Maximilian's Lost Treasure

The disappearance of the only imperial treasury in the American West

by Bill Yenne

For the years 1861 to 1865, students of North American history tend to focus their attention on the Civil War in the United States. However, in terms of global politics, the events going on at the same time south of the border were also of interest and importance.

In France, meanwhile, the greedy and ambitious Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte — the son of the Napoleon Bonaparte's brother Louis — was on the throne under the title Emperor Napoleon III. He chose the moment of America's preoccupation with the Civil War to seize control of Mexico's government. He declared Mexico to be an "empire" allied with France, and in 1864 he installed an Austrian archduke named Ferdinand Maximilian to be "emperor" of Mexico. The farce would be one of the more intriguing footnotes in North American history, and it would provide one of the more intriguing buried-treasure tales.

Louis Napoleon's "Mexican Empire"

After having been involved in several schemes to get the family back in power, Louis Napoleon had been elected president of France's Second Republic in December 1851. A year later he declared the Second Empire and made himself emperor as Napoleon III. It was an empire in name only, for France no longer had the vast conquests of Napoleon Bonaparte. An emperor without an empire is a greedy man, and Louis Napoleon set out to resolve that problem. To his credit, his grandiose vision of imperial France did result in massive public works programs, including a national railway network, but his greed was ultimately his downfall. In 1859, in cooperation with Britain, he defeated Russia — something at which his uncle failed — in the Crimean War. He also gained concessions in Italy against the interests of Austria. His ultimate undoing was, of course, his declaring war on Prussia in 1870.

When France was decisively defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, Louis himself was captured, and republicans in Paris proclaimed the Third Republic. It was the end of the monarchy in France.

Louis Napoleon's Mexican adventure was part of his scheme aimed at creating a global empire to rival that being assembled by Britain. His idea was to invade Mexico with French troops and establish a "Mexican Empire" that would essentially be a wholly owned subsidiary of the French Empire. With this idea fully formed in his creative mind, Louis Napoleon started thinking about whom he could get to play the role of "emperor of Mexico." In those days, royalty was traded back and forth across national boundaries with little regard to their nation of origin, so it probably never occurred to Louis Napoleon to pick a Mexican to be his puppet emperor. (Louis Napoleon himself was descended from Corsicans and was married to a Spanish woman, while across the English Channel, in Britain, Queen Victoria's mother was a German and her children became royalty in Prussia, Russia, England, Battenberg, Hesse, Waldeck, Argyll, Saxe-Coburg, and Schleswig-Holstein.)

The man whom Louis Napoleon picked to rule Mexico — before Mexico even knew that the French emperor was picking its ruler— was Ferdinand Josef Maximilian, an Austrian archduke who was married to Charlotte, the daughter of Leopold I, the king of the Belgians and who was born a German prince. Maximilian's own resume included having served his family's empire as a naval officer and governor of Lombardy-Venetia in Italy from 1857 to 1859.

Neither Maximilian nor Charlotte had ever been to Mexico, and it was once suggested that Mexico's new empress couldn't even pick out the country on a map. None of this bothered Louis Napoleon. It mattered more to him that he was building alliances with Max's brother Franz Josef, the emperor of Austria, and with Leopold, Belgium's German king. As for Maximilian, he saw it as an opportunity to be the emperor of someplace. Princes and archdukes were a dime a dozen, but to be able to add "emperor" to his resume appealed to Maximilian.

Because Mexico had defaulted on its foreign debts, Louis Napoleon was able to get Britain and Spain to acquiesce to an invasion of Mexico in 1862. The United States, of course, was deeply embroiled in the Civil War and chose not to intervene. However, even against only Mexican troops, it took French forces the better part of a year to fight their way from the port of Veracruz to Mexico City and overthrow the Mexican Republic. Nearly a year later, in May 1864, Max and Charlotte — she would be known as Carlota in Mexico — finally arrived to be crowned, and to take their places on their newly established thrones. Supported by Mexico's upper crust, the new emperor and empress demonstrated a voracious appetite for riches, and incredible quantities of gold and silver flowed into his palace from Mexico's rich and profitable mines.

Carlota, merely twenty-four years old, relished in her role as empress of a land she had not known existed just a few years earlier. Eventually she would be the subject of a grand opera with a libretto by Norma Carrillo and Robert Avalon, music by Robert Avalon, and based on the poetry of Senora Juana Ines de la Cruz.

