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Texas USA

Finders Weepers

Treasure discovered in 1885 led to trouble for a Bell County ranch hand

One day in 1885, a young man named A.C. Urvin left the Turnbo Ranch near Youngsport, in western Bell County, where he worked as a hand, to visit his father near Bertram in Burnet County. He crossed the Lampasas River near the McBride settlement and sat down on what he thought was a rock to wring out his wet socks. The rock turned out to be an old stone jar full of gold and silver coins, some dated as early as 1671.

Though Texas history is crammed with stories about lost gold and silver—the Lost Bowie Mine, Steinheimer’s silver, Jean Lafitte’s buried booty—we don’t see a lot of stories about found treasures. This story turned out to be an exception. Urvin probably knew exactly what he’d found.

Stories of a Mexican treasure buried somewhere in that area had been retold for decades. Old-timers told of how groups of Mexican miners and treasure hunters had visited this section of the river for many years, always looking for something. They never told anybody what they were looking for until one day, when a blabbermouth revealed that the object of their pursuit was a large stone jar full of coins and three metal chests filled with gold and silver.

The locals kept a close eye on the treasure hunters as they consulted their compasses and poked holes in the ground, but after several days, the searchers always went home empty-handed.

Urvin hadn’t been looking for the treasure, but he did not go home empty-handed. He put some of the coins in his pocket, carefully concealed the jar and continued on his way. That evening, at his father’s house, a neighbor spied Urvin inspecting the coins. Urvin told him he’d won the gold playing poker, but the neighbor was skeptical. He told another neighbor, who was likewise skeptical. Maybe they believed that people don’t play poker with rare and valuable Mexican coins. And the truth was Urvin was lying.

Urvin returned the next day with his brother to the spot where he’d concealed the jar. The brothers filled a couple of bags with more coins, then again hid the jar. They returned to Bertram and told locals Eugene Gahn and a man named McDonald of their find. Soon, Urvin’s newfound wealth was an open secret throughout the region.

At that point, Urvin probably went to Mexico to exchange the coins for American dollars. Though his fortunes had increased, his reputation suffered. The popular notion in Bell and Williamson counties was that the “young man of industrious habits,” as the Belton Journal described him, was actually a thief and a liar.

“At Belton, the story did not go far until it reached the ears of Moses Whitsitt,” Harry Christmas wrote in a 1964 edition of Real West magazine. “He went immediately to the Belton Journal, telling the editor that young Urvin was wanted for theft. He [said] that a merchant named Atkinson of Florence, who had been a rare coin collector, was robbed of his collection. He further made the claim that young Urvin’s alias was Maxwell.”

To defend himself in the court of public opinion, Urvin wrote a letter to the Georgetown Sun. The letter appeared in the August 13, 1885, edition and read: “Dear Sirs; I found $11,300 in old Spanish coins and have it now in U.S. currency. As to my name, it is A.C. Urvin. I have both father and mother and two brothers to prove my connections. I am now living in the neighborhood of Holland with G.T. Smith. I am no thief or robber. I will be in Belton this week to see you. I can prove as good a character, from my childhood down to this time, as any man in Texas. Yours truly, A.C. Urvin.”

In reporting this, an El Paso paper concluded, “The fact that Mr. Urvin found the money seems to be well documented.”

And that, as far as history knows, is the end of the story.

We don’t know what became of the three chests loaded with gold or if they even existed. We don’t know what happened to Urvin because he disappears from the historical record after that, but it’s safe to assume he never worked on the Turnbo Ranch again. His $11,300 find in 1885 would be worth about $300,000 today.

Others may have made similar finds but kept quiet about it to avoid just the kind of trouble and suspicion that followed Urvin after he claimed finders keepers on that stone jar.

Clay Coppedge, a member of Bartlett EC, lives near Walburg.