Monday, December 1, 1997
Old-timers encountered the relics of history on Padre beaches
By BUDDY GOUGH / Corpus Christi Caller Times
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- A rough time they had on the beachfront in the winter of 1917.
The winds chill and damp, the mules balky, the sands deep on the wagon wheels during an arduous expedition from Port Aransas to the distant beaches of Padre Island.
It was a yellow metal that drew John Alister and his team of rough riders 90 miles down a wintry beach and back.
And they found it in the form of live ammunition salvaged from the hold of a grounded schooner.
It was only a treasure of brass, but one to be traded for a few dollars precious enough to risk life and limb in those days.
Such were the treasure hunters of Padre Island at the turn of the century when the unpopulated beachfront of the Coastal Bend was a wild and mysterious place.
Oh, they had their rare moments, all right.
Like that time in the teens when another team of Port Aransans on a long-range beachcombing probe were caught at nightfall by brutal cold front.
Tom Mathews, Ed Cotter and Cooper Walker hunkered down in the lee of a big dune known then as Money Hill in the vicinity of where the Nicaragua shipwreck is still visible today.
All night the winds shrieked and howled as the men waited out the storm.
When dawn came, they saw where the sand at one end of the dune had been blown away to reveal a hardpan of dried mud.
And littering the surface of the long-buried crust were silver reales by the hundreds.
Crusted and blackened by oxidation, the coins had been covered and uncovered by shifting sands who knows how many times since they were flung from the wreck of a Spanish galleon.
Many such wrecks from the 1500s made tales of buried treasure more than fanciful lore on Padre Island.
The men gathered up the ruined relics of Spanish plunder and, apparently, keep them primarily as keepsakes, according to John "Bubba" Milina of Port Aransas.
An old-timer himself nowadays, the 78-year-old fishing guide heard the stories first hand from his grandfather, John Mathews, who was there.
"My grandfather had about 200 of those reales in a money bag. He kept them around until his house burned down and turned them all into a glob of melted silver," Milina recalled recently.
He said the early residents of the barrier islands were men who kept their eyes open to their surroundings. When they weren't trying to wrest a living from the sea during the fishing seasons, they looked for salvage or souvenirs washed ashore or uncovered by wind and storm.
But they were nothing like the single-minded treasure hunters to come later when artifacts became more valuable and the ways of finding them improved.
Milina recalled one of the more novel search modes conducted from the air around World War II when Padre Island was a target range for military pilots.
It involved Port Aransan Bob Flood, who hitched rides with a spotter plane pilot who patrolled the island. Flood's special interest was in spotting large, circular deposits of shell on island interior.
"Flood had learned that these circles of shell were old Indian camps. When he saw one, he'd throw out a homemade spear with a red flag on it so the camp could be located later from the ground," Milina recalled.
Of course, someone had put the spear thrower up to it.
"That was something Bob did for old Louis Rawalt," Milina revealed.
Ah yes, the late and inimitable Louis Rawalt of Corpus Christi, treasure hunter extraordinaire.
A sort of cross between the explorer Coronado and the naturalist Aldo Leopold, Rawalt was about two generations ahead of the crowd in blazing a trail of discovery across the length and breadth of Padre Island.
Wasted away by wounds of World War I and given only six months to live by military doctors, the 26-year-old Rawalt returned to his Texas homeland in 1926, resolved to spend his final few months on Padre Island.
He cajoled his wife, Viola, into joining him.
"I spun my dream for her, a dream of a primitive island, untamed and uninhabited ... set like a gem between the blue immensity of the Gulf of Mexico and the green shallows of the Laguna Madre," Rawalt said in an autobiographical sketch ghost-written many years ago.
The island had captured his soul when he first went there as a boy on fishing trips with his father.
"Many times Pop laid down his pole and came looking for me, thinking I was lost," Rawalt said. "I was lost, but only in the newness of this ageless island."
Its environment was certainly a tonic for Rawalt, whose final months lasted another 55 years, many of them in residence on the island until his demise in 1980.
Living in tents and a variety of humble structures from one end of the island to the other, Rawalt scratched out a living as hook-and-line fisherman when schools of redfish ran "like rivers of gold" in the surf.
He was an occasional handyman and guide for oil company surveyors and the military, a guardian of Bird Island for the Audubon Society for 43 years and a salvager of flotsam from the sea.
For example, when a load of contraband booze washed ashore from a foundering rum runner, Rawalt gathered a pay day.
