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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

PULLING HISTORY OUT OF LEGEND
THE RANGER'S CREEK OF GOLD

by C. F. Eckhardt
In 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.
Hamilton Texas Post Office mural of Texas Rangers
Hamilton Post Office mural

TE photo
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.

At last, 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.

Late 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.

In 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.

I turned 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 14 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 7 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, so good.

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.

'Where' 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


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