Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times and Old Timers

Doc Noss & the Treasure of Victoria Peak

Milton Ernest “Doc” Noss was born at Talogo, Oklahoma in 1905. Some observers have asserted that he was referred to as “Doc” because he claimed to be educated as a medical doctor, and one source reported that he was a practicing chiropodist up until the time he left Oklahoma City for Hot Springs (now Truth or Consequences), New Mexico, in 1933. It appears to be a false assertion, however. His occupation was listed as mining engineer on his death certificate and in news accounts of his death.

Noss rates a place in the memories of New Mexicans because he claimed to have found a legendary treasure hidden away in Victorio Peak in Doña Ana County’s San Andreas Mountains in 1937. Many have believed his claims over the years; many have not.

There are a plethora of legends about the treasure itself, and how it came to buried deep inside a cavern in Victoria Peak.

According to one, mining activity in the area dates back to Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his exploration of New Mexico in 1540-1542. One author wrote, “Historical documentation, along with abundant artifactual evidence, has revealed that this region was visited by the followers of the Spanish explorer . . . It is also known that Coronado’s miners explored for and found gold and silver in abundance in and near the San Andres Mountains.”

The problem with this tale is that historians generally believe that Coronado found no mineral wealth in New Mexico; that his expedition was considered a failure for just that reason. Moreover, the several routes traversed by Coronado and his subordinates in 1540-1542 go nowhere near the San Andres Mountains of south-central New Mexico. The author in question offered no documentary support for his assertions.

Another tale is that the treasure was placed inside the mountain by Juan de Oñate, New Mexico’s colonizer, between 1598 and 1607. One source wrote that he reportedly “amassed a fortune of gold, silver treasure and jewels” before being ordered to Mexico City in 1607. Again, no documentation is offered.

Another bit of popular lore holds that a French Catholic priest named Felipe La Rue, exiled to Mexico for insubordination to his superiors, fled north to New Mexico sometime in the late 18th century and ultimately not only discovered the gold in the San Andreas Mountains, but opened a mine and set up a smelter and produced numerous gold ingots which he stacked inside the mine. When ecclesiastical authorities in Mexico learned what La Rue was doing, they declared that the gold belonged to the church — except for the one fifth of it that went to the King — and set about recovering it. When La Rue learned that they were coming, he hid the mine opening and vowed never to admit the existence of the gold, and he swore all members of his group to the same silence. La Rue died while being tortured, as did several of his followers but “not a single one revealed the location of the mine and the accumulated gold.”

This is the tale of the Lost Padre Mine and it does not appear to have historical support, either. There are those, too, who claim that the Lost Padre Mine is in the Franklin Mountains which are virtually surrounded by the city of El Paso, Texas, and not in the San Andreas Mountains of New Mexico.

Yet another tale is that famed Apache Chief Victorio raided far and wide and hid the treasure he stole from prospectors, wayfarers, settlers, and the like. One story alleges that it would require 60 or so mules to remove the nuggets and ore he hid in the peak which bears his name. No records support thefts of this vast amount of mineral wealth.

Noss alleged that there were at least 350 gold bars — perhaps as many as 16,000 of them — in a cave in the mountain. It was also alleged that he removed a number of the bars, and hid them in false graves, before he accidentally (he said) sealed the entryway so completely that he could not re-enter.

Some have said that Noss could not profit from his gold find because private ownership of gold at the time was illegal. (President Franklin D. Roosevelt outlawed private ownership of gold in 1933 and the congress passed the Gold Reserve Act of 1934. In 1974, President Gerald Ford signed legislation which repealed the act.) Even so, it seems likely that Noss would have found a market for his gold, if indeed he had any.

In March 1949, one Charles Ryan, who had invested money in Noss’ treasure-seeking efforts, shot and killed Noss on a street in the town of Hatch. Ryan was originally charged with murder, but was acquitted at trial upon a plea of self-defense.

For all the gold Noss allegedly found, he had $2.16 in his pocket at the time of his death. The tale of the Victorio Peak treasure did not die with Doc Noss. There have been repeated efforts to find it, but the searches have been hampered since 1945 when the peak was placed under the control of the United States Government because it was inside the White Sands Proving Grounds (now White Sands Missile Range).

An article which appeared in a Western magazine in 1963 took Noss seriously, while many folks around New Mexico did not. A book about the treasure, written in 2008, is not clear about its stand on the controversy, and its reliability is questionable because it contains several historical errors (it claims, for instance, that Noss was killed in Las Cruces). Several groups have been allowed to look for the gold, but no precious metal has been found. One modern legend is that the United States Army found the gold long ago and removed it. There is no proof of that, either.

Noss is buried in an unmarked grave in Las Cruces. Seems appropriate.

Sources: Kit Carson, “Fabulous Treasure at Victoria Peak,” Real West, January 1964; W. C. Jameson, New Mexico Treasure Tails; Las Cruces Sun News, March 7, 8, 10, 11, May 26, 1949; Richard Melzer, Buried Treasures; Daniel Schweidel & Robert Boswell, What Men Call Treasure