The Treasure of Victorio Peak
 
By
 
Bonnie Wayne McGuire
 

New Mexico is a complex mural with mountains and desert that dominant the landscape. There are approximately seventy-three ranges, from Animas to Zuni. They include seven peaks rising above 13,000 feet, eighty-five more than two miles high, and more than three hundred notable enough to warrant names. They're all part of the Southern Rockies, and abound with strange legends and myths. Aside from UFO's, the treasure of Victorio Peak is probably the most notorious. The peak's a craggy outcropping of rock barely five hundred feet tall located in the center of a dry desert lake known as the Hembrillo Basin.  Beyond the Basin is a hundred mile area of desert known as the Jornada del Muerto, that means Journey of Death, because during the early Spanish explorations, travelers took this shortcut through hostile Apache Indian territory. Many died from Indian attacks, and others from the terrible desert. Victorio Peak lies within the White Sands Missile Range in south central New Mexico. Many years ago I saw the intriguing story about the Peak's hidden treasure on the television series "Unsolved Mysteries." I'd forgotten about it until visiting with friends in Texas. Floyd and his friend Pat were getting ready to look for treasure in an area where Pat found found three old metal bars in a cave on the old Spanish trail in New Mexico. They bore the Spanish stamp. He was overcome with joy that they might be gold. He gave them to an expert to examine and was told that they were Spanish brass used for the bells in the missions. Pat was disappointed. Later he tried to find the bars, but couldn't locate them. Then he got a call from some explorers who wanted him to go treasure hunting with them, because they heard he'd found three gold bars. Later I did some research and discovered that the Spanish gold bars contained a large percentage of copper. It reminded me of the intrigue surrounding the Victoria Peak mystery.

Long before Victoria Peak was taken over and surrounded by the government, a man named Milton Ernest (Doc) Noss took time exploring Victorio Peak while he was deer hunting. Noss was born in Oklahoma, but traveled all over the Southwest seeking adventure.  In 1933, he married Ova (Babe) Beckworth. They made their home in Hot Springs, New Mexico, which was later became known as  Truth or Consequences, after the popular television game show of the 1950's.

November 1937, Doc, Babe, and four others left on a deer hunt into the Hembrillo Basin. Setting up camp on the desert floor at the base of Victorio Peak, the men headed into the wilderness, while their wives stayed at camp.  Hunting by himself, Doc scouted the base of the mountain.  When it began to rain, Doc sought shelter under a rocky overhang near the summit of the mountain.  While waiting for the rain to subside he noticed a stone that looked as if it had been “worked” in some fashion.  Reaching down, he was unable to budge it, but after digging around the rock, he got his hands under it.  Lifting the rock, he found a hole that lead straight down into the mountain.

Peering into the darkness, Doc saw an old man-made shaft with a thick, wooden pole attached at one side. Doc thought that he had discovered an old abandoned mineshaft.  When the rain finally stopped, Doc returned to camp, telling Babe of the discovery.  The two decided to keep the discovery between themselves and return to the inspect the shaft later.

Within just a few days, Doc and Babe were back at the site with ropes and flashlights.  Testing the old wooden pole attached to one side of the passage, Doc rejected the idea of using it dropped into the shaft with a rope instead.  While Babe looked on from above, Doc inched his way down the narrow passageway into the mountain nearly sixty feet.  Near the bottom, he encountered a huge boulder hanging from the ceiling, almost blocking his way.

Finally reaching the bottom, Doc stepped into a chamber the size of a small room.  On the walls were drawings , some painted and others chiseled, that appeared to have been made by Indians.  At one end of the chamber, the shaft continued downward.  Once again, Doc began to descend, this time about 125 feet before the shaft again leveled off into a large natural cavern.  Several smaller rooms had been chiseled from the rock along one wall.  Stepping into the eerie darkness, Doc was alarmed when he saw a human skeleton, kneeling and securely tied to a stake driven into the ground.  The skeleton’s hands were bound behind its back -- apparently, the person had been deliberately left there to die.  Within moments he found more skeletons, most of them bound and secured to stakes like the first. Exploring further he found yet even more skeletons stacked in a small enclosure, much like a burial chamber. All told, he reportedly found twenty-seven human skeletons in the caverns of the mountain.

