Closing in on a fabled New Mexico treasure - Albuquerque Journal

Closing in on a fabled New Mexico treasure

There’s nothing like the feeling that hidden treasure is just beyond your grasp.

Multitudes of little cherubs who live in the area will certainly be channeling that feeling while hunting for hidden Easter surprises this weekend.

But treasure hunting is more than a holiday tradition around these parts. In New Mexico, it’s part of the culture.

The Spanish actually came here looking for cities of gold. Then there are the legends of Victorio Peak, the Gran Quivira hoard and the Lost Padre Mine, to name a few. Lately, Forrest Fenn and his hidden chest have dominated the news.

But now comes Charlie Padilla, a native New Mexican who since fourth grade has wondered what happened to the gold-plated Pecos church bell that local legend says was hidden during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

Treasure seeker Charlie Padilla's fascination with New Mexico history goes back to lessons about the Pecos ruins presented in fourth grade. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)
Treasure seeker Charlie Padilla’s fascination with New Mexico history goes back to lessons about the Pecos ruins presented in fourth grade. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Padilla was born in Las Vegas, N.M. He now works in an administrative position with the Bernalillo County Fire Department, but he spent most of his career in northern New Mexico in positions as varied as planner and surveyor and county manager.

His career has taken him as far north as Taos. (The places he has lived include much of the route used by Pueblo runners with knotted cords to signal when to start the 1680 revolution.)

But his interest in New Mexico history goes back to his days at the old North Elementary in Las Vegas. He says Joe I. Lujan, his fourth-grade teacher, was conducting a lesson about Pecos’ role in New Mexico history and the revolt because the nearby Pecos ruins were being considered for national monument status. Such status was granted in 1965, though it’s now called Pecos National Historical Park.

He never forgot his teacher’s story about the gold-plated bell, which he says is told all over the region from the Pecos Rim to Rowe Mesa to Las Vegas.

So over the years, he compared tales with other long-timers, pored over history books and questioned experts on land and the environment he met through his work.

And he formed a hypothesis.

Padilla says people fleeing an unexpected attack don’t have time to pack their belongings, so it’s likely many valuables were left behind – including the fabled bell.

History tells us that of the Pecos settlers, mission priest Fray Juan de la Pedrosa, two Spanish women and three children were among the first settlers to be killed in the revolt.

But Padilla believes that some of the Indians who befriended the settlers collected and hid the most durable and most valuable of their neighbors’ possessions in case they were to return – which they did for good in 1692.

Padilla figures that some of the hiding spots, especially where items were buried, were forgotten and the goods possibly lost forever.

But he has formed a general idea of where he believes such a cache could exist and hopes to organize an expedition of interested people to inspect the area looking for remote places where the land might have been disturbed long ago. He says he would document the locations and photograph them to present to scholars who might be interested in his idea.

“I know it’s a long shot, but I’ve identified a site, and it’s going to be interesting” he says.

He’s keeping the area under his hat – “I wouldn’t want to create a situation where people are trespassing or causing damage,” he says – but he did say it was on a friend’s ranch.

Of course, would-be treasure seekers should know that disturbing public lands while searching for artifacts without permission could lead to serious criminal charges. And Padilla would certainly discourage that.

He’s simply interested in “an intriguing fact-finding adventure,” a “topographical survey” done with the permission of the landowner.

Padilla recognizes he could wind up in the same boat as other adventurers – Coronado’s group in 1541 traveled through Pecos in search of gold all the way into to what is now Kansas before giving up. And that stolen Army payroll supposedly hidden near a natural arch somewhere in the Four Corners region has never been found.

But he remains optimistic and at the least expects to make some new friends and have a good time exploring the mountains.

And even if no treasure is found, Padilla says, he will be happy to have played a role in getting people to think about New Mexico’s storied history, which, he likes to point out, extends “way beyond when Europeans were starting to settle the Eastern Seaboard.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to editorial page editor Dan Herrera at 823-3810 or dherrera@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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