SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – “I don’t know if we’ll find it. Someone may have found it many years ago. It might be sitting in someone’s garage somewhere, and they don’t even know what they have. Quien Sabe?,” said State Historian Rob Martinez. He’s talking about a lost treasure trove buried in the Territory of New Mexico 155 years ago. Even though its location is known, nobody has yet been able to find it.
It doesn’t contain an outlaw stash of gold and silver. However, the contents of the long-forgotten chest are no less valuable. The day they buried that plain tin box a century and a half ago was so momentous that it became front-page news throughout the Territory. A huge crowd attended. A band played. There was a parade and lofty speeches from dignitaries.
This story begins long ago in Santa Fe near the Palace of the Governors in 1867. It was the final stop on the Santa Fe Trail in the Western frontier. It was also a cold stormy day in late October at New Mexico’s Territorial Capitol.
The Civil War had just ended. Tragically, 250 Union soldiers died battling Confederate troops during battles at Glorieta Pass east of Santa Fe and Valverde Ford south of Socorro. To honor their sacrifice, New Mexico’s Territorial Legislature appropriated $1,500 for erecting a permanent stone memorial on the Santa Fe Plaza. Territorial Secretary Herman Heath called the Soldier’s Monument “…an object of pride … which, as time passes onward, will become more and more sacred in the eyes of posterity.”
On October 24, 1867, a festive crowd witnessed the installation of the Monument’s cornerstone. The Colorado Transcript described the “ceremony of laying the cornerstone for a monument to be erected to the memory of the Union soldiers, who fell during the late rebellion was performed today under the auspices of the Masonic Fraternity, in the presence of a large concourse of people.”
“From the newspaper accounts, it was a day to celebrate and commemorate,” State Historian Rob Martinez said. “It was quite a vibrant scene in Santa Fe in October of 1867. Imagine that there’s music, there’s people. There’s this anticipation of a brand new monument commemorating Union soldiers,” Martinez said.
New Mexico Territorial Governor Robert Mitchell, who was a Civil War veteran, gave a patriotic speech. He told the crowd, “To honor the memory of those who fell in such a holy and righteous cause is both a patriotic and religious duty.” Following the governor’s remarks, a tin box stuffed with territorial relics was ceremoniously “placed in a cavity under the (corner) stone (of the monument) and hermetically sealed for the benefit of future ages.” The contents of the box included a cache of coins, Territorial Journals, a list of military officers, Masonic relics, Territorial newspapers, postage stamps, and the Executive Seal of New Mexico.
(Slideshow below shows a list of contents that were placed in the time capsule.)
The New Mexican noted on November 5, 1867, “The (corner) stone was then lowered and declared by the Deputy Grand Master to have been properly laid in conformity with the usages of the Ancient Order of Masons.”
During construction, wagon loads of limestone and marble were transported from St. Louis to Santa Fe. Stone Masons were paid $2.00 a day. Midway through the project, the Monument Commission ran out of money and sought an additional appropriation from the Territorial Legislature. Six months after its dedication, the Soldier’s Monument became a permanent fixture on Santa Fe’s Plaza. On June 9, 1868, the Weekly New Mexican proclaimed, “…the Monument stands in the midst of the plaza, a beautiful and chaste memento of the brave men who fell in New Mexico that the nation might live.”
Fast forward 100 years. To commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Civil War Monument, a decision was made to retrieve the box of historical relics. The Old Santa Fe Association volunteered to spearhead the exploration. A search party was led by famed New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem. The ‘time capsule’ grand opening was set for Memorial day 1968.
Armed with shovels and pick axes, a work crew dug, and they dug. Technicians from Los Alamos joined the hunt with sophisticated ultrasound and metal detection equipment. However, the hidden box proved elusive. Fearing damage to the Monument, five months after it began, the quest for a chest filled with historical treasures was called off.
“I would like to believe that it is still there,” said the Director of New Mexico’s Office of Archeological Studies, Dr. Eric Blinman. “That early effort to look for the ‘time capsule’ was marked by the optimism of all treasure hunters, which would be that it should be easy. And archeologists know that finding things in the ground is not necessarily easy at all,” said Dr. Blinman.
It’s been 54 years since that ill-fated excavation. However, above ground, Santa Fe’s oldest monument has not fared well through the ages. Time has taken its toll on the Obelisk. Due to a shameful, racially insensitive inscription written by Civil War-era politicians, the Monument has evolved from a symbol of patriotic remembrance to one of hate and discord. It took five months to build the Monument. It took protesters an afternoon to tear it down.
Today, a plywood frame protects the remaining limestone pedestal. Santa Fe’s elected leaders have yet to decide whether to rebuild the Monument or replace it with something else. The historic treasure trove buried somewhere underneath has been largely forgotten.
“These are relics. These are pieces of New Mexico’s history. Those materials haven’t been seen in over 150 years,” said Texas Tech University Museum Curator Dr. Cameron Saffell. “At the time, there was a bunch of people that felt this was a very important thing to honor their veterans and the men who sacrificed their lives fighting for the Union. It’s an opportunity for us today to look back at a culture gone and see what was important to these people 150 years ago,” said Dr. Saffell.
“The ‘time capsule’ is a message from the past of our ancestors talking to us and telling us this is who we were,” State Historian Rob Martinez said. “Maybe more important than finding the ‘time capsule’ is doing our best to try and find it because our ancestors wanted us to find it,” said Martinez.
Don’t expect to see an archeological expedition on The Plaza anytime soon. The remnant of the Soldier’s Monument sits on public property. Santa Fe will have to sign off on any excavation. And the missing box is purportedly sitting underneath a massive limestone block weighing several tons.
How would professional archeologists answer the question, ‘Where’s the ‘time capsule’?’ “We would begin careful excavation in the area around the Monument,” said Dr. Blinman. “In collaboration with an engineer who could assess the stability of what we were working with, we actually could systematically expose the foundation under the pedestal and try to see if there are any clues to where the box might have been placed,” Dr. Blinman said.
Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber declined to be interviewed about the ‘time capsule.’ A spokesman for Mayor Webber said Hizzoner had “no comment.”
“It’s a mystery. It’s a challenge, and it doesn’t have an answer. The box is either there, or it’s not,” archeologist Dr. Eric Blinman said.