As Doc continued to explore the side caverns, he found a hoard of treasure including coins, jewels, saddles and priceless artifacts including a gold statue of the Virgin Mary. He also found some old letters, the most recent of which was dated 1880. This treasure was only the beginning. In a deeper cavern, Doc found what he thought was a stack of worthless iron bars. He estimated there were thousands of these bars, each weighing over forty pounds stacked against a wall. He was barely able to lift one, mush less think of carrying it back to the surface. Later, the wealth in the cave would be calculated to be worth more than two billion dollars. Doc filled his pockets with gold coins, grabbed a couple of jeweled swords, and laboriously returned to Babe waiting anxiously at the surface. After telling her about what he'd seen and showing her the loot, she insisted he go back into the mine for one of the iron bars. After much searching, he found a small iron bar that he could carry back through the narrow passageway. When he reached the surface, he told Babe, "This is the last one of them babies I'm gonna bring out." Babe rolled the bar over and noticed a yellow gleam where the gravel of the hillside had scratched off centuries of black grime. What looked like a piece of iron was actually a solid gold bar.

After the discovery of the treasure, Doc and Babe spent every free moment exploring the tunnels inside the peak, living in a tent at the base of it. On each trip, Doc would retrieve two gold bars and as many artifacts as he could carry. At one time, he brought out a crown, which contained two hundred forty-three diamonds and one pigeon-blood ruby. Yet, Doc trusted no one, not even Babe, disappearing into the desert, hiding pieces of the treasure in places that he never revealed.

Among the artifacts, Doc is reported to have retrieved were documents dated 1797, which he buried in the desert in a Wells Fargo chest along with various other treasures. Although the originals have never been recovered, a copy of one of the documents was a translation from Pope Pius III:

"Seven is the holy number," the passage begins. It then continues for several lines before ending with a cryptic message: "In seven languages, seven signs, and languages in seven foreign nations, look for the Seven Cities of Gold. Seventy miles north of El Paso del Norte in the seventh peak, Soledad, these cities have seven sealed doors, three sealed toward the rising of the Sol sun, three sealed toward the setting of the Sol sun, one deep within Casa del Cueva de Oro, at high noon. Receive health, wealth, and honor.

Believers think that Doc Noss found the Casa del Cueva de Oro, Spanish for the House of the Golden Cave. "Soledad" was the former name of Victorio Peak, and Doc apparently found the seventh door located at high noon, but the promised health, wealth, and honor would evade him. Four years before his discovery, Congress had passed the Gold Act, which outlawed the private ownership of gold, so Doc would be unable to profit from his treasure on the open market. He didn't care about the historical value of the treasure's inside Victorio Peak, so he mostly ignored the pouches, packs and artifacts, while he concentrated on the gold coins and bars. Although he was unable to sell the gold bars on the open market, Noss continued to work steadily to remove the treasure.

In the spring of 1938, Doc Noss and Babe went to Santa Fe to establish legal ownership of the find, filing a lease with the State of New Mexico for the entire section of land surrounding Victorio Peak. Subsequently, he also filed several mining claims on and around Victorio Peak, as well as a treasure trove claim. With legal ownership established, Noss began to openly work the claim, but he also became increasingly paranoid, hiding the gold bars all over the desert.

 When Doc’s story eventually hit the headlines, scholars began speculating on how the enormous treasure could have come to be stashed inside Victorio Peak.   Some believe that Doc Noss found the Casa del Cueva de Oro. Others believe that Noss found the treasure of Don Juan de Onate, who, in 1598, founded New Mexico as a Spanish colony. Seeking out the Seven Cities of Gold, Onate was said to have been a cruel man, brutally subjugating the Indians to do his bidding by beating and torturing them.  Reportedly, he amassed a  fortune of gold, silver treasure and jewels before being ordered back to Mexico City in 1607.

Others speculate that the treasure could be the missing wealth of Emperor Maxmillian, who served as Mexico’s emperor in the 1860’s. When Maxmillian heard of plot to assassinate him, he began to move his gold and treasures out of Mexico.  Legend says he sent a palace full of valuables to the United States to be hidden. Maxmillian was assassinated in 1867. And then Chief Victorio enters into the story? The most colorful legend associated with the Victorio Peak treasure concerns the great Warm Springs Apache war chief, who used the entire Hembrillo Basin as his stronghold. He absolutely refused to live on the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona where his people died from hunger and insect bites. Victorio’s land had always been in the mountains of New Mexico, and a treaty between the Federal government in Washington and his band had promised they could stay on those lands as long as the "mountains stand and the rivers flowed." With the discovery of gold in the mountains, such did not happen, and in 1878, the treaty was broken. Victorio went on the war path.
 
