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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

O. HENRY
AND
THE SHOAL CREEK TREASURE

by C. F. Eckhardt
Before 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.

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 or shepherd.

Porter 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 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.

Sure 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.

According to the derrotero, the money was buried just over 1 varas deep-about 4 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 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.

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.

The 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

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