OPINION | Curtis Varnell: Is there a Confederate treasure just waiting to be found?

1112 AN PF Curtis Varnell

A beautiful small town, Mena, sits at the base of Rich Mountain in the middle of the Ouachita mountains. It's best known for Queen Wilhelmina State Park, or possibly for the scandal involving the contras of Nicaragua, guns and drugs once funneled through the local airport.

Like many small towns in the mountains, it is rife with stories of hidden gold, lost treasures and hidden fortunes. In the case of Mena, some of it may be true.

In 1991, following old tales recited by his grandfather, Bob Brewer found his first cache of treasure- a glass jar crammed full of old coins.

Following clues left from a group called the Knights of the Golden Circle, Brewer has since found additional caches of gold and silver coins having an estimated value of $200,000. According to Brewer and his collaborator Warren Getler there's millions of dollars more just waiting to be found.

The money, scattered in a broad area over several states, is said to be have been Confederate treasure hidden by the Knights of the Golden Circle, just waiting until the South would rise again.

The Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC) was a secret society founded in 1854 by George Bickley. Its initial goal was to annex Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and part of Central America as slave states.

By the time the Civil War broke out, the plans had changed to just forming a new country out of the above countries and the South. The initiation ritual of the KGC began, "The first field of our operations is in Mexico; but we hold it to be our duty to offer our services to any Southern State to repel a Northern army ... The Southern States must foster any scheme having for its object the Americanization and Southernization of Mexico."

The KGC was said to have many influential members, many in the federal government including vice-president John Breckenridge.

During the war, it was said that the KGC and its several sub-groups consisted of more than 250,000 oath-bearing members in the midwest alone, a number that could never be documented.

The organization was active during the Civil War and was said to have ties with John Wilks Booth and to have encouraged the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

According to some stories, when the organization realized that they could not reach their goals through war, they decided to take their funds and other Confederate gold and hide it for future use. The money was to be secreted away and hid, protected by members known as the "home guard."

Other members, including Jesse and Frank James, the Younger Brothers, the Cole family and people of like persuasion were to collect additional funds, which would be hidden away.

Many of the men are associated with Western Arkansas. Albert Pike, one of the founders of the KGC, lived and taught in Sebastian County and had property in Mena. General Shelby often traveled through Yell and Logan counties and was close friends of the Titsworth family of Roseville. The James gang operated in the area and knew all the hideouts.

The KGC had an elaborate set of rituals, codes, signs and passwords that could only be interpreted by other members.

When the supposed gold was hidden, a "home guard" member and his decendents were responsible for hiding the money and marking the area where it could be located in future years.

In Warren Getler's book, "Rebel Gold," these symbols are examined and explained. Brewer found success using those symbols as a map and has expanded his search into surrounding states. Some of his work has been featured on the History Channel and he served as a consultant in the movie, "National Treasures: Book of Secrets."

Symbols similar to those located by Brewer have been located throughout the Ouachita mountains. Locally, three large stones were found at the base of Magazine Mountain. They contained carvings of arrows, turtles and strange symbols dating from the mid 1800s, these etchings have attracted treasure hunters from around the country.

Mysterious trails, bent trees and hidden caves have made the search interesting but nothing of value has yet been located.

Is there a Confederate treasure just waiting to be found? The jury is out but it provides a great excuse to get outdoors, check out Magazine, Rich Mountain and others of the Ouachitas and enjoy the beauty of an Arkansas autumn.

Who knows? Maybe one of those celebrated cross-county bike trails being developed in Mena might lead directly to a pot of gold.

  photo  1112 AN PF Curtis Varnell