Tuesday, August 07, 2012

What happened to Roman De La O of Presidio in 1917?

By Joseph Valles

On a previous post at "Origins of the De La O Family in the Americas", our cousin Donna Chapman replied with the following:

" I am researching the family of Roman De La O, of Presidio, Presidio Co., Texas. He died in 1917, under mysterious circumstances. His widow Tomasa moved away soon after his death, and the Family lived in Terlingua, and Alpine, Texas. My grandchildren are descendants of he and Tomasa. Roman had two wives with children from both families. The first wife's name is unknown. If anyone is searching this line, I would like to correspond with you. My grandchildren's grandfather (on their father's side), is Roman Molinar DeLaO, grandson of the original Roman De La O."

This is one of many De La O mysteries that may never be solved.  Somewhat fortunately, the ranch that once belonged to Roman De La O is now under the control of the Park Service, and the strange history has intrigued the researchers there, too.

Park volunteer Bob Wirt has commented on Ramon De La O and the time and events.  I reproduce it here for the benefit of other De La O genealogy researchers:

"Roman De La O immigrated to the United States in 1883. Nothing is known about his whereabouts or activities until May of 1910, when he was living in southern Brewster County, most likely in the Terlingua area. At that time he was 44 years old and working as a teamster. With him were his second wife, Tomasa, age 29, and 4 children, ages 2 to 11. At the time Roman and Tomasa had been married 7 years, indicating that the two oldest children were from Roman's first marriage.

"In 1911, probably in March, Roman purchased Section 18 of Block 16 from the State of Texas. This 636.3 acre section is several miles east of Castolon. It was designated as "School Land" and Roman is recorded as the original owner. He built a house and a large rock corral near a spring, still known as De La O Spring, on the northern part of his land and went into the ranching business. He apparently enjoyed some success; in 1912 and 1913 he not only paid the interest on his loan from the state but also was able to pay a total of $214.62 on the principle, and in 1914 he filed a document certifying that he had resided on the property for three consecutive years. Roman continued paying the interest on his loan annually through April 1917.

"A dramatic change occurred in 1917. In October of that year Roman's wife Tomasa was in the process of selling the property to Faustino Pineda, and by June 1918 Faustino had begun making the interest payments on the loan.

"A story passed down through the family explains what happened. Roman had made arrangements to meet some men from Mexico for a cattle transaction along the Rio Grande. Whether Roman was the prospective buyer or seller is not clear. Roman had enjoyed some success at the gambling table the night before and was carrying his winnings with him, a fact apparently known to the men he was planning to meet. When Roman arrived at the designated meeting place he was ambushed and killed and his body was thrown into the river; it was not found until several days later. Tomasa and the children were so terrified by the event that they left the area almost immediately and moved to Alpine. The date of Roman's death was not included in the family story, but the events described in the previous paragraph indicate that it occurred between April and October of 1917. A likely location for the killing is along the Rio Grande near the mouth of Smuggler's Canyon, which would have provided the easiest access from Roman's home to the river.

"A short distance south of Roman's home are two graves on a lonely hilltop, one a child's and the other an adult's. Both have remnants of wooden crosses, but no markings are legible. Could this be Roman's final resting place? We probably will never know."

In The Great Unknown of the Rio Grande by Louis F. Aulbach, a short description is given of the ranch and its history, as well as detailed instructions on how to find the site:

"Smuggler’s Canyon (TX). This narrow canyon has been known as Smuggler’s Canyon since in the early days of the Park Mexican nationals carrying contraband could slip back across the river through this canyon without being detected. In a small drainage, about a mile north of Smuggler’s Canyon are the ruins of the Roman De La O Ranch. The 17 year old De La O immigrated in 1893 and worked as a teamster near Terhngua. About 1911, he established his rancheria in Section 18 near a spring which provided a good water supply. He built his house of rock and used the box canyon of the side wash to maintain his livestock. His cattle fed on the abundant chino grass which grew on the surrounding hills. In late spring or early summer of 1917, Roman De la O, age 51, was ambushed near Smuggler’s Canyon, killed and thrown in the river. His widow moved the family to Alpine and sold the property to Faustino Pineda in October, 1917.  The ruins of the De La O Ranch are north of the River Road about 100 yards into a small box canyon which has a spring identified by the presence of large cottonwood trees. One of the two graves on the hill south of the house may be De La O’s final resting place. "