Above all, he roamed the island afoot and in a state of constant fascination. "I was always awalkin' and alookin'," he claimed.
In his mind, the island and all its facets was a treasures. "Nothing was too small or insignificant for close observation," he wrote.
Over the years, he became recognized and consulted as an expert on island plant life, bird life and wildlife, as well as an authority on how the dynamics of wind, wave and tides continually shaped the island.
And no one had a keener eye for discovering the archaeological artifacts of island history from time of the mammoths to the Civil War.
Much of what he found is described in yellowed news clips from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times or hinted at in interviews taped in 1978 by Robert Whistler, chief naturalist for the Padre Island National Seashore.
On the beachfront, he discovered the clay banks containing the teeth and bones of mastodons, mammoths, camels and bison preserved since the Ice Age when the plains of South Texas stretched to the 100 fathom curve.
His prehistoric finds also included a Folsom projectile point from approximately 12,000 B.C. and a Mayan figurine from approximately 4,500 B.C.
Rawalt also found from time to time the wreckage of Spanish galleons, such as bottles, silver, ballast stones and the pieces of cannon, armor and ship fittings.
But the beachfront was just the threshold of discovery.
"Back of the sentinel-like row of dunes, I found the happiest hunting ground of all when I came, one day, upon a flat where the wind had swept away the sand to reveal countless spear points and arrowheads," Rawalt wrote.
He went on to find many campsites of the cannibalistic Karankawas on the island, including one strewn with the human skulls and bones of a long-ago massacre or, perhaps, barbecue.
Karankawa sites showed them to have been the first treasure hunters because their campsites often revealed Spanish artifacts scavenged from the shipwrecks.
A major find in the 50s was the site of a Tonkawa village at the north end of the island where shifting sands exposed a clay bank strewn with thousands of perfect arrowheads and other artifacts. Rawalt said a subdivision later encroached on the site.
The discoveries of the old timers like Rawalt were before the Texas antiquities law was passed to protect and preserve the state's archaeological treasures.
But time and the ceaseless forces of wind and wave have continued to march onward and over the archaeological history of the island.
For every Spanish shipwreck, there many others of more modern and insignificant vintage. Add a forest of trees washing ashore for millennia to the untold tons of industrial and maritime debris hitting the beaches for nearly a century. Mix in drifts of shell, clay clumps and tarballs.
In that immense and ongoing accumulation, a treasured artifact is like the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Nowadays, the best examples of Spanish treasure can be seen in the excellent exhibits at Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History.
The Spanish collection includes the parts of galleons and items of gold and silver and cargo excavated in the early 1970s from wrecks located in waters a mile or more off the beach near the Mansfield jetties on Padre Island.
The museum also has a fine exhibit of Karankawa artifacts from sites discovered in years past.
If Rawalt was around today, however, he would probably remind us that there is no end of natural treasures remaining on the island.
They comprise a fascinating ecosystem waiting to be discovered by anyone with a little time of "awalkin' and alookin.' "
Caller-Times Interactive: LOST TREASURES
Saturday, July 17, 1993
The lure of lost treasure
Money and the thrill of discovery motivates most treasure hunters
By Scott Williams
There's gold in them there hills.
And sunken treasure off Padre Island. Legend has it a pay chest that once belonged to Santa Ana's army awaits discovery on the Nueces River bottom.
Some say there's a silver mine near Edroy. Others claim you'll find precious church ornaments buried on St. Joseph Island.
But you say you want gold?
No problem. If we're to believe the stories, gold is hidden all over South Texas, from Rockport to Armstrong to Live Oak County.
Most are pure fabrications, but some stories are true. Since 1554 at least 1,700 ships have sunk along the Texas coast, many containing gold, silver and jewels.
The prospect of discovering such valuables motivates people like Eugene French, the owner of Frenchy's Crabhouse Seafood Restaurant, to search for lost treasure.
"I guess it kind of reminds you of what you've always heard about people in California. They've got gold fever. I guess I've got the treasure fever," he said.
French, a ruddy-faced man with pale blue eyes, first caught treasure fever as a boy. Louis Raywalt, who was then overseer of a vast, privately owned portion of Padre Island, told French that three Spanish galleons had wrecked on the island in 1553. The San Esteban, Espiritu Santo and Santa Maria De Yciar were carrying gold and silver from Mexico to Spain.
French couldn't get the story out of his mind. He went to the local library to read more about it and eventually the idea of finding it began to consume him.
