A Romantic Adventure-Tale of Treasure and Archaeology

You know how you start googling for information on one thing but end up going down a completely different rabbit hole from the one you started on? This happened to me over the weekend and I found myself looking for more information on a story I came across while looking for something else entirely.

It all started this past weekend when I was watching Hondo, starring John Wayne and Ward Bond on cable. This is the story of the Army scout (Wayne) who comes across a soon-to-be-widowed woman (John Wayne shoots her husband) in West Texas who is under the protection of Victorio, the Apache chief.

Victorio was a real person, even if the widow and her new-found lover and his pissed off dog weren’t. So I got to wondering how much of the Hondo story was based on fact, etc….

Long story short: I started googling for Victorio and his battles and then started looking for Victorio Peak, which was supposed to be in the Diablo Mountains region near Van Horn, Texas. I used to live out that way, so when Google Earth pointed me to a place in White Sands, NM near Almagordo, I was initially confused. Turns out there are two Victorio Peaks. One in Texas and another about a hundred or so miles away in New Mexico.

And its the one in New Mexico, far from the place Victorio staged his last battle, that is possibly the more interesting!

In the links at the conclusion of this post[1][2], you can read a couple of articles posted on the web that go into more detail, and I encourage you to read them. I’m not saying the stories are true, mind you. But they were both captivating reads!

Doc and Babe in the 1930s

The story could begin in the mid-1800s with the battles of Victorio, an Apache chief (and, arguably, in charge of Homeland Security at the time). But that’s a story for another time (I’ve been pondering what an archaeological survey of these battles might consist of).

Instead, I give you Milton Ernest “Doc” Noss and his eventually estranged wife Ova “Babe” Beckworth.

Doc and Babe

They were a handsome couple. Doc was a “foot doctor” (no record of sort of medical degree, however) and he and Babe lived in Hot Springs, now known as Truth or Consequences, NM.  One November day in 1937, Doc and Babe were part of a hunting party that camped near Victorio Peak. While ducking under a rock overhang to escape a light drizzle of rain, Doc discovered an entrance to a cave that had been covered by a stone. Thinking at first that he’d stumbled on an abandoned mine shaft, Doc and Babe kept the discovery under their collective hats, returning several days later with ropes and flashlights. What they allegedly discovered is straight out of an Indiana Jones story!

At the bottom of the narrow shaft was a chamber about the size of a small room with drawings around the walls. Doc thought these sketches were made by Indians, as they were crude and stick-like. Some were painted, while others were chiseled into the rock face. At the other end of the chamber, the shaft continued sloping downward. Descending another hundred and twenty feet before it leveled off, Doc found that the passageway emptied into a huge, natural cavern large enough “for a freight train to pass through.” He saw several smaller rooms chiseled from the rock along one wall.

As Doc inched his way across the great cavern, he made a terrifying discovery…a human skeleton. The hands were bound behind the back, and the skeleton was kneeling, securely tied to a stake driven into the ground, as if the person had been deliberately left there to die. Before leaving the room, he found more skeletons, most of them bound and secured to stakes like the first. Some skeletons were found stacked in a small enclosure, as if in a burial chamber. All told, he reportedly found twenty-seven human skeletons in the caverns of the mountain.

As Doc explored the side caverns of Victorio Peak, he found amazing riches amounting to extreme wealth by today’s standards. Jewels, coins, saddles, and priceless artifacts were everywhere, including a gold statue of the Virgin Mary. In one chamber, he found an old Wells Fargo box and leather pouches neatly stacked to the ceiling.

And gold bars. Lots of them.

Noss Treasure?
The Noss Treasure?

Keep in mind, this was the 1930s. Franklin D. Roosevelt had just signed Executive Order 6102 in 1933, which forbade U.S. citizens from “Hoarding of Gold Coin, Gold Bullion, and Gold Certificates.” So, assuming the story of his find is true, what was old Doc supposed to do? From the stories I’ve read of Doc Noss, he was a bit of a shady character -a wheeler and a dealer. He allegedly brought up a bar or two at a time, smuggled them to Mexico and sold them on the black market at a price far below their worth.

What’s the Theory?

There are a lot of “theories” to explain Doc Noss’ treasure. Some think it was the Casa del Cueva de Oro, Spanish for the House of the Golden Cave, and was a cache of wealth established by Don Juan de Onate in the 16th century. Others think Noss may have chanced upon the treasure of Felipe La Rue, a 18th century French priest that was in search of riches he’d heard in stories and that he established a wealthy gold mine there in the Hembrillo Basin where Victorio Peak, once known as Soledad Peak, is. The peak was renamed in honor of Victorio, who used the site for a stronghold and stood off U.S. Army soldiers in the 19th century.

Victorio Peak
Victorio Peak

But did Doc and Babe Noss really find a cache of wealth in the 20th century?

This is where the story has a twist. Doc had filed a claim on the site for prospecting by the end of the 30s but ended up collapsing the entrance in a attempt to blast a wider entrance. He had a few hundred bars brought to the surface by now, but Executive Oder 6102 was still in effect, so his desperation for cash put him in a dilemma.  In 1949, 12 years after his alleged discovery, Doc Noss was shot in the head by a “business associate,” apparently wanting his gold.

But it doesn’t end there. In 1951, the U.S. Army, somewhat evolved from the days when it chased Victorio, annexed the land that Victorio Peak sits on as part of the White Sands Missile Range. This is the period following World War II where we were now in a nuclear arms race and White Sands was where much of the nuclear weapons were being tested. Babe fought for decades to work her inherited claim, but the Army had full control of the surface of the land.

What follows are a few tales of conspiracy and intrigue. Even an airman first class and a captain who apparently found an open fissure and reported seeing gold bars in a cavern. The Army excavated the site using Gaddis Mining Company in 1963 with no results. A member of the Noss family was finally given permission to excavate for two weeks in 1972, but also came up dry.

Victorio Peak
Victorio Peak: Courtesy Google Earth

To this day, the heirs to Babe Noss are still trying to access the site, which is still part of White Sands Missile Range.

My thoughts are that the site was part of an elaborate scam that involved seeding a mine to scam people out of their cash. Still, there’s always that romantic hope that a buried treasure sits there waiting for the right person to discover it. There may or may not have really been a treasure, but the story is ripe for a movie!

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References and Notes:
  1. McGuire, Bonnie (2010). The Treasure of Victorio Peak. http://www.mcguiresplace.net/The%20Treasure%20of%20Victorio%20Peak/ []
  2. Paul, Lee (date unk). The Strange Mystery of Victorio Peak. http://www.theoutlaws.com/gold7.htm []