HENDRICKS LAKE

Gary L. Pinkerton

HENDRICKS LAKE. Hendricks Lake is an oxbow lake one and one-half miles south of the Sabine River and about four miles northeast of Tatum in Rusk County, Texas (32.371864°N, 94.493190°W). The lake is located in the extreme northeastern part of the county along the boundary between Rusk and Panola. It lies along the historic route of Trammel’s Trace, only one and one-quarter miles south of the location of Ramsdale’s Crossing/Ferry (Rocky Ford) on the Sabine River. The crescent-shaped lake is less than a mile long, thirty to fifty yards wide, and twelve to forty feet deep.

As a former channel of the Sabine, Hendricks Lake is fed intermittently by Black Slough and by seasonal overflow from both Cherokee Bayou and the Sabine River. Numerous springs within and around the lake keep it filled. On an 1863 map of the area, it was named Flanagan Lake but since the 1880s has been known by its present name. Both were the surnames of early settlers in the vicinity.

The enduring story of Hendricks Lake is a treasure legend that has been around for more than 150 years. The basic story is that in 1816 silver stolen by pirate Jean Lafitte from the Spanish brig Santa Rosa was being moved north from Matagorda Bay to St. Louis, Missouri, for disposal. Spanish soldiers in pursuit overtook the transport at Hendricks Lake and rather than give up the silver, the transport leader cut six wagonloads of silver loose and pushed them into Hendricks Lake. Alternate versions of that story have been documented since the 1880s, with variations including that the silver was from Santa Anna and the battle of San Jacinto and that the treasure was in a different location nearby. 

Paul “Uncle Fox” Tatum, son of the founder of Tatum, Texas, carried out the first documented attempt to recover the treasure in 1884. At that time, the legend was that Mexican land pirates lived along the lake and dumped gold, silver, and precious stones in the lake when they were attacked “by the Texans or some other forces.” Tatum reportedly built a device with buckets on a conveyor and operated by steam engines to attempt to bail the water from the lake. As a backup plan, they would supply “all adjacent markets with fresh fish on ice.” The Galveston Daily News made light of the effort by suggesting they move their operation to the Gulf of Mexico since “a good deal of wealth has been left under its waters by shipwrecks.” A week after that humiliation, Paul Tatum clubbed a man to death after he made fun of Tatum’s attempt to drain the lake. 

During 1957 and 1958 the most significant attempts to locate the treasure took place at the lake. The popularity of treasure hunting during this time period was profiled in numerous pulp magazines and news features, and the business of supplying treasure hunters was page one news in the Wall Street Journal. A.C. SoRelle, Jr., and his brother, Henry, were oilmen who brought detection equipment, draglines, and other heavy machinery to dig into the gumbo mud on the bottom of the lake. Barnie Waldrop, a Carthage television repairman, had used his own electronics to search the lake for years. Both of them had consulted with Harry Rieseberg, the self-described world’s greatest underwater treasure hunter who had written articles about the legend in treasure magazines of the time. 

Access to those treasure seekers was largely through land owned by a former Panola County sheriff, Corbett Akins, and one of his deputies, L.E. “Cush” Reeves. Peter “Walker” Adams lived in one of the houses on the hill near the lake and figured prominently in many of the newspaper stories. Adams was a “Rusk County backwoodsman who wears an old slouch felt hat, bib overalls, and a denim jacket, buttoned at the throat even in hot weather,” and a favorite character of columnist Frank X. Tolbert for many of his “Tolbert’s Texas” articles over the years. Despite intense efforts at dredging, detecting, diving, and dynamiting for Hendricks Lake treasure, the only thing that was reportedly found in the lake was the rim of an old wagon wheel. There was no treasure found.

In 1965 a “professional syndicate” of treasure hunters, men who worked together at a packaging company in LeClaire, Iowa, and led by Clarence A. “Scotty” Stotlar, Sr., appeared to have what it took to mount another serious attempt. They did their research and, with dredging equipment and electronics gear, made multiple trips to Hendricks Lake but had no success. 

Over the years there have been many who made a minimal effort or spent a little time at the lake only to discover that the conditions were too difficult and they had neither the time nor the money for such an undertaking. Barnie Waldrop said he outlasted all the others and had seen “fifty of ‘em beaten by the lake’s bog bottom. . . from oil explorers and water witchers to plain nuts.”

The parade of those who made documented efforts for the treasure included oilmen, a television repairman, a pharmacist, a grocery store owner, dirt contractors, water well diggers, fraudulent treasure hunting equipment hucksters, a heating and air-conditioning technician, and numerous other “true believers.” Searchers used aerial photos, underwater metal detectors, and magnetometers to aid in their efforts. One group proposed to use a new divining rod activated with isotopes. Even though some, including Waldrop and Stotlar, had looked into draining the lake, there were no other attempts at that folly. Not one of them found any of the reported treasure, but that never prevented the next person from trying.

If information about one of the last searchers had been documented and publicized it would likely have discouraged further similar attempts in the future. In 1969 an MIT graduate with a degree in electrical engineering and a patent for an underwater device for locating metals motored along the surface of Hendricks Lake in an eight-foot fiberglass boat towing his electronics. This same engineer, only two years earlier, had led the team who located the Tecumseh, a Union metalclad ship sunk during the battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864. Charles Fitzhugh Grice had the technology needed to find Spanish silver if the treasure was there. On his visits to Hendricks Lake with his son, they got a hit and brought a diver along to search the bottom. All they found was a big sawblade from one of the sawmills that had operated on the lake; they left the artifact behind for future treasure hunters.

As of 2019 much of the land surrounding the lake was in the permit area for the surface mining for lignite that covers thousands of acres. Access to the lake that for 150 years had been accessible for picnics and fishing was closed off to all but a few private landowners at the time. The desire to believe that millions of dollars of silver bars still lie at the bottom of Hendricks Lake is not for the treasure hunters only. When one of the recent landowners near the lake sold their property to the mining company, they inserted a “treasure clause” that “reserves the rights to one-half of any treasure trove found on the Property by Purchaser.” There will always be true believers in the treasure legend of Hendricks Lake.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Abilene Reporter-News, June 24, 1958. Clarksville Standard, August 29, 1884. Dallas Morning News, August 1, 1965. Fort Worth Daily Gazette, October 3, 1884. Charles F. Grice, Interview by Gary Pinkerton, February 2019. Gary L. Pinkerton, Trammel’s Trace: The First Road to Texas from the North (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2016). Gary Pinkerton, “True Believers: Treasure Hunters at Hendricks Lake,” East Texas Historical Journal 47 (2009).

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Handbook of Texas Online, Gary L. Pinkerton, "HENDRICKS LAKE," accessed July 20, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/roh09.

Uploaded on April 16, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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