 Knowing how much the white man valued gold and having little use for it himself, he amassed huge amounts of the yellow mineral any way he could get it. He and his warriors raided throughout the Jornada and the Rio Grande Valley, attacking wagon trains, churches, immigrants, mail coaches, and anything else that promised riches. He raided the stage lines all over southern New Mexico and Texas in an all-out war against the U. S. Army and the Texas Rangers. He also took prisoners back to the Basin and subjected them to elaborate torture as a test of their bravery before killing them. This could possibly explain the skeletons in the cavern.  It would also explain the presence of the Wells Fargo bags, packsaddles, letters and other artifacts dating to Victorio’s time.

Another theory is that the treasure belonged to a Catholic missionary named Felipe La Rue, or La Ruz, as church documents are said to give his name. He was a native of France and was among the small group of priests who volunteered for service in Mexico. His party sailed to Florida, crossed the Gulf of Mexico to Vera Cruz, and from there, it went to Mexico City by ox cart. After a short rest, Padre La Rue left for the north, where he took up his work among the Indians and peons at a large hacienda near what is now the city of Chihuahua, reaching there in 1798. From the people at his new station, he heard stories about a fabulous source of rich minerals in the mountains to the north. If he was interested in these stories, he did not reveal it. Instead, he continued with his teachings and ministering to the sick and spiritual needs of his small parish. Among his parishioners was an old man, who had been an explorer and soldier of fortune during his youth. This man had traveled widely over the country to the north, and as Padre La Rue personally cared for this ailing old man, the two became good friends.

One day, Padre La Rue asked about the riches which lay to the north. The old man said that if the good priest wanted gold, there was a rich deposit of it located high in the mountains about two days’ travel north of El Paso del Norte, which is the present-day site of El Paso, Texas. According to the legend, the man said, "After one day’s travel from El Paso del Norte, you will come to three small peaks yet further to the north. Upon first sight of these peaks, turn to the east and cross the desert toward the mountains. In the mountains, you will find a basin where there is a spring at the foot of a solitary peak. On this peak, you will find gold." A few days later, the old man died. It was not until the crops failed that Padre La Rue thought of the solitary peak filled with gold. His little parish needed water and a better climate, and he called everyone together, asking if they would follow him north. They all agreed, and the little party set out for their new country. After crossing El Paso del Norte, they followed the course of the Rio Grande to the small village of La Mesilla near Las Cruces. North of there, they sighted the three peaks and turned east across the dreaded Jornada del Muerto, finally arriving in the San Andreas Mountains. After a couple of days of exploration, they located a basin in which there was a spring at the base of a solitary peak, just as the old man had said. Scholars all believe this basin was the Hembrillo Basin, and the solitary peak was Soledad Peak. After a fierce battle between the Army and Chief Victorio of the Apaches in 1880, the peak assumed a new name of Victorio Peak. It is not to be confused with Victoria Peak in the Black Range Mountains near Kingston, New Mexico.

Padre La Rue established a crude camp and sent the men out to search for the gold the old man had promised was there. On one side of the peak, they located a rich vein, ultimately working the mine for years. They tunneled into the mountain and followed the vein downward. The deeper they went, the richer the ore became. The little priest assigned dozens of monks and Indians to mine the gold, form it into ingots and, except for whatever was needed for supplies, stack it along one wall of a natural cavern inside the mountain. Word eventually reached church officials in Mexico City that the hacienda had been abandoned, and Padre La Rue’s tiny colony was missing. A search party went to investigate. When they returned and reported that the entire population had left for the mountains to the north, soldiers were dispatched with orders to locate the priest and demand an explanation. It was when a small group was in La Mesilla purchasing supplies that they learned the Mexican Army was on the horizon. Hurrying to camp, they spread the alarm. It was one thing for Padre La Rue to leave his post without permission of church officials in Mexico City, but it was quite another not to deliver the Royal Fifth (or Quinta) of the gold for shipment to Spain. Padre La Rue was in a lot of trouble. Padre La Rue immediately set about concealing all traces of the mine. Working day and night, knowing the soldiers were drawing ever closer, he had his little group labor to conceal the entrance. When the soldiers finally arrived and demanded to know where the gold came from which was used to purchase the supplies in La Mesilla, Padre La Rue refused to answer. He died under torture, as did many of his followers, and although the soldiers looked all over for evidence of a mine, they were forced to return to Mexico City with nothing to show for their long journey. The Lost Padre Mine, as it has been called ever since, went into the history pages as a beloved legend.

