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
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.
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
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
30, 2012 column
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