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The Frenchmen's Gold

As early as 1844 frontiersmen were seeking the Frenchmen's gold-all six cartloads of it. But perhaps none knew that it might be buried within a stone's throw of Sugar Loaf Peak in the barren country of what was once known as No Man's Land. Today this parched land is the Oklahoma Panhandle, and the rock-strewn Sugar Loaf can be found some fifteen miles northwest of Boise City, in Cimarron County.

But not all the clues were known in 1844. Old trappers and ranchers knew about the three Roman numerals made of stone that ranged for almost a quarter of a mile over the surface of the land. They knew, too, that those stone markers were six miles apart and that the center of that triangle was Flag Spring, a water hole on the Santa Fe Trail. What they did not know was that there was still a fourth cryptic marker but nine miles away and that it was not shaped like the other three.

Rancher Cy Strong, the owner of a nineteen-thousand-acre spread in Cimarron County, found the fourth marker several years ago. From then on the Frenchmen's treasure was believed buried not at Flag Spring but instead between Sugar Loaf Peak and the Cimarron River a short distance away. But that is only conjecture, for no one has yet deciphered the meaning of the massive Roman numerals carefully placed in the ground more than 150 years ago.

When Cy Strong's grandfather established a trading post in eastern New Mexico in 1844, he became familiar with the lost treasure, known then as the tres piedras ("three markers") gold. But there was more to go on than just a legend. A diary was kept in the back of an old Spanish Bible.

The strange story that diary revealed is this: In the late summer of 1804 seven Frenchmen, a Spanish guide, and fifteen Indian servants were traveling from Santa Fe into the Black Mesa country in what is now the Oklahoma Panhandle but was then a part of Spanish Mexico. They were driving six large, heavily laden oxcarts. Concealed in the carts beneath layers of furs were five hundred ingots of gold weighing seven and a quarter pounds apiece.

As night veiled the lonely prairie, they rolled up to a water hole known later as Flag Spring. Perhaps they chose the spring because of the company it offered. Indians had used it since rime immemorial, for many arrowheads have been found there. But on this occasion it was occupied by four mountain men, probably French traders, who were cooking their evening meal.

The seven Frenchmen lost no time telling the strangers that they were hauling their furs to New Orleans, where they would receive a better price, since the Spaniards frowned on Frenchmen in their territory. The four traders had just come from the Louisiana Territory and their news was a hard blow to the Frenchmen: Louisiana had been sold to the United States. It no longer belonged to France. The Frenchmen acted as though that would make no difference in their plans, but that night they slept little.

Once the four traders had broken camp the next morning, the Frenchmen discussed the probability that the Americans would never allow them to ship their gold to France but instead confiscate it on the spot. The Spanish guide, a metal worker named Jose Lopat, who had been hired to mold the gold bars and then guide the Frenchmen to New Orleans, suggested that they send two of their men ahead to determine whether the strangers' story was true. If it was, they could arrange to have a boat pick up the gold somewhere along the coast.

Lopat's idea seemed the only sound one. Two of the hardiest Creoles were chosen to continue to Louisiana to see whether the gold could be safely taken to France. It was estimated that the round trip would take three and a half months. In the meantime the others would set up a temporary camp.

When four months passed and no word had come from their compatriots, the Frenchmen elected to bury their gold. When they were assured of safe passage to France, they would return for it. Before they did so, however, they would have to send the Spaniard Lopat, as well as the Indian servants, back to Santa Fe. Lopat owned no part of the gold. He had been employed only to mold the ingots and guide the party to New Orleans. Now there was no longer a need to keep him.

Lopat and the Indians were escorted for the first one hundred miles back to Santa Fe, far enough to satisfy the Frenchmen that they were the only ones who knew where the gold would be buried. Lopat had observed his employers well, however, and what he knew he would later detail over the years until finally it filled more than fifty pages carefully recorded in the back of his most prized possession, the family Bible. It is because of Lopat's vivid memory that this story can be told with far greater accuracy today.

Lopat had learned enough about the Frenchmen's shady past to put a hangman's noose around each of them. In the beginning there had been thirteen of them, and they had gone to Mexico from New Orleans shortly before 1800. While in Chihuahua they had attacked a group of Spanish muleteers guarding a small packtrain of gold and silver and killed all but two guards. Fleeing with more than one hundred pounds in gold, the Frenchmen were pursued into present-day New Mexico before Spanish officials gave up the chase.

