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Digging For Treasure

Avocational Archeologist Manuel Hinojosa is on a Quest to Uncover the Past

Local architect Manuel Hinojosa enjoys unearthing the history of deep South Texas and northern Mexico through artifacts from the Mexican-American and Civil wars. Among his finds are musket balls, Mexican war buttons and discarded campfire utensils used by soldiers from both sides of the Rio Grande.

“I have always been intrigued by history and the quest to find answers,” said Hinojosa. "Collecting and then putting a value on these items has been a lifelong interest of mine.”

That interest turned into an avocation when he purchased a metal detector 20 years ago. He first used it at his Port Isabel residence and was immediately rewarded with Union and Confederate artifacts. Altogether, Hinojosa's inaugural search with the metal detector uncovered 200 items.

"I am always excited when I search for hidden treasures and can't wait to find more,” he said.

Hinojosa has traveled all over South Texas and Mexico, as far south as Guanajuato, using his metal detector to uncover artifacts and, in turn, uncover history. To Hinojosa, digging up the past is more than a hobby; it's an avocation.

“Avocational archeologists like to be recognized for our contributions to the new knowledge that has been unearthed and we don’t want to be labeled as looters or tomb raiders,” said Hinojosa. “It’s very important that people understand that we reveal artifacts to preserve and document history. Many times we come in before a site is destroyed by a group constructing a building on historical property.”

Hinojosa, a partner at ERO Architects in McAllen, said he uses his love of history and respect for the people and culture of the region in his designs. Over the years, Hinojosa has contributed his finds to area museums. He recently donated a collection of Mexican and Civil War memorabilia valued at over a $100,000 to the Port Isabel Historical Museum because of the area's role in both wars.

Hinojosa found remnants of the Mexican-American War near Boca Chica Beach at the former site of Camp Belknap. When war was declared on Mexico in May 1846, Congress authorized the raising of 50,000 volunteer troops to supplement the regular army. General Zachary Taylor was quickly inundated with volunteer soldiers arriving at Brazos Santiago and was forced to place them in temporary encampments. Camp Belknap was established in the summer of 1846 on a long narrow rise of land; the first high ground encountered after leaving the Gulf.

“When I first came upon it, it was an overgrown, two-mile-long hill, so I had to use a machete to move my way through it,” said Hinojosa. “There I found musket balls, Mexican war buttons and discarded campfire utensils used by the soldiers.”

Thought to be the largest encampment for volunteer soldiers – an estimated 7,000-8,000 men, including several regiments from eight states – by December 1846, Camp Bellknap was completely empty.

Hinojosa said he was most fascinated by artifacts from Mexican soldiers.

“One of my first big finds was a breast plate belonging to Mexican soldier who served in the 6th Infantry Regiment,” he said. “I dug up this piece of treasure at a U.S. campsite where he fought at Palo Alto near Brownsville. That discovery led me to want to find out more about the Mexican soldiers who fought against the U.S. Army and the soldiers who fought earlier during the Texas Independence era.”

With metal detector in tow, Hinojosa then traveled to Mexico almost every weekend in search of more treasure and came upon hundreds of artifacts including many buttons, weapons and coins. Hinojosa followed the trail of what appeared to be one soldier who had stopped to make camp on his way to battle. These sites hadn’t been seen in more than 150 years, he said.

“Things we found revealed the migration of the soldier from Mexico City to several battlefields,” said Hinojosa, who traveled with fellow enthusiasts Rod Bates and Steve Walker. “When we took the road north from the Rio Grande, it led us to San Antonio and east of Houston. This trail led to the Alamo, San Jacinto and to Goliad – all Texas Independence battlegrounds. On these trails, we were able to uncover one layer at a time of the different historical periods, based on the changes in the soldiers' uniforms and other items.”

According to Hinojosa, the Port Isabel and Brownsville areas were major military hubs during the Civil War. U.S. ships transporting soldiers docked just off the coast and, in spite of a gentleman's agreement that precluded fighting between Union and Confederate forces on the Rio Grande, Palmito Ranch near Brownsville was the site of the last action of the Civil War in May 1865. The Battle of Palmito Ranch, May 12-14, came more than a month after the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Thanks to Hinojosa’s discoveries, historians have more information than was previously available to them and further documentation of the valuable role of the Rio Grande Valley in past military strategies.

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