his way up a desolate arroyo choked with catclaw and mesquite, Border Patrol agent
Bill Crowe came to an exposed red sandstone formation.
Checking for illegal
aliens on the McVay Ranch about five miles north of Van
Horn off State Highway 54, he had driven a few miles off the highway past
the ranch house, and then taken a dirt road running almost due west toward Allamore.
Behind Turtleback Mountain he had started cutting for sign.
found any tracks yet, but as he looked at the rock ledge, something caught his
eye. It was a rusty lard can, wedged between two segments of rock.
Crowe pulled the can from its resting place, he could tell it had something in
it. Removing the top, he found another can inside. Opening that can, he smelled
chili. Indeed, he saw that it held two well-preserved red chili peppers. But there
A shaving mirror, a wash rag or handkerchief with a hand-stitched
hem, a pencil in a handmade leather holster, a bar of soap wrapped in paper, a
tobacco pouch with rolling papers, the dried peppers and assorted seeds and a
printed Arbuckle’s Coffee premium list with offers valid from June 1, 1896 to
May 31, 1897.
The most interesting item Crowe found in the can was a letter
written in Spanish, folded into an envelope carefully sealed with stitching.
appeared that the can had been deliberately placed where he found it, partially
concealed. Above where he had found the can, Crowe noted a scattering of gathered
firewood at what looked like could have been a camp site.
a bachelor, Crowe took the can and its contents to his residence in Van Horn and
stuck it on a shelf in his laundry room. About a year later, he figured the folks
at the Clark Hotel Museum might be interested in the desert-preserved time capsule
and took it there.
The museum curator got the letter translated and put
it and the items on display in a glass cabinet.
This is what it said:
Don Jose Zepeda, my very esteemed friend, all of my great honor and joy. Hoping
upon receiving these short lines I find you in complete health, and that of your
family also, as my own I am enjoying, Thank God.
“These short lines are
to send my greetings, and to get me a jar of Magistral [quinine], and send me
a little, if you can send it in grain form if not send it in liquid. Find 4 pounds
of asafoetida and send me a bar. If you have the means send it with 2 chisels.
And send me all these things with a person of your confidence. You know of all
God has provided you have part. Provide me with what I ask and you will have part.
I do stress you do everything possible to send me these things I asked for. I
will return the favor. Good friend I wish I could see you instead of write to
you. Felipe Frais.”
who was Felipe Frais?
After the letter and other items found in the can
went on display in the early 1990s, the museum hoped someone would come forward
to provide more information on Frais, but no one ever has. And the internet offers
Whoever he was, he must have been fairly well educated, writing
in an elegant hand. He drank Arbuckle’s coffee and saved coupons toward the premiums
the famous coffee company offered.
asking for chisels led the museum staff to speculate that he might have been a
prospector. Certainly, his request for confidentiality indicates he might have
believed he was on to something in the area where he left the can. So does the
line, “You know of all God has provided you have part.”
bigger question is what happened to him. For whatever reason, Frais’s letter never
got sent. Did the good health he mentioned in his letter suddenly fail him? In
fact, his request for quinine and asafoetida, two substances which many back then
thought could cure anything from fever to flatulence to flu, indicates he might
have been ill when he wrote the letter. Did he die somewhere in the desert, his
quest for precious metals cut short by a virus, heatstroke, rattlesnake bite or
A web search reveals no recorded grave marker bearing
his name. And if anyone came across Frais’s body in the desert, that fact is lost
in the coroner’s records of El Paso County. (Culberson County was not organized
until 1912.) Whatever happened to Frais likely will forever remain a mystery.
from Georgia, Crowe had worked for six months as a National Park Service ranger
at Mount McKinley in Alaska before joining the Border Patrol in 1978. He retired
in 2006 after 28 years of federal service, all of it around Van
Horn. These days he works as a security officer at the U.S. District Court
in Pecos, though he still lives in Van
Other than an occasional arrowhead, Crowe says Felipe Frais’s
modest possessions are the most interesting things he ever found while scouting
his part of the vast Trans-Pecos desert.
Cox - December
22 , 2011 column
People | Texas Towns | Columns