Photo of the De La O Ranch Site by Louis F. Aulbach

There is another retelling in A most singular country: a history of occupation in the Big Bend  by Arthur R. Gómez, 1990:

"I had heard also that the reason for selling the property in 1917 came from the supposed fact that the site was haunted.  This story was recorded in a book of stories about New Mexico and Texas, which, if memory serves me right, was Treasure of the Sangre de Cristos, Tales and Traditions, by Arthur L. Campra [sic]"  

Of course, some of us know that Arthur León Campa (1905-1978) was a De La O descendant, as his mother was Martina De La Ó, one of the children of Pascual De La Ó and Nicolasa Fernandes. Arthur Campa taught Romance Languages at the University of Denver for many years, and he also authored several books on that subject, as well as on local folklore.    

His "Treasure of the Sangre de Cristos: Tales and Traditions of the Spanish Southwest" (published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1963) contains a retelling of 15 stories some of which he heard as a young boy sitting around campfires in and around the Sangre de Cristos mountains area.    

Here the facts get a little mixed up, as Arthur Gomez may have confused the story by Campa with that of the Texas Big Bend ranchito.  Why?  Well, because both stories involved a supposed treasure, a murder, a haunting, and both have the De La O family involved!     

Arthur Campa, if I do not offend his heirs and assigns or the Oklahoma Press in repeating the story here, begins his tale with the comment:

"There is a strong belief among the Spanish-speaking population of the Southwest that buried treasures are destined for a particular person, and that anyone not favorably predetermined by fate will never succeed in keeping a treasure even though he should find it. Nicolaza López de Valenzuela knew this, but her faith in the existence of the treasure she had heard so much about since childhood led her to defy the Spanish tradition when she began digging in the ‎middle of the kitchen floor of the ranch house she had inherited from her mother, Doña Martina ‎De La O López. ‎

‎"The farm was known as a ranchito, a nine-acre plot of land almost hidden by the Rio Grande ‎near the ‎village of Ysleta, Texas. At one end of the property, toward the river where the land rose ‎to a flat shelf, ‎there was an L-shaped adobe house, built about 1790 by a band of men whose main ‎occupation was ‎intercepting the conductas on the Camino real...El ranchito de la Ysleta, as the ‎family came to call their ‎small farm, had been bought by the head of the family shortly after the ‎Civil War, not because he was ‎anxious to own the property, but because it was a condition laid ‎down by his future bride before she ‎would agree to marry him. Don Juan López, a member of a ‎well-known family in Chihuahua, had been ‎struck with wanderlust when he was a young boy and ‎had gone to live with a Santa Fe trader in Kansas ‎City, where he had remained until he attained ‎his majority. Like many young men in search of ‎adventure in the West at that time, he joined the ‎Santa Fe trader and in a few years became ‎mayordomo of one of the outfits operated by Tolland ‎and Ochoa.‎

‎"On one of his trips to New Mexico in the early sixties, Don Juan met Doña Martina, the belle of ‎the ‎village of Doña‎ Ana, and reputedly the best polka dancer in the Mesilla Valley. She was a ‎first ‎generation descendant of the De La O family, which in 1829 had been granted by the ‎Mexican ‎government a strip of land twenty-two miles along the river from Doña‎ Ana south to ‎Tortugas below ‎the present city of Las Cruces. Don Juan left the Santa Fe trade for awhile to ‎remain in the Mesilla ‎Valley as a United States Marshal, and also to pursue his interest in the ‎young girl; but she would not ‎wed him until he settled down with a house and some property to his ‎name.‎

‎"Juan López, like many pioneers of that day, was strong-willed and reluctant to give up the ‎freedom he ‎had grown up with, but Martina's charms outweighed his objections and eventually led ‎him to buy a ‎piece of property by the Rio Grande, about sixty miles southeast of Doña‎ Ana. The ‎place was ‎supposed to have been at one time an outlaw hideout. Not long after the young couple ‎moved into ‎the ranchito, bringing a yoke of oxen and a fine saddle horse, they began to hear ‎rumors among the ‎scattered residents of Ysleta that the highwaymen who had once lived on the ‎property had cached ‎their loot somewhere within the house they were now living in. They listened ‎politely to these stories ‎but were too busy getting settled to embark upon a treasure hunt when ‎there were more important ‎things to do. Land was the only treasure that appealed to the young ‎bride, and she lost no time in ‎locating another good section to homestead a few miles north of ‎their little farm by some foothills ‎known as the Loma Tewa. Once again Don Juan was talked into ‎acquiring additional property, to which ‎he no longer objected now that his family was beginning ‎to increase. By the time their second child ‎was born, they had built there a large adobe ranch ‎house with three-foot walls, a zaguan, a patio and a ‎corral to protect their stock from the forays of ‎the Apache chief, Victorio, who was then on the ‎warpath.‎

