Story by Sarah Naron
Looking back on childhood, it’s likely that just about everyone has at least one memory of themselves embarking on a scavenger hunt or creating their own treasure map with friends. Movies such as ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Without a Paddle’ provide viewers with the nostalgic feelings associated with being on a quest for whatever treasures lay in wait.
For Christian B. Roper, the wonder and excitement brought on by treasure hunting has accompanied him into his adult life. Raised in East Texas and now residing in Austin, Roper gets to enjoy the thrill of the hunt in his everyday life as the owner of Roper Media, LLC. A self-described “investigator of the weird,” much of Roper’s interest lies in treasure hunting.
Roper said it all began when he was told the story of pirate Jean Lafitte when he was a child.
“I grew up in a family of divers, and many of their friends were treasure hunters as well,” he explained. “That’s how I got associated with Lafitte specifically. There have been lots of searches for any artifact, any coinage, any treasure related to Lafitte. And that was kind of the world that I was immersed in as a young child.”
Roper learned of treasure caches throughout the East Texas area connected to Lafitte, who spent several years based in Galveston.
“His illicit dealings and debauchery made him folkloric gold in Texas and Louisiana,” Roper said of the pirate. “Despite being a very prominent character in early Texas and early American history, there is still a lot left to be known about who he was. There is no consensus on where he was born or even when he died. He was certainly feared by Spanish ships during his time pirating the Gulf Coast, but just how much wealth he accumulated and what he may have done with his wealth is the question that plagues many lovers of history and is the basis for countless treasure legends about the pirate.”
According to Roper, the most popular location among those seeking to find treasure left behind by Lafitte is Hendricks Lake, located roughly four miles from Tatum and 200 miles from Lafitte’s pirate colony of Campeche.
“What piqued my interest in Hendricks Lake, specifically, was not the supposed treasure, but rather the stories of the people who had chosen to believe the legend in the past,” Roper shared. “I’m a storyteller by nature, and I felt that part of the story had not been fully told.”
In an effort to bring the full narrative to light, Roper set about raising funds to produce an independent film “with the promise of proposing a new location for a search based on my own research. The resulting project, ‘Sunken Silver,’ is a group effort between Roper – who wrote and directed the film – and his fellow Jacksonville natives Brackston McKnight, who produced; Ryan Travis, who produced and manned the film’s audio; and Russ Wiggins, who provided cinematography.
“For the past three years, we’ve been working on that,” Roper said. “The Hendricks Lake story is one that is completely tied to an old smuggling trail named Trammel’s Trace. That is how we got connected with an independent researcher named Gary Pinkerton, who wrote a wonderful book about the history of Trammel’s Trace. When we contacted him, he said he was also writing a book about the history of Hendricks Lake, so we really lucked out with all this additional research and welcomed Gary to the team.”
Roper was also drawn to Pinkerton because of his drive to ensure that the full story of Hendricks Lake is told.
“Both of us are very passionate about this story and just getting people to hear it,” Roper said. “It’s not very often that you hear about East Texas treasure legends, but we just wanted to let people know that yes, in the last 100 years, there have been some very large-scale searches for various treasures in East Texas.”
In the midst of shooting ‘Sunken Silver,’ Roper was also afforded with the opportunity to appear on ‘Beyond Oak Island,’ a reality show stemming from ‘The Curse of Oak Island,’ which features treasure hunting brothers Rick and Marty Lagina and documents the search for treasure on their privately-owned island in Nova Scotia.
“They found out we were making ‘Sunken Silver,’ and they said, ‘That’s a really cool story. Would you guys like to be featured in this television show, and also, would you like a really high-budget search to go along with it to help further what you’re doing?’”
Roper, who grew up in a household that avidly watched ‘The Curse of Oak Island,’ accepted the offer and went on to have what he described as “a wonderful experience.
“When I was contacted, I thought they were interested in just including a few scenes of this film that we had shot; it was my impression that they were just looking at showcasing many other treasure legends and hunts that have gone on in the past,” he said. “But I got a call from Los Angeles, and they basically said, ‘We need to get you on a plane in 2-3 days, because we want you to be the star of this episode.’”
Roper explained that he was selected to appear on the show due to the fact that he possessed “an attachment to this story from childhood, as did Rick Lagina.
“The Lagina brothers are, perhaps, the two most famous treasure hunters in the world, thanks mostly to this show, which is actually the number one nonfiction series on television,” Roper said. “They flew me to their war room, where they plan out everything for their own search on Oak Island, and the production company had this idea of a show where they give back to other treasure hunters. So, I was selected for the pilot episode.”
