One of the many articles that have kept alive the legend of hidden riches on a narrow strip of sand off the Texas Gulf Coast ran in the Harlingen-based Valley Morning Star on Oct. 27, 1966.
The subject of this always entertaining tale is the treasure supposedly buried on Padre Island by a band of castaways in the early days of the Civil War. Driven from their private paradise, the Singers never imagined they would lose everything they had created over the past decade and a half.
John V. Singer was born near Albany, N.Y. in 1793. A free spirit by nature, the wanderer left home before his younger brother, Isaac, was born in 1811. Although he could not take credit for the invention of the sewing machine, Isaac made it easy to use and affordable with a monthly payment plan.
While his clever sibling was amassing the colossal fortune that would rank him among the richest men in the world, John was courting a New Orleans belle named Johanna Shaw. She brought her own money, reportedly a five-figure sum, into the marriage.
In 1847, the year after the Mexican War, the couple with their four young children set sail for Texas in a three-masted schooner christened the Alice Sadell Even though John was an experienced sailor, he was badly overmatched by the high winds and stormtossed seas off Padre Island. He tried to steer the bucking schooner safely to shore only to have it break apart on impact.
Miraculously, all six Singers survived the shipwreck without serious injury. The emergency salvage operation was a communal effort as everyone big and tiny picked through the pieces of the shattered schooner searching for food, scraps of wood, anything that might increase their chances of enduring the ordeal.
Before dark that first dreary day, John fashioned a tent from the canvas sails. The next day, he got right to work constructing a small shelter from what remained of the Alice Sadell. It wasn’t much to look at, but the ramshackle structure kept out most of the rain and acted as a windbreak on chilly nights.
The castaways could have sat back and done the bare minimum while awaiting their rescue. Instead, they spent the daylight hours preparing for an extended stay. When a rescue ship finally came for them, the Singers said, “Thanks but no thanks.” The Texas version of the “Swiss Family Robinson” had found a new home.
A methodical exploration of the 100-mile long island, which measured 1.3 miles at the widest point, confirmed they were indeed the sole inhabitants. But for them, the isolation was a godsend not a curse.
The industry and self-reliance that the Singers displayed over the ensuing months and years would have been the envy of the hardiest pioneers. From the seeds she planted, Johanna Shaw grew bumper crops of vegetables. With the milk from the small herd of cattle John imported from the mainland, she began making butter and selling the surplus at Port Isabel, crossing the open water in a skiff her husband handcrafted.
John’s next major project was the construction of spacious living quarters, which he erected on the foundation of a ranch house that had vanished decades earlier. Within a couple of years, the number of John’s cattle increased to the point that he was able to sell the extra head to eager buyers on shore.
Utilizing a portion of Johanna’s nest egg, they bought Padre Island—the entire island—from the heirs of the original recipient of a Spanish land grant. In the meantime, she gave birth to three more children bringing the total to seven.
As the legal owners of Padre Island, the Singers were entitled to everything they found washed up on the beach or covered by the sand. The children were natural beachcombers, who brought home assorted prizes from Spanish coins to gold pieces and possibly even a silver bar or two. John hid the family valuables, which included the bulk of his wife’s cash, in a sand dune he dubbed “The Money Hill.”
Life was good and seemingly secure until the war came along. The Singers, who were openly sympathetic to the northern side in the conflict, were driven from the island not by hostile Confederates, but the Union navy that wanted Padre for military reasons. Forced to flee in the dead of night, John dumped everything that could not be carried in “The Money Hill.”
The Singers returned four long years later to find the Yankee sailors had killed and eaten the cattle, torn down their house for firewood and stolen everything of value. Worst of all, storms and strong winds had completely changed the landscape making it impossible to locate “The Money Hill.”
Following Johanna’s passing the next year, John took the children still living at home and left Padre Island forever. He died a broken pauper in 1877.
Treasure hunters have yet to find the Singers’ secret stash but stubbornly cling to the belief that it lies hidden somewhere beneath the shifting sands of Padre Island.