‎"The Ysleta farm took a secondary role and was soon turned over to a man named Martin Apodaca, ‎who ‎worked the land in traditional al partido fashion; that is, on a share basis. This left Don Juan ‎free to ‎devote all his energies to the newly acquired property, where among other things he started ‎a good ‎herd of cattle and planted an orchard with seedlings brought from his former home in ‎Kansas City. ‎Once a year he went to the ranchito to collect his share from the annual crop. Things ‎went along ‎smoothly for several years, but Martin gradually took to the bottle and had difficulty ‎accounting for his ‎patron's share. Finally, in 1890 the share-cropper dissipated his own share and ‎the portion due to Don ‎Juan. When the latter rode by one Sunday afternoon early in the fall to ‎collect his rent, Martin ‎Apodaca was in no condition to render accounts. The spirits of aguardiente ‎had completely changed ‎the usually quiet man into an irritable and belligerent individual, so much ‎so that when Don Juan ‎mentioned the share he had come to collect, he answered defiantly:‎

‎"'I don't owe you anything. Get out or I'll shoot you!'‎

‎"Don Juan was already walking toward his horse when he heard this threat and therefore didn't ‎see ‎Apodaca reach behind the door for his shotgun. he turned around, and as he did so he uttered ‎his last ‎words, 'Shoot, you drunken fool!'‎

‎"Martin did just that, and the proud husband of Doña‎ Martina fell mortally wounded with the reins ‎of ‎his horse still in his hand.‎

Weeds grew the following year on the ranchito, field mice made their nests in the house, and the ‎old ‎pear tree in the front yard housed the family of a mockingbird, whose song was the only sound ‎heard ‎on the now abandoned farm by the Rio Grande. No one was willing to tread too soon upon ‎soil where ‎the well-known rancher had been killed. The memory of the aguardiente-crazed ‎mediero lingered ‎about the place and added more fuel to the stories about the entierro left by the ‎outlaws.‎

‎"Once again as in the days when the young couple first settled on the land, people began to see ‎flames ‎shooting upward on rainy days. The house was on fire many times according to the ‎neighbors, but it ‎was never consumed. One dark night, a woman named Dionisia who lived in a ‎jacal not far from the ‎entrance to the farm, saw a lighted candle going round and round in the ‎front yard. Speculation about ‎the treasure was more than a passing fancy among some members ‎of the López family, particularly to ‎one of the more impressionable daughters, Nicolaza, known ‎affectionately as 'Nico'. She thought ‎about the outlaws' hoard in that lonely ranchito many ‎evenings before going to sleep by the Loma ‎Tewa, but her insistence that they try to look for it was ‎met by her practical-minded mother with stern ‎refusals.‎

‎"Doña‎ Martina, now a widow, was too busy trying to run her affairs to think about such things, ‎and in ‎the back of her religious mind she thought it was improper to go looking for treasures ‎‎'where rust doth ‎corrupt'. The only treasure on the little farm that interested her was the corn her ‎peones planted ‎every spring and harvested in the fall. She solved the problem of having to give the ‎Ysleta land al ‎partido, by sending men to tend the crop. She still remembered the unhappy ‎experience of the share-‎basis agreement with Martin Apodaca, and the tragic memory ‎strengthened her resolve never to try it ‎again. Every month during the growing season she would ‎drive by in her buckboard to look at the ‎progress of the corn crop. As she stopped to open the ‎barbed-wire fate at the entrance, Dioinisia, the ‎neighbor by the fence, would hail her and offer her ‎usual cup of hot coffee of western hospitality.‎

‎"On one of her visits to Ysleta, Doña‎ Martina stopped to share the customary coffee with Dionisia ‎and ‎was chided by the old neighbor for not having stopped on her last visit.‎

