HISTORY OUT OF LEGEND by
C. F. Eckhardt
THE RANGER'S CREEK OF GOLD
the first chapter of what was the treasure-hunter's bible for many years, J. Frank
Dobie's CORONADO'S CHILDREN, there is a story called "The Rangers' Creek of Gold."
Dobie told this tale as 'once upon a time a long time ago in a land far away.'
Yet in the story there are, if you read it critically, enough clues to tell you
what time of year it occurred, where in Texas it occurred, approximately what
year it occurred, and the exact location of the creek of gold. |
Post Office mural|
| Basically, the story
is this. 'Once upon a time a long time ago in a land far away' there were two
of McCulloch's rangers, who were on scout west of Hamilton.
They awoke in camp one morning in a typical Hill-Country pea-soup fog. During
the night their horses had managed to slip the picket line and wander off. Instead
of sitting tight and waiting for the fog to burn off, they went looking for the
horses in the fog. When the fog finally did burn off, sometime around noon, they
not only hadn't found their horses, they'd lost their camp as well. In camp were
their saddles, their rifles, their food and their all-important water. They were
now afoot in unknown, possibly hostile territory without food or water, armed
only with pistols and sheath knives.|
They went looking for some sign
of civilization, which they knew would lie to the southeast. It was hot and dry,
and they searched for water as they walked. Every time they spotted a line of
green in the distance, it proved a false alarm-every creek they came across was
dry. It was so hot and they were so dry they took bullets out of their cartridges
and put them in their mouths to generate a flow of saliva.
late in the afternoon, they saw a long, rough mountain in the distance. Alongside
it was a line of green. Although they'd all but lost hope of finding water, this
line of green didn't turn out to be a false alarm. There was a cold, spring-fed,
flowing creek to accompany it. The men fell on their bellies and began to suck
the life-restoring water out of the creek. Suddenly one stopped, plunged his hand
into the water, and came up with some shiny, yellow-colored pebbles. The creek
contained gold. Belatedly cautious, the men did not fill their pockets with gold.
Instead, each took a representative sample.
As night was falling, they
spotted a wild turkey roost. One of the men slipped up on it and shot a turkey
with his pistol. They built a fire of dry oak, which gives very little smoke,
and roasted the turkey. After eating their fill and drinking more water, the men
slept in a grove of trees alongside the stream.
The next morning they
once again ate as much turkey as they could, drank as much water as they could,
and set out to the southeast, searching for signs of civilization. As they rounded
the north end of the long, rough mountain, they saw, sticking in a dead tree,
the head of a miner's pick. They weren't the first to find the creek, but the
pick had been in the tree long enough for the handle to rot away.
that afternoon they topped a low ridge and saw, in the distance, Packsaddle Mountain,
the first landmark they recognized. From Packsaddle they got their bearings and
soon found civilization. The gold was pronounced 'drift' or placer gold, probably
from a very rich mother lode farther up the creek. However, the men could never
find their way back to the creek of gold.
1980, while doing research for my first book, THE LOST SAN SABA MINES, I drove
a part of Texas Highway 71 I'd never been on before. I knew 71 as 'The Llano Lane,'
the road from Austin to Llano,
but I had never had occasion to drive that part of 71 to the northwest of Llano.
I had been to Paint Rock
to see what may-or may not-be a pictograph on the Concho Canyon wall that depicts
the burning of the San Saba mission. I stayed the night in Brady
and came south toward Llano on 71. Just at the Llano County line I saw a long,
rough mountain. Alongside it was Cold Creek, a spring-fed, year-round creek. Fourteen
point seven miles farther on I topped a low ridge-and there was Packsaddle in
the distance. That's when the flashbulb went off in my head.
my car around, drove back to the creek, and carefully clocked the distance to
the ridge. It was exactly 14.7 miles on my odometer.
Better than 14½
miles is a 'long day's walk,' especially if you're in possible hostile country
and taking advantage of cover and concealment as you walk-which the two 'McCulloch's
rangers' would have been. Could this mountain-which, I learned, is known as Smoothingiron
Mountain from its shape, and happens to be the highest point in Llano Country-be
the 'long, rough mountain' the rangers described? Could Cold Creek be the rangers'
creek of gold?
