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
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
Porter worked 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
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 it.
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 trove.
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.
Porter 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
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
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
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.
According to 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 screech.
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
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.
Two years 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 Creek.
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.
© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
December 1, 2006 column
Small Town Sagas
Related Topics: Columns
by C. F. Eckhardt
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