Treasure hunt in New Mexico: box of relics buried 155 years ago

SANTA FE, NM (KRQE) – “I don’t know if we’re going to find it. Someone may have found it many years ago. It could be sitting in someone’s garage somewhere, and they don’t even know what they have. Quien Sabe?” said state historian Rob Martinez. He speaks of a lost treasure buried 155 years ago in the territory of New Mexico. Although its location is known, no one has been able to find it yet.

It does not contain illegal gold and silver stocks. However, the contents of the long-forgotten chest are no less valuable. The day they buried that humble tin can a century and a half ago was so momentous that it made headlines across the Territory. A huge crowd attended. A band was playing. There was a parade and lofty speeches by dignitaries.

(Map of the Battle of Valverde 1862)

This story begins long ago in Santa Fe near the Governors Palace in 1867. It was the last stop on the Santa Fe Trail on the western border. It was also a cold, blustery day in late October in the New Mexico Territorial Capitol.

The civil war had just ended. Tragically, 250 Union soldiers died fighting Confederate troops during fighting at Glorieta Pass east of Santa Fe and at Valverde Ford south of Socorro. To honor her sacrifice, the New Mexico territorial legislature allocated $1,500 to erect a permanent stone memorial in Santa Fe Plaza. Territory Secretary Herman Heath called the Soldier’s Monument “…an object of pride…which as time goes by will become ever more sacred in the eyes of posterity.”

On October 24, 1867, a celebratory crowd witnessed the installation of the headstone of the monument. The Colorado Transcript described the “ceremony of laying the cornerstone of a memorial to be erected in memory of Union soldiers who fell during the late rebellion was conducted today under the auspices of the Masonic Fraternity in the presence of a large gathering of persons.”

“According to newspaper reports, it was a day of celebration and remembrance,” said state historian Rob Martinez. “In October 1867 the Santa Fe scene was quite lively. Imagine there is music, there are people. There’s this anticipation of a brand new memorial commemorating Union soldiers,” Martinez said.

New Mexico Territory Governor Robert Mitchell, who was a Civil War veteran, delivered a patriotic speech. He told the crowd, “Honoring the memory of those who have fallen in a cause so holy and just is both a patriotic and a religious duty.” cavity placed under the (corner) stone (of the monument) and hermetically sealed for future ages”. The box’s contents included a coin store, territory journals, a list of military officers, Masonic relics, territory newspapers, postage stamps, and the Executive Seal of New Mexico.

(The slideshow below shows a list of the content that was placed in the time capsule.)

The New Mexican noted on November 5, 1867: “The (Corner) Stone was then lowered and declared duly laid by the Deputy Grand Master, in accordance with the customs of the ancient Masonic Order.”

During construction, truckloads of limestone and marble were shipped from St. Louis to Santa Fe. Masons were paid $2.00 a day. Halfway through the project, the Monument Commission ran out of money and applied to the Territorial Legislature for an additional appropriation. Six months after its dedication, the Soldier’s Monument became a permanent fixture on Santa Fe’s plaza. On June 9, 1868, the Weekly New Mexican proclaimed, “…the monument stands in the center of the plaza, a fair and chaste memorial to the valiant men who fell in New Mexico, that the nation might live.”

Fast forward 100 years. To commemorate the centenary of the Civil War Memorial, it was decided to retrieve the box of historical relics. The Old Santa Fe Association has volunteered to lead the exploration. A search party was led by famed New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem. The grand opening of the “time capsule” was scheduled for Memorial Day 1968.

Armed with shovels and pickaxes, a work team dug and they dug. Los Alamos technicians joined the hunt with sophisticated ultrasonic and metal detectors. However, the hidden box proved elusive. Fearing damage to the monument, the search for a chest full of historical treasures was called off five months after construction began.

“I’d like to think it’s still there,” said Dr. Eric Blinman, director of the New Mexico Bureau of Archaeological Studies. “This early attempt to search for the ‘time capsule’ was shaped by all treasure hunters’ optimism that it should be easy. And archaeologists know that finding things in the ground isn’t necessarily easy,” said Dr. blinman

54 years have passed since this unfortunate excavation. Above ground, however, Santa Fe’s oldest monument hasn’t fared well over the centuries. Time has taken its toll on the obelisk. Because of a shameful, racially insensitive inscription written by Civil War-era politicians, the memorial has evolved from a symbol of patriotic remembrance to a symbol of hatred and discord. It took five months to build the monument. It took protesters an afternoon to tear it down.

Today a plywood frame protects the remaining limestone base. Santa Fe’s elected leaders have yet to decide whether to rebuild the monument or replace it with something else. The historical treasury buried somewhere underneath has largely fallen into oblivion.

“These are relics. These are pieces of New Mexico history. These materials haven’t been seen in over 150 years,” said Texas Tech University museum curator Dr. Cameron Saffell. “At the time there were a lot of people who felt this was a very important thing to do to honor their veterans and the men who gave their lives fighting for the Union. It’s an opportunity for us today to look back at a bygone culture and see what was important to those people 150 years ago,” said Dr. saffron.

“The ‘time capsule’ is a message from the past of our ancestors who spoke to us and told us this is us,” said state historian Rob Martinez. “Perhaps more important than finding the ‘time capsule’ is doing our best to find it because our ancestors wanted us to find it,” Martinez said.

Don’t expect to see an archaeological expedition on The Plaza anytime soon. The rest of the soldier memorial is on public land. Santa Fe has to sign off on every dig. And the missing box is said to be sitting under a massive block of limestone weighing several tons.

How would professional archaeologists answer the question “Where is the “time capsule”?” “We would begin thorough excavations in the vicinity of the monument,” said Dr. blinman “Working with an engineer who could assess the stability of what we were working with, we were actually able to systematically uncover the foundation beneath the base and try to see if there is any evidence of where the box might have been placed,” Dr . Blinkman said.

Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber declined an interview about the “time capsule.” A spokesman for Mayor Webber said Hizzoner had “no comment.”

“It’s a mystery. It’s a challenge, and there is no answer. The box is either there or it isn’t,” said archaeologist Dr. Eric Blinman.