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Texas | Columns | Lone Star Diary

The Lost Treasure of
Padre Island

by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery
Treasure hunting is one of those things which tends to stir the imagination of most folks – and the thought of looking for buried treasure has always fascinated me, as well.

I remember back in the early 1960s, I was a teenager and lived with my family in Angleton, Texas. I recall that my dad and I were quite intrigued with the idea of hunting for buried treasure. So much so that Daddy drove the 45 miles into Houston and purchased a metal detector from an old boy who was making them in his garage.

We couldn’t wait to try the new gadget out – so, we made a beeline for Surfside Beach to search for pirate’s treasure and the like. But alas, all Daddy and I discovered was that there probably wasn’t a square foot at Surfside that didn’t have a beer can buried in it. I’ll have to admit that we never found any real valuables, but we sure had fun trying.

Over the years, I have spent some time reading a number of books about lost bounty and none are more interesting than W.C. Jameson’s, Buried Treasures of Texas. Many of the stories in his book are considered only legends – yet there is factual information surrounding the creation of this folklore. And there is little doubt that the events leading up to the “treasure tales” are factual.

One of my favorites is the story about John Singer and his buried fortune on Padre Island. Singer was part of a famous family which was highly thought of as businessmen and inventors. His brother, Isaac, had created a fortune with his Singer Sewing Machine Company – but John was more of an adventurer and he was happiest when exploring the vast coastline of Texas.

In 1847, John Singer was in Port Isabel. He was on another of his adventures, traveling the waters of the Gulf of Mexico – this time his wife, four sons, and a hired hand were along for the ride. This would turn out to be a trip that would be remembered forever by the Singer family. Not long after they left the harbor at Port Isabel, sailing a three-masted schooner known as the Alice Sadell, the family started to encounter some bad weather. Although not an experienced seaman, Singer had traveled the region before and he was of the opinion that the storm would soon blow over. But as the winds got stronger and the waves begin to crash over the vessel, he decided that he must somehow make it to shore. The squall helped him with that decision, and the huge waves promptly lifted the boat and smashed it onto a deserted island.

The family spent the night in the ship’s cabin and the storm had ceased by sunrise. Singer, along with his hired hand, explored the narrow island where fate had cast them. And after some discussion they came to the correct conclusion that they were on Padre Island – a narrow strip of land which extends some 100 miles, along the coast, from the Mexican border to Corpus Christi.

Singer and his group were not the only ones who had wrecked at this place. It seems that over the years dozens of Spanish vessels, while transporting gold and silver from the rich mines in Mexico, had found themselves in the middle of violent storms which blew the crippled ships onto Padre Island. Many of the ships sank offshore and the tide would wash the wreckage onto the sandy beach. Many stories were told of pirates burying vast amounts of gold, silver, and other ill-gotten gains under the sands of Padre.

The Singer family had no idea that there might be a fortune buried under their newfound residence. Fact is, they soon fell in love with Padre Island and decided to make it their home. And when a rescue vessel finally came for them, they refused to leave and instead went to work to build a life in this tropical paradise.

They used the wood from the shipwreck to fashion a frame house and crude furniture. Mrs. Singer planted seeds and raised a garden. John made a small boat to travel back and forth to the mainland. He purchased cattle and had them delivered to the island. They fished and harvested other food from the sea. You might say life was going great for the Singers – but that was all to change when the children came across some Spanish coins during one of their beachcombing endeavors.

John and his family went on to find more gold coins and eventually they came across a wooden chest containing about $80,000 in jewelry and coins. According to legend, the Singers continued to find pirate’s treasure and John became highly successful in the cattle business. Singer decided to keep the bulk of his loot in a large sand dune which he named “money hill” – the story goes that he would go to his secret dune and retrieve money when he needed it. Other accounts say that he also buried another cache between two small oak trees.

With the start of the Civil War, John Singer’s fate changed again – and when Yankee gunboats appeared off the coast of Padre Island, he decided to move his family to the mainland where they remained until the war ended, four years later.

When Singer returned to the island, he found his house had been torn down by the Union sailors and used for firewood. He also discovered that the place had been hit by a hurricane and when he searched for his “money hill,” it was nowhere to be found – the storm had changed the entire landscape of the isle, as well as completely destroying the two small oaks that he used for landmarks.

The story of the John Singer’s treasure ended in 1877, when he passed away. It is said that he died a pauper with no funds whatsoever – a far cry from the riches he had enjoyed while living in his Padre Island paradise – and today’s treasure hunters are still searching for his lost gold.

© Murray Montgomery
Lone Star Diary December 11, 2004 column

Related Topic:
Texas Buried Treasures

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