Skeleton Canyon Treasure


It began with an ambush …

It began with an ambush …

Is a cache of looted gold and silver worth millions buried in Arizona’s Skeleton Canyon?

Along Arizona’s eastern border is a jagged ravine called Skeleton Canyon. More than a 100 years ago, a gang of Mexican smugglers were ambushed and robbed within its steep, canyon walls. Some say the take from that robbery was buried in this area, an undiscovered treasure worth millions.

Treasure hunters have searched for years in Skeleton Canyon. They’ve turned up bleached bones and old Mexican coins, but no treasure. Is the treasure real? It depends on who you ask. Treasure hunter Fern Hamill said he has no doubts:

“It’s a known fact that it’s a real treasure. This is one of the treasures that’s absolutely ‘real’ real.”

But Robert Palmquist, an Arizona Historian, has voiced a different view:

“No, I don’t believe that there is a Skeleton Canyon treasure waiting out there to be found.” 

The legend of the Skeleton Canyon treasure starts in a small Mexican village. Jim Hughes, a member of Arizona’s infamous Curly Bill Brocious Gang, learned that Mexican bandits had looted the town of Monterey, Mexico. They were planning to smuggle the fortune into the United States through Skeleton Canyon.

Hunter Pritchard, director of a treasure hunting museum, speculated on the booty’s worth:

“The reports that I read, in the myriad of books and treasure magazines as far back as 1964, reported the treasure to be worth anywhere from 2.5 million dollars all the way, and I’ve seen reports of it being worth up to 8 million dollars.”

According to Hunter, Hughes rode back to Arizona and made plans with Curley Bill Brocius to ambush the Mexican gang:

“The Estrada gang had come out of Mexico, through Sonora, and were going through, what was later to become known as Skeleton Canyon. The outlaws shot the Mexicans off their mounts, and that resulted in the contraband being scattered all over the canyon.  And in order to stop the mules from scatterin and taking the loot with them, the Curly Bill Brocius gang were shooting the mules.”

Gunmen shot every one of the smugglers

Gunmen shot every one of the smugglers

The outlaws now had their treasure, but without mules, they had no way of moving it out of the canyon. So part of the loot was divided up on the spot. The rest was buried, to be picked up later. But two members of the gang had other plans, according to Hunter Pritchard:

“Zwing Hunt and Billy Grounds were friends and they decided that while the rest of the gang was out in the local bars spending their money, they would double-cross the gang and come back into the canyon. According to legend, they were able to find a Mexican teamster, talked him into bringing his team and his horses into Skeleton Canyon and removing the treasure, and, of course, he was later killed because they wanted to keep the new hiding places a secret. It’s very likely that the treasure is still buried within the vicinity of Skeleton Canyon, probably no more than thirty miles away.”

Zwing Hunt and Billy Grounds hid in a desert cave where they lived for close to four months. During this period, Billy Grounds wrote a number of letters to his sister, Maggie, in San Antonio. Billy wanted her to know where the treasure was hidden in case anything happened to him. Billy would venture out once a week to give the letters to a passing stagecoach. Treasure hunter Fern Hamill claims he’s seen the nine letters:

“One of the letters he was writing to his sister, he said there’s a cave at the mouth of the canyon.  I found that cave, and it goes back 80 feet and we even dug in the cave and found old ropes that were buried in there. And one of the things in the letter, it said, from our lookout you can see the turf growing back over where we buried the treasure at, down in the valley. I have found all the clues in the letters, every one of them.  When I once found the right place to look, why everything fit, and everything is there, so I know the treasure is, I’m near where it’s at. It’s there.”

Historian Robert Palmquist doubts the letters were legitimate:

“Billy Grounds, who was supposed to have written the letters, was a 19-year old Texas cowboy rustler type. It’s unlikely to me that he would have been writing home detailed letters about ‘Hey, we robbed these Mexicans and buried this huge treasure.  Here’s how to find it.’”

But Fern said he found evidence in the cave that proves the letters are real:

“Maggie was Billy Grounds’ sister, and she and a man had spent two years living in a cave out there, looking for this treasure. And we found this vase in a cave, it says ‘Maggie’ on it, ‘1885, World’s Fair.’ So I know that was Billy Grounds’ sister that was there looking for this treasure.”

A treasure supposedly worth millions

A treasure supposedly worth millions

A Sheriff’s posse finally cornered Billy Grounds and Zwing Hunt. During the shootout, Billy was killed and Zwing was seriously injured. As the story goes, after his capture, Zwing revealed the secret location of the treasure to his uncle. His uncle then drew up a detailed map.

Robert Palmquist doesn’t buy it:

“It seems to me that it’s another typical treasure hunting yarn. We never get to see the map, we never get to examine it for its genuineness or see if it matches up with any handwriting samples we might have.”

Fern Hamill said that he’s seen the map that was made by Zwing Hunt’s uncle:

“The map shows the canyon and it shows where the cave is, everything matches. But on account of the earthquake in 1886, I think the treasure is around twenty feet deep. Part of the mountain caved off on it.”

Is there really a treasure buried in Skeleton Canyon? Or is it just another tall tale from the days of the Old West?

According to Hunter Pritchard, the story is at least plausible:

“I think the Skeleton Canyon treasure is a very plausible story from the standpoint that every time it would rain somebody’s skull would show up or another coin would become evident.  And compared to a lot of other stories, it’s got a lot more plausibility than, I would say, the Lost Dutchman Mine, for instance.”

Historian Robert Palmquist has voiced his doubts:

“It is possible that there’s a Skeleton Canyon treasure out there to be found somewhere.  But the initial report given in the local press indicates  that there was a very small amount of money taken, which would have been spent very, very quickly. I don’t think there was a treasure, given historical sources, to find.”

As for Fern Hamill:

“When I find the treasure I’ll stop looking for it. Because I know it’s real. This treasure is real and I know I found the right place, where it’s at.”