Roper said the Lagina brothers expressed a great deal of interest in the research he had conducted on Hendricks Lake and in the East Texas area as a whole.
“They wanted to offer some help in terms of budget and in terms of offering insight into what technologies could be used,” he said. “It was just a wonderful experience. I think it got around 1.8 million viewers, so that was a fun exposure to TV for my first appearance. It was just a wonderful experience all around. I get to tell stories in the future of hanging out with some of the most famous and most successful treasure hunters ever, and it was very inspiring for me.”
In addition to sitting around the Oak Island War Room table with Rick and Marty, filming ‘Beyond Oak Island’ also involved taking the production crew on an expedition to Hendricks Lake.
“That was almost kind of a bittersweet moment,” Roper said. “We were able to get the permissions we needed to search and film out there, and I was very grateful for that. We were the first people to search the lake in about 50 years. I felt that it was very cool being able to add our names to a long list of people that have tried to bring up new evidence at the lake. It was just a fun experience. It didn’t feel like reality TV very much at all; it was very organic. I loved the production company and everyone I worked with. It was just very much as it presented itself – a couple treasure hunters that wanted to give back through the resources that they had through the show and further someone else’s search.”
Roper and his ‘Sunken Silver’ crew are still in the process of completing the documentary, which he shared “actually will lead away from Hendricks Lake in terms of any sort of tangible treasure.
“It very much focuses on all the crazy characters that came to search the lake and all the folklore surrounding it,” he said.
The film will also give viewers a peek into the “dozens of smaller treasure legends associated with the Trammel’s Trace smuggling route,” Roper said.
“There was a man named Nicholas Trammel, who Gary likes to describe as a boogeyman,” he shared. “he would be considered, I guess, a frontiersman or a pioneer, but he was very much considered a criminal into secrecy. He was nicknamed Hot Horse for smuggling Cherokee horses up and down Trammel’s Trace. Therefore, he’s naturally associated with many other treasure legends of him placing things all up and down this trail.”
According to Roper, Trammel is also linked to Lafitte.
“A legend existed that involved a secret transfer of silver ingots from Jean Lafitte to the shady trailblazer, Nicholas Trammel, in Spanish-controlled Texas,” Roper explained. “Then, there was a supposed ambush leading to the quick disposal of the ingots somewhere in East Texas. Though there have been dozens of locations searched for this exact story, a strange confluence of events led to Hendricks Lake being chosen for searches, primarily in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Roper said that an interest in the lake and its purported treasure existed as early as the 1880s.
“It was the site of several – at times, very well-funded – treasure searches in the 1950s and ’60s,” he said. “And ever since about 1969 or 1970, it’s been completely quiet. It’s gone into private hands; there’s now mining operations going on around it, so that land is kind of giving back in a new way. But if I had not been told that story, I’m not sure that legend would have continued much more.”
Roper expressed his belief that “some sliver of truth” on which the legend of Hendricks Lake could have been based exists.
“It may not be, you know, the wild treasure that’s talked about in the story, but there could have very well been a real event that the treasure legend was based on,” he said.”
‘Sunken Silver’ investigates this belief further with the second location it features.
“We are not giving out the closest town publicly yet, but it is within about 40 miles of Hendricks Lake, where there is a very close parallel legend with actual artifacts that have been brought up,” Roper shared. “We are working on recovering artifacts right now and hoping to completely change the way that people think about East Texas history and East Texas legends and let the next generation know that there might be a lot of truth to the stories that their family keeps and the stories that they’ll hear their grandfather say. We have also looked into several locations along the coast, just in our research into Lafitte.”
When asked to discuss his best moments while treasure hunting, Roper spoke of an object he and his crew discovered while on a dive at Hendricks Lake which he feels may be a groundbreaking discovery.
“We are trying to get that piece identified right now,” he said. “What we think we may have found is a wagon. If we can bring up the correct pieces and prove that there is some truth to the story – at some point, there was some wagon that ended up in the lake – that’s amazing for us. And that’s what we think we’ve done.”
Roper went on to share another experience at the bottom of the lake.
“It’s a very dangerous dive,” he said. “At the bottom, it’s pitch black the majority of the time; at a couple points, you can see sunlight, but you cannot see your hand in front of your face. So, you are essentially feeling around with your knuckles; you don’t want to feel around with your fingers, just in case you accidentally bump into a snapping turtle. There are all the snakes. I haven’t seen an alligator yet at the lake, but there’s always the potential in any body of water in Texas. And alligator gar – we’ve run into those a few times.”
