The program presented at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History by researcher Robert Myers was titled “Under Cover of Darkness: Buried Treasure, Magic, and Deception in the Ozark Mountains,” and featured tales about treasure guide Charlie Gonzales.
Myers lives in Champaign, IL and is the City Planner for Urbana, IL where, according to the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History, he “works to ‘perpetuate the best of our past to enrich our future.’” He is originally from the city of Bentonville in Northwest Arkansas. It was there that Myers first became fascinated with exploring caves and then turned “his attention to collecting stories of underground adventures.”
Earlier this month, Myers shared those stories of underground adventures with a crowd of more than sixty at the Shiloh Museum. He began his presentation with this question: If a stranger said to you “I’ll make you rich in no time if you let me invest your money,” what would you do?
The response by many is “yes, invest my money,” and Myers illustrated that with references to modern-day scams and tricksters such as the 1997 government-endorsed Ponzi scheme in Albania that brought financial ruin to two-thirds of the country’s population and led to the toppling of the government, and the arrest of Bernie Madoff in 2008 after his Ponzi scheme bilked investors of $50 billion.
A crowd of over 60 listened to Robert Myers' presentation at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History. Springdale, Ark. July 2011
“Confidence tricks” have been perpetrated throughout history and Arkansans living in the Ozarks were not immune to them. Enter, among others, Charles D. “Charlie” Gonzales. Based upon his research, Myers said that Gonzales was “a buried treasure guide who roamed the Ozarks with a goatskin treasure map, selling his services to locate riches buried by his Spanish ancestors.”
Good ol’ Charlie’s career as a con artist spanned nearly five decades. "In 1900, Northwest Arkansas was first introduced to Charles D. Gonzales," said Myers. "Depending on when he told it, Charlie Gonzales' heritage was either Spanish, Mexican, Pueblo Indian, or Cherokee."
One of the first exploits that Myers attributes to Charlie Gonzales involves the arrival of a “genuine Spaniard” in Gravette, Arkansas in May of 1900. Charles Nichols, as he called himself, convinced five investors who were digging north of town that “he knew the secret of $3 million in gold buried in a nearby cave he called Black Bear Cave No. 35.” Amazingly, Charles was able to guide the men to the cave entrance after finding a map carved on a tree. And what more proof did these men need that there was Spanish gold in the cave than finding a carving of a Spanish pistol inside the cave!
After weeks of digging by the crew and coming to the end of the cave without having found gold, tempers flared and “Charles Nichols” would have been lynched had one man not intervened. Charles quickly made his way out of town.
So began what proved to be Charlie Gonzales’ modus operandi: Roaming in an area for a while, perhaps doing a little carving and planting of evidence, convincing locals and investors to take him on as treasure guide, allowing them to do the digging for buried treasure while he supervised, and then scurrying out of town before a lynch mob got a hold of him. In total, according to Myers, “more than a dozen major treasure excavations can be traced to Gonzales.”
It cannot be stated with any factual accuracy exactly where Charles D. Gonzales was born, what his heritage actually was, and there are no known photographs of him, but Myers did produce Charlie's "Standard Certificate of Death" for the audience. The certificate indicates that Gonzales died in Henryetta, Okla. on July 20, 1946. The death certificate says Gonzales was "About 76" at the time of his death, though he had told folks "he had just turned 94." Appropriately, his occupation was listed as "Prospector."
Charlie Gonzales' death certificate. Shiloh Museum of Ozark History. Springdale, Ark.
Remember Black Bear Cave No. 35? As it turns out, in 1900 an investor named George Dunbar bought the cave property located in the town of Sulphur Springs. Dunbar sacrificed his family fortune, health and life "for the promise of Spanish gold," but not before selling controlling interest in the cave to Colorado investors who called their group the "Sulphur Springs Cave Company." A tourist industry grew up in the area due to the springs and tours of the operational mining cave. It became a hot spot for Kansas City's middle class who boarded the Kansas City Southern Railroad for the Northwest Arkansas vacation destination of Sulphur Springs.
Today, for a small fee, you, too, can tour the "Old Spanish Treasure Cave." Its' website states, "The Old Spanish Treasure Cave is Arkansas most historical cavern with fascinating legends of hidden treasure buried within. Learn why the unsolved mystery of the hidden treasure has kept the secrets alive in this cavern, and why it is believed the treasure is still here!" According to Myers, "The cave first opened to tourists in 1908" and the "Spanish Treasure Cave has been open for tours ever since."