The Lost Treasure Of Skeleton Canyon

In 1891, a small gang of bandits led by a man believed to be the notorious outlaw Curly Bill Brocious terrorized stagecoach shipments and travelers in the vicinity of Silver City, New Mexico. According to some researchers, Brocious was killed by Wyatt Earp during a gun battle near Tombstone, although his body was never found.

For months, Brocious and his gang plied their outlaw trade, but by the time the spoils of the robberies were divided by the five men, the rewards were slim. Curly Bill wanted to move on to bigger, more lucrative targets, but remained unsure how to go about it. One evening the five outlaws met at Brocious’s cabin located not far from Silver City. The gang members included Jim Hughes, Zwing Hunt, Billy Grounds, and Doc Neal. Hughes had killed three people during a stagecoach robbery in Texas and succeeded in escaping across the border into Mexico. He fled to Monterrey, where he lived for a year, growing proficient in Spanish and also learned of various riches found in that city.

Upon leaving Monterrey, Hughes traveled westward, ending up in the Mexican state of Sonora. Here he fell in with José Estrada, a feared Mexican bandit and killer. Hughes proved to be a competent and fearless member of the gang, one of thirty to forty members, and he remained with the bandit leader for several months. Following a series of raids, the Estrada gang was pursued by a Mexican army patrol, forcing them to take refuge in the Sierra Madres. At this point, Hughes bade his friend Estrada good-bye and told him he was going to head back toward home where he joined Curly Bill’s gang in Silver City.

Hughes said he would accompany Estrada and his men to Monterrey. After the raid, he would then lead them back to the United States to a specific location. Once Estrada’s gang and all of the loot were within the confines of the canyon east of Sloan’s Ranch, explained Hughes, Brocious and his gang would ambush them and take the treasure. The gang members all agreed.

After weeks of planning and travel, they headed to the town. Telegraph wires were cut, and mules were procured to transport the booty. The bank and church were sacked. Much to the surprise of the bandits, a fortune in cut diamonds was found in the bank vault. During the raid, four Monterrey police officers were shot and killed, along with at least a dozen soldiers. Three hours later, the bandits rode out of town with gold and silver bars and coins, priceless golden statuary from the church, and diamonds. The booty was packed into sacks and saddlebags and lashed to the mules.

The outlaws fled due west. Once across the border, the weary bandits made camp in a narrow canyon near the confluence of what are now Skeleton Creek and the South Fork of Skeleton Creek. By this time, most of Estrada’s gang members had been paid off and sent home. The treasure was now guarded by the Mexican bandit leader himself along with a dozen handpicked men. Hughes told Estrada he was going to ride ahead and make the arrangements for the transfer of the treasure and would return in a few days.

Hughes returned to the canyon several days later with Grounds, Hunt, and Neal, while Brocious remained in Silver City. Hughes led his partners to a point about two miles north of Estrada’s camp where they set up an ambush. At this point, the canyon was so narrow that the mules and riders would have to pass through single file. The Mexicans would be easy targets. When his men were positioned for the assault, Hughes told them to open fire at his signal, which would be a pistol shot. Then he rode back to Estrada’s camp.

Hours later, Estrada’s men loaded the treasure onto the mules and doused the campfires. The riders mounted and prepared for travel. Hughes told Estrada they were to ride to Silver City where the treasure would be exchanged for cash. It was late afternoon by the time the treasure caravan entered the narrow part of the canyon. Hughes was in the lead, with Estrada riding behind him. As they entered the narrow defile, Hughes turned in his saddle and shot Estrada in the head. Grounds, Hunt, and Neal opened fire with their rifles, and within seconds, all of the Mexicans were dead.

During the slaughter, the pack mules carrying a portion of the treasure panicked and bolted. Unable to overtake and control them, the only way to stop them was to shoot them. All save two were downed before they could escape the canyon. One was shot just outside of the canyon entrance and the last was finally overtaken miles away near Geronimo’s Peak.

Now with no way to transport the greatest portion of the Monterrey loot to the designated hiding place, Neal volunteered to ride to Silver City and secure more mules. Grounds and Hunt were to remain in the canyon to guard the treasure. While discussion ensued, Hunt asked why Brocious was to get a share of the treasure when he did nothing to help obtain it, and they decided to leave Curly Bill out of the split. Hughes would ride back to Silver City and tell Brocious that Estrada escaped with all of the treasure. If Brocious acted suspicious, Hughes was to kill him. Hughes would then return to Skeleton Canyon with the necessary mules where he, Grounds, Neal, and Hunt would load the treasure and transport it to some safe location.

As Hughes rode away, Grounds, Hunt, and Neal decided to keep the treasure for themselves. With Brocious and Hughes nowhere around, dividing the fortune three ways, each of them receiving a greater share than under the previous plan. Doc Neal was elected to travel to a nearby ranch and purchase some oxen to carry the treasure. Taking a pocketful of the gold coins, he rode away while Grounds and Hunt set up camp. Grounds and Hunt gathered up the treasure that had been carried by the mules, excavated a deep hole not far from the campsite and about one mile from the massacre site, and buried most of it.