As a ruler, Maximilian pleased nobody. The well-heeled landowners who supported him initially were dismayed by his refusal to rescind the liberal reforms of the Benito Juarez republican government, and the republicans resented the idea of an Austrian backed by French troops ruling their country. Within two years Max could see that his position was degrading from tenuous to untenable.

In 1866 the United States was flush with victory in the Civil War and making noises about wanting French troops out of Mexico. Maximilian knew that his time as emperor was running out, and he started to prepare for his future life as a gentleman ex-emperor in his castle back in Austria. To make this a happy life, he wanted to take with him as much of his mountains of gold and silver as possible. To get it there, he could not ship it out directly through the port of Veracruz, because that would arouse suspicion. Therefore he decided to send his treasure home secretly, by way of a port in Texas, such as Galveston or Corpus Christi.

The Wagons of Flour

One day in 1866, 15 wagonloads of gold and silver coins — as well as jewels, plate, and other treasure — disguised as barrels of flour, were sent north clandestinely, where they successfully crossed into West Texas near Presidio.

Soon after crossing the Rio Grande, the four Austrians guarding the wagon train met a group of Confederate soldiers from Missouri who were escaping to Mexico. The six reported Indians and bandits on the road ahead, and the Austrians hired them to help protect the valuable load of "flour" they were anxious to get to San Antonio. The finicky way that the Austrians guarded their "flour" struck the Missouri men as a bit odd. It seemed that they were treating it as though the cargo was more valuable than flour. No doubt it had to have seemed odd that four Austrian soldiers were escorting flour across West Texas. Finally, the Missourians' curiosity reached the point where they had to find out.

At camp one night, while five of the Confederates lured the Austrian guards away from the wagons, the sixth lifted the canvas on some of the carts and pried open a few of the barrels. When he reported that he had found them full of gold and silver and jewels, it was decided that the Austrians should not be allowed to keep it. The following night, as the caravan was camped at a place called Castle Gap, 15 miles east of the Horse Head Crossing of the Pecos River and with two Austrians standing guard, the Missouri men struck. The Austrians were all killed before the 15 Mexican teamsters were aware of what was going on. Then the Missourians turned their attention to them, gunning them down one by one as they slept or as they were attempting to escape. When the slaughter was over, 19 dead men lay on the ground, and the treasure belonged to the Confederate soldiers.

They were now faced with the problem of what to do with their 15 wagons of loot, a treasure conservatively valued at millions. It had to have occurred to them that killing the Mexicans was a really bad idea, since it would be very hard for six men to drive 15 wagons and act as outriders to keep watch for Indians. After a heated debate over their fortune and future, the men concluded that it would be unsafe and unwise to try to move the treasure across the Plains. They then decided to bury it and return when things quieted down — whenever that would be.

The hiding of such a load so it would be reasonably safe from being discovered had to have been a daunting prospect. It wasn't like burying a strongbox or suitcase. They had before them 15 huge wooden freight wagons, 15 teams of oxen, and 19 dead bodies, which were slowly ripening in the West Texas sun. They also had 15 tons treasure to hide. After setting aside all the coins each man could carry, they dug a hole or holes in the sandy floor of the canyon and buried Maximilian's gold and silver and the many chests of jewels. They also threw in the 19 rotting corpses.

Having buried the "evidence," they broke up the wagons and burned them on top of the site, believing the result would resemble nothing more than a burned out campfire. The oxen were turned loose to shift for themselves. With their saddlebags heavy with Mexican coins, the six murderers headed toward San Antonio to spend some of it and to make plans to come back. Whether escaping to Mexico crossed their minds, we simply do not know.

Two days later, one of the men said he was becoming sick, and he dropped out for a rest. The others decided that he might be planning to sneak back to Castle Gap to get more for himself, so they decided to just kill him so there would be more for each of them. They simply shot him off his horse and rode away, each assuming he was dead. But he was not.

A few days later, the wounded man recovered sufficiently to be able to walk, and he continued on, heading toward San Antonio. He soon came upon the bodies of the other five Missouri men. Ironically, a short time after shooting him and leaving him for dead, they had themselves been ambushed by someone — possibly a Comanche raiding party — and killed. Their empty saddlebags were scattered around, and it was obvious they had been robbed.

Of the 25 men — Austrians, Mexicans, and Missourians — who had camped that last fateful night at Castle Gap, only one now survived, and he was badly wounded. He could do nothing but struggle forward, trying to make the miles and keep from being spotted by Indians. Finally, one evening, he spotted a campfire and struggled toward it. What turned out to be a group of horse thieves took him in and gave him something to eat. He bedded down with them that night, but before dawn, a sheriff's posse that had been trailing the men surrounded the camp. The Missouri man was naturally assumed to be one of them, and he was taken to jail with them.