‎"'Doña‎ Martina, why didn't you stop for a cup of coffee the last time you came by? I knew you ‎came ‎late because I saw the light at the house, but it doesn't make any difference how late it is. ‎Just drive ‎right up and sit down with Nicolas and me even if it is only for a minute. Why, last time I ‎fell asleep in a ‎chair expecting you to stop on the way back!'‎

‎"Doña‎ Martina was puzzled by this talk, and explained to her hospitable neighbor that she hadn't ‎been ‎at the farm at all. Not wishing to appear unappreciative of her neighbor's well-meaning ‎concern, she ‎said no more, but it made her wonder if anyone had been around the farm in her ‎absence. On the way ‎to the house she watched the lane carefully for tracks that would indicate a ‎visitor, and even expected ‎to find the padlock broken open at the door of the ranch house. There ‎was no sign of anyone's ‎presence; things were exactly as she had left them. 'Poor Dionisia,' she ‎thought, 'she's still thinking ‎about that old treasure.'‎

"The young daughter, Nicolaza, grew up and married an El Paso businessman named Valenzuela. ‎He ‎knew nothing about farming and cared less for it, but when his wife told him about the treasure ‎in ‎Ysleta, he decided it was time he took up farming. He and his wife talked it over with Doña‎ ‎Martina ‎who, glad to rid herself of the bothersome ranchito, turned it over to her daughter as part ‎of her ‎eventual inheritance. Valenzuela made it known that the old house needed remodeling, and ‎so began ‎to spend every weekend on the farm taking down the walls, one adobe at a time. His ‎painstaking ‎efforts yielded nothing more than an aching back over the weekend, but there still ‎remained other ‎places to explore before the indefatigable businessman would give up. Some ‎prankster in the family, ‎who guessed what Valenzuela was searching for, buried an old earthen ‎pot where he would run into ‎it, and placed a dime in it, with a note reading: 'Behold the treasure ‎of Ysleta!'‎

‎"For a few months after the little joke, the treasure-hunter was not seen around the farm and for ‎a ‎very good reason; he had taken ill with a dangerous nose infection and had died within a matter ‎of ‎weeks. A second man associated with the farm was now dead and a second-generation woman ‎had ‎been widowed. Nico's ardor cooled considerably after her husband's death. She turned the ‎property ‎back to her mother and went to live in California with one of her daughters.‎

‎"A couple of years later, while bathing in Long Beach one day, she was attracted by a crowd of ‎people ‎waiting in line to go inside a tent where a very unusual fortuneteller was plying his trade, ‎and ‎performing the most amazing feats of divination. She was urged by her friends to go in and ‎have her ‎fortune told. To her great surprise, as she set foot in the tent, an ominous-sounding voice ‎greeted her ‎by name and anticipated the answer to what she had in mind to ask:‎

‎" 'You have come to see me about a treasure located in a farmhouse in Ysleta, Texas. The answer ‎is yes, ‎the treasure does exist. But you are not the one to recover it.'‎

‎" Stunned by this unexpected dictum, Nicolaza left California and returned to her home in El Paso. ‎She ‎tried to forget the treasure but the fortuneteller's words preyed on her mind so strongly that ‎she ‎decided to talk the matter over with one of her daughters. Young Elise had a lot of spirit; she ‎was the ‎sort of person who would enjoy looking for a treasure, particularly if it meant ‎circumventing a ‎soothsayer's prophecy.‎

‎"Mother and daughter waited patiently until they could find a man whom they could trust, ‎for ‎they ‎thought that by having a third party do the digging they might break the ‎soothsayer's ‎prediction. In the ‎village of Ysleta they finally found and honest, simple man well ‎suited for their ‎plan, and began to ‎sound him out, asking him if he had ever heard about the ‎treasure in the old ‎ranch house. he knew ‎about it, but more important yet was his willingness to dig ‎for it on a share ‎basis. They sat down with ‎this man, whom we shall call Pedro, and worked out the ‎plan they were ‎to follow being careful not to ‎reveal to him what the fortuneteller had said, although ‎they did ‎mentioned that the treasure ‎was definitely supposed to exist. They were to go to the house ‎after all the neighborhood was asleep and dig in the middle of the kitchen floor, the only place ‎Nico's husband had not searched.‎

