O. HENRY AND
SHOAL CREEK TREASURE
he became known as O. Henry, a former consumptive from South Carolina-William
Sidney Porter, everybody who knew him called him Bill-lived and worked in Austin.
One of his first jobs there was with the state's General Land Office. At the time
the Land Office was located in the old Land Office building, which stands, today,
at the southeast corner of the Capitol Grounds. Just for the record, its external
appearance replicates an 11th Century German castle.|
In addition to working
in the General Land Office, Porter wrote short stories for various Austin and
regional newspaper Sunday supplements and, from time to time, published a tabloid-format
sheet of his own, which he called The Rolling Stone. He wanted to become
a major player in the publishing business, establishing Austin
as a literary center, but he didn't have the money.
In 1894 a Washington,
DC based humor weekly came up for sale. The Hatchet, as it was known, was
regarded by at least part of the nation's 'literary elite' as a peer of the early
Life (a humorous weekly, nothing like the later magazine of the same title)
and Judge, another nationwide humor weekly. The Hatchet could be
bought for $2500. However, neither Porter nor his partner in The Rolling Stone,
Dixie Daniels, had $2500, and they had no way of getting it.
on a sheep ranch near Kerrville
when he first came to Texas and spoke fair 'cowpen Spanish.' Part of his Land
Office job was inspecting state land leased to ranchers. One of the ranchers told
Porter a story he heard from a pastor or shepherd.
sought out the pastor and got the story direct. While Santa Anna was trying
to put down the Texas rebellion of 1836, two high-ranking Mexican officers-one
was, so the story goes, the paymaster, the other a high-ranking general-decided
to steal the entire payroll for the Mexican Army in Texas. They planned to bury
it in an area not frequented by white men, either from Mexico
or the US, and leave it until an opportunity arose to get out of the country with
With seven common soldiers as guards the paymaster started up the
San Antonio to Nacogdoches
road-the Camino Real. At some distance from San
Antonio but long before making contact with Santa Anna's rear elements, the
pay wagon turned northward toward the hills along the Colorado River. In the meantime,
two of the common soldiers hatched a plan of their own. Why enrich the paymaster?
Why not kill him-and the other five soldiers-and have the fortune to themselves?
They arranged to stand late guard. As they relieved the previous guards they slit
their throats, then cut the throats of the remaining four, including the paymaster.
They caught the murdered men's blood in a container. It would be poured over the
treasure to act as patron-a ghostly guardian-to keep others from finding
The two traveled a short way up a creek that came into the
Colorado from the north. They found a large liveoak. They measured forty-five
varas (1 vara=33.333 inches) north of the tree, dug a hole, buried the
chests of money, and poured the blood over the chests. They made a derrotero-a
waybill-to the location. At that point one of the soldiers decided 'Why split?'
He killed his companion.
In the meantime Santa Anna met with difficulty
at a place called San
Jacinto. In the battle-or the massacre that followed, no one's quite sure
which-the general officer who masterminded the plot was killed. The remaining
common soldier was the only person who knew of the plot-or knew where the money
was. Apparently he joined the general rout of Mexican troops headed south. When
he got back to Mexico he was afraid to tell what he knew, even more afraid to
go back for the treasure.
Years later he began to talk about it. The pastor
who told the tale to Porter had, as a boy, heard the soldier tell of the buried
treasure with its ghostly guardian. He believed the tale. So did Porter.
The pastor, of course, didn't have the derrotero. It was deep in
Mexico, in the hands of the son of the man who made it. To go get it would require
money. For $100, the pastor said he could get the derrotero.
had $20 in his pocket. He gave it to the pastor, with the promise of the
other $80 on delivery and interpretation of the waybill. The pastor wound
up his affairs and headed for the Rio Grande.
The old pastor was
gone a long time. In the meantime, The Hatchet came up for sale. Porter,
his partner Dixie Daniels, and Dixie's brother Vic, a young newspaperman in Austin,
were turning over every rock they could find to raise money to buy it.
A letter, written by a Mexican public scribe, arrived. It was from the pastor,
who said he was muy enfermo-very sick-and couldn't return to Texas. However,
he had the derrotero. If Porter would send him $45 he would send the derrotero
by his son, who would be able to interpret it. Porter scraped up $45 and sent
it to Mexico. Vic Daniels told him he was nuts-he had $45 in this wild goose chase
and he'd never see a penny of return. Porter thought different.
enough, three months later a young Mexican turned up in Austin,
looking for Porter. It was the son and he had the derrotero in hand. In
exchange for another $35, the balance of the $100 the pastor asked for,
he handed it over and interpreted it. The creek the treasure-hiders followed was,
apparently, the first creek west of what was known as Capitol Hill. Today it's
known as Shoal Creek.
