Richard G. Santos

Espantosa Lake in Dimmit County got its name in the late 1600’s when a Spanish expedition spent a scary night along its banks during “un tempetad espantosa” (a horrific storm). Like all other names given to rivers, creeks and lakes by Spanish explorers, the name stuck and 300 plus years later it is still known “El Espantosa” or Espantosa Lake. Many have been the stories this writer has collected of fishermen or late night “picnickers” using the lake-side park as a lovers’ lane, reporting strange and scary experiences at the Espantosa. La Llorona (wailing woman), Lechuza (witch-evil bird), ghosts of people who died at the lake and even a headless rider have been reported. There are also the many hidden treasure stories and the sounds of stampedes, heavy clanking wagons and the yells of muleteers racing and splashing into or out of the lake. There was also one fisherman who told of seeing a strange light swimming under the surface of the water near his fishing boat. Finally, Zeke Romero reported how the fish in his pond next to the lake all disappeared overnight without leaving any carcasses or traces of ever having been in the pond. In his case, however, he discovered another rancher had a similar experience at a pond on his ranch some distance away from the Espantosa. Neither property owner ever got a scientific or acceptable explanation as to how and why all the fish had disappeared.
Now comes this interesting story when on June 23, 1834, Jean Louis Berlandier camped at the Camino Real crossing of the Nueces River in Zavala County near the old road by the detention center. Last time I visited the site slightly over three years ago with former County Commissioner David Lopez, the old steel bridge was still standing but slowly falling apart due to lack of use and maintenance. Because a bridge had to be constructed for crossing the high banks of the Nueces, the group spent an extra day along the river banks. The group resumed its march on the 25th continuing on the Camino Real heading toward the Rio Grande crossing near present-day El Indio. Before leaving the Nueces River crossing Berlandier recorded having found a message carved on a large tree. It stated, “the first colony of the Villa de Dolores crossed (here) on 28th of February 1834”. The message was in reference to the families gathered by John Charles Beales for the founding of the township of Dolores in present Kinney County. The township failed but land speculator Beales returned to the Nueces to claim the Aguirre Mexican land grant. However, that is a different story not to be told here and now, maybe later.
But back to the diary of Berlandier’s travels in Texas. On June 25th he and his group marched from the Nueces River pass Espantosa Lake and camped along the banks of Peña Creek in Dimmit County. His entry for that day is most interesting as he noted that many travelers on the Camino Real de los Tejas were afraid of camping along the Espantosa. As recorded by Berlandier, a large mammal (mamifero) lived in/on/at the lake and was known to emerge at night and attack anybody camping along the banks of the lake. Among the victims was a group of Lipan Apaches who had camped by the lake. He also stated that in 1813 “two couriers” who had camped at the lake were attacked by the monster and they managed to kill it. The remains were left on site and Berlandier recorded that he searched for the bones but was not able to find any traces of the monster’s remains.
Before speculating on what Berlandier might have been writing about it is best to give the reader his credentials as a highly respected scientist, naturalist and botanist. Jean Louis Berlandier was born about 1805 on the France-Switzerland border area. He attended the academy in Geneva and earned a degree in botany. In 1826 he traveled to Mexico to gather and identify plants not recorded by the scientific community. In 1827 he joined the Mexico-U.S. Border Commission headed by General Manuel Mier y Teran. The Commission was to set the boundary between Texas and Louisiana but Berlandier took advantage of the trip to investigate, name and collect the unnamed and unrecorded flora of central Mexico, Northeast Mexico and Texas along the various Caminos Real. Thus included in his diaries are interesting descriptions of the cities, towns and villages he visited in Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Tamauilipas and Texas. The diary of his travels from San Antonio to the Uvalde Canyon with José Francisco Ruiz and a group of Comanches is an invaluable insight into the life and culture of the Native Americans. However, being a college educated European with a different world view and value system, Berlandier’s description of the residents of the township in Texas and along the lower Rio Grande is far from favorable. Nonetheless, the published and unpublished work of Jean Louis Berlandier is one of the greatest literary and scientific contributions in Texas, the middle to lower Rio Grande area and Northeast Mexico.
So what man-eating mammal at Espantosa Lake was Berlandier writing about in 1834? Even though he always referred to alligators as caymans, he did know the reptile and frequently reported their habitats wherever he encountered them. So we can rule out the alligator. Because he wrote it was a mammal (mamifero), could the so-called monster have been a jabalina, feral pig or bear? We do not know. All we have is Berlandier’s statement that a large, monstrous mammal lived in/on/at Espantosa Lake and emerged at night to attack anybody camping along its banks. Like the contemporary stories of Big Foot, Nessy at Loch Ness, Chessie at Lake Champlain or the swamp man of the Louisiana bayous, Berlandier was not able to find the skeleton or remains of the “monster of Espantosa Lake”. It should also be noted that it is only in Berlandier’s 1834 diary that we find a reference to said monster. No other diary keeper traversing the area from the late 1500’s to the present period has ever made a similar claim. Ghosts, wagons, buried treasures, stampeding horses, La Llorona, Lechuzas, Gritonas, UFOs reported at the lake; yes. A man-eating mammal at the Espantosa; no!
Berlandier’s massive writings, studies and publications can be found by those interested in reading the material itself. Thus under his name, I recomend you search for (1) Caza del oso y cibola en el noreste de Tejas, 1844, (2) Luis Berlandier y Rafael Chovel, Diario de viaje de la Comision de Limites, 1850, (3) Espedicion cientifica del general Teran a Tejas, 1840 and 1857. Reprints of most books were published in Mexico City in the 1940’s. Book number one above was translated and published by John Ewer in 1980 as The Indians of Texas in 1830. Also in 1980, the Texas State Historical Association published a translation of Berlandier’s diary in two volumes as Journey to Mexico During the years 1826 to 1834. Whereas this two volume translation features the water colors of the flora Berlandier discovered, recorded and named, Ewer’s book published by Smithsonian features watercolors of the Native Americans of Texas in 1828 through 1834. All publications are worth reading with or without the illustrations. I also recommend you read the first editions in Spanish to avoid translation errors.

