San Miguel’s Lost Treasures
California’s mission San Miguel, located in San Luis Obispo County, has long been a popular tourist attraction. Founded in 1797 by Padre Fermin F. De Lausen, the mission represents a Queen Anne style architecture, pleasant grounds, and a colorful history. Like many histories, however, this one has some dark elements, one of which is associated with an amazing treasure- a fortune in gold coins hidden somewhere on the property. This treasure led to the slaughter of thirteen people, and to date, the cache has never been found. If recovered, it would be worth well over twenty million dollars.
Story by W.C. Jameson
Mission San Miguel, one of several established in California during Spanish reign, initially consisted of a few stone and adobe huts. Within ten years, however, it grew into a small village with a church, a granary, a farm, and served as home to the Spanish missionaries and their Indian converts. The church and several of the buildings were lost to fire in 1806. The re-building of the church and other structures was completed in 1821. The adjacent village was named San Miguel, as it is known today.
As time passed, the relationship between Spain and Mexico grew strained. Spanish military personnel and missionaries were recalled and, as a result, many of the missions were abandoned to the stewardship of the fledgling Mexican government. As it turned out, the Mexicans manifested little interest in maintaining the missions, largely due to budget constraints. Consequently, funding and supplies were withdrawn, placing the missions in a position to fend for themselves. They eventually became secularized in 1834 and were managed by a succession of appointed officials who lacked qualifications and credentials for such responsibilities. Thus, the missions suffered, fell into decay, the villagers moved away, and the granaries, farms, and ranches were abandoned.
On July 4, 1846, California Governor Pico sold the Mission San Miguel and grounds to an Englishman named William Reed and his partner Petronillo Rios for $600. A short time later, the United States acquired all of California from Mexico. Rios departed and Reed lost little time in establishing a cattle and horse ranch. In addition, he converted the mission into his headquarters. A number of the buildings that formerly served as residences were transformed into lodging for travelers. Since the mission was located along the well-traveled road between Monterrey and San Luis Obispo, the newly established inn flourished and proved to be a lucrative investment for Reed.
An astute businessman, Reed was suspicious of the durability of the new American currency, and thus insisted that payment for rooms and meals, as well as for livestock transactions, be made in gold coin. Reed boasted that during the first year of operation, the inn made more money than raising cattle and horses.
Reed was also suspicious of American banks and held little hope for their stability. Like many during that time, he preferred to hide his growing wealth somewhere on his property. As Reed collected the gold coins from room rates, meals, and the sale of livestock, he placed them in a leather bag that hung from his belt. When the bag became full, the innkeeper would vanish
into an adjoining yard to hide the coins in a location known only to him. In all, he was gone no more than ten minutes. For five years, Reed accumulated and secreted his gold in this manner. It has been estimated that the cache was worth $200,000 in mid-nineteenth century values.
Late in the afternoon on December 22, 1848, five horsemen arrived at the inn and requested a room. According to the tale, they were suspicious-looking, manifested little to no skill at riding horses, and often cast furtive glances toward the road they had just traveled as though expecting pursuit. Later during the evening meal, Reed joined the newcomers at their table and engaged them in conversation.
To Reed’s delight, he discovered that his guests were also Englishmen. Relishing the
camaraderie of fellow countrymen, Reed ordered bottles of wine for the table and before long the mood became relaxed and tongues loosened. The five travelers informed Reed they were British seamen who had deserted their ship at the port in Monterrey several weeks earlier, stole five horses, and fled one hundred miles down the San Luis Obispo highway, arriving at San Miguel. Reed voiced a concern that it was possible law enforcement officials might be searching for them. At this, the five guests grew nervous again. One of the men went out to the corral to check on the horses and look around.
During the conversation at the dinner table, one of the newcomers noticed the heavy leather pouch hanging from Reed’s belt and inquired about it. Reed, always a boastful sort and now fueled by alcohol, described his lucrative businesses and how he had hidden a fortune in gold coins in a secret location behind one of the buildings.
A moment later, one of the guests withdrew a dagger from beneath his coat, placed the blade against Reed’s throat, and demanded the location of the buried gold coins. Reed, growing belligerent, cursed the man and told him to leave and take his companions with him. In response, the assailant plunged the dagger into the businessman’s throat, killing him instantly.
