gray beard obscuring most of his weathered face and hanging untrimmed all the
way to his sweat-stained belt, the small Frenchman traveled from ranch to ranch
in Martin County in an old covered wagon pulled by two mules and followed by a
couple of dogs.|
The story of Joe A. Pruno reads like a Victorian-era dime
novel, complete with ample exaggeration, outright fabrication and historical inaccuracies.
For preserving the tale, fanciful and disjointed as it is, one Otto Fisher
deserves a tip of the Stetson. At some point after meeting him in 1922 on the
Stokes Ranch, Fisher wrote down Pruno’s recollections, putting them in first person.
A 15-page typescript of the document ended up in the Martin County museum in Stanton.
Pruno told Fisher he came into the world on April 1, 1842 in one of France’s
African colonies. His mother died of a fever shortly after his birth. A sea captain,
his father brought him to the United States at 12. On the way across the ocean,
their vessel survived a severe storm.
“We landed somewhere on the Southern
coast,” he told Fisher. “I had two aunts in American and I mixed with these aunts
at times but I had a job most of the time on river boats; did dish washing and
learned to cook.”
He said he enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil
War, serving under the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer. About all Pruno had
to say of his military experience was that “we tramped up hills, in ditches and
in the rain.”
After the war, he continued, he married and settled in Chicago.
He worked as a railroad fireman, stoking boilers on steam locomotives. When their
home burned near the end of the 1860s, the couple moved to Ozark Lake, MO. He
left his wife there and enlisted to serve once more under Custer.
risen to the rank of major general of volunteers during the Civil War, Custer
returned to the regular army at reduced rank. By 1866, however, he was a lieutenant
colonel in command of the 7th Cavalry. The “boy general,” as he was called, served
in Indian Territory through 1873 when the 7th went to the Black Hills of North
Pruno said while riding as a scout for Custer in what is now Oklahoma
the Indians captured him and took him into Texas.
(This is doubtful. Hostile Indians usually captured only women and children, preferring
to kill and scalp the men folk.) They went as far as the future location of Midland,
he said. The military rescued him after about six months, he said.
a leave from the Army, he went to California to hunt gold. He claimed he found
a lot of the precious metal somewhere near Sacramento, selling nuggets and the
rights to his dig for a considerable sum.
Discharged from the Army in 1872,
he headed east to Ozark City with a fortune in gold coin. His two burros heavily
laden, he took a circuitous route through the territories of Arizona and New Mexico
into West Texas, dodging Indians and
traveling from water hole to water hole while living off buffalo
and antelope. In what later became Stanton County, he said he decided to bury
the larger portion of his gold in one location with a lesser amount hidden at
After spending some time at Fort
Concho, Pruno said he traveled back to Missouri, where he claimed his wife
had been captured by Indians. (Except for the James and Dalton boys, the Show
Me State was pretty tame by then. This is probably another of the windy parts
of his story.)
In 1875, not having found his wife, Pruno returned to Texas
and tried to locate his hidden treasure. Alas, despite his best efforts to make
the trove findable, he never rediscovered his horde. Naturally, he spent most
of the rest of his life looking for it.
Giving up his long-distance rambling,
he stayed in the Lone Star state, working on various ranches, including making
concrete water troughs and putting up windmills
on the storied Slaughter Ranch. He also hauled freight from the Texas and Pacific
Railroad to Ballinger, Brady
For a time in the early 1900s, got hired as a laborer during the construction
of the Galveston
In addition to losing his treasure, Pruno managed to find
and lose three wives. He fathered seven children, three of his daughters serving
as nurses during World War I.
Stanton resident Cliff Hazelwood
remembers seeing Pruno when he was a kid. He heard stories about the old man but
never got a chance to talk to him.
“I think that gold is still right there
where he buried it,” Hazelwood says.
Catholic Cemetery in Stanton|
Photo courtesy Jason Penney
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A definitive history
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