Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Search for Birch Creek treasure yields more questions than gold

Tales of buried treasure usually bring images of dashing pirates, tropical islands and gold doubloons. But even in the dusty scrub of Eastern Oregon, the lure of finding a cache of hidden booty has led to myth and legend.

One such story graced the pages of the East Oregonian on April 23, 1906. Local legend in the Pilot Rock area suggested a man had buried a fortune in 1864 while he lived on the Wilson place, formerly the “Skeedaddle” Smith ranch, south of Pilot Rock on Birch Creek. The man kept secret the location of his treasure until his death bed, when he divulged that he had buried an iron box containing $11,000 in gold dust and coins when he lived on the ranch. But because he had lived in several places, all efforts to find the gold came to nothing.

Enter J.H. Anderson, a storekeeper in the tiny town of Monument. Having heard the rumor of buried treasure, the story said, he traveled to Birch Creek and learned of the location of the old house on the Wilson place from Marion Smith, who had formerly lived there. The house had stood where the old emigrant road crossed the creek and, while the house had been gone for more than 20 years, a depression in the ground showed where the cellar had been — and it was there that Anderson started digging.

Anderson turned up in Pilot Rock that evening and at supper seemed very excited, though he didn’t talk about the day’s adventure. He returned home to Monument the next morning. The owner of the ranch, Mr. Wilson, went to the old homesite the next day to see what Anderson was up to. He found an iron box with the lid broken off beside one of three holes dug in the ground where the cellar had been. Locals figured Anderson was successful in his search for the legendary treasure.

But on May 10, the EO followed up the story with a denial by Anderson, who said the box contained nothing but a rusty mule shoe and a corroded ox bell, probably relics of the old emigrant days of 1851. Anderson said the home where the box was found was once the home of his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. J.S. Wilson, and he had spent time there during his boyhood. On one occasion, during the early mining days around 1865, his grandmother sent him to the cellar to level the dirt floor. In one corner Anderson found a spot that was higher than the rest, and he uncovered a large can containing an unknown amount of money. Fearing (as imaginative boys will) that an outlaw might force him to reveal the location of the cache, or kill him if he refused, Anderson reburied the can and told no one of his find.

Anderson said he had often wanted to revisit the old homesite and look for the buried gold, and that he made no secret of his discovery and his wish to return since moving to Monument in 1900.

Did Anderson find the hidden gold? His actions seem to point to his success, though certainly he saved himself some grief by his denial.

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