The Lost Treasure of San Roque Canyon (1895)

“There were three Santa Barbara boys who started aviation careers with their kite-flying. They were the Loughead brothers, Victor, Malcolm, and Allan, whose mother, Flora Haines Loughead, was a writer for the Independent, one of Santa Barbara’s three newspapers at the turn of the century. The name Loughead was pronounced “Lockheed.”

Walker A. Tompkins, It Happened In Old Santa Barbara (1976)

The following story written by Flora Haines Loughead recounts a folktale about hidden treasure in San Roque Canyon.

Two of her sons, Allan and Malcolm, founded Loughead Aircraft Manufacturing Company in Santa Barbara in 1916. The company name would later be changed to Lockheed.

The San Francisco Morning Call originally published the story of lost treasure in 1895.

A Hidden Treasure: Many Have Searched For It In Vain
Flora Haines Loughead

From the beginning of civilization, when people commenced to find that they had a past and to sift their legendary lore and decipher the crude records of their barbaric forefathers, nothing has taken so strong a hold upon the human race as the tales of hidden treasure that have been handed down from generation to generation.

Doubtless the old Egyptians searched for tombs and records of forgotten peoples with as keen a zest as modern explorers, under the cloak of science, pierce the Pyramids and open the sarcophagi of the Upper Nile; and there is little doubt that the races which come after us will be possessed of an ardor no less vigorous in defining the boundaries of our ruined cities and despoiling our tombs.

California is rich in tales of buried treasure, but they are mostly of a vague and unsatisfactory sort, which will not stand investigation, and can usually be traced to the barroom utterances of some dissipated miner or to the shameless fabrications of some unscrupulous citizen.

It seems to be left to Santa Barbara, which already has the best of everything in the way of climate, scenery, products and people, to lay just claim to several of the most enticing and authentic tales of hidden treasure that one often hears.

I came across the first of these while exploring a canyon some ten miles out from town, variously known as Gatos (wildcat) and Lewis Canyon, and which contains several miles from where the wagon road terminates some interesting prehistoric traces in the shape of Indian paintings on the face of two sheer cliffs, through which the tiny stream, moving with gigantic force during the winter torrents, has slowly through the ages carved its way. There is a cave high up on the face of one of these cliffs, and in this cave, no less than the strange inscriptions, was one of the objective points of our party.

“Perhaps you’ll find the old priest’s lost treasure,” was the quickening remark of a rancher who was gravely contributing directions four our guidance and who evidently had little respect for people who led by no more dignified motives than the desire to unravel the lost history of a prehistoric race. “They say it’s hidden in a cave somewhere along this range,” he added tentatively.

This led to queries and explanations. His knowledge was vague but beguiling. Sometime during the early occupation of the mission there had been a great treasure concealed for the purpose of safety, in a cave in the mountains, and the secret of its hiding place had been lost.

We reached the cliffs, but not the cave, which was thirty-five feet in the air, in the face of a straight rock, having no ladder and no means of constructing any save from timbers too heavy for our exploring party to handle. If the treasure is still there it awaits the discovery of some enterprising individual who has the courage to follow the windings of Lewis Creek nearly to the crest of the range, with the aid of ropes, scaling several falls and slippery ledges high in the air, and who then still has sufficient courage and enterprise reserved to fell a couple of sycamores and construct a ladder that will lift him to this opening.

Again and again, sometimes from old Mexicans, whose scant knowledge of English and my own scant knowledge of Spanish made conversation difficult; sometimes from prosaic ranchmen, who regarded all energy as misapplied that is directed outside of a barley field or a kitchen, vague references to this fascinating tale again came to us. It is not until I came across a German, who has his home in San Roque Canyon, that the story was spread before me, full and complete, to the last detail.

“Very early in this century,” my German acquaintance began, “about the year 1808, the Santa Barbara mission, at that time very wealthy and with great stores of gold and  precious jewels, as well as church ornaments worth a pile, was endangered by pirates, who at that time threatened the port. The priests decided to move these treasures to a place of safe keeping. Now you can see for yourself that if they had merely sent them off in somebody’s safe keeping they would have been easily traced. So they determined to make believe they had another purpose when they carried off the jewels. They put up an adobe building here in this canyon, where there were many Indians. I will show you the foundation of this chapel. But they pretended it was a dairy they were building, and they brought along all their cattle and pastured them here. If the pirates had guessed they had the treasure here it was a good place to defend it, you bet!”

