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Texas History | Texas Rivers

Wild Navidad

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The Navidad River is only 74 miles long but it is as tangled in history and folklore as the vines and trees along its banks.

The tales range from a belief by some that Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna ordered a cash of gold buried near the river to the story of the Wild Woman of the Navidad.

A west and east fork of the Navidad rise in Fayette County and merge into one stream just to the northwest of Oakland, a small community on the western edge of Colorado County.

An old Spanish trail from Louisiana to Mexico, locally known as the Gonzales-San Felipe Road, crossed the Navidad near Oakland, first known as Prairie Point. On April 7, 1836 -- a month and a day after the fall of the Alamo -- Santa Annas's army crossed the Navidad here as it headed east in pursuit of Sam Houston.

One of Santa Anna's soldiers, Lt. Jose Enrique de la Pena, wrote:

"We halted in order to organize a passage over a creek, the name of which I did not know [the stream we had just crossed?]. . . . We camped on the left bank of Navidad Creek [River] after we had traveled twelve miles. We also found houses that had been burned, and one usable but without furniture. There were also tilled fields, and in one of these we found the corpse of a man that must have belonged to Ramirez y Sesma's division."

The next day, the Mexican soldiers marched on, moving over "an ever-changing and beautiful road."

De la Pena wrote that the soldiers had to leave behind some of the wagons they had been unable to get across the creek. Also left behind, though de la Pena does not mention it, was an artilleryman's sword. An Oakland area farmer found the long blade in the early 1970s while plowing a hillside. Butch Strunk, a fourth-generation Colorado County rancher and former county judge who has a strong interest in history, now owns the sword.

In late 1997, independent historian Gary McKee of Fayette County ran across an intriguing letter while doing some work at a research library. Purportedly written in Matamoras, Mexico by a man to his son, the letter details fairly specifically the location of buried gold near the Navidad and Oakland.

The diarist de la Pena makes no mention of lost treasure, by the way. But de la Pena did complain, in several places, that Santa Anna was very sparing in the coin he furnished his men. Reading between the lines, it is obvious the Mexican Army was traveling with a fair amount of money for the time. Clearly, it was in coin. But Santa Anna wasn't sharing much of it.

Santa Anna found the traveling hard that rainy spring, and it made sense to travel light when your wagons often were hub deep in mud. But burying a fortune in gold seems an unlikely course of action. It is well documented that the general was used to the finer things of life and in those pre-plastic days, that took silver and gold.

Someone else who was there along the Navidad was the Wild Woman. People began seeing her tracks, and missing food and property, around the time the area re-settled after the revolution. Theories on the origin of the mysterious creature ranged from its being a child, lost as settlers fled ahead of Santa Anna during the so-called Runaway Scrape, to a runaway slave.

J. Frank Dobie told the story of the Wild Woman of the Navidad in his "Tales of Old-Time Texas," first published in 1928.

No one knows if Santa Anna buried any money for safe-keeping. It's probably just another treasure story, as thin in plausibility as gold is dense. The paper McKee found dates the gold burial to 1846, but an 1836 date seems much more likely if any gold was ever hidden.

Like the fate of the Wild Woman of the Navidad, we'll probably never know for sure.
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
- April 14, 2006 column
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