As regular readers know, I have very little interest in treasure-hunting stories. I could barely work up interest in last week’s hunt for pirate booty, and if there is anything I find less interesting that pirate treasure, it has to be Old West treasure. I didn’t care about the Lost Dutchman’s mine when Scott Wolter hunted for it on America Unearthed. I still didn’t care about it when Legend of the Superstition Mountains became a series hunting for it. I didn’t care about Wolter’s hunt for Confederate treasure, either, or that time he tried to find George Armstrong Custer’s treasure. I did not watch Josh Gates hunt Old West treasure on Expedition Unknown. And I don’t care about this even more obscure and pointless local treasure tale. But, boy do cable TV shows love fruitless hunts for Old West treasure. How long before the Secret of Skinwalker Ranch reveals that the aliens buried Nibiru’s treasury of gold under it?
However, due to COVID-19, we have both a dearth of new TV and a shortage of pseudo-history to discuss, so we are all stuck with this show.
According to a local legend, in the 1870s or 1880s (usually 1881) a Mexican gang led by an outlaw named José Estrada went on a robbery spree, denuding Monterey’s banks and churches of gold, silver, and jewels. While the Mexican gang was on its way to hide the treasure in Arizona, American outlaws seized the booty and killed the Mexicans. The Americans then deposited the ill-gotten gains somewhere between Skeleton Canyon in the Peloncillo Mountains northeast of Douglas, Arizona and New Mexico’s Animas Valley.
However, as even Unsolved Mysteries learned thirty years ago, research into the newspapers of the time and government and bank records found no evidence of the massive robberies attributed to legend. At best, any robberies involved only a small amount of money. Instead, more recent research has indicated that the story that developed locally around Skeleton Canyon grew out of cattle-rustling operations in the canyon, such as those conducted at the time by the Clanton Gang. Some ambushes targeted Mexican smugglers, but few serious historians argue that this netted anywhere near the amount of treasure in the modern legend.
So, the Skeleton Canyon treasure was already debunked old news three decades ago. And when Unsolved Mysteries tells you that your treasure hunt is largely a pointless misunderstanding, you really ought to consider the possibility. Nevertheless, Rob Riggle dares to go where even the History Channel has yet to sink by searching for a completely fake treasure with the power of unfunny improvised cringe comedy. After all, it’s not like he’s going to find anything.
The segment begins by alleging that the Skeleton Canyon treasure is worth $20 million and that the shootout at the O.K. Corral in October 1881 was really about this treasure. They don’t really have anything to do with one another except that O.K. Corral participant Billy Clanton was part of the family of cattle rustlers whose exploits inspired the myth. As in previous episodes, if you didn’t come to the show knowing the story, you’d have no idea what was going on because the script provides only the most minimal background, and does not distinguish between historical fact and myth.
Riggle meets with Craig Hensley, described as a “local Arizona historian.” He is actually an actor who formerly appeared on sister station AHC’s Gunslingers, and as in previous episodes where an actor subbed in for a real expert, Riggle purposely lets his show fake parts of its alleged nonfiction, fabricate experts, and promote fiction as fact. I’ll give him credit, though: No other show has had the audacity to twice hire actors to pretend to be historians. Other cable shows at least find deluded lunatics who think they are historians. (To be scrupulously fair, Hensley lives in Tombstone and promotes local history through the arts.)
At least the treasure hunter Riggle hires, Cody Drake, is in fact an actual treasure hunter, for what it’s worth.
Anyway, Riggle believes a credulous 1950s Western magazine article claiming secondhand knowledge of a deathbed confession seven decades earlier from O.K. Corral participant Zwing Hunt that he recovered the treasure and buried it near a waterfall at Mt. Davis in the Bradshaw Mountains of Arizona. (Riggle mistakes the 1950s account for actual firsthand testimony from 1882, when Hunt died.) Weirdly, Drake claims the mountain doesn’t exist on modern maps and is difficult to reach, though it clearly exists since there are hiking trails that lead up to it. Weirdly, while Hunt allegedly spoke of two “springs” near the treasure site, Riggle identifies these as rivers.
Riggle spends a lot of time walking around and repelling from rocks, looking for the treasure and pretending that the shallow canyon he examines with a metal detector is an unexplored wild. There is a rather pointless staginess to the adventures, and once again Riggle irresponsibly promotes the idea that it is legal and acceptable to run around digging holes for treasure and destroying any archaeological context that might exist around whatever they find. It turns out that a show that I at first dismissed as a misguided waste of time is actually actively harmful, which means it’s already a candidate for the worst archaeology show of 2020.
The third segment continues Riggle’s peregrinations through the Arizona desert. He and Drake make camp. He eats a scorpion. When he finds nothing, he tries some new treasure hunters, both named Robert Leonard, being same-named father and son. Nothing happens before the commercial.
Again claiming that the “springs” from the old article are actually rivers, Riggle and the Leonards use a drone to hunt for gold in another location. Staged humor with a mule follows. It is not funny. Riggle enters a hole in the side of a hill after declaring a modest pile of small stones to be the “rock formations” from the 1950s article. The segment ends. No one is even trying at this point. It’s all just slapped together shit from people who seem to have realized that they didn’t have enough story to fill an hour. Another brief comedy bit serves as an interstitial during the commercial break.
In the final segment, the Leonard family and Riggle search the small 10-foot by 10-foot cave for hidden treasure. Riggle does not explain what permissions the show obtained to dig in the cave, so once again he promotes irresponsible looting as he rips a nineteenth-century spur, a key, and some other detritus out of the ground and speculates about how much money it all might be worth. “Who’s got the treasure?” he sings in falsetto. He falsely identifies a skeleton key as the key to a “treasure chest,” though it appears to be a door key. Michael R. Grauer, an art teacher and art historian at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, declares it “possible” that it is the key to a pirate treasure chest from Spain, though no one provides any evidence to support this claim, or to explain why it would not be a nineteenth century key as it at first appears. Riggle describes Grauer as an “antiquities expert,” though his expertise is in Old West era art.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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