The Historical Importance of Spanish Era Prospecting in Texas

In 1964 The San Saba Mission was written by Robert S. Weddle. It did not necessarily have a lot of new material in it, but it neatly pulled together the history of the ill-fated mission on the San Saba River. It propelled Robert Weddle from being the editor of a small-town newspaper into being a historian who went on to write may other books and articles.

But there was a serious problem regarding the San Saba Mission in 1964. No one knew where it was, or more accurately, knew where it had been, seeing that it had never been rebuilt after it was destroyed by the northern tribes shortly after it had been built in the 1750’s. The fort that failed to protect the mission, well everyone knew where it was, the ruins being near the town of Menard on the north side of the San Saba River. But where was the mission? Early settlers to the area knew where it was, but as the 20th century went on the old timers died off and that knowledge died with them. How could Spanish era history compete for attention against two world wars, Elvis, the Beatles, and the space race? It was forgotten.

The newspaper Robert Weddle edited was that of Menard, TX, the town next to the old fort and next to the old mission, wherever that was. It would have been a real win to have not only write the history of the mission but to rediscover its whereabouts as well. But various searches for it turned up empty. It would just have to wait, or maybe never be found at all. Being in Menard was a blessing and a curse. A blessing to be there next to the old fort, and near to the old mission, wherever it might be. But a curse in that the history of Menard had been intractably linked to treasure hunting folklore since the turn of the century if not earlier. A newspaperman from Menard trying to be a historian? "What version of the San Saba treasure legend would he write about?", probably thought some history professors.

The last historian to write about lost mines in Texas was Bolton in the early part of the twentieth century when he tried to retrace Miranda’s trail to the Los Alamagres Mine, and likely (in this author’s opinion) misplaced it at Honey Creek instead of at Pack Saddle Mountain. (See Carter's Texas Gold Rushes for a good account of this.) A mining company was formed to reopen the mine at Honey Creek, and came up with nothing. After Bolton, real historians did not write about lost Spanish era mines, or mines lost from any other era either. Disavowing anything to do with lost mines was the price to pay to be accepted by academia in that era, and Weddle appears to have paid it in full. In The San Saba Mission Weddle wrote “Legend—but nothing more than that—has it that Bowie was near his mine when the Indians attacked.” That “legend” was the published first-hand account of Rezin Bowie, backed up half a century later by another participant in the Bowie fight, Caiaphas Hamm. From them both it was clear that the mine was thought to be one mile from the old fort. To distract from the search for a mine, Weddle even pushed the ridiculous notion that Jim Bowie was trying to rob a silver-laden mule train that some insane Mexican official routed through the most dangerous part of their territory on a non-existent road to go no where in particular.

While editor of the Menard Newspaper, Weddle had nothing but contempt for the ongoing explorations around the town for lost mines. Perhaps he was doing some locals a favor, to keep them from buying mining stock that, indeed, never did pay out. But was it partly to build his bona fides as a serious historian? If so it was a pity, as he was editor during the apex of the serious attempts to find the lost mines around the area and he recorded precious little of it into history. The Menard newspaper is the last place to look for the history of that era. It did not matter, as Weddle’s book was a success. He left Menard and became a historian. The mission? Still lost.

In 1993 an architect from San Antonio, Mark Wolf, discovered that he was a descendant of a Spaniard who survived the mission massacre. He naturally became interested in the history and was surprised to learn that no one knew where it was. He enlisted the help of an archeologist named Kay Hindes. While plans were underway for a search of the area Kay happened across The Rise and Fall of the Mission San Saba by John Warren Hunter at UT Austin.

Like Weddle, Hunter had been the editor of the Menard newspaper as well, albeit in the 1800’s. Hunter knew where the old mission was, back when remnants of it were still visible. Hunter had spent time in Mexico, and spoke Spanish, having fled to Mexico to avoid being drafted into the Confederate army. While in Mexico he learned things about the history of the area around the old fort. In 1905 the Texas Rangers had a reunion in Menard(ville) and Hunter printed up a small booklet giving a history of the old fort and mission, along with an appendix on the lost Los Almagres Mine.

J. Frank Dobie, when writing about the San Saba Treasure in Coronado’s Children borrowed extensively from Hunter. So much so, that if Hunter had still been around at the time Dobie may have ended up in a copyright dispute. But historians poo-pooed Hunter’s "tacky little pamphlet". Weddle gave it not a thought. Historians and archeologists ignored it until Kay Hindes found it in an archive at UT Austin. Copies were not common, but were certainly still around, the authoring being able to acquire one off eBay in 2015. It said the mission was located on “the old Hockinsmith place.” Well, just how many places did people named Hockinsmith have in 1905? When Kay checked with the county land office, it turns out only one such place, out on FM 2092, just east of Menard.

On Labor Day Weekend in 1993, Kay and Mark were in Menard and on driving down FM 2092 to investigate possible mission sites, Kay mentioned they were passing where John Warren Hunter said the mission was. They received permission from the landowner to search the land, a freshly plowed alfalfa field. They found an artifact, then another, and then another. Without a doubt that was the place. They found what had been lost for decades and what had eluded the best efforts of many historians and archaeologists. Everyone interested in Texas history owes them much gratitude for what they accomplished.

The newspaper office that Weddle used to sit in was just over three miles away from the site. If only Weddle had condescended to include in his research accounts and histories tainted with lost mine legends, he could have discovered the lost mission site as he wrote his book. It would have made Weddle an instant celebrity in historical circles. Instead, the site was lost for nearly 30 more years, to suffer through decades of being plowed year after year. How many archeological findings were lost forever in that time?

Spanish subjects prospected and mined, even if only on a small scale. Mexican citizens, Texans, and Americans prospected and mined as well. It did happen. That a few people would sensationalize such events does not change the fact they are fact. It is part of the history of Texas and historians should take advantage of old lost mine stories as sometimes they can shed light on history. Who was where, when? Were they working in secret? If so it says something about the conditions of the time. Did people move from the interior of Mexico to Texas to prospect and do small-scale mining? Did Spanish era Presidio soldiers dig prospects in their spare time to pay off their debts to the Presidio commandant’s company store so they could retire? Were settlements ever established to provide cover for mine ventures? All good questions. So research these old lost mine stories! I doubt one will find any silver or gold, but would not be surprised if someone stuck a historical mother lode, just as Hindes did back in 1993.

Link to the full history of the rediscovery

David Lewis wrote this article. His author page can be found here