Later the Frenchmen turned up in Taos. About 1801 they began prospecting for gold and made a meager living panning the mountain streams. When a small gold strike was made in the Marino Valley, the Frenchmen were once again conniving about how to increase their profits. In the following months they murdered about twenty miners, as Lopat had learned while working for them. But their unsavory ways put six of them in their graves, leaving the remaining seven with all the more profits to share.

Although the gold strike was of small scale, historical records tell of placer mining east of Santa Fe in the early 1800's. By the time of the Mexican War about three million dollars in gold had been wrested from the streams by Mexican miners. The Frenchmen had done well in their raids-so well that they hired Lopat to melt the gold into ingots so that it could be easily handled and transported over the long journey to New Orleans.

Lopat was known for his knowledge of metallurgy, having worked with metals in Mexico City. In three months he molded five hundred of the bars. He said that the weight of the ingots never varied. These details were assembled in later years by Lopat's son, Emanuel, who pasted the pages, one after another, in the back of the Bible.

Lopat was convinced that the gold bullion was buried somewhere far out on the Plains, probably near Flag Spring, for not too many months after he returned to Santa Fe one of the seven Frenchmen was seen there. He was Pierre LaFarge, an excommunicated priest who had once served a prison term for killing a nun. Though defrocked, he still went under the guise of a padre.

LaFarge was the only one of the seven to return to Santa Fe. LaFarge told Lopat that all his other companions had been killed either by Indians on the Plains or in knife fights in New Orleans. LaFarge was now the sole survivor and considered himself the owner of the five hundred ingots and that only he knew where they were buried. But soon it became apparent that not even LaFarge would claim the bloodstained gold. Tuberculosis was slowly killing him. He worsened until he was bedridden. Moreover, his presence in Santa Fe had been detected.

It was known that LaFarge had been among the Frenchmen during a raid at the placer diggings in which two miners were murdered. Two sons of one of the miners were now freighters in Santa Fe. When they learned of his arrival, they organized a lynch mob. LaFarge barely managed to escape by concealing himself in a cart loaded with straw. Lopat never saw LaFarge again, but was satisfied that he died just two weeks later, for one of the two men who had buried him later told Lopat.

With LaFarge's death went the secret of six cartloads of gold buried far out on the Plains in a vast wilderness of few landmarks. He left one clue. More than once LaFarge spoke of the "gold buried near the spring." Lopat knew that spring could only be the Flag Spring of today. He made but one attempt to find the gold. Upon his arrival at the spring no obvious signs remained of the burial site and he knew absolutely nothing of the four massive markers the Frenchmen must have devised so that they could retrace their steps to the gold.

Though the treasure had become legendary by 1844, twenty years after the Santa Fe Trail was blazed through that country, the stone markers were not discovered until the 1870's, and even then only three of the four man-made landmarks were known. Although each marker apparently had an intended meaning, only one, with the Roman numerals XI, has any obvious explanation, and even it may be a code.

From this stone marker, forming the southwest corner, two others resembling V's are found six miles east and six miles north. Nine miles north of the southeast symbol is yet a fourth marker, en-tirely different from the others. It appears to form a large circle with a wing on either side, very similar to the Greek letter omega. All four symbols are made from single stones, some large and some small. Each symbol forms a corner of land encompassing an area of more than thirty-six square miles, the center of which appears to be just northwest of Sugar Loaf Peak.

Today Sugar Loaf Peak is on Cy Strong's ranch fifteen miles northwest of Boise City. "I know the treasure has got to be here. I've seen and found too much evidence for it not to be." Strong has good reason to believe as he does. Once the official surveyor of Cimarron County, he surveyed the stone markers and discovered the fourth some years ago. "When the Frenchmen laid out those four markers, they used a compass all right. There's no doubt about that, because the county township line runs almost parallel to the south two markers. But they used magnetic north instead of true north. The southeast marker, only about half a mile east of Highway 287, is off about twelve degrees and located half a mile farther south of the township line."

Probably the first person to dig for the treasure was Strong's great-uncle, Michael Ryan, who knew nothing of Jose Lopat and the notes in his family Bible but by a mere coincidence became involved in the search. Ryan had lived most of his life in the West and had learned to speak Spanish while playing with Mexican children. For years he had heard about the treasure from the Mexicans, who always referred to it as the ires piedras gold.

