Welcome back to our Sense of Community series, "Mysteries from the Hollers."
Stories of buried treasure in the Ozarks have intrigued people for decades.
Brooks Blevins, Noel Boyd Professor of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University, said the tales go all the way back at least to the first French explorers in the Greater Mississippi region and the eastern part of the Ozarks in the early 1700s, and they likely got most of their stories from Spanish legends before that. Those explorers, he said, came upon stories of silver mines. There are even reports, according to Blevins, that some of the lead samples they sent back to France were laced with silver.
"Some of the early French explorers may even have been duped into believing that there was silver either by Native Americans in the area or by other Creole French just having fun at their expense," he said.
And when the first detailed map of the middle part of North America was made, Blevins said there were silver and gold mines on it. That encouraged the belief that there were deposits of silver and gold in the region.
"What happens is, by the time American settlers start to pour into the Ozarks in the very late 1700s and early 1800s, these legends are already circulating of the lost and buried silver and gold and all that kind of stuff," he said.
Blevins has written pages and pages of notes on these buried treasure stories and finds that they fall into four main areas: those that date back to Spanish explorers; pirates on the Mississippi; Civil War legends and legends relating to counterfeiting, which was rampant in the early days of the Ozarks. He’s also come across outlaw stories, such as Jesse James hiding money in caves.
Why have these legends thrived in this part of the country? Blevins said it comes with the territory.
"You've got a beautiful sparsely populated place with all kinds of caves, all kinds of hidden nooks and crannies that seems like the kind of place where, if you were going to hide gold or silver, you would do that," he said.
One story that dates back to Spanish explorers involves the Old Spanish Treasure Cave in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas along the Missouri/Arkansas border.
Paul and Tracy Linscott have owned the cave for more than 22 years.
Paul Linscott has personally found part of a sword blade and a belt, and he’s heard stories of people finding gold coins, pieces of armor, weapons and a bracelet.
Linscott admits that he can’t confirm stories of hidden Spanish gold are true, but he’s hopeful they’ll continue to find more proof that Spaniards were in the cave long ago.
The story of the cave involves the Spanish Conquistadors who traveled from Spain to Old Mexico and South America, stealing and raiding from Aztecs and Mayans along the way.
"One of the groups worked their way up through here and came up here through a brutal winter storm, so a lot of the horses were dying off, the carts were breaking down. They couldn't continue their journey, so they took shelter inside the cavern," said Linscott.
As the story goes, they hid their treasure and made plans to leave and come back with reinforcements to bring it home. But Indian braves who had come back from hunting to find their village destroyed by the Spaniards started tracking them down.
"Now, they eventually found them because in the big room, in the Council Room, where they set up their camp there's a natural chimney, and they had a campfire underneath there, so, of course, the Native Americans saw the smoke coming up the top of the mountain, came over and killed most of the Conquistadors. We know at least one survived, finished hiding and concealing all the entrances to the cavern, drew a map on parchment paper and carved another map into a limestone rock," said Linscott who also said the limestone rock has since been recovered.
The cavern was undiscovered after that until 1885 when an old man from Madrid, Spain found some old treasure maps in a family Bible that led him to Northern Arkansas, according to the legend. He hired men to help him, and, after digging straight down at a spot with a marker, they located the entrance to the cave concealed behind a large boulder. That was the first treasure hunt there, and it continues today.
They've uncovered the tracks used by a man named George Dunbar in the early 1900s as he looked for the gold in his operation, the Silver Springs Cave Company, Linscott said. Donkeys used to pull ore carts through the cave. Dunbar is the one who reportedly found gold coins and a bracelet.
And a few years ago during a severe drought, Linscott and his wife, Tracy, were able to access a part of the cave that's usually underwater.
"We went down to one of the springs, and we found some symbols that were carved in the wall," he said. "Now, one of the symbols looked kind of like a candy cane and then on the right hand side of it looked like a little eyeball and then above the eyeball there was some squiggly lines. Now, of course, we interpreted that as 'turn around and look underneath the water.' Of course, we weren't standing in the water, so I looked where that eye was pointing and what we saw was a little space between a floor and the wall. Now, of course, we got down there, and we were looking in that space, we found a little room with a long pool of water."
He said they immediately started digging down to open up the entrance, and they found old wood encased in clay. But they didn't get the entrance large enough to access what was behind it before it started raining, the water table rose, and the area flooded. They're waiting for the next drought to continue digging.