Over the next 15 years, he walked 1,000 miles searching for the ships.
"I've actually walked the length of the island, from Port Aransas to Port Isabel, and back three different times looking for this particular treasure," he said.
French located two of the ships in the early '60s but couldn't convince investors to fund his salvaging operation. In 1967, a private group, Platoro Inc., found the wrecks and eventually removed more than $2 million worth of gold and jewels.
But before they could complete the job, the state intervened, claiming the treasure because the ships lay on submerged land owned by the state. An estimated 51,000 pounds of precious metals have yet to be salvaged.
"I've always made a vow that before I die I'm going to make an attempt to get it," French said.
But to do that, he would have to break the law.
The state antiquities code prevents treasure-hunting at shipwrecks dating before 1900. The Shipwreck Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in April 1988, gives coastal states control over submerged historic shipwrecks and protects archaeological artifacts.
Florida laws are more flexible, he said. To salvage a wreck, all you have to do is pay a $1,200 claim fee and turn over 25 percent to the state, French said.
"It's such a sad thing that I do feel that I know where these wrecks are but I don't have the freedom to go out and find them," French said. "And it's a shame because they may not ever be found."
Members of the Corpus Christi Exploration and Metal Detecting Society say there's plenty of treasure to be found despite the fact that metal detectors are not allowed in national parks and seashores.
"You can have a lot of fun and it can pay off for you if you do a little research," said H.L. Kerbow, a club member the past 12 years.
Kerbow spends much of his time hunting in the surf off Corpus Christi Beach.
"Over there in the water you find modern coins that kids have lost out of their bathing suits or daddy has lost out of his bathing suit," he said.
On a good day, Kerbow and his wife will find between 150 and 200 coins. Chains, medallions, watches and knives are common discoveries, and so far they've each found more than a hundred gold rings and two to three times that number of silver ones.
Art Curry, past president of the club, says he loves the thrill of discovery.
His treasure hunts have taken him to England and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Thomas is a good spot because it's a popular place to swim, and wherever people swim they lose jewelry and money.
Using a metal detector he found $900 in gold rings.
Curry, 59, said the idea of searching for buried treasure is intriguing but probably not very rewarding.
"You really have to do a lot of research and there's so many rumors. I guess Jesse James has gold buried all over the world if you want to start tracking down rumors," he said.
French, who once earned his living combing the 117-mile-long Padre Island, has found eight doubloons, 86 Spanish coins and hundreds of coins from all over the world. He once found a doubloon that sold for $3,500.
A display case in the lobby of his restaurant is filled with his discoveries including antique razors, bottles, silverware, a Chinese opium pipe, a silver mirror and coffeepot, a Spanish pistol, a sword, knives, buttons and more.
French says the nine dead bodies found washed up onshore are the most interesting things he has ever found. And the most unusual? That would be the artificial leg propped against a wall inside his display case.
Golden galleons are off Valley's coast
by C. M. Robinson III
Remember the movie Underwater, where Richard Egan, Jane Russell and Gilbert Roland were bringing up tons of gold from a treasure galleon? How about old Lloyd Bridges' occasional treasure finds on the TV program Sea Hunt? Then there was The Deep, where Robert Shaw, Jacqueline Bissett and Nick Nolte found an unrecorded Spanish treasure shipment in Bermuda.
Just about all of us have dreamed of finding some treasure galleon, particularly after former chicken farmer Mel Fisher become one of the richest men in the world when he discovered the wreck of the Nuestra Señor de Atocha, off the Florida Keys.
Jeff Burke of Rio Hondo has lived that dream. Not only that, his treasure galleons were not off the coast of Florida or along the Spanish Main, but right here along our own Padre Island. The ships were wrecked just north of the Port Mansfield Cut in April 1554, and remained lost for more than four centuries.
"I was instrumental and lucky enough to be one of the guys who found them," Burke commented. He described the adventure at a meeting of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association in La Feria.
For many years, people had known that a Spanish fleet was wrecked on the island. After storms, coins from the mid-1550s would wash up on the beach along a five-mile strip running north from the Port Mansfield Cut. A Spanish priest, one of two survivors, left an account which was first published in English in the 1930s. Several local books had mentioned it by the time Burke and several associates started looking for it.
"We had a rough idea from research by my friend Jack Haskins, in the archives in Spain, and theorized we were looking for the right wreck," Burke said. "There were coins on the beach from the 1550s. The only flota (treasure fleet) at that time was this 1554 little flota."
