TYLER, Texas (KETK) – Legends of buried treasure have fascinated people around the world since time immemorial. It’s no surprise that East Texas has local tales of buried treasure.
There are two legends in particular that seem to have found purchase in the minds of East Texas treasure hunters. Tales of pirate booty and Mexican gold have captivated minds for generations, and it all could be closer than you might think.
Jean Lafitte’s treasure
One particularly famous legend is that of Jean Lafitte’s treasure. There are many stories about famed pirate Jean Lafitte, but one places his lost buried treasure at the bottom of a lake right here in East Texas.
North of Tatum, in the middle of the woods, lies Hendricks Lake. This is the place where six wagon loads of silver stolen by Jean Lafitte from a ship called the Santa Rosa were supposedly dumped, according to HendricksLake.com, a website run by author and independent researcher, Gary L. Pinkerton.
Pinkerton is an enigmatic figure. His website is titled “True Believers: Treasure Hunters at Hendricks Lake” but he is not a ‘true believer’ himself.
In an interview with KETK, Pinkerton discussed the treasure, or lack thereof, at Hendricks Lake.
“I titled it True Believers because I’m way more interested in the people who believe this stuff than the possibility that there might actually be something,” Pinkerton said. “I haven’t found anything to suggest that a centuries-worth of stories about buried treasure have any credence. In fact, this same story about Lafitte treasure being lost somewhere, was repeated over and over in almost the same pattern from the Gulf Coast all the way up into Arkansas and Missouri.”
Pinkerton went on to describe how there have been dozens of expeditions and attempts to find buried treasure between Hendricks Lake and the Sabine River. In one account, Pinkerton recalls doing research and finding a story about the son of the founder of Tatum.
“It led all the way back to an 1884 account where the guy who was the son of the founder of Tatum, Texas in East Texas decided he was going to drain the lake. So, he set up these steam engines and buckets on a conveyor belt and pumps. The story was reporting the fact that Tatum beat a man to death who essentially made fun of that effort,” Pinkerton said.
For Pinkerton, the treasure of Hendricks Lake is its history and the people who have believed in the legend over the years.
“The people who have looked for Hendricks Lake treasure since the 50s have spent a lot of money and hired a researcher in Spain to see if the Santa Rosa actually existed, all kinds of things,” Pinkerton said. “It’s just a great story and what intrigued me was the people engaged in that all over those 100 years.”
People’s commitment to myths, tall tales and legends is powerful, according to Pinkerton. “‘Legend remains victorious in spite of history’ and it just attests to the power that legends have over people when the facts may not necessarily support something,” Pinkerton said.
One person who is still committed to the Hendricks Lake legend is Jacksonville documentary film maker and treasure hunter, Christian B. Roper.
Roper is the director of a four-part documentary series about the Hendricks Lake legend titled “Sunken Silver.” The documentary follows Roper’s personal journey with the story, starting when he first heard it at 7-years-old and chronicling his dives and searches at Hendricks Lake. It’s slated to be released in May on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and Tubi.
Roper is the latest in a long line of people to search for treasure in Hendricks Lake, and he’s using the latest technology and techniques to do it.
“I spent the majority of the summer of 2020 organizing expeditions into the lake, through sonar we had come up with quite a few hits of things that were very interesting,” Roper said. “We organized some strategic searches via dives doing grid patterns and things of that sort to try to get those up.”
By using deep-sea sonar technology that can pierce the thick mud and clay at the bottom of the lake, Roper said he may have found a cart or wagon that might have moved treasure to the lake.
“There was one spot that we initially found, I think it was June of 2020, which gave us a sonar reading that was pretty much an exact match to a wooden wagon that had submerged with some sort of weight,” Roper said.
Hendricks Lake is a special place for Roper. Having grown up hearing these stories about buried treasure and now searching for it himself, he’s becoming a part of history.
“What I like most about the lake is that, it just contains this feel when you go out there and you see the Spanish moss hanging on the trees, you feel like you’ve gone back in time,” Roper said. “No matter the lack of proof for a lot of these things, it just makes sense in your mind for a story like this to take place here.”
Little Cypress Creek
The other big buried treasure legend from East Texas is the story of Little Cypress Creek. Little Cypress Creek, north of Gilmer, is the site where legend says a cache of Mexican coinage was dumped, according to “A Brief History of Upshur County” a history book published in 1946.
Roper believes that the Little Cypress Creek story and the Hendricks Lake story may have a common heritage. According to the legend, the Cherokee were fleeing north after the Battle of Neches when Roper said their path crossed Little Cypress Creek on the property of a man named O’Hendrick.
“I don’t want to give too much away, but part of the reason that Hendricks Lake may have been incorrectly added to the story is because, I believe, in the late 1830’s there may have been something found on a property owned by a man with the last name O’Hendrick,” Roper said.
Overtime, Roper believes that this information was interpreted to mean that there was treasure in Hendricks Lake. For Roper, stories like these are more than a curiosity. He believes that stories like this reveal something about the people who tell them.
“Societies are kind of defined by what they put their belief in and what they really want to be true. It says so much about East Texas folklore. In the 1880s through the 1970s East Texas was, in most parts, very poor, very rural and it gave people something to believe in, it gave them their attachment to the beyond,”
After years of searching, Roper is still optimistic, and he said that his commitment to Hendricks Lake will still be there no matter what he finds.
“No matter what, I come to believe throughout professional research or diving, I will always associate it with Jean Lafitte, with treasure, with piracy because it’s meant so much to the community,” Roper said. “Stories are how we interact as people and it’s how we grow. Stories like this, it’s what created a filmmaker in myself, it’s what creates archeologists, it’s what creates people that come up with plans to conquer whatever they want to solve in life, it’s just a special place.”
Whether the treasure is truly out there or not remains to be proven. One thing is certain though, East Texans will continue to be fascinated by stories like these. If the treasure is out there, then some East Texan is bound to find it. That lucky treasure hunter who finds where ‘X marks the spot’, will become an East Texas legend, just like the treasure they strove to find.