Hunting buried treasure or a wild goose chase?
by Kenda Nelson
Jan 09, 2009 | 19024 views | 3 3 comments | 35 35 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Matt McKay has been fishing what he calls “Poso Seco” Lake and the surrounding area with his father since he was a kid. In English, the words mean dry hole.
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A trial in federal court in Houston to determine if a California treasure hunter is allowed to dig on wetland property in Refugio County for a 19th century boat that folklore says contains gold ended last Tuesday evening. But not before U.S. District Judge David Hittner placed a gag order on all the attorneys and witnesses. Neither the land owners nor the treasure hunter want people on the property.

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.”
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January 26, 2011
I know it has been awhile since this story appeared but I am still intrigued by it. We recently purchased a home in Aransas Pass and are very close to the location mentioned. I have read so many blogs which blast this poor guy (Smith)tearing him down for various reasons. I think his resolve and sense of adventure is inspiring. Kook or no kook I can’t condemn Smith for trying. I do concede that if I were the landowner I would likely be upset too. Maybe Smith should have tried to work with them first and we would know by now if he was right or wrong about the location. I plan on taking a little kayak ride on Melon Lake soon just because the little boy in me can’t stop thinking about this! I don't plan on getting out of the kayak and walking around on private property though! I have noticed some historical discrepancies however in the story in Jameson’s book. Mexico had already gained it’s independence from Spain in Sept of 1821 so why would a Spanish vessel laden with gold and silver be allowed to sail away from Mexico with this loot in Sept 1822? Also, I have researched the storms that hit the Texas coast from 1800 onwards and there is nothing mentioned for 1822. Can anybody offer any advice on this? Thanks
August 08, 2012
I am interested in this story as well. If I lived as close as you, I would have to at least go and take a look. Seems like a good metal detector and some patience could put the issue to rest. If even one coin was found it might sway the opinion of the land owners and allow you to dig.I live a few hours away, put a Kayak ride sounds tempting.
February 22, 2009
We , my mother Father and sister found many artifacts in the 1950s on lower Nueses RIVER near Corpus Christi

And we have Hunted in the Refugio National Game PRESERVE

Refugio as well as canoe trips down the Guadeloupe river all with in less than 5 to75 miles of location and It was at one time much different and waterways seemed as late as 1970 to be navigable and many stories of treasure have always been around there.

We found Indian Items as well as skulls and other small bits that were non indian but were from the Iron age as well as some round shot

LOOKS good for State Of Texas !! they will get most of anything found.

Several of the sand bars on lower Guadaloupe

Have from time to time ,after heavy storms or floods,Yealded items such as pottery, bones and arrow and ax heads . We use to give them to the Corpus Christ historical folks and in the mid 1950s turned skull over to the Sherrif office . . It is all gone now most of the lower Nueses is now one 15 mile long refinery from Corpus to Calleen