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Found Horns
and Lost Gold

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

For a time in the 1920s and ‘30s, a Southerner who got to Texas as soon as he could reigned as Texas’ “Horn King.”

Born in a log cabin near Dalton, Georgia, as a youth Lee D. Bertillion earned 35 cents a day in a cotton factory. Some time in the 1890s, a sickly teenager dreaming of the cowboy life, he set out on foot for Texas to “get well or die.”

Reaching the Mississippi, he found the ferry cost 25 cents. Short that amount by two dimes and a nickel, he prevailed on a kind-hearted stranger to advance him 10 cents. Then he retained the owner of a small, leaky boat to row him across the river.

Bertillion spent some time working on ranches in West Texas and Mexico. Cowboying apparently suited him, and he soon recovered his health. In addition to punching cattle, he also tried his hand at prospecting in the Big Bend. Looking for precious minerals, Bertillion later claimed to have found a different sort of treasure, “a large amount of old bones and long cattle horns where evidently some herd had perished in a canyon many years before.”

That find inspired the new Texan’s fascination with longhorns. Those tough descendants of Spanish stock had helped build Texas after the Civil War, but by the time Bertillion arrived ranchers had turned to short-horn cattle with longhorns well on their way toward joining the buffalo in near extinction. Given that, at some point it occurred to Bertillion that polished, nicely mounted longhorn horns made nice souvenirs.

In 1916, having made some money selling horns, he bought a farm near Mineola. He had married a woman he met when she admired a set of horns he was displaying and they had at least one child, a son.

The Georgian-turned-Texan seems to have been a reasonably intelligent, self-educated, well-spoken dreamer with a Horatio Alger-style entrepreneurial bent. From the mid-1920s through the mid-Depression, he ran ads in a variety of magazines offering mounted steer horns for sale. The San Antonio Light carried a page-one story about Bertillion in 1931 with a photograph of him holding up a set of horns considerably longer than he stood tall. The caption referred to him as the “Texas ‘Horn King.’”

But while he made his living farming and selling horns, Bertillion clearly shared the near-universal dream of getting rich the easy way by finding someone else’s lost treasure.

In 1924 his byline appeared over two stories included in “Legends of Texas,” a publication of the Texas Folklore Society edited by J. Frank Dobie. One of those stories is “The Steinheimer Millions,” and it appears to be the first written telling of one of Texas’ more engaging treasure tales.

Supposedly, a German who first became acquainted with Texas as a pirate colleague of Luis Aury made a fortune mining in Mexico. In 1839, receiving a letter from a lost love in St. Louis, he offered her his heart along with 10 mule loads of gold and silver. Hoping to assure safe travel through Indian country, Heir Steinheimer joined a Mexican agent named Manuel Flores who was covertly working to turn Indians against the new Republic of Texas.

In present Williamson County, Flores and his party got caught by Texas Rangers. Steinheimer escaped, only to be gravely wounded by Indians. Before he died, he hid his millions somewhere in Central Texas and managed to dispatch one last letter to his beloved giving her directions to his fortune.

Given that Bertillion claimed only seven months’ education, most of that time spent studying an old blue back speller, it’s hard to believe that by middle age he had reached a level where he could write folktales suitable for publication. Someone must have helped him. It could have been his wife or it could have been a well-educated man with an affinity for both folklore and writing – Dobie.

Bertillion said he first heard the story in Bell County from one Frank Ellis who got it from someone named Nalley Jones. Jones, he said, got it from three unnamed Mexicans who had spent three months hunting for the treasure.

If the Steinheimer story is merely a transcription of oral tales, the tellers to whom Bertillion lent an ear sure knew their Texas history. They knew of the Flores incident, they knew the exploits of Texas pirate Aury and more. Interestingly, the story appears with no credit to Bertillion in Dobie’s classic work, “Coronado’s Children,” published only six years after it first ran under Bertillion’s name.

Whoever wrote the story, it has more holes than the rangers left in Flores’ body. Bertillion-Dobie said Steinheimer was born in 1793 in Speyer, Germany, but his name does not show up in any books, articles or documents. Also, no account of the Flores fight mentions a European traveling with Flores.

To cover that, whoever cooked up the tale has Steinheimer pulling ahead of the Flores party with his load of gold. Considering that Flores and his men were riding at a gallop trying to escape the equally hard-riding Texans, Steinheimer must have had some awfully fleet-footed jacks in his team.

Truth is, no matter who first wrote the tale, there wasn’t all that much gold and silver lying around Texas in the 1830s. As one Texas newspaper astutely observed in 1888:

“The idea seems to prevail that years ago Texas was overrun with rich [people] who deposited vast sums of money here and there and then kindly died or got scalped, leaving their lucre to whom it might concern…yet strange as it may seem, men can be found credulous enough to believe in such prodigy.”

© Mike Cox - May 30, 2012 column
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