Just finished watching the travel Channel’s Lost Gold episode on Jim Bowie’s lost silver mine. First impression is that it was better than I thought it would be, given how a lot of TV shows go these days. They had some good footage from within the cave, and that is the cave in the book. For some reason, they did not show the bulldozer that Wallace Merrick managed to get into it. Time constraints, I suppose.
Back to the beginning of the show, the brothers in the TV show made the same mistake that past treasure hunters made: the assumption that if there was a Spanish fort somewhere, there had to be silver or gold nearby. Sometimes there was, but sometimes there were other reasons to establish presidios.
The Spaniards established the presidio to protect a nearby mission. The mission was founded in an effort to absorb the Apache. The Apache themselves had proposed such missions years earlier. No, the Apache were not really interested in living in missions, but they did like the idea of a presidio to fend off their mortal foes, the Comanche. And it was the Comanche, and other northern tribes, who destroyed the mission about a year after it was established. It was about 2,000 warriors versus less than 100 Spanish troops at the presidio, and even fewer at the mission itself. The mission was destroyed, but not the presidio.
At that point, the presido had nothing left to protect. The commander suggested that it be moved to Los Almagres (to the east) to encourage miners to come in. The authorities declined. They had promised Miranda the post of commander, should a presidio be opened at Los Almagres. Instead of arbitrating a squabble between the current San Saba presidio commander and Miranda, why not just keep the status quo? Instead the wooden presidio was rebuilt as a stone fortress. However, Spaniards did mine Los Almagres, at least on a small scale. There are examples of Spanish era shafts (and tailing piles a the remails of a smelter) on the Stott’s ranch in Llano County. Really, the San Saba treasure and the Los Almagres Mines should have been two separate episodes.
In the last several years of the presidio, it was a veritable prison–for the Spaniards. The Comanche harassed and often killed anyone who went outside of its walls. The Spaniards could not ranch or farm and food had to be sent in on mule trains. Mule trains that were raided as well. Eventually the surviving Spaniards at the presidio abandoned the post. Not a very likely area in which to establish a massive store room for silver bars to be taken in from somewhere else.
It was, as per Caiaphas Ham, Jim Bowie’s brother Rezin who visited the San Saba area, with a guide, in 1829 to search for a mine. And it was most likely Rezin who scratched his name (“Bowie, and his men” in Spanish) on the gate post. Jim Bowie’s main source of wealth was in land speculating. His fraudulent land deals in Louisiana were falling apart and his vast land holdings (as a Mexican citizen) in Texas were not yet worth anything. So, why not check out what Rezin had looked into? No, he probably was not interested in mining it himself, but he was a natural leader and after making a claim, he no doubt would organized a company to do the mining for him.
According to Jim’s report after the 1831 expedition, the mine was supposed to be within one mile of the presidio. In 1832 he launched another expedition. He later speculated that the shallow shaft had been eroded away, or had been filled in by the natives. There is no indication that Jim Bowie had any knowledge of the Los Almagres mines to the East.
As to why people had such an interest in the cave that was shown on the TV program? In 1868 four explorers from San Marcos, Texas went looking for a mine, or at least mineral deposits, around the San Saba River. There were stories that a mine was on a creek feeding the San Saba (there is also a story that they had a treasure map). They almost certainly found the egg-shapped basin, and possibly the cave as well. Before a plate was put in place in the 1970’s (to keep silt out), one could go from the basin to the cave. Those explorers went home with no silver, but they had stories of the trip. Those stories got other people interested, and people did not stop pestering that plot of land for the next 120 years. Their story was what put the crude map to the site in Dobie’s Coronado’s Children.
Regarding the presidio, a geologist named Ira Collier found evidence of an assay lab at the old fort in the 1930’s. There was also slag (a by-product of refining) found there as late as at least the 1950’s (probably the 1960’s), and the slag tested as having residual silver in it. So the Spaniards there were testing silver bearing mineral samples, and were possibly even refining ore. How much, where it came from, and where it went, is a mystery. Personally, I do not think it went into the cave.
The real treasure there, in my opinion, is the real history of the area. When the historian at the presidio on the show said that the site was the second most important historical site in Texas, he was correct. When the Spaniards lost the presido and the mission, that was as far north in Texas as they ever went. Had that mission and fort succeeded, the alternate histories one could come up with are staggering.
Another treasure is the story of the people who looked for the mine. Obviously Jim Bowie, but from the 1860’s onward, a nearly continuous stream of people looked for the silver. One was a prominent, self-made, attorney from San Antonio, who died mysteriously at the site. Another was a rattle snake dancer who knew Houdini. Yet another was the man who designed the machinery the shrimp industry uses to this day.
I suppose the show was about the best that could be done for a program that ran about 40 minutes (less commercials) that tried to cover the Los Almagres mines and the San Saba legends. At about 20 minutes per legend–not much can be done. Of course, I hope that people are interested enough to buy my book on the subject, but I also hope that people take a deeper look at the history of the area and also keep alive the stories of the treasure hunters over the years who spent decades of their lives looking for the treasure.
David C Lewis wrote this article. His author page and a link to purchase his book on the San Saba Treasure is here