For the next two days, the outlaws herded the oxen northeastward toward New Mexico, turning northward into the Peloncillo Mountains. As they rode along, Neal noted that Grounds and Hunt often rode close together and spoke in whispers. Neal was convinced the two men intended to kill him. At the first opportunity, he broke away from the pack train and fled eastward.

Neal rode straight for Silver City where he discovered Brocious had been arrested for fighting. Hughes was living in the outlaw’s cabin. When Neal told Hughes all that had transpired after he left, he grew angry. The two men decided that when Brocious was released from jail, the three of them would go after Grounds and Hunt. Upon his release, Hughes and Neal took him to a saloon where they explained what had occurred and Brocious grew livid. At some point, a young barmaid banged into his chair and the volatile Brocious, losing control, pulled his revolver and shot her dead. Realizing they were facing serious charges, the three men fled Silver City with a posse on their heels.

Some forty miles later, the posse caught up with and cornered the three outlaws at the little town of Shakespeare to the southwest. During the gunfight that ensued, Neal was killed. Brocious and Hughes were forced to surrender and within hours were hanged in the dining room of Shakespeare’s Pioneer Hotel.

Hunt and Grounds, after filling their pockets with gold coins from the hoard, had buried the remainder of the treasure in a canyon running out of Davis Mountain near Morenci, Arizona. Then they moved to Tombstone where the two men spent gold recklessly.

Grounds remembered a former girlfriend living in Charleston, a small town not far from Tombstone, and he went to see her only to find she had taken up with the Charleston butcher. When Grounds arrived and showed her all of his gold coins, she decided to go back to him. One night as they were lying together in bed, he told her the story of the Monterrey raid, the treasure, and the incident in Skeleton Canyon.

The next morning after Grounds returned to Tombstone, the woman told the butcher what she had learned, who in turn informed Sheriff Bill Breckenridge of Tombstone of the two murderers, Grounds and Hunt, living in his town. While the butcher was talking to Breckenridge, Grounds had returned to Charleston. The girlfriend immediately confessed to him what she had done. Panicked, Grounds rode his horse at a hard gallop back to Tombstone, told Hunt what had happened, and the two fled.

There was no immediate pursuit of Grounds and Hunt, and they spent the night at a ranch owned by a man named Chandler located about ten miles from Tombstone. The next morning, however, the two outlaws were awakened by Sheriff Breckenridge, who called for them to come out of the bunkhouse with their hands up. Breckenridge, accompanied by two deputies named Gillespie and Young, had followed Grounds and Hunt from Tombstone. Grounds and Hunt ran out of the bunkhouse firing their guns. Gillespie was killed immediately, and Young was incapacitated with a bullet in his leg. Breckenridge raised his shotgun and discharged it, the pellets striking Grounds in the head. Dropping the shotgun, the sheriff pulled his revolver and shot Hunt through the chest, inflicting a debilitating wound. The two wounded outlaws were tossed into a buckboard appropriated from rancher Chandler and transported back to Tombstone. Grounds died before arriving, and Hunt was admitted to the local hospital.

Hunt lingered on, requesting authorities to contact his brother Hugh. Days later, Hugh arrived from Tucson. The two visited for only a few minutes, then Hugh left. That afternoon, he leased a horse and buggy, clandestinely removed Zwing Hunt from the hospital, and drove out of town. The escape was not discovered until the next day.

On a hunch, Sheriff Breckenridge decided the Hunt brothers were headed to Skeleton Canyon to dig up the treasure. He gathered a couple of deputies and rode in that direction. Several miles from the massacre site, he encountered a freshly dug grave next to an oak tree. On the trunk of the tree, the name Zwing Hunt was carved. Breckenridge ordered his deputies to dig up the grave. Inside they found Hunt’s body. They reburied it and returned to Tombstone. The posse searched the area for hours but encountered no evidence of any digging.

The letter and map that Grounds sent to his mother in San Antonio are still in the possession of his descendants. They are reported to be in good condition, and the map supposedly provides clear directions to the location of the buried treasure. To date, and for reasons unknown, no attempt has been made by the Grounds family to recover the buried treasure in Skeleton Canyon.

Over the years, many have gone in search of the buried Monterrey loot, now popularly known as the Skeleton Canyon Treasure. In Skeleton Canyon, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of gold and silver coins have been found, likely those scattered by the pack mules while attempting to flee the site of the massacre. It has been written that just before he died, Zwing Hunt wrote a description of the burial site of the remainder of the treasure that was carried away on the oxen. He stated that it was cached in a canyon near the Davis Mountains. Many consider the directions worthless since there are no Davis Mountains in the area.

However, when Grounds and Hunt herded the treasure-laden oxen north after Neal rode away, they traveled for a few more days, turning north near the Arizona–New Mexico border. Conceivably, they could have reached the area of Morenci, Arizona. Just a short distance north of Morenci is a Davis Mountain.

The treasure buried in Skeleton Canyon has never been found. If located today, according to experts, the value could amount to more than twenty million dollars. Further, the remainder of the treasure buried in a canyon associated with Davis Mountain near Morenci has never been found, although in 1995 a man exploring in the area encountered evidence of a curious excavation. He also found the remains of oxen buried nearby. He revealed his discovery to two others but provided no precise directions to the location. Before he was able to excavate for the treasure, he passed away, and the location remains unknown.

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