By the time he was able to get someone to believe that he was not a horse thief, to get a lawyer, to get out of jail, and to get to the attention of a doctor, the Missouri man's gunshot wounds were so badly infected that he really did not stand a chance. His condition went from bad to worse no matter what the doctor did, and finally, just before he died, he told the whole story related here, and he drew a treasure map and gave it to the doctor.

Several years later, when the Indian wars in West Texas had subsided, the doctor and the attorney took the treasure map and went to Castle Gap. They were able to find none of the landmarks on the map, and they found no evidence of freight wagons having been burned. Was the Missouri man lying? Had someone gotten there first?

Meanwhile, at the "gentle" urging of the United States, Louis Napoleon withdrew the French Army from Mexico in 1867. Charlotte — who was reportedly beginning to show signs of mental illness — left, ostensibly to go to Europe to beg for aid from Louis Napoleon. Maximilian stayed on having been convinced by supporters that he could retain the throne. In fact, he had virtually no support, and without the French Army, no protection. He was snatched by republicans and executed at Cerro de las Campanas. Benito Juarez was promptly elected president, and Mexico has been a republic ever since. Charlotte died in a mental institution in Austria in 1927 at the age of 87. Only a few odds and ends of their wealth were discovered in their palace in Mexico. The rest had disappeared.

The Curse of Castle Gap

As with many of the lost treasures in the West, the treasure at Castle Gap — or near Castle Gap or at someplace that looked like Castle Gap — is not known to have been found. However, from time to time one runs across a reference to remnants of burned-out wagons and attempts to dig beneath them. In fact, there were probably dozens, if not hundreds, of burned wagon trains in West Texas.

Where is the lost wagon train of Castle Gap? Somewhere under a foot or two of sand in a canyon southwest of Odessa and about 13 miles east of the Pecos River. To specifically search for Maximilian's lost loot, begin with the U.S. Geological Survey topographical map that is specifically called "Castle Gap" and numbered TTX0663607502541.

The site is pretty far from major population centers. The two most convenient major airports — El Paso and San Antonio — are several hours' drive away. There are closer, smaller airports at Midland and San Angelo, but the extra time you'd have to spend changing planes would offset the distance advantage. From El Paso take Interstate 10 east. From San Antonio take Interstate 10 west. Exit at Fort Stockton, the county seat of sprawling Pecos County. A bit of research time in Fort Stockton might be surprisingly useful. When you are ready to move on, take Texas Highway 18 due north. Virtually the next landmark you see — 20 miles up the road — will be the Pecos River bridge. It was very near here, back in 1866, that those 15 freight wagons forded the Pecos River, and there is still evidence around here of the many fords that were used by wagon trains in the nineteenth century.

Two miles north of the Pecos River is the town of Grandfalls. Turning right here onto Texas Route 329 will take you along the eastern side of the Pecos River, bisecting the route taken by the 15 wagons. At this point it will be time to triangulate any anecdotal information you may have gleaned in the county seat with the precision of your topographical map.

Parenthetically, for more anecdotal information drive up to Odessa, which is the county seat of nearby Ector County, or to Crane, the county seat of Crane County. Odessa is quite a large city, while Crane is a very small town. Both characteristics will prove to have advantages for a researcher working the library or county record room. Crane is about 30 miles east of Grandfalls, on highway 329. Odessa is, in turn, about 32 miles north of Crane, on U.S. Highway 385.

In both towns you will probably find someone willing to talk at length about the Maximilian gold and about the irony of what happened to everyone who touched it: Maximilian was killed, Charlotte went mad, and 25 men in Texas died violently. There have even been some thoughts of a curse, but most people don't take those thoughts seriously.

The treasure at Castle Gap is not the only lost treasure in the American West whose only witnesses died violently and soon after it was hidden. But it is the only lost treasure in the American West that is virtually an entire imperial treasury. If found today, its value would certainly be $10 million, and it may be greater than that. The historic and archaeological value would make it priceless.

From Lost Treasure by Bill Yenne. Copyright © 1999. Reprinted by permission of author.

This article originally appeared in Issue 21, February 2008.




Bill Yenne is the author of numerous books on history and popular culture, as well as on aviation and military technology. He has also written several novels. He lives in San Francisco.

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