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Zavala County Sentinel ………. 28-29 October 2009


Richard G. Santos

Dinky (a nickname) says she was about six years of age when she first saw the light. It seems that one cool night in Fall her father took her and her mother for a ride into the darkened countryside. It was late at night. She does not remember what time it was when her father parked the car and turned off the headlights. Sitting on the back seat, Dinky quickly put her chin on the front seat between her parents to see what lay ahead. The harvest moon shone its light upon the north central Texas Plains as an old two story house came into view. The house had apparently been empty for a long time as indicated by dangling boards, doors hanging sideways and broken windows. Off to the left of the house was a tall barn without doors. I could not see the interior but easily imagined stalls for horses, farm and ranching tools hanging on broken walls and a ladder leading to the hayloft, she said with a certain amount of excitement.
œHere it comes, said her father softly as she held his wifes left hand. Watch and don’t make a sound.” Dinkys mother reportedly sighed deeply and placed her right hand to her lips as if to quiet herself. Hovering off the ground on the left side of the barn was a glowing image. It was not human-shaped as it had no head or feet. I was like an elongated glowing oval that moved very slowly along the outside left wall. First it moved toward the front, stopped as if looking at us, then floated along the wall to the rear. Again it stopped and started floating to the front. Back and forth it went a number of times as it looking for something, someone or maybe a way into the barn. After a while my mother said lets go, I have seen enough so we left. To this day I do not know what I saw or what it was. There was no explanation then and I have no explanation today. I remember it clearly and until today I had only told my children and no one else.
My friend Dinky is not the only person who has experienced an inexplicable incident and never told anyone other than the closest relatives. It is difficult to explain something the person does not understand. There is also the fear of people laughing in disbelief. So many stories of apparitions remain secret, unsaid and unrecorded.
The same is true for Miss M. I. who says she remembers still sleeping in a crib with her sister at about age two and seeing stuffed clowns crawling up the railings threatening to jump into the crib! I asked if she was sure about being roughly age two and she aggressively assured me she remembers it well. Setting the age question aside, she recalls how scared she was of all clowns of any size, living or stuffed. Listening to her I suspected she still hesitates when it comes to circus or party clowns.
Miss M. I. also recalls as a young girl of elementary school age laying in bed and seeing the rooms furniture and other items floating upside down in the air above her head. Screaming for her mother the items quickly returned to their places as soon as someone entered the room. In discussing this incident she agreed these scenes may have occurred when she was ill and had a high fever. In other words, without saying it, she informally agreed she could have been hallucinating while suffering from the flu or other high fever causing malady. She added no one believed her as a child and does not readily share these two experiences with anyone. Surprisingly, she added her sister with whom she shared the crib up to about age three recalls the climbing, menacing stuffed clowns! You figure.
Meanwhile, Mr. G from the Asherton-Catarina corridor remembers some spooky experiences from his childhood. Like most in that area of Texas, the sound of galloping horses, bull whips cracking in the air and wagons with clanking chains were also heard by G. Stories of hidden treasures, flames shooting from out of the ground late at night and strange floating masculine and feminine glowing shapes in the monte, along unpaved country roads and specific paths are also recalled.
So we ask, just how many ghost stories and inexplicable incidents are there along the three different routes of the Camino Real de los Tejas? There is no question many people lost their lives along the routes; some by natural causes, others by accident and still others through hostile and/or criminal acts. Battles between Native American tribes and clans featured both killings and cannibalistic rituals. So are there any spirits of an Indian killed in battle or his/her body parts eaten at a religious mitote haunting specific places and sites? What about the early Spanish explorers on official or unofficial expeditions crossing the area? How many of those who died along the routes of the Camino Real are still lingering on-site without eternal peace? Then there are the known Mexican merchants taking goods to San Antonio de Bexar being assaulted, robbed and killed by hostile tribes or bandidos of diverse ethnic background.
After statehood in 1848, the area quickly entered the period called The Indian Wars so how many Native American or early Texan, U.S. troops and Hispanics may still be guarding the places where they fell or buried a treasure. Then again, what was a treasure to the person who buried it? To the early Native Americans a treasure could have been a freshly killed bear, buffalo, enemy, pottery or trinkets used as jewelry. To the Spanish explorers a treasure could have been a favorite horse, a mate or family member (wife, child, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, etc), or some pesos duros (Spanish silver coins commonly called pieces of eight. To those who came after 1848 a treasure could have been a sword, gun, rifle, photograph, mate or family member. So what are/were the buried or lost treasures of the Camino Real de los Tejas? And why can’t some spirits seem to find eternal peace? Were they not buried but merely left above ground for the wild animals and weather to do away with their remains? Did they not receive proper religious departure whether Native American, Jewish or Christian? Or, could some of those supposed spirits be guarding their greatest treasure; their souls and final resting place? We know not the answers but merely record the ghost storied and legends shared by many who grew up or live along the three routes of the Camino Real de los Tejas.
In closing, we are happy to have had the German documentary film-makers in town along with former internee Art Jacob. It is always a pleasure and honor to assist in any manner possible. And special thanks to Mayor Benito Perez, Jack Kingsbury and the Dairy Queen gang for helping out. Muchisimas gracias amigos.

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Zavala County Sentinel June 6-7, 2007