We had been walking slowly up the canyon, and my informant turned and with a significant wave of his hand bade me take in the situation. He evidently was an authority upon military matters, as well as upon all other subjects. The place seemed fitted by nature for an impregnable fortress, with its narrow, rocky walls and its slight eminence, commanding the only approach from the valley. He showed me the half-obliterated foundation of the old chapel, or dairy as he would have me believe, which was easily traced, indicating the former existence of an quadrangle building, probably some sixty feet in width and perhaps 150 feet in length.

“Here they had the treasure safely housed,” he went on. But one night one of the very young fathersnot one of the old ones as some sayone Father Pedro, he got sick and they didn’t know it. You see, it was one of those kind of fevers that come on with a little twist in the brain. And he got to worrying over the treasure, and fearing that the pirates might find it there. And one night he got up when the others were asleep and he gathered it all together, and he went out in the night somewhere up in the hills and he hid it away. And the next morning he was very sick, and the very next night he died; he died without telling one of them where he had put the treasure.”

There was an impressive pause. The story, told in that solitary place, amid the wild hills with their tangle of chaparral, their stately oaks and their maze of rocky fastnesses, carried conviction with it.

“They hunted for it a long time. Of course they hunted for it. It was the wealth of the Mission. Without it they were poor,” the German went on. “They went all over and over the hills. They dug up the ground in all directions. They hunted in the rocks and caves. They hunted for fifty years. They never found it.”

“And have they given up hunting now?”

“Iwouldn’t say so. Sometimes on moonlit nights I see people with spades on their shoulders,” in a voice of mystery. “But you speak of it to the priests at the Mission and not one word will they say about it to admit or deny. If you want to hear about it you go these old half-Indians. They know all about it. I learn much from my mother-in-law. She is half Mexican, half Indian. She is old, and she remembers the talk about it when she was a child and everybody knew about it. There is scarcely a Spanish man in this town who has not dug for it. And Americans, they come too, all the time. I tell them, “Go ahead.” You find any treasure you are welcome to it. You can see the holes about here where they have been digging.

There were certainly a great many holes bearing the marks of a spade or shovel. Some of them, in our immediate vicinity, looked as if they might have been opened that morning. Yet the canyon was deserted, and in all the times we have visited it we had never so far encountered a soul besides the German. A sudden suspicion awoke.

“And you? Why don’t you try to find it yourself when you have a little time to spare? It would be a fine thing to come across such wealth in these hard times.”

This sympathetic inquiry encouraged him.

“Oh, meI have dug a hole now and then, when I had nothing else to do,” he said with affected indifference.

“And what is your theory?” Do you think the treasure is hidden in the ground or in a cave or in a tree?”

“In the rocks,” he said firmly, “notwithstanding the evidence of the freshly turned sod.”

“You see it stands to reason,” he went on with warmth, “that the sick priest could not have dug a hole deep enough to hide the treasure that knight. And if he had, the chances are they would have found the place as soon as they found the treasure was gone. He couldn’t have gone very far, and he couldn’t of done much work. If he had gone all the way on the ground they could have followed his steps. I believe he put it in the rocks.

In this arm of the San Roque, which is locally known as Tebbetts Canyon, named after an old newspaper man who once had his residence there, the rocks and ledges and boulders belong for the most part to what might be called a cave formation, and which is traceable in every gulch and canyon in the Santa Ynez Range. It is a soft sandstone, which seems to have been interspersed in its formation by nature with soft nodules, which wear away, leaving frequent hollows and cells. Sometimes whole ledges are honeycombed in this peculiar fashion, and where the soft spots are exposed to weather or the wash of water caverns from eight to thirty feet result. Aside from this, ledges in this vicinity have enormous fissures.