But Linscott won’t mind if he never finds the treasure. He didn’t buy the cave, he said, because of the buried treasure story it came with.
"We love the cave, and that's why we bought the cavern. I didn't believe any of this treasure stuff, and it wasn't until we found a few artifacts and started digging up and looking at some of the history to try and authenticate some of that, and then that's when we believed that the treasure hunt is a real thing here," he said.
The Linscotts love to show people their cave. They host movie nights in the Council Room, they have a Camp in the Cavern program for Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Venture Crews, they host school groups for tours and, for a fee, they offer seasonal cave tours to the public.
Jack Ray, assistant director for archaeological research at Missouri State University, doesn’t believe there’s any truth to stories of hidden Spanish gold, especially in the Missouri Ozarks. While conducting a survey to locate and evaluate caves in the White River Valley area, landowners told him tales of buried treasure. But he said there’s never been any confirmation of gold in caves in the Ozarks. And, as an archaeologist, he sees the negative consequences the stories have had over the years.
"Unfortunately, it does fuel the vandalism of these caves--looking for this stuff. So you have the rumors floating out there that the Spanish have been in here, they hid some of their gold in these caves, that causes the locals to go in there and try to dig it up and try to find it, and in the process, unfortunately, destroying a lot of the archaeological record that could be documented if it had been excavated in an appropriate manner," said Ray.
He pointed to a site in Lawrence County near what is today the town of Hoberg where locals for years have called an earthwork, about 100 yards long and two to three feet high, the Old Spanish Fort, believing that Spaniards must have built it years ago while in the region looking for gold, according to Ray. But he said he and his colleagues suspected it was something else.
"We actually went in there--excavated in the late 90s and recovered some charcoal from the ditch adjacent to the earthwork and processed those samples and got radio carbinations of A.D. 1400 to 1450, so 100 years before de Soto ever got into the New World," said Ray.
Another site in Barton County has several pits in the ground, which Ray called a Native American quarry site. That's where Native Americans dug into the ground for high quality flint nodules to make stone tools, probably around 1400-1500 A.D.
"Well, the locals thought that this must be where the Spanish had hidden their treasure--their gold and so forth--so they started digging in this area as well," said Ray. "But, it's clear that those pits have nothing to do with Spanish gold being deposited there."
Some years back, Ray heard stories of a Spanish helmet being found in a cave in Cedar County. But in the 10 years the MSU Center for Archaeological Research worked on the Big Eddy site in the county and despite several requests by the archaeologists to see the helmet, no one ever produced it.
Even though the validity of many of the Ozarks' buried treasure stories can't be proven, they'll likely continue to intrigue people in the region for years to come.
And there are some that are more recent and can be verified. John Rutherford, Local History associate
with the Springfield-Greene County Library, can tell several tales of hidden treasure that have been written about in Springfield and surrounding area newspapers over the years.
One tells of an outlaw during the Civil War who robbed multiple people and who claimed to have $60,000 of gold with him when he was captured, shot and eventually died from his wounds.
"He told a surgeon the story about where he had buried it in a cave down on the White River on the Wilderness Road somewhere near the Kimberling Bridge or the Mayberry-Kimberling Ferry," said Rutherford.
The cave he supposedly buried the loot in may be inundated with water because of the creation of Table Rock Lake, according to Rutherford, but it could still be above water.
And there’s the story of a man who lost a one-carat diamond from his Shriner’s ring at a business in the 400 block of Jefferson. Despite a long search for it (which they dubbed "the one carat diamond mine") it reportedly was never found.
Another interesting story you can read about in old area newspapers, according to Rutherford: A Civil War soldier, John Rogers, and his wife moved to West Plains from Kentucky in the late 19th century. They started a vegetable garden and sold their harvest to neighbors. It's said that Rogers decided to expand his business by purchasing additional land.
"He found a piece of property he liked; he went to the bank, which apparently owned it; and, with a wheelbarrow full of nickels, paid for that piece of property, and that caused quite a stir among the local residents," Rutherford said.
He gardened for several more years, according to Rutherford, and, after he passed away, no one knew what happened to the rest of the money he'd made. Within a short time after his death, his house and a nearby blacksmith shop were burned to the ground.
"So, there's some thinking there that people were looking for a cache of nickels that might have been buried on his home property in some way, and they may still be there," said Rutherford.
You can read about more treasure stories in the Ozarks on the library’s website. Click on the link to the Ozarks News and Historical Index and type in “Treasure Trove.”