Treasure Hunting


Our Treasure Hunting section

Island Events

The following article comes from our good friends at
Beachcombing and Treasure Hunting
& Beachcomber's Museum


Steve Hathcock
Embarking on a Texas beach getaway for the weekend has long been a Texas tradition regardless what part of the state you call home. Literally thousands of Texans flock to the white sandy beaches of Padre Island every year - sometimes multiple times per year - to pitch their tents, set up their RVs or to simply sleep on the beach in order to get their periodic fix of sun, surf and sand.


But have you ever wondered while you're laying on your beach recliner soaking up those golden coastal rays and enjoying the warm Gulf breezes,  just how many bare feet have imprinted the same sands back through the years. And not just contemporary times either, but times long past.


Kay Lay
It's possible, given the Texas coasts' rich history, that you're standing in the footsteps of some former impressive visitors and natives. On these sun-soaked sands have stood fierce Karanakawa Indians, accused of being the only cannibalistic tribe in North America. Conquistadors wandered down these beaches too, as did French, English and Portuguese explorers.


And regardless whether or not historical figures of the past stood upon the same ground where you grilled your beach burgers last night or not, there is still evidence lying across the beach that hints of different cultures and distant lands. These treasures wash up on the beach and can include everything from sandollars, coconuts  and sea beans to manmade artifacts like old coins, pieces of rope and clothing - just about everything imaginable.


Probably no one in Texas knows this better than Steve Hathcock and Kay Lay, South Padre Island's colorful beachcombing champions. Authors of books, articles and papers on the subject, the two proudly display much of their finest collection of things they have found on the beach down through the years at their unique and enterprising shop, Padre Island Traders and Beachcombers Museum, located centrally in South Padre Island. From ornate driftwood to Spanish Gold to Civil War relics to shells and other natural items from the sea,  the shop and museum are packed full of enough interesting items to keep you busy browsing through the displays and shelfs inside the store for hours.


Steve is an avid historian, treasure hunter and storyteller and has authored the book "Behind the Third Dune," a look at some of his adventures (and misadventures) along the lower Texas coast. Kay is author of "Don't Pass The Beans," a book about the coveted sea beans and other natural artifacts that wash up on the shores of South Texas regularly. If you want to know about beachcombing, treasure hunting and the local history of Padre Island, you'd be hard pressed to find better resource guides to talk to before you make your trip.

And a visit to the Beachcombers Museum will leave you with a fresh idea of what to be on the look out for as you stroll down the deserted sands of Padre. A small area in the museum is dedicated to old books, ice cream and other refreshments and there are a couple of tables where you can enjoy a cup of imported coffee, glance through the book collection, or swap stories with the proprietors and other guests of the museum.


In fact, the island friendliness of the shop is one of the main reasons for its popularity. It's one of the best places where visitors and locals can mingle and interact and share stories and experiences.


For your next beach getaway, consider South Padre Island on the very southern Tip of Texas. It might be a little further away from home than you like, but the blue waters, white sands and Beachcomber's Museum will make the extra miles well worth your while.


Dreams of Treasure Island
Long intrigued by stories of lost treasure, we read an article about one of South Padre's most infamous hunters and decided to meet the legendary Steve Hathcock for ourselves.
After crossing the Queen Isabella Causeway, the only road onto the island, we made Steve's bookstore our first stop. A rickety two-story establishment, Padre Island Trading Company boasts used books, secondhand clothes, historical artifacts, and gourmet coffee. But not that day. Beneath a "Closed" sign on the glass door, a handwritten note announced the proprietors would be gone until Saturday, still a week away.

On Sunday, we noticed that "Saturday" had been replaced with "Monday", but Monday soon came and went. A lanky young man on the porch told us that Steve and his partner Kay Lay, both longtime residents of the island, had already returned and were probably unwinding in their apartment above the shop.

By Wednesday, the store was open again. After much yarn-swapping, Steve -- who is also a local historian, locksmith, and masseur --agreed to lead us on a treasure-hunting adventure in the sand dunes north of town. Exactly when was anybody's guess.

Over the next several weeks, we fell into the rhythms of the island, basking in the warm Gulf breezes and incredible sunsets over the bay. We spent many evenings with our newfound friends, sipping coffee on the back patio, making stir-fry dinners in their upstairs kitchen, playing with their three golden retrievers, and meeting locals like Steve Farrell, a wiry guitarist from New York, or Guatemalan Bob, a blue-eyed vendor of Latin American coffees. Then, after sharing countless tales of the island's history, Steve finally made good on his promise.

The Great Treasure Hunt
Just this afternoon, Steve and Mike, a treasure-hunter from Colorado, boarded Bob's SUV laden with metal detectors, headphones, binoculars, and scoops -- the necessary tools of the trade. Now, an hour later, Dan and I are following them in our own truck, toting a few essentials as well -- namely, the boards, bucket, and shovel that might help free us if we get stuck in the sand.
Numerous treasures are supposedly buried on the island, including jewels from lost Spanish ships and $60,000 abandoned by John Singer, the sewing machine inventor, before the Civil War.

