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Books by
Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Mystery of
the Spider Rocks

by Clay Coppedge

In 1902, a man named David M. Arnold, who was described as being "as fat as the town dog," rode into the town of Haskell on an iron-gray horse and inquired as to the whereabouts of the town's druggist, Caleb Terrell.

Terrell had in his possession a treasure map he'd taken as payment for treating an elderly Hispanic man some years previous. Arnold also had a treasure map with a puzzling array of lines and symbols drawn on sheepskin. Combine the two, he told Terrell, and they would find a vast treasure - Coronado's mythical stash of gold from the seven cities of Cibola.

It sounds cockeyed and crazy, but Arnold was actually on to something - but what? At least partially financed by Caleb, Arnold hired half a dozen people to help him look for the treasure. The problem, of course, was that the hieroglyphics on the sheepskin map were indecipherable to them. They were going on guesses and hunches until a Mexican sheepherder showed up and said he could read the map.

The sheepherder, identified only as Fernandez in some accounts and not at all in others, told the men the map led not to the treasure, but to stone tablets that would show them where the gold was buried. He also told them they were digging in the wrong place. He pointed them to a place near the confluence of the Salt Fork and Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River, where they found the first of three tablets that they would call Spider Rocks because a series of concentric circles made it look a spider's web.

The stone was about 16 inches square and a couple of inches thick and covered with both Roman and Arabic numbers and an ancient Mexican version of the letter "H" along with a lot of circles, rectangles and strange figures.

Not far from where they found the first rock, they found a mass grave, which Fernandez had predicted. He said the skeletons were native slaves, buried there so their spirits could guard the treasure. Arnold and his men believed something else - that Fernandez was tricking them, leading them away from the treasure so he could keep it for himself.

Fernandez left, never to be seen again. The men found a decomposed body not far from the site a couple of weeks later - Fernandez, they assumed.

By this time, the ranchers Arnold hired to look for the gold got tired of it and went back to taking care of their animals and pastures. But Arnold persisted, and two years later he found a second tablet on a farm near Baird. The second tablet looked a whole lot like the first, except the first stone had eight circles in its "web" and the second one had four.

Arnold believed that Spanish conquistadors had the gold with them in the early 1700s but buried it in a series of chambers and drew the map to mark its location after encountering hostile Indians somewhere in that country. He kept finding artifacts - copper amulets shaped like daggers and leaves and crowns inscribed with symbols similar to the ones on the tablets. But no treasure. He left most of the artifacts with Terrell, who stored them at his drug store.

Arnold then hired a "seer" to help him find the gold, but the seer foresaw bad things happening to anybody and everybody who tried to find the gold. Sure enough, Caleb Terrell died bankrupt in 1909 after spending most of his money with Arnold, who, unbelievably, found a third spider rock near Rotan in Fisher County, this one with two circles in its web.

But Arnold's quest was nearly over. Fire destroyed Terrell's drug store in 1909, and for a long time historians believed the artifacts were lost in the fire. The story caught the attention of J. Frank Dobie, who recounted much of it under the title "Lost Copper Mines and Spanish Gold" in Legends of Texas: Lost Mines and Buried Treasure".

In a 2001 article for the Houston Chronicle, writer Evan Moore detailed how the search for Coronado's gold has continued for generations, and how certain parts of the land in an area running north from Abilene to Kiowa Peak near Aspermont and along the Salt Fork of the Brazos River to Rotan and Baird is pockmarked with holes left over from the many searches.

The British television series "Myth Hunters" featured the mystery of the spider rocks in one of its episodes, and there's no doubt someone is digging or planning to dig for the treasure even as you read this. The show featured Duane Hale and Steve Wilson, historians who have compiled the most extensive and reliable information about the spider rocks. Hale got interested in the story while he was researching the possibility of old copper mines in the region. Wilson wrote a book about it, "Spider Rock Treasure: A Texas Mystery of Lost Spanish Gold."

The thing that keeps academics and treasure hunters alike interested in the rocks is that people in the area keep finding stuff - artifacts and even some discs that seem to relate to the rocks' hieroglyphics. They find just enough to keep them going, but never enough to prove anything or make anybody rich.

The location of two of the rocks is still, as far as I can find, a closely guarded secret. The third one turned up in Waco several years ago, pulling double duty as an artifact and door stop, and still not revealing any secrets.


Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" July 7, 2016 column


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