Allegedly the paychests contained 16,000 doubloons.
That would have been about right, as the pay was the fist Santa Anna's army would
receive in six months. The value would have been about a quarter of a million
1894 dollars. In 1894 bullion gold sold for $10 per ounce.
the derrotero, the money was buried just over 1½ varas deep-about
4½ feet. Porter went to a geology professor at 'the college' and asked him how
much fill would have washed onto the banks of Shoal Creek over sixty years. The
estimate was just over a foot, putting the paychests a little over five and a
half feet underground.
Porter and the Daniels boys scouted the banks of
Shoal Creek, starting at the Colorado. Eventually they found a large liveoak with
an overgrown blaze on the north side. With the help of imagination they decided
what seemed to be an almost-obscured carving on the blaze was a pair of eagle's
wings. With a surveyor's chain they measured 45 varas to the north and
unobtrusively marked the spot.
The next evening Porter hired a heavy rig
from a local livery stable. If the horse and wagon were not returned by midnight,
Porter told the stable owner, it would be found at the railroad depot in Manchaca,
at the time a small, thriving town south of Austin. Just before dark the three
treasure-hunters loaded the rig with shovels, a grubbing hoe, and a lantern.
They reached the site just after dark. They concealed the horse and wagon in the
brush, took out the tools, and began to dig. They dug out a foot or so of previously-undisturbed
soil, then encountered soft ground in an area about four feet long by three wide-just
about the right size to hold sizeable treasure chests.
The digging was
easy from there. They put the lantern in the hole and shaded it so no light would
show through the brush. About the time they got down to the four-foot level-just
a foot or so from where the treasure would lie-they heard an eerie, unearthly
That brought digging to a quick halt. Almost immediately there
were more screeches-from behind them, in front of them, all around them. They
blew out the lantern and pulled their pistols, but didn't shoot. There was nothing
to shoot at. The screams and screeches continued for about a minute, then stopped.
The treasure-hunters waited, but there were no more screams. They lit the lantern
and began to dig once more.
For a few minutes the woods were silent.
Then the screaming resumed. That was enough. The treasure hunters picked up their
tools, reclaimed the wagon, and headed into town. The next morning the Austin
newspaper headlined a story about an escaped lunatic from the asylum north of
town. He was pursued along Shoal Creek, where he screamed at his pursuers. They
unnerved and captured him by replying-scream for scream.
The ghost laid,
Porter and the Daniels boys went back to the hole. With pick and shovel they removed
the remaining foot of soft soil-and struck limestone bedrock. Their search over
and fruitless, they got out of the treasure-hunting business.
later the Travis County treasurer shot himself in his office. He'd embezzled over
$4500 in county funds trying to buy-apparently from a couple of conmen-a 'true
chart' to the Shoal Creek treasure. On the day his books were to be audited he
put a pistol to his head.
tradition of treasure buried on Shoal Creek is older than Porter. One story holds
that two Mexican generals, having been entertained at the residence of Governor
Elisha M. Pease, presented him with a waybill to a treasure buried along Shoal
Periodically the story pops up again. In the late 1920s or early
1930s-Dad was always vague about exactly when-his brother and several friends
hunted for what, by then, was called 'pirate treasure.' From Dad's description
of where they searched they were in Pease or Shoal Creek Park, north of 10th Street,
too far north for the old tales.
At least one person got something out
of Porter's treasure hunt, even if it was only personal satisfaction. Shortly
before my great-uncle, Wesley H. Lyons, the cashier at the bank where Porter worked,
caught him embezzling, Porter published, in The Rolling Stone, one of his
best short stories. It's Bexar Scrip #2692, a murder tale. A land office
employee murders another employee and drags his body down the circular stone staircase
in the land office. He puts a land deed called 'Bexar Scrip #2692, the motive
for the murder, in the victim's coat pocket. He buries his victim in a box on
the bank of Shoal Creek. A group of young men, following the tradition of treasure
buried on the creek's banks, dig up the corpse and find the bloodsoaked deed.