Reality reared its ugly head. I had located a long rough
mountain accompanied by a spring-fed, year-round creek within a day's walk of
coming in sight of Packsaddle. Was it the only long, rough mountain accompanied
by a spring-fed, year-round creek within a day's walk of coming in sight of Packsaddle?
That required research.
As an old artillery forward observer, what is
known as 'map recon'-examining topographical maps to determine the lay of the
land-is more or less in my bones. I ordered, from the US Geological Survey, every
7½ minute quadrangle (topographical map of approximately 1:24,000 scale) from
Packsaddle on the south to Hamilton on the north, and for fifty miles to the west.
These I spread out on my livingroom floor and began my research. The first thing
I did was put a pin in the west peak of Packsaddle, tie a string fifty scale miles
long to it, and swing an arc from due north to due west. Somewhere within that
arc the rangers had to be when they lost their camp. Where were they?
Well, they weren't as far north as the San Saba River, because the San Saba is
a permanent stream. Had they been that far north they would have had water, and
would simply have followed the river to its junction with the Colorado. They weren't
as far south as the Llano
for the same reason. Therefore, they had to be between the Llano and the San Saba,
which narrowed my search area considerably.
My next task was to examine
the elevations to determine from which direction Packsaddle can be seen 'in the
distance.' Packsaddle, while tall, sits in a low area. The ground slopes up rapidly
from the north and west, but less rapidly from the northwest. It would be possible
to see Packsaddle 'in the distance' only if one were to the northwest of it on
an azimuth of about 300°. The back azimuth of that is 120°, so the sight of Packsaddle
would be to the southeast-which was the rangers' direction of travel. So far,
Now-is Smoothingiron Mountain the only mountain in a reasonable
distance of Packsaddle that has a permanent creek alongside it? No hydrographic
datum on my maps was any later than 1918, which meant that any creek labeled as
'intermittent' in 1918 was also 'intermittent' in the 19th Century. This would
have been before any massive pumping from the underground water supply which feeds
springs. There were several 'long, rough mountains' accompanied by creeks in the
search area, but-with a single exception-each one was indicated by the broken
blue line which means 'seasonal' or 'intermittent.' Only Cold Creek, Field Creek,
and San Fernando Creek were indicated by solid blue lines. Cold Creek and Field
Creek unite just west of Smoothingiron Mountain to form San Fernando Creek, which
is tributary to the Llano River. Smoothingiron Mountain had to be the 'long, rough
mountain' of the creek of gold story-and therefore Cold Creek had to be the creek
of gold itself.
having been determined, I set to work to determine 'when.' First, the part of
the year. Rangers were 'on scout' during the raiding season. The raiding season
extended from the time ponies had forage until the time they didn't. That was
usually mid to late March until late October/early November. Equinoctial storms
in March and April and again in mid to late September, unless the year is notably
dry, will usually have at least standing water in seasonal creeks until mid-June
and after the fall storms begin. All the seasonal creeks were dry. That points
to July, August, or early September.
Now-what year? I can't be exact,
but the signs point to 1839-1840. First, they're described as 'McCulloch's rangers.'
Ben McCulloch was killed at the battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas in 1862. This
has to be, then, before 'the War.' Second, 'they took bullets out of their cartridges
and put them in their mouths to generate moisture.' Unless you've got a very strong
bite, you're not going to pull a bullet out of a brass or copper cartridge case
with your teeth. However, removing a bullet from a paper cartridge for a muzzle-loading
rifle or pistol is easy. All you have to do is tear the paper. Third, they went
to the southeast looking for civilization. After about 1841 there were settlements
west of the Colorado, but they weren't looking for them. They were moving southeast,
toward the Colorado. About the northernmost settlement west of the Colorado in
1839-1840 was Fort Croghan, where Llano
now stands. Fort Croghan, a private fortification, not a military one, was within
sight of Packsaddle Mountain on a clear day.
This very real, historical
event occurred in the summer of 1839 or 1840, sometime between late June or early
July and mid September, in what are now McCulloch and Llano Counties. The 'long,
rough mountain with flowing creek' is Smoothingiron Mountain with Cold Creek.
All we lack are the names of the two rangers.
C. F. Eckhardt|
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
June 21, 2006 column
Book Your Hotel Here & Save
by C. F. Eckhardt|
Tales of Badmen, Bad Women, and Bad Places