Four ships sailed from Veracruz on April 9, 1554. Three were wrecked on Padre Island. Although most accounts say the ships were lost in a hurricane, Burke contends it was the wrong time of year.
"It had to be a norther, because it happened in April. You know how wild the Gulf can be in a norther," he said. "The only ship that survivedheavily damagedand reached Tampico for repairs, was commanded by the only one of those ships with a captain who had made the trip before."
Burke believes the ships were caravelsthe small, ocean-going transport/warships which evolved into the later galleons of stories and movies. Because of the design of the ships, the area where they went ashore, and the condition of the wrecks, he said they were literally beated to pieces in the surf.
"The caravels were high-sided, flat-bottomed, and very unwieldy," he explained. "In 18 feet of water, they got caught in those swells that slammed them down on the bottom."
Three hundred survivors made it ashore. But only two, the priest, Fray Marcos de Mena, and an ordinary seaman named Vasquez survied. Vasquez opted to stay with the wreck, and was later picked up by a rescue ship. The other began the long march south along Padre Island, in the direction of Tampico.
"The Indians came down to the shore and gave them fish," Burke said. "They seemed friendly." Then, however, they retreated into the dunes and, "for some unknown reason," began shooting arrows at the Spaniards. During the first part of the trek, the Spaniards were able to hold off the Indians with three crossbows, which Burke call "very effective weapons at that time." But on crossing one of the waterwayeither Brazos Santiago Pass between Padre Island and Boca Chica or the Rio Grandethe makeshift raft carrying the crossbows overturned and the weapons were lost.
Indian attack, hunger and privation slowly reduced the 300 survivors to 25, including Fray Marcos, the priest, who had an arrow wound in his neck. Being too weak to carry him, the others buried him in the sand, leaving his face exposed so he could breathe. Eventually he recovered enough to walk and continued south, where he found the bodies of the others on the beach. Just a few miles outside of Tampico he was recued and returned to civilization.
Burke and his associates began looking for the fleet in the spring of 1965, using magnetometers and a converted name LSMa twin-screw, 40-foot landing craftowned by Billy Kennon of Port Isabel. Finding nothing, that year, they did not look in 1966.
In 1967, the search resumed and on September 11 they found one of the wrecks at what they called the 2.8 site because it was 2.8 miles north of the cut. "Hurricane Buelah fouled up our salvage efforts for about six weeks," Burke said, after which they found more wreckage at what the call the 5¼ site because of its location in relation to the cut.
"These are the oldest Spanish wrecks ever found on the U.S. coast," Burke said. "They were found on the 413th year after their sinking." The wrecks lie from about a quarter of a mile north of the cut, up to 5¼ miles, Burke said. "They are about a quarter of a mile out in 18 to 22 feet of water. Part of the hull was actually under the second bar." There was no visible wreckage. "All you see is bottom, because they tended to sink into the sand," Burke explained. "In Florida, the wrecks rest on a reef, so you can locate them by cannons or piles of ballast rock. Here the top of the ballast pile is approximately six feet under the natural bottom." There is almost nothing left of the ships themselves, except what appears to be part of the bottoms buried in the sand. "It's hard to delineate since they used 30-inch timbers and the toredo worms have done a pretty good job of eating it," Burke said.
The water itself was murky because the waves so close to the beach keep the bottom stirred up. We used the `hunt and peck' system of divingfeeling and bringing things up to your face to see them," Burke said. "Sometimes we could see over three to seven feet on really good days."
The wrecks were excavated using propeller deflectors which forced the wash from the LSM's props straight down to blast the sand away. But the most efficient means was to vacuum the bottom with airlifts. The problem with prop deflectors is they require much shallower water than 22 feet although it does clear away some of the overburden and makes it easier to do airlifting.
"We salvaged gold, silver, artifacts and a breech loading cannon," he continued, but at that point the Texas Legislature passed an antiquities act giving the state sole possession of offshore wrecks. The state then blocked Burke and his associates from working on the wreck and seized everything they recovered. "The state shouldn't have gotten anything. Mel Fisher proved that," Burke said. He noted Fisher won his fights with Florida through every appeal, and ended up the sole owner of the treasure from the Atocha.
With the Padre Island wrecks, however, it was a different story. Commenting on his fight with the state of Texas, Burke said, "They have lawyers running out of their (behinds), getting paid not telling what kind of salaries. We just couldn't keep up the fight."
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