Hittner said he will not issue a ruling immediately. The attorneys still have to file briefs. At the crux of the case is whether the wetland area is navigable. If the judge rules yes, then Nathan Smith will be allowed to excavate and then more court battles will follow to determine who owns the treasure, should any be found if Smith is allowed to excavate.
“Our position is that there is no ship and nothing worth any value to be gained by any of this,” said Ron Walker, a Victoria attorney representing the landowners. “The central issue is whether it is navigable.”
Walker is a former Refugio resident.
Adraron Greene is an attorney for Nathan Smith, 39, of Los Angeles, a treasure hunter who testified he found the site using Google Earth and a metal detector.
Greene spent some time in Refugio a few weeks ago talking with locals familiar with the wetlands around the Mission River and researching rainfall amounts and old maps. Garrett Engelking was asked to give a deposition.
“My testimony that was read in federal court was just my personal experience of fishing in the area,” Engelking said. “I wasn’t really interested in talking with the attorney until he threatened me with a subpoena.”
Engelking was questioned about the area local fisherman call “Poso Seco” Lake but it’s Mellon Lake on the maps. Engelking began fishing the wetland lake with Matt McKay.
McKay, a lifelong fisherman familiar with most of the bodies of water along the coast, has fished “Poso Seco since his childhood,” first with his father and now with friends.
“I’ve taken my 24-foot Carolina Skiff all over the place in a high tide,” McKay says. “You can get all the way back to Mellon Creek in a normal tide but you have to know what you’re doing,” McKay says.
Getting into his favorite fishing holes is so difficult, McKay has nicknames for the hardest spots to navigate.
“I call one place leading back to the lakes the bumper cars because you hit both sides of the bank,” McKay says. “You have to pole the boat in places.”
In McKay’s terms, the area is navigable for fishing. He says stepping out of the boat on either side of the passage would entail trespassing.
“I can’t see some guy from California being allowed to go treasure hunting on private property,” he says.
McKay believes that there’s more to the story than what’s being talked about. He says that a pipeline company ruined his fishing hole for a number of months several years ago when they replaced a pipeline across the lake. He thinks the company ran across something that led to Smith’s claim.
During the trial, Smith testified that he got his information from “Lost Treasures of American History” which reports a barkentine ship was wrecked up a creek in Refugio. Some of the sailors died and the others perished at the hands of the Karankawa Indians, purported to be a cannibal tribe.
The story also says Camache Indians found and buried the treasure and fled from the Karankawas.
Historians question logic
Local historians said other books tell a different story, particularly “The History of Refugio County” written by Hobart Huson.
Dr. Herndon Williams, of Bayside, attempted to kayak down the lake but turned back “when I could almost touch both sides of the bank.”
A historian, Williams says the folklore is chock full of holes. He believes the actual site is on the Wildlife Refuge, according to what’s been written, and closer to Isla of Bergantin, now known as Goose Island.
Another former Refugio resident debunks Smith’s claim as well.
“The real story here is a bit different from what is being played out in the news,” says Bill Winsor, author of “Texas in the Civil War.”
“When I was very young I worked in Hobart Huson’s map room as my mother was his legal administrator. In his “History of Refugio, he references this wreck...I asked him about the wrecked bark. He said that after his book was published two treasure hunters from Houston came by to see him and he refused to identify the exact location of the wreck in respect of the landowners, the Tom O’Connor family.”
Winsor said legend has it this Mexican Barkantine was carrying gold and silver payroll from Veracruz to the garrisons of Bexar and La Bahia and got caught in a storm. The ship was washed up into the prairie at the site that now bears the name Burgentine Creek.
“I have fished the mouth of the slough with my dad as a boy and it is two miles south of Austwell running into the Aransas Wildlife Refuge on St. Charles Bay, approximately four miles in length,” Winsor said.
The name was anglicized over time and alternately became Bergantine, and Barkantine Creek, but it is now on the maps as Burgentine Creek, he said.
According to Winsor’s research, the Nicholas Fagan family landed in El Copano in 1829 as part of the Power and Hewetson Colony and made their way to their grant along the San Antonio River. They came upon this wreck which was years old at the time.
“They removed what hardware, iron and select timbers they could and loaded them in their carts to use in constructing their home on the San Antonio River,” Winsor said.
Winsor also believes history shows the Mission River never figured into the story of this wreck.
“The Karankawa Indians probably looted the ship as well, as they met every ship that arrived in South Texas in the 1820s,” Winsor said. “They were hungry, peaceful scavengers, but the claim that they were cannibalistic has never been substantiated. Does make for a good story though.”