9 Unsolved Mysteries of the Wild West
The lore of the Old West—stories of gunslingers, tribal and territorial warfare, missing treasure—is undying. But are the historical records to be believed? I interviewed W.C. Jameson, the famed treasure hunter, hardcore Texas cowboy, and author of over 90 books on Old West history—including Unsolved Mysteries of the Old West and the Beyond the Grave series. He tends to approach the official record more like a single piece of evidence amongst a larger crime scene. “I look for the clues that are there and chase them down,” he says. As a result, he’s drawn some conclusions of his own.
1. Did Sheriff Pat Garrett Really Kill Billy the Kid in 1881?
After William H. Bonney escaped from Lincoln County Jail in New Mexico while awaiting hanging for the murder of Sheriff William Brady, the record will tell you that Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked the outlaw, better known as Billy the Kid (above, right), to a residence in Fort Sumner where he shot and killed him. Questions abound, however, as to Garrett’s trustworthiness and the reasons for the prompt disposal of the victim’s body. Even one of his deputies present for the shooting said that the man Garrett shot was not the fugitive they had been looking for.
When a man going by the name Brushy Bill Roberts (above, left) surfaced in Texas in 1950 seeking pardon for the crimes of Billy the Kid, the media took notice. His case was eventually thrown out by the governor of New Mexico, who agreed to meet with him. The Governor did not believe Roberts was Billy the Kid. Roberts died a short time later, reportedly ashamed by the media circus that followed his confession. Jameson, however, is one of many convinced that Roberts was the real deal. “We started out trying to prove Roberts was lying,” he says of his investigation. One by one, though, all of Roberts’ claims were eventually verified. A statistical facial recognition analysis comparing Roberts to known images of The Kid suggested that the two men were actually one and the same. Jameson says that he’s challenged the so-called “traditionalist academics” that hold to Garrett’s official account of The Kid’s death to debate him on the subject, but none have accepted thus far.
2. Where is the Head of Pancho Villa?
This bandit-turned-hero of the Mexican Revolution retired from the battlefield after negotiating terms of withdrawal with the Mexican government in 1920—only to be assassinated in an ambush three years later. In 1926, Villa's body was exhumed mysteriously in the dark of night and his head, among other things, was removed and taken from the gravesite.
Jameson says the “prevailing theory” was that a rival Mexican general had been behind the deed. Another story held that the head was on its way to be studied by neurologists in Chicago. Others claimed the infamous Yale fraternal organization known as Skull and Bones held the skull in their vault for use in ritual rites. Jameson says that the evidence behind all of these theories is scant. (Skull and Bones has also been legally implicated in the theft of Apache Chief Geronimo’s skull, though no evidence exists that Geronimo’s head is actually missing.)
3. Where is Ben Sublett’s Secret Gold Mine?
In his book Unsolved Mysteries of the Old West, Jameson asserts the claim that Ben Sublett found a rich crop of gold ore in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas in the 1880s has been verified. The location of this mine, though, has been a subject of debate since Sublett’s death in 1892. Sublett says he found a canyon amongst the limestone cliffs in the Texas desert where a simple “rake of the hand through the gravel” was sure to yield a fistful of near-pure gold nuggets. Sublett even showed the location of the mine to a number of people, though none were ever able to find it in subsequent searches.
4. What Is a Thunderbird and Where Are They Now?
Pterodactyl engraving via Wikimedia Commons
Multiple newspaper articles from California and Arizona in the late 1800s report sightings of a giant winged creature resembling what would likely be called a pterodactyl today. A photo of one such beast nailed to a barn in Tombstone is said to have been widely circulated (Jameson says he’s seen it), though nobody has ever been able to produce a copy of the image.
A Cherokee treasure hunter who was a peer of Jameson’s claims to have dug up several feathers—each over 18 inches long with quills “as big around as one of his fingers”—from a cave in Utah while looking for a long-lost cache of Spanish silver. Above the mouth of this cave was an ancient pictograph of an enormous horned bird. Jameson, who says he has one of the original feathers in his collection, asserts that the feathers have been examined by a number of ornithologists, but that the species responsible for producing them has yet to be identified.