Meanwhile...In the Fall of 1939, Doc wanted to enlarge the passageway into Victorio Peak so that the treasures could be more easily removed.  Hiring a mining engineer by the name of S.E. Montgomery, the two went into the mountain to blast out the shaft.   The engineer suggested eight sticks of dynamite, to which Noss heatedly disagreed, claiming the mountain was too unstable.  The “expert” won the argument.  However, the blast was a disaster, causing a cave-in, collapsing the fragile shafts, and effectively shutting Doc out of his own mine. Doc tried several times to regain entry into his mine, but the shaft was sealed with tons of debris. All attempts failed, leaving him an embittered and angry man, which caused problems in his marriage.  Noss soon deserted Babe and in November 1945, a divorce was granted.  Two years later, he married Violet Lena Boles, which would further complicate ownership of the treasure rights for years to come.

Now, instead of having thousands of gold bars to draw from, Noss had only a few hundred that he had hidden in the desert.  Becoming desperate for cash, Doc along with another man allegedly transported gold bars, coins, jewels, and artifacts into Arizona, selling them on the black market. For nine years, Doc attempted  to sell his gold, but it was difficult finding buyers.

In 1948, Doc met Charles Ryan, a Texan involved in drilling operations and oil exploration in West Texas.  Noss made an agreement with Ryan to exchange some of the gold bars for $25,000 to reopen the shaft.  Meanwhile, Babe Noss had filed a counter-claim on the entire area. Denied entry by the courts until legalities could determine the legal owner of the mine, Doc feared Ryan would back out of the deal. Sensing a double-cross by Ryan, Doc dug up the gold that was to be used in the exchange and reburied it in place where Ryan was unaware.

The next day, March 5, 1949, Ryan arrived to the area, insisting that they discuss the problem of what happened to the gold.  However, Noss demanded to see the money before revealing the new hiding place.  Ryan hinted that if Noss did not reveal the whereabouts of the gold, Doc would not live to enjoy it. An intense argument ensued and Noss headed toward his car.  Ryan, fearing Doc was getting a gun, fired a warning shot in Doc’s direction, demanding that Noss back away from the vehicle.  Noss refused to obey and Ryan fired again, hitting Noss in the head, killing him instantly. Just twelve years after discovering the treasure,  Doc Noss died with just $2.16 in his pocket. Ryan was charged with murder, but was later acquitted.

 

As the years passed Babe Noss held onto her claim at Victorio Peak, occasionally hiring men to help her clear the shaft.  However, it was a slow process and in 1955, the White Sands Missile Range unexpectedly expanded their operations to encompass the Hembrillo Basin.  Babe began a regular correspondence with the military requesting permission to work her claim, but she was always denied.  From that moment onward, every attempt of Babe’s to clear the rubble from the plugged shaft met with a military escort out of the area.

 

This was the beginning of long legal battles over the ownership of the claim.  The military claim stemmed from a statement made by New Mexico officials on November 14, 1951 which withdrew prospecting, entry, location and purchase under the mining laws, reserving the land for military use only.  However, disputing the military claim, New Mexico officials stated that they leased only the surface of the land to the military.  Further, they stated that underground wealth, in whatever form it took, belonged to the state or to any legal license holders.

 

Becoming even more complicated, a search of mining records failed to turn up any existing claims  including that of Doc Noss. Additionally, the actual land where Victorio Peak is located was not owned by the State of  New Mexico, but rather, by a man named Roy Henderson who had leased it to the Army.

The dispute was finally worked out when a federal court issued a compromise of sorts, which stated the Army would continue to use the surface of the land, but no one would be allowed on the property without the Army’s consent. In effect, no one could mine the treasure, and that included the Army and Babe Noss.

Even though the military refused any of Babe’s efforts to work her claim, it apparently did not refuse other military personnel from exploring portions of Victorio Peak.  Two airmen from nearby Holloman Air Force Base would later say that they had found the gold cavern from another natural opening in the side of the peak.  The soldiers, Airman First Class Thomas Berlett and Captain Leonard V. Fiege, said they had found approximately one hundred gold bars weighing between forty and eighty pounds each in a small cavern.  After the discovery, Fiege told several people that he had caved in the roof and walls to make it look as if the tunnel ended.

Neither man being familiar with laws governing the discovery of treasure on a military base, Fiege went to the Judge Advocate’s Office at Holloman Air Force Base to confer with Colonel Sigmund I. Gasiewicz.  Now there were two military commands involved.

Berlett and Fiege formed a corporation to protect what they had found, as well as making a formal application to enter White Sands for a search and retrieval of the gold. However, White Sands issued an edict expressly forbidding them to return to the base. In the summer of 1961, upon the advice of the Director of the Mint, Major General John Shinkle of White Sands allowed Captain Fiege, Captain Orby Swanner, Major Kelly and Colonel Gorman to work the claim. On August 5, Fiege and his party returned to Victorio Peak, accompanied by the commander of the Missile Range, a secret service agent, and fourteen military police. Try as he would, Captain Fiege was unable to penetrate the opening he had used just three years earlier. General Shinkle finally had enough and ordered everyone out. Later, Fiege would take a lie detector test, which would allow Fiege back on the missile range. This time, the military began a full-scale mining operation at the Peak.