But we aren't in search of such finds today; we're looking for bits and pieces of the island's history. Steve is planning to lead us to a newly discovered spot, a mudflat beyond the dunes, where a fellow treasure-hunter has recently stumbled upon a huge clay pot and a rusted chain in the sand. Today, Steve's relying on his memory to locate any markers along the route. Near the final marker, we park the trucks beside endless rows of multi-hued seashells, unload the gear, and head into the sun-bleached dunes.

We walk in single file, past snake holes in the grass and broken bottles in the sand. Deep into the wilderness, past sawgrass-covered mounds and thorny tangles of twigs and vines, we finally come to the site, where the greenish-gray lip of a large round clay pot peeks above the surface. On this history-rich island, it's thrilling to consider how long it's lain buried or what purpose it once served.

Perhaps it belonged to the Karankawa Indians, who fought against the Comanches in the vicinity. John Singer might have used it to hide away his fortune, prior to the storm that washed away all his markers. French merchants might have filled it with wine bottles, lost when a hurricane tossed their vessel ashore. It's been here so long that the clay has turned too soft to unearth without destroying it. So, the original purpose will perhaps remain a mystery.

It's a mystery, too, what else may lie hidden in the flats. So, the five of us split up, off to seek our own treasure. Bob treks away in search of old colored glass bottles. Steve and Mike linger around the pot, searching the area with their metal detectors. Dan wanders off in the opposite direction, scanning the ground for telltale bumps, while I hike several yards across a barren field of sand, aiming for a faraway band of glistening water. As I near the shimmering, tree-lined stream, I notice small deer tracks crisscrossing the earth around me, but no sign of human travelers.

After several minutes under the hot sun, I realize I've fallen for an old desert trick, having misjudged the distance to the oasis. Though tantalizing, this Mansfield Ship Channel, the manmade cut dividing South Padre Island from Padre Island National Seashore, still lies three miles ahead -- a distance I haven't time to hike. Besides, the sunlight is waning, and I'm curious about the treasure hunt behind me.

As I trek back across the sand, I spy Dan standing above a hole, beckoning me to join him before the others, still ensconced in the dunes, have gotten wind of his find. By the time I reach him, I notice an odd little smile on his face, a mixture of pride and puzzlement. He tells me he simply spotted a small lump in an open expanse of sand and began digging on his knees, soon discovering a long wooden beam and a rusted metallic fixture.

Steve and Mike appear in the clearing. Intrigued by the piles of sand at our feet, they wander over to Dan's hole, amazed that a man without the proper gear has made the most significant find. Soon, all five of us, including Bob, who's now returned with a few intact, grime-encrusted, century-old bottles, meet to uncover and examine the mysterious pieces that Dan has found.

Steve surmises that Dan's find represents the remains of a ship's mast that, with the clay pot and rusted chain, may comprise a whole ship's worth of wreckage lying beneath us. The sun's beginning to go down, however, signaling the hunt's end, so we gather as many artifacts as we can, leaving the pot and other concealed treasures for another time, and begin the long trek back towards our vehicles.

End of a Glorious Day
As we load up the trunks and shake the sand from our shoes, the sun slips slowly behind the dunes. It's time to head home, and, despite Steve's promises, the ride back is even worse. Still, despite the high tide, risky sand traps, and busted detectors, it thrills us to have searched through the almost deserted mudflats for a hint of South Padre's history, and the priceless treasures buried beneath these very sands -- treasures that could fund their finders for life.
Recalling one of Steve's confessions, that "it's impossible for a good treasure hunter to resist embellishing a yarn," I find there's no need to embellish. We haven't found any Spanish bullion or the Singer family fortune, and we aren't planning to spend the rest of our days searching for them, but, for one blessed afternoon, we've begun to understand the thrill of those that do.

Laura Raitman, an eco-travel columnist, fiction writer, and photographer, contributes various travel articles to numerous national publications. She has been living on the road with her filmmaking husband and adaptable cat for well over a year. Along the way, she's discovered an assortment of hidden American delights, from wacky Texas treasure hunters and massive Kentucky caves to some of the finest truck stops around. Contact Laura at
Photos by Laura Raitman
If You Want to Do More than Treasure-Hunt
Treasure-hunting isn't all that South Padre has to offer.
Sportsmen can rent jet skis and paddleboats, try windsurfing in the bay, or parasail over the island.

Shoppers can browse through used bookstores, gift shops, and clothing boutiques along Padre Boulevard.

Wildlife enthusiasts can watch for dolphins, whales, and migrating birds aboard the Colley's Fins to Feathers pontoon.

Beach lovers can comb for shells and driftwood, drive dune buggies along the shore, take sandcastle lessons, or go horseback riding.

Anglers can fish along the beach, from the Sea Ranch Pier, or aboard a private fishing charter. A few restaurants even offer to custom-prepare your catch.
by Laura Raitman
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