Roper recounted how he was moving along the bottom of the lake on his stomach and feeling around for any objects that may have been worth examining further.
“I was down with another diver, Alex Wilcher, who is also featured on ‘Beyond Oak Island,’” he said. “He was diving a little bit deeper in the lake, and I was kind of coming up toward the shallows. I was on my stomach – kind of like a starfish – feeling around, hoping to find something poking out. We do catch things on sonar that cast shadows, and there’s a maze of logs that you have to work through.”
With his search proving unsuccessful and an inability to see his air gauge, Roper decided to return to the surface to check the gauge.
“To surface, I had to get in a position where I was on my knees,” he explained. “I was on my stomach, and as I tried to push downward into the mud – it’s completely soft mud and then clay at the bottom of this lake – my weight actually carried my arms into the mud as I was trying to push myself upright onto my knees, and my hands pushed directly onto a solid object that was about two and a half feet under this mud.”
Roper initially believed the object to be a tree limb, but upon further inspection, he determined that it possessed hard edges.
“It’s a very strange feeling – being underwater, almost laughing with joy, and not knowing what you’re feeling,” he said. “I pulled it up and surfaced with it. It’s a piece of iron that we believe was part of a wagon. We’ve got everything filmed, and it’s all coming out in the documentary.”
While the discovery is definitely significant and one which Roper is pleased with, he does not feel that it is connected directly to the legend of Hendricks Lake.
“I believe it might be a little bit too new for the legend – maybe between 120-150 years old,” he said. “But just the old history in the lake that we were pulling up and the fact that I had accidentally grabbed that and pulled it up, not knowing what it was, and seeing it was nasty and completely rusted through and fused together, and you can see that it was a piece that held wood between it at some point – I would say that would have been my favorite moment.”
In terms of scariest moments, Roper spoke of encounters with the alligator gar who call the lake home.
“But you get used to those,” he said. “There was a fairly large one that bumped into my tank; I thought it was another diver’s leg. I don’t think they can see underwater, either.”
His most fearful moment, however, had nothing to do with the creatures of the deep, but with the COVID-19 pandemic that took the world by storm earlier this year and what it would mean for ‘Sunken Silver.’
“When the pandemic and all the lockdowns began, we were just fearful of not being able to complete this project,” Roper explained. “Luckily enough, we had finished all of our interviews with all of the old searchers of the lake. We were very fearful that some of the people that we had developed friendships with would potentially pass away. I know that’s a very dark thing to think about, but in a pandemic, you kind of lean toward worst-case scenarios. We already had one of our characters pass away, and so, it was just my biggest fear that someone would get very sick.”
Fortunately, ‘Sunken Silver’ has remained on track, and Roper and company have been able to continue doing what they are passionate about.
“You kind of lose the idea of object permanence when you are down on the bottom of this lake; you kind of completely forget that there’s a boat above you and other things in the lake,” he said of the experience of diving. “You’re completely focused on trying to locate something on the bottom and then trying to dig that up. It’s a very difficult thing to do underwater, but it’s fun. We love it.”
Roper also provided some words of advice for others interested in trying their own hand at treasure hunting.
“I’ve told people before that all you have to do to become a treasure hunter is hunt treasure,” he said. “A lot of people may be under the impression that you need to have some sort of crazy training or, like myself, have been exposed to a story from very young. I don’t believe that’s the case at all. I think you can find interest in a lot of things, and a lot of people have the ability themselves to solve that.”
Roper also recommended finding a local treasure hunting group and taking advantage of the knowledge that its members have to offer.
“You can learn from people who have been treasure hunting for 70 years or more,” he said.
In addition, examining stories and legends is a great place to start, Roper said.
“I would say that 90 percent of treasure hunting is looking into stories; looking into research before you ever attempt to go out and look for something,” he said. “That was kind of what I found the most enjoyment in – just tracking down old magazines, old maps, looking into family stories. You know, every family has that story about a great-grandfather burying some coins. Every town has a story about some outlaw that may have robbed the train and left gold in the town square or something like that. I think all those stories are worth looking into. Of course, they’re not entirely try. But there’s no issue in my mind at all with looking into stories that amuse you.”
In doing so, Roper pointed out, one might find themselves pleasantly surprised.
“You may get lucky – like we did – and catch a few breaks and completely change the way that people might look into that story or find that it may have been true, but at a new location,” he said. “Or, you can find the hoaxster that made it up. All that stuff is out there, waiting to be solved.”