribe and so discovering a cave full of silver bars.  That is, properly, folklore, and Dobie was, well, doing his job as a folklorist by including it in his book.

Back to Hunter’s book, it is not an easy book to find.  But well worth reading if one finds it.

Paper read at the 2018 Texas Folklore Society

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.

 

Jim Bowie’s 1832 Expedition

The 1831 expedition of the Bowie brothers to search for the lost mine somewhere around the San Saba River is well known.  Less well known is the 1832 expedition.  Rezin Bowie, James’s brother, was not part of it.

A newspaper from January 1832 states:

Permission having been granted by the Political Authorities of the country, to Mr James Bowie to make an expedition against this horde of thieves, and marauders, of our frontier, a Volunteer corps, to be commanded by officers of their own election, will go out in the coming month of January.  The present is believed to be a favorable moment to strike a final and fatal blow to those distorters of our peace…information has been received that the Tahaukanos…All that feel disposed to go and chastize these murderers of our wives and children, and plunderers of our property, are invited to meet at Gonzales on the 20th of next month, the time and place appointed for a general rendezvous, whence they will proceed on the campaigne.

The stated purpose was to go punish the Tonkawa Indians.  That was the main group that had attacked Bowie’s group not long before.  It was widely suspected then, and now, that the main purpose, or at least a purpose, was to go back to the San Saba and have another look for a silver mine.  Jim Bowie went on the expedition, and found no silver, and apparently saw little sign of the Tonkawa either.

Rezin may have visited the San Saba with a guide before the 1831 fight and been shown an alleged mine.  In a twist of fate, Rezin’s eye sight was failing.  In the 1831 fight he used a shotgun instead of a rifle.  After the 1831 fight he headed back east to visit an eye specialist.  He also told the story of the Indian fight to the Saturday Evening Post, and it was widely printed and reprinted for years to come.  How cruel that he had seen the mine, or at least what he thought was a mine, then, perhaps, could not see well enough to lead the way to it.

After the probable search in early 1832 for the mine, it is likely that Jim Bowie never looked for it again.

 

The 1920’s Map

This map shows up from time to time in the San Saba legend, often as a translation of a Spanish waybill.  It shows a lot of mines around Menard.  Unfortunately, no paying mine has ever been opened, and not for a lack of looking.

This map was actually drawn by an Emmett Sarver in 1927 in an apparent attempt to put all the alleged mines one map, based at least on part on an engraved rock said to have been found buried at the presidio.  George Collins, of Kansas City, gave a copy of the map to J. Frank Dobie in late 1930, probably in response to the publication of Coronado’s Children. 

Incidentally, George Collins was good friends with the treasure hunter William Longworth, and, in fact, it was Collins who wrote to Dobie to inform him of Longworth’s death.

Map_Mines