"On the appointed day, the two women drove down from El Paso, picked up Pedro, and made their ‎way quietly into the house remodeled by Valenzuela. The man drew a five-foot square in the center ‎of the earthen floor while the women covered the windows with some black cloth they had brought ‎along for the purpose. By the light of an oil lantern the operation began in earnest. The centuries-‎old earthen floor was broken with a heavy crowbar and a pick, but once the first foot of hardened ‎mud was dislodged, Pedro used his shovel freely. The women looked at each other from time to ‎time in ecstatic anticipation, but with an apparent uncertainty every time they remembered what ‎they knew by tradition and through the fortuneteller's prophecy. They took turns at holding the ‎lantern for Pedro, who, by midnight had disappeared into the hole that he was digging. The loose ‎earth had completely filled the room, and mother and daughter sat precariously on the piles trying ‎to light the man's crowded working space below.‎

"Pedro, tired of digging, was getting ready to declare that the treasure was nothing more than an ‎old wives’ tale when his shovel rang loudly as he plunged it indifferently into the middle of the ‎excavation. The sound electrified all three and at the same time sent a cold chill through them. ‎The two women looked at each other with clinched teeth, almost terrified now that the moment had ‎arrived. Down in the hole, Pedro was scraping the bottom carefully and, as he leaned over to ‎examine the chest, of which the outline was now clearly revealed, he went limp and collapsed.‎

"Nico and Elsie screamed and held tight to each other when they saw Pedro's knees buckle under ‎him. It was two o'clock in the morning; they were alone in an abandoned farmhouse with a man ‎who has suddenly collapsed and was probably dead. If they called in someone to help, the secret ‎would be out. There was only one thing to do. They dragged Pedro out as best they could and ‎tried to revive him, but the inert body did not respond. On the very threshold of success they had a ‎dying man on their hands. This was an irony of fate, something they had not counted on.‎

"They dragged the unconscious man into their car and took him down to a relative in the village, ‎who called a doctor after he learned what happened. When Pedro came to, the three agreed to do ‎nothing more that morning, but to return to the farmhouse at noon the same day and finish the job. ‎The mother and daughter stayed in Ysleta the rest of the morning, too restless and nervous to ‎return to El Paso. At the hour agreed, the three drove down to the digging in anticipation of ‎wealth and fortune, and elated at having gainsaid the old fortuneteller.‎

"When they reached the door ready to put the key in the padlock, they were stunned to find it wide ‎open. They rushed in, climbed over the mound of earth in the kitchen, and peered down into the ‎bottom of a deep hole, where a rectangular imprint of a chest told them that someone had been ‎there ahead of them. Nicolaza Valenzuela stood speechless, the ominous words uttered by the ‎soothsayer back in California ringing in her ears:‎

"‎'The treasure does exist, but you are not the one to recover it.'"‎

Sometimes the treasures are not so great, but are treasures nonetheless.  In the late 1940's, the family of my great-grandmother, Candelaria De La Ó Rodriguez, found buried in the dirt of the alley-way behind their house on Bellm Street in Santa Clara, New Mexico a 16th century bejewelled Spanish cross.  No one had any inkling that something like that might be there, but on that particular day, it chose to magically reveal itself.

Everyone knew the fabulous story of the nearby Kneeling Nun rock formation in Santa Rita; how the Indians attacked the mission and pursued a lone nun up the mountain face, and how she prayed atop the mountain to be preserved from the sacrilege that was sure to come; and how God allowed that she was changed into stone, in just the shape you see today.  We children were all convinced that this cross was her cross; and it might well have been.

Finding the cross was mysterious perhaps, but not a real mystery.  Not like the mysteries of the demise of Ramon De La O in Texas, or the murder of the husband of Doña Martina De La Ó López and the mysterious "fire that did not consume".  In another post, I'll speak about the mysterious deaths in October 29, 1852 of the parents of Nicanora Graves, the wife of Maestro Buenaventura De La Ó.

Perhaps I'll write of the strange deaths of Victor De La Ó, Cosme De La Ó and his son, Alejandro De La Ó, killed at Cerva de Uvas in the Organ Mountains by Victorio's Apaches around 1865.  Killings by Apaches in those days were not so strange, I suppose, but what is more of a strange twist of fate is the fact that the daughter of Candelaria De La Ó, the niece of Victor and Cosme, would later marry the son of a member of the very same Chirikawa Apache tribe that killed them!

Time heals all wounds.

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