Treasure Caves of the Caballo Mountains

There seems to be a permanent association between caves and treasure hoards. Certainly, there are often archaeological treasures to be found in caves, though the tiny finger fragments of a Denisovan or the jaw of some extinct newt are not exactly what most would consider to be obvious treasure.

It makes practical sense to stash valuables in a cave, especially if you don’t want to do any digging yourself. A large cave is like a ready-made warehouse, albeit with natural features, good and bad. You may have a cave with a secret entrance, side-tunnels, or even a ready-made plumbing system to bring you fresh water.

Of the many stories of treasure in the Caballo Mountains of New Mexico, caves are a constant theme. Finding a cave up there is not difficult, and some, such as the well-known Bat Cave at the mouth of Cable Canyon, can be seen from miles away.

One of the El Chato Nevarez treasure waybills in circulation says to “look well (for caves), and make no mistake because this is the deepest” in referring to where the largest of their stashes of silver bars (“coined silver”), church artifacts, and aparejos were placed. These items supposedly taken from raids along the Jornada del Muerto section of the Camino Real, in use since the latter 1500’s – almost 500 years, though El Chato was supposed to have been captured, promised absolution in exchange for writing the waybills, but put to death anyways long before even the first Anglo cowboy rode a horse up that range. Interestingly, deepest and largest are not the same thing, so translating from the original Spanish version of the document might be recommended.

Exploring caves in the Caballo Mountains could easily consume a lifetime, though you won’t know if you don’t look, right?

For example, a number of the tales relate that the entrances are hidden virtually in plain sight, discovered only once a rock is rested upon to have a cigarette, or when seeking shelter from the elements, whereupon a small opening reveals an increasingly-large void. How large? Well, some tales tell of miles of travel inside the mountain, and others of wandering for days and barely making it back out – in several, having entered on the East side and emerging on the steeper West side. Some even describe running water, variously with nuggets of gold or merely footprints, and signs of human activity including old campfires, crude smelters, or walled-up sections sealed with adobe bricks.

Eyes seem to be an important theme in a number of treasure tales surrounding the Caballos, though one wonders if this emphasis is partly due to a direct translation of “ojo“, which means a spring of water in shorthand, the full expression being ojo de agua. At least one waybill description attributed to a Joaquin Morales indicates that “everywhere you go, the eyes will be upon you”. The description of the youth who discovers the gold dore’ bars and then subsequently disappears under mysterious circumstances in that tale sounds a lot like it could be related to the Willie Douthit (Doughit) saga. Willie was associated with one of the more compelling and possibly real recoveries of treasure to have taken place in the Caballos, and is of the same era as Doc Noss, Buster Ward, and other supposed finders of treasure in those mountains.

For most, true caving is best left for the experts, as it has many perils and hazards. Other than gravity, a prime hazard in that climate is of course, Mr Snake. Many of the usual local varieties are present, from the usually even-tempered black-tail, to the large, obnoxious western diamondback. These “buzz-worms” usually get out of your way, especially if you kick a few rocks or stomp your feet to let them know you are coming, but in a cave situation, you may have them backed into a corner.

Some free advice for the seeker which may or may not be wise is to ignore the obvious caves, but use them as a guide to the geology. That is, the types of rock in which the caves occur is an important factor in the search, but any obvious cave has long-ago been at least casually searched. Bat Cave, for example, was actually mined for bat guano (fertilizer) at one point. Palomas Cave, also known as Geronimo’s Cave, has been minutely scrutinized and also excavated, probably more than once. Some exception to this rule may be the cave openings that can be seen in the vertical portion of the mountain face (especially on the West side). Short of a rappel, there is no way to access them, and there are stories of Spaniards lowering natives on ropes over the side to stash ollas of gold in caves on the vertical face. That such caves can be seen but not realistically-accessed is frustrating, but maybe purposely so.

One last thing to consider is logistics. If you were going to stash a bunch of valuables, would you want it to be easy and fast to recover them, or slow and laborious? Surely, it makes sense to stash things in more than one place, but what of the nature of the access? Some assume that the colonial Spaniards had ample free (and expendable) labor, but would they make the assumption of having access to such labor into the far future when they wanted to recover their cache? Even with help, a sheer cliff or a tight, winding cave entrance would make recovery very slow. Would these factors be sort of like an ancient “time lock”, restricting the rate one could withdraw from the “bank”? Would bandits have the same needs or preferences? How about the truly ancients, like the Templars or Phoenecians, coming before the Spaniards, that some blame for all the hullabaloo in the Caballos? And then there is the whole KGC angle. What about the secretive Jesuits? Considering the source may help focus a search considerably.

Be safe.