Treasure in the San Luis Valley: The golden horde

By Christopher O’Brien

My first book, “The Mysterious Valley” (1996: St. Martin’s Press), left little doubt that historically, the San Luis Valley has had more than its share of unexplained occurrences. Combine this documentation with countless little-known myths and legends, and this remote region’s documented history, and you have served before you a feast of blatantly subtle examples of the mysterious, the outrageous and the sublime. These mysteries extend far beyond weird lights in the sky and strangely slain warm-blooded animals.

UFOs and treasure
There are many wonderful secrets and traditions found in the San Luis Valley and other remote areas of the Four Corners region that warrant examination. When scrutinizing sub-cultural/bio-regional beliefs relating to the “unknown,” one invariably finds myths and legends unique to a particular bio-region, and I feel the San Luis Valley should be considered a classic example. [The northern edge of the San Luis Valley.]

Early on in my investigation, I was fascinated to hear stories and rumors of beliefs linking UFOs to treasure. In the southern portion of the San Luis Valley, when a “UFO” is spotted, the lucky witness immediately contacts “all his relatives.” They watch the object closely, hoping it will hover. If it does hover over a specific spot, they believe that underneath the object “treasure” can be found. Once a location has been identified, they dash to the area with picks and shovels and start digging! Believe it or not, treasure has been found in this manner. Although I have no concrete proof of this technique being used to actually find treasure, several sources have sworn they know of persons who have successfully utilized this method of UFO-inspired treasure hunting.

Another story I encountered involves a prospector who waits at a specific location on the side of the Blanca Peak massif for “fiery red balls” of light to descend. He stares at the spot where the object touches down, and in the morning, underneath a circular burn mark on the ground, he has found “ashtray-sized” solid gold discs. He found enough, in the mid-’80s, to buy a large farm in the Midwest, but was later found dead from a gunshot wound on Blanca under mysterious circumstances. This account will be covered in another chapter of “Inside the Mysterious Valley.”

Doing a bit of research, I have uncovered an impressive body of data relating to as-yet undiscovered treasure. Most of the stories are tied to early Spanish exploration of the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

A disease of the heart
Spanish exploration up the Rio Grande Valley in the 16th century is considered the earliest incursion by Europeans into the American Southwest. The conquistadors, fueled by a dangerous brand of xenophobic missionary zeal and an unquenchable thirst for precious metals, quickly reconnoitered the northern reaches of their new-found territory.

At first, the native Pueblo and Plains peoples welcomed the strangers, as if they had much of a choice. Riding large snorting animals, clothed in metal and armed with “barking sticks” of death, the Spaniards struck terror into the native people. The soldiers, charging with their lusty shouts of “Santiego!” and “Gold, Glory and God,” must have been an imposing sight to indigenous peoples. But culture shock inevitably gave way to resentment, and many Native Americans, especially “holders of traditional knowledge,” soon chaffed underneath the puritanical Catholic yoke of the fanatical priests and the gold-thirsty mercenaries.

The Indians quickly realized that one thing, above all, compelled the dirty, diseased, bearded white men to venture into the forbidding semi-arid desert wilderness – GOLD! A Spanish general, in an honest moment, reportedly told an Aztec chief, “The Spaniards have a disease of the heart for which gold is the specific remedy.” The Spanish obsession with precious metals dictated much of their explorations and forced them to overcome incredible hardship and sacrifice.

Many of the forays north during the first 200 years of exploration were not well-documented and most likely undisclosed clandestine expeditions were mounted. It can be assumed that at least a few of these greed-driven forays into extreme northern New Mexico and further north into Colorado’s vast mineral belt were met with success.

The thrill of discovery
Blessed (or cursed?) with a life-long fascination with the so-called “thrill of discovery,” I too, have always been enamored by the thought of finding treasure of any kind. Many of you, I’m sure, can relate to this.

I confess, it doesn’t matter if it’s precious stones, Native American artifacts, gem-quality vertebrae fossils, meteorites or precious minerals, I have always been fascinated by the concept of discovering the many fabulous treasures contained on our planet. When this amateur fossil-hunter and wannabe prospector moved out West from the East Coast in 1989, little did he know he was moving to one of this country’s legendary treasure locales. During my first summer in Crestone, I happened to meet an old Hispanic man passing through town. His colorful clothes, gear and demeanor revealed that he was a treasure-hunter.

His sparkling eyes and wrinkled weather-beaten face reflected the years he had spent on his elusive quest. I got him talking about some of the local area’s legends and he solemnly told me a couple of local stories. One of his accounts was of a lost Spanish Mine with a large wooden door, possibly decorated with a Maltese cross. His theory was that the door had been hidden by a rock slide, and his enthusiasm and theories sparked a serious interest in me that continues to this day.

Dozens of legends
Captured by my professed enthusiasm for our area’s rich treasure legends, in 1990, I was asked by Baca Ranch owner Gary Boyce to write an article concerning the many fantastic treasure legends for his short-lived Needles newspaper. He mentioned hearing about a very low-key, multimillion-dollar search effort that had been launched on the Baca Ranch, with no reported success. I began researching and gathering the enigmatic stories together in a concerted effort to confirm the legends, and write a truly riveting article.

I’ve learned that the greater San Luis Valley region is the oldest settled area in Colorado/northern New Mexico and quietly features dozens of Spanish treasure legends and numerous lost mines and treasure accounts. Combine these “legendary” mysteries with several known notorious lost robbery hordes, and you have an area with many potentially lucrative secrets to investigate – maybe more than any specific location in the great Southwest.