5. Where Is the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine?
It's perhaps the most talked-about lost treasure in American history, but there seems to be more myth than fact surrounding the gold found in Arizona by German immigrant Jacob Waltz. A party of treasure hunters moved to the Superstition Mountains of Arizona in search of Waltz’s cache shortly after his death in 1891 and, still today, an estimated 8000 visitors travel to Lost Dutchman State Park each year in hopes of striking it rich. It was said that Waltz mined his claim in the Salt River Valley of Arizona every winter between 1868 and 1886, though the source of his ore was never found.
Jameson, who wrote about the missing mine in his book Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of Arizona, suggests that the Lost Dutchman’s Mine was probably not lost at all, but says, “the chances are that the Lost Dutchman Mine was just simply mined out.” So, if you’re planning on searching for a lost treasure of your own anytime soon, it may be best to start somewhere else first.
6. Did Butch Cassidy Return to the United States?
It has been said that Butch Cassidy and his accomplice Henry Alonzo Longabaugh ("the Sundance Kid") were the only outlaws who lived to see themselves portrayed on film. Though the record states—and Hollywood would have you believe—that the famous bank robbers were killed in a gunfight with the Bolivian military after fleeing the U.S., many of Cassidy’s friends and family members report that he actually visited them several times after he was said to have been killed.
To complicate matters, the man responsible for identifying the two victims of the shootout in South America was a loyal friend of Cassidy’s—perhaps loyal enough to bolster Cassidy’s odds of a successful escape by falsifying the ID. Another of Cassidy’s friends was asked to look at photographs of the bodies in question and confirmed the death of Longabaugh, but said the body previously identified as Cassidy was someone else entirely.
7. Did the U.S. Army Secretly Claim the Treasure at Victorio Peak for Their Own?
The legend of the Victorio Peak Treasure begins in the 1600s when a dying soldier stumbled into a New Mexico monastery and confessed his knowledge of a secret cache of gold ore in the mountains to a monk named Padre Felipe LaRue. LaRue put together a band that purportedly located the mine and successfully drew ore from it for three solid years. When the Mexican Army was sent to overtake LaRue’s operation, he ordered workers to close the entrance to the mine with a landslide and, soon thereafter, LaRue’s entire camp took information about the location with them to the grave at the hands of the soldiers.
A New Mexico couple named Ernest and Ova Noss were said to have stumbled upon a narrow entrance to this mine while hunting in 1937, and then returned several times to collect the heavy gold ingots from the secret location. When Ernest tried to open the mine further with a blast of TNT, it was inadvertently sealed despite repeated attempts to reopen it. When the White Sands Missile and Bombing Range was expanded in 1955 to include the land, Ova Noss supposedly sent a party to investigate and they reported that Army officials were seen digging near the site. Still, the Army never made any mention of the Victorio gold.
In 1977, ground-penetrating radar identified an open area underground near where the Noss’ claim might have been. In the 1990s, a locked steel door was said to have been found covering the site of the original shaft. Whatever the case, a reported 88 solid-gold ingots were brought forth from the mountains of New Mexico by the Noss couple, and it is unlikely the public will ever know exactly what became of the site and its associated treasure.
8. Did Outlaw Bill Longley Elude Execution?
Bloody Bill Longley had more than 30 killings to his name before he was hanged at the age of 27, suggesting that Longley was one of the most prolific and psychopathic gunslingers in the Wild West. But was he successfully executed and buried in Texas?
Longley’s acquaintances held that Bloody Bill escaped from prison before being hanged and lived out the remainder of his days as a Louisiana cotton farmer under the name John Calhoun Brown. Longley had escaped prison twice before his recorded execution in 1878. Did a third escape keep this notorious killer from the gallows indefinitely?
Although Smithsonian anthropologist Douglas Owsley claims to have proven through DNA analysis that the body buried in Giddings, Texas did in fact belong to the notorious outlaw, Jameson says “all that (DNA) proves is that (the body) was a Longley relative.” Skeptics are quick to point out that a number of Longley relatives are buried in the same cemetery and that poor records make accurate identification of the body in question difficult.
9. Where Is Cochise Buried?
The body of legendary Apache Chief Cochise is buried somewhere in the wilderness of his former Chiricahua stronghold southeast of Tucson, Arizona, but the exact location of his remains is unknown to this day. Cochise and his band of Apaches occupied the area near the former location of Fort Bowie for about 15 years, most of which were marked by extreme violence on both sides. Cochise died in 1874, presumably of natural causes, and his body was buried in a traditional ceremony along with his horse and dog somewhere near his homestead. The chief’s tribespeople took the location of the grave with them when they passed on themselves.