According to tradition the trail to the treasure was marked by many huge stones, which were spaced irregularly apart in the ground but which formed the gigantic letter V. Chiseled on the underface of the stone at the point of the letter was the symbol V indicating the direction in which the next marker would be found. These stone symbols were scattered from five to ten miles apart all the way from Santa Fe eastward to Las Vegas, New Mexico. From there the trail had been lost.

Ryan knew that several priests had hired guides and made an intensive search for the remainder of the stone markers. They picked up the trail and followed it to within thirty miles of Clayton, New Mexico, but there the trail was lost again, and the search was abandoned.

In all probability Ryan would never have stuck a shovel into the ground after the elusive treasure had it not been for an incident that occurred about 1900 and caused him to pursue the trail of the tres piedras. It happened when Ryan was traveling in eastern New Mexico. His horses strayed from camp one night, and he was left afoot to search for them. Ryan had chased the animals for several hours when he happened onto his first clue-a clue that would captivate him in a treasure quest for the remaining days of his life.

As he sat down on a stone to rest, he noticed that the rock formation around him appeared unnatural. It was obviously the work of man, for it formed the distinct letter V. It brought to mind the tres piedras legend. On the bottom of the stone that formed the point, Ryan found the symbol V deeply chiseled. He knew that the site was much beyond the point abandoned by the priests. He carefully marked the spot and some time later returned to renew his search for other markers.

During the next two years he searched for the trail, at times finding it only to lose it again. Ryan continued his quest until the stone markers led him into the Black Mesa country. The end of the trail finally came in Cimarron County, where he found the three markers, until then never associated with the long-sought treasure.

Ryan ran a triangulation that convinced him that Flag Spring was the treasure site. He dug there intermittently for years, finding nothing except what he believed were adobe bricks. He never knew of the fourth stone symbol, miles north of the site.

Strong is sure the gold is buried nowhere close to Flag Spring (which was named at least twenty years after the Frenchmen camped there) but is instead somewhere just south of the Cimarron River and northwest of Sugar Loaf Peak. For not far from what should be the center of the four cryptic stone markers Strong found the ruins of an ancient dugout that he has always believed predated the Santa Fe Trail. Just west of those ruins, in the side of a rugged hill, he discovered what he believed to be the winter headquarters the Frenchmen used while they waited for their two companions to return from New Orleans. There, Strong thinks, they set up camp in a small cave and constructed the outside wall of adobe bricks. Pieces of decayed cartwheels found nearby reinforced his conviction.

As Strong and I drove over his ranch in his panel truck, the cattleman pointed out Sugar Loaf Peak, which can be seen from all four stone markers. We traveled about three miles south to Flag Spring. Later we crossed the old trail to Santa Fe; in places its deep ruts still plain to see. Finally we came to the southeast marker. Formed of single stones, it was similar to the northwest symbol and made the distinct letter V, with one side longer than the other. At the point of the huge marker was an even larger stone, much too heavy for one man to carry.

The Lopat family Bible records that Jose Lopat was born in Madrid, Spain, on October 17, 1769, and that he died in Santa Fe on June 4, 1856, at eighty-seven years of age. His son, Emanuel, who wrote his father's story in the back of the Bible, was born in Santa Fe on June 5, 1819, and died in Denver, Colorado, August 3, 1906, also at age eighty-seven. Emanuel's daughter, Angelina Lopat, had for years listened to her grandfather tell of the Frenchmen's gold and knew the story in every detail. When she died in 1925, also at eighty-seven, her niece, Mrs. Frank Boyles, of Denver, inherited the Lopat Bible.

Of all the notations recorded in the Lopat Bible, all written in Spanish, three summarize the story: In ninety days I poured 500 gold ingots into a mold I made myself, and each weighed seven and one-quarter pounds according to the scales we had. Raymond [unidentified in the notes] told me he himself murdered five miners and all the others had blood on their hands. Father LaFarge was not happy to see me, and told me with great reluctance of the deaths of the others in the party.

In the past half century, Strong has seen many treasure hunters come and go, some traveling from as far as Canada and Mexico. But to date no one has had any luck in solving the mystery of the ires piedras. "I think the place to dig is in the center of the four markers," Strong offered. "But you have to realize that the center today probably wouldn't be the same place the Frenchmen picked. There's bound to be some deviation, and that difference could mean a lot of digging."

The seven Frenchmen employed a shrewd method of assuring themselves they could return to the hidden gold when the time was right. For them that day never came. Their secret was clever enough that the six cartloads of gold-today worth more than two million dollars-has eluded recovery for more than a century and a half. Someday, Strong is sure, someone will find it.

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