Much to my surprise, I also found (at least some) documentation of these mythical claims of treasure that have circulated around our section of the Sangre de Cristos since the early 17th century, and many more additional “legends” and stories than I could possibly include in a brief, 2,000-word article. Although publisher Boyce’s folded Needles before just before my article was to be published, I’ve never lost my fascination for the subject.

Del Norte forays
During the course of the next several years, I had my ears and eyes open for any conclusive data firmly establishing a Spanish presence in the San Luis Valley prior to the acknowledged 1692 De Vargas Expedition.

I wondered, why didn’t the Spanish “officially” venture north for so many years. When the conquistadors and the ever-present Catholic missionaries first established a presence in Taos, at the extreme southern end of the valley during the mid-1600s, the vast area north of Taos was a place of mystery and awe. Young warriors on vision-quests and shamans were generally the only travelers who ventured north to the place the Pueblo Indians believed “where all thought originates.” To the east, the Plains Indians considered the valley to be where dead souls go.

Taos, geographically, is located at what was considered the extreme northern reach of Spanish power, and the Spanish never ventured north of the pueblo until the resulting Don Diego de Vargas expedition which was mounted to subjugate the Pueblo peoples, 12 years after the 1680 Taos uprising, when the Pueblo Indians revolted. This may not have “unofficially” been the case.

One of my professors at the University of Washington, who taught classes in archaeology, was Dr. Alex Kreiger. He conducted extensive research on the different Spanish expeditions. He knew I was interested in ufology, so he looked up some of the information in the chronicles for me. Apparently the Spanish were seeing lights around Blanca Peak in the Sangre de Cristos as far back as the 1500s; they also heard some kind of sounds they thought were coming from the ground.

Although the De Vargas expedition is considered the first Spanish incursion into south-central Colorado, others must have ventured north. But, it is known that De Vargas, accompanied by 157 men, marched up the Rio Grande into what is now Conejos and Costilla Counties, then returned to Sante Fe.

A long, improbable 87 years passed before the next official expedition north into Colorado. The 1779 “campaign” of New Mexico Governor Juan Bautista de Anza against Comanche Chief Cuerno Verde (or Greenhorn) is considered the next Spanish push into the region. I find it curious that the oldest continuously inhabited dwellings (some three-stories) in North America were located at the south end of the valley at the Taos Pueblo, and yet officially, the Spanish never officially explored north, into the rest of the San Luis Valley, for over 200 years.

As human nature would dictate, there were undoubtedly many secret mercenary forays up to Del Norte. Over the years, the discovery in the valley of Spanish cannon barrels, conquistador helmets, arrastas, smelters and enigmatic carvings, such as the Maltese Cross at the mouth of the Upper Spanish Caves, have always fueled the colorful legends of lost “Spanish Treasure.” These same stories were heard by the original Colorado gold rush prospectors as they arrived in Colorado in the late 1850s and early 1860s.

Arthur L. Campa, in his “Treasure of the Sangre de Cristos,” (1963: University of Oklahoma Press) wrote:

“The first legend of the Southwest begins for Europeans when Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca saw an Indian give a cascabel de cobre, a copper rattle, to one of his companions. This simple happening combined with the tales he had heard about gold-paved cities created the legend of Quivira. . . . Stories continued to circulate and accumulate, not only of cities paved with gold but of mountains of solid ore and lakes shimmering with quicksilver. . . .In 1692, however, the story of this fabulous mountain not only reached the ears of Diego de Vargas but also those of the Viceroy who sent for specimens of a substance thought to be quicksilver. Some historians go as far as to suggest that the legend of Cerro Azul was the primary reason for the reconquest of New Mexico by Don Diego de Vargas.”

Caverna del Oro
Another enigmatic popular legend deserves mention. The following quotes are excerpted from “Caves of Colorado,” by Lloyd E. Parris (1973: Pruett Publishing Co.)

“The legend of La Caverna del Oro, the cavern of gold, began long before the white man came to this continent. Accounts of such a cave were passed down from father to son by the Indians, until the Spanish monks recorded the legend in the fifteenth century during the conquest of Mexico. . . . Excerpts from the Indian legend, translated from Spanish Monastery Latin to English, relate that many years ago, before the alliance of the three great kingdoms of Aztec, Alcolhus, and Tepence, gold was eagerly sought. Most of the gold was brought from the mountains beyond the double mountain Huajatolla (meaning breasts of the earth – now called the Spanish Peaks), several days travel to the north. . . . The gold and the supposedly demon-infested area were not mentioned again until the year 1541, in connection with a story of three monks. These three were left behind after Francisco Coronado gave up his fruitless quest for the mythical city of Quivira. . . .”

Two of the monks supposedly died after an uprising by slave-miner Indians, and the third monk somehow was able to mine a vast horde of gold after convincing the Indians he had subdued the “evil spirits” that lurked underground in the dark mine underground, which may have been in the legendary Caverna del Oro – at 13,000 feet up on Marble Mountain, just over Music Pass to the northeast of the Great Sand Dunes.

“Once there, he used several fiendish tortures to force them to enter the subterranean passages and bring forth the gold that lay loose all around. Later, when these slaves had served their purpose, he had them killed.”

The monk, De la Cruz, and his small group of surviving Spaniards supposedly loaded up pack mules with the vast treasure and fled from the northern region of “evil spirits” back south to “the city of Mexico” with their fabulous horde.

To be continued …
Story by Christopher O’Brien
This story is an excerpt from “Inside the Mysterious Valley.”
(St Martin’s Press, spring 1998)

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