There were probably a thousand caves and fissures in which a man or band of men might have found shelter within a quarter of a mile of the foundations of the old mission building. There are a hundred thousand were a small treasure might be securely hidden from sight. Some of these holes and caverns are inaccessible, unless a man chose to risk his life in the climb and descent; yet there is the possibility that one in the delirium of fever might have reached them and found his way down again without injury.

But my informant’s confidence was at full tide, and he reached a momentum where not all his prudent resolves of secrecy could interrupt it.

“Do you think that some treasure was hidden without some sign to find it again?” he demanded, earnestly.

“I tell you, wherever that it is hidden, there are marks to find it by. I’ve been hunting for those marks. They may be on trees or on rocks. Come with me and I will show you what I found.”

He led the way a hundred yards up the beautiful canyon, twice crossing a crystal brook as it came tumbling down from the heights above. He finally stopped in a glade of oaks, under a noble tree.

“Look there!” he said.

Deeply marked in the gnarled trunk at a height of some six feet was a large cross with a square base, the whole some four feet high and three or more feet across.

“And look here again!”

On a tree some twenty feet away was the rude outline of a tomahawk, almost obliterated by time and growth.

“Now, it may be,” said the Dutchman, “that if one would dig beneath these in a direct line between them he would come upon that treasure. I dug a little, as you see, but maybe I didn’t dig deep enough. And, perhaps, if one should cut down this tree,” indicating the tree with the cross, they’d find it was hollow at one time, but the bark closed around the hole, and something may be inside of it; or perhaps it is high up, where the big limb joined the trunk. What I think is this: Somewhere else there was a third sign; perhaps it is on a rock, and is washed so it doesn’t show plain after all these years; perhaps it was on another tree, that was burned down when fires swept this gulch. If anybody can find that third sign, and draws a line between the three, the place where those lines intersect they may dig, and they will find the treasure.”

He said this with great conviction, and one could not but wonder how many weary hours or days he has spent in hunting for this third sign. But there was that about the cross on the tree that it made it well worth regarding; so deep had it been cut in the gnarled trunk, so many years had the bark grown and striven to cover the ugly wound.

“One might think that it had been put there two or three hundred years ago,” said our guide, eyeing the tree with cool interest.

“I myself can scarcely see how it had time to grow so much since 1808. I am only a tenant here, and I can’t cut down a tree unless it is dead. If I could cut that down, we could count the layers of bark and tell to a year just when that was made.”

He said this with an air of triumph in his scientific lore and a little impatience that it be necessary to take such a painstaking step to perfect his stores of exact knowledge. But a more important thought was taking shape in another mind. Was it possible that this man, in his search for a treasure of gold and jewels, had stumbled across another much more important discovery? The scar, as he had rightly said, bore the evidence of centuries of growth above it. Can it be that here, in a Santa Barbara canyon, we have a new and indisputable evidence of the existence of the prehistoric cross, antedating the introduction of the Christian religion, which, discovered in Mexico half a century ago, caused such a wrangle among theologians?

The object is certainly well worth investigation. Before another fire, which has raged around it the past summer, shall have swept this ancient landmark from the face of the earth, this tree should certainly be felled, and a cross-section made through the deeply graven cross, with a view of ascertaining the exact number of layers of bark above it. That it has been made by the hand of man, its exact lines and elaborate delineation place beyond a question of doubt.

In this same canyon, not many rods away, there is another arboreal curiosity that may well claim the consideration of thoughtful minds. This is a great oak which has one enormous limb, apparently of a different species, growing out of it at a height of some ten feet from the ground, and which has plainly been grafted by artificial means, the line of the cutting and the swell beyond it being distinctly visible. This, too, it would seem, by its prodigious growth, to have been the work of a century or more ago. What could be the object of such elaborate task, performed on this hardwood tree in this lonely uninhabited canyon?

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2 Responses to The Lost Treasure of San Roque Canyon (1895)

  1. Lila Henry says:

    Fascinating! Thank you.

  2. Richard Woolsey says:

    Jack, interesting article, loaded with the allure that drives amateur sleuths mad. Having roamed the mountains where the treasure is said too be hidden, have you come across any of the clues described in the newspaper article or “you ain’t talking.”

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