The Englishmen roamed about the grounds searching for a likely location for the cache of gold coins, even excavating a number of holes. Frustrated at finding nothing, they searched throughout the buildings and in the process rounded up Reed’s wife, his two children, and all of the servants. In an alcoholic rage, the Englishmen questioned the wife and children regarding the location of Reed’s cache of gold coins. Since they had no knowledge of the location, they were unable to provide any useful information. The Englishmen, growing desperate and angry, killed all three. In turn, the servants were questioned. When they likewise professed ignorance of Reed’s gold, they were also killed. That evening, a total of thirteen people were slain.
The Englishmen returned to the grounds and dug more holes in a fruitless continuing search for the gold cache. As they labored, one of them who had been watching the horses noted the arrival of a group of travelers coming from the north. Fearing that the newcomers represented pursuit from law enforcement, he informed his companions. The killers scrambled for their horses, mounted up, and fled into the night toward the south.
REED DESCRIBED HIS LUCRATIVE BUSINESSES AND HOW HE HAD HIDDEN A FORTUNE IN GOLD COINS IN A SECRET LOCATION BEHIND ONE OF THE BUILDINGS.
The news of the killings at the inn spread rapidly throughout the surrounding community. In a short time, an outraged posse of citizens set out in pursuit of the murderers, catching up with them fifty miles later south of the town of San Luis Obispo. During the ensuing shoot out, two of the Englishmen were killed. The three survivors were apprehended and transported to Santa Barbara. There, they were tried for the killings and hung within the week.
Finding themselves without an employer, the remaining workers at Reed’s ranch drifted
away and in a short time the former mission was abandoned. With no one remaining to
operate and manage the ranch and the inn, the site fell into disrepair. In 1859, the Catholic Church managed to reacquire the property and immediately set about restoring it. Today the mission looks much the same as it did during the early nineteenth century.
Behind the old church building a mass grave contains the remains of eleven of the victims of the slaughter. Researchers who have spent time analyzing the circumstances of William Reed’s lost cache of gold coins are convinced that it is still concealed somewhere nearby.
Not long after the killing of William Reed, his family, and the servants, the story of his immense cache of gold coins circulated throughout central California. With the passage of a few months it was being told and re-told across much of the American West. Men, eager to locate and recover the buried treasure, arrived at the Mission San Miguel to search the grounds. Hundreds of holes were excavated but nothing was found. In more recent times, state of the art metal detectors were employed on dozens of occasions to find the coin cache, but it has eluded everyone.
Given the time and effort invested into searching for the treasure cache with no results, it can be concluded that the coins may not have been buried in the ground by Reed at all but secreted elsewhere. For example, among the ruins of Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad fifty-five miles to the northwest and near the town of Greenfield, a cache of valuables were recovered from a secret hiding place – an artfully concealed cavity in a ruined rock and adobe wall. At yet another California mission – Mission San Juan Bautista – several leather pouches filled with gold coins were found in the hollow of a tree on the mission grounds.
It is possible – even likely – that William Reed’s treasure cache of gold coins is not buried in the ground on mission property but lies hidden in a heretofore unsuspected location nearby. The challenge to finding this tremendous fortune lies in determining where.
About The Author
W.C. Jameson is the award-winning author of more than ninety books, 1500 articles and essays, 320 songs, and dozens of published poems. He is the creator and author of the best-selling Beyond the Grave series including books on Billy the Kid, John Wilkes Booth, Butch Cassidy, and a forthcoming one on Amelia Earhart. His Buried Treasures of America series numbers thirty-six books and counting. Jameson is the best selling treasure author in the United States and his prominence as a professional fortune hunter has led to stints as a consultant for the Unsolved Mysteries television show, the Travel Channel, and a number of
other television projects. He served as an advisor for the film National Treasure starring Nicolas Cage and appears in an interview on the DVD. His book, Treasure Hunter: Caches, Curses, and Deadly Confrontations, was named Best Book of the Year (2011) by Indie Reader. He recently appeared in the documentary The Desert’s Lost River of Gold, and has been interviewed on The History Channel, The Travel Channel, PBS, and Nightline.