Fueled by suspicions that the military was working her claim, Babe Noss hired four men to surreptitiously enter the range.  Though caught trespassing and escorted from the area, the men reported that they had observed several men in Army fatigues upon the peak.  An affidavit dated October 28, 1961, was signed to this effect, also claiming to have seen a military jeep and a weapons carrier on the mountain.  Immediately reporting the activity to Babe Noss, Babe contacted Oscar Jordan with the New Mexico State Land Office, who in turn, contacted the Judge Advocate’s Office at White Sands.  In December 1961, General Shinkle shut down the operation and excluded anyone from entering the base who was not directly engaged in the missile research activities.

In 1963, the Gaddis Mining Company of Denver, Colorado, under a contract with the Denver Mint and the Museum of New Mexico, obtained permission to work the site.  For three months beginning on June 20, 1963, the group used a variety of techniques to search the area; however, they failed to turn up anything. Left is an aerial view of Victorio Peak looking north. The roads are the result of the search.

 

 In 1972, F. Lee Bailey, became involved in the dispute, representing some fifty clients including Babe Noss, the Fiege group, Violet Noss Yancy, Expeditions Unlimited (a Florida based treasure hunting group), and many others.  Reaching a compromise the military based allowed Expeditions Unlimited, representing all of the claimants to excavate the peak in 1977.  However, the Army placed a two-week time limit on the group and they had hardly started before they were forced to leave, without finding anything.  The Army then shut down all operations stating that no additional searches would be allowed.

 

In 1979, Babe died without ever finding the treasure.  However, Terry Delonas, her grandson, continued the family tradition and formed the Ova Noss Family Partnership.  By this time, Babe’s story had spread across the nation, profiled in several magazines and newspapers.  Hearing about the story, a man by the name of Captain Swanner, who was stationed at White Sands Missile Range in the early 1960’s came forward. Speaking to a Noss family member, he stated that he had been the Chief of Security in 1961 and was sent to inspect the report made by Airman Berlett and Captain Fierge.  After determining the accuracy of the two men’s reports, the entire area was placed off-limits until an official investigation could be conducted. Reportedly the military was able to penetrate one of the caves and inventory the contents.  The gold was supposedly removed from the cave and sent to Fort Knox.  Though the military confirmed that Swanner had served at White Sands during this time, they claimed there were no documents to support an investigation into the mine nor the removal of the gold bars.

Today, Army’s official position on the whereabouts of the gold is remains cautious, maintaining that the burden of proof rests with the accusers. Many members of the Noss family and friends believe that the military exploited Babe’s claim and that the treasure is now gone.  However, Terry Delongas stated, "We're not accusing the military of stealing the gold, but I do feel that the Department of the Army in the 1960’s treated my grandmother unfairly..... However, we’ve worked very hard over the years to establish a working relationship with the military, and we're certainly not going to jeopardize that by accusing them of theft." The whole truth will probably never be known, but there is no doubt that a treasure existed.  Too much evidence supports the treasure including photographs, affidavits and relics still held by the Noss family.

In a special act of Congress passed in 1989, the Hembrillo Basin was “unlocked” for Terry Delonas and the Noss heirs; however nothing has been found.

 

 

Epilogue

On January 10, 2010 Author Barbara Marriott emailed me that she is writing a book on New Mexico that will include a chapter about the Noss's and Victorio Peak. She has written several books that look very interesting. www.barbaramarriott.com

October 11, 2012 Becca Gross (of Prometheus Entertainment) emailed me that she's currently working on a documentary series for the History Channel, and  wanted to check in regarding the possibility of an on-camera interview. In the second season of "America's Book of Secrets," they reveal lesser-known information behind some of America's most mysterious organizations. In the episode she's currently researching, they're looking at some of America's lost treasures, including Victorio Peak. She thought my knowledge might be a great contribution. I told her that everything I know was gleaned from others, so don't know what more to add, other than what impressed me about the entire story. The ancient legend is fascinating, along with the disappearance of the treasure from the mountain while being controlled by the government military base. It's a never ending story of what happens to the mentality of those possessed by greed and fear. I'll be looking forward to watching this new documentary on "America's Book of Secrets" when, and if it's completed.