Contemporary history states that the first non-native explorer to travel through Oklahoma was the Spanish Conquistador Coronado, who crossed through the panhandle in 1541 on his quest for Cibola, the seven mythical cities of gold. That’s not to say that Oklahoma was undiscovered and unclaimed land before 1541 — on the contrary, the land was home to several thriving native cultures, such as the Caddo and Wichita tribes. But before this date, most historians believe that no one outside the North American continent had set foot in the state since perhaps the time of the Bering land bridge migration, 20,000 years ago. However, an artifact discovered in the late 1940s has caused some to question our current understanding of history. The item is a carved wooden statue of Shou Xing, the Taoist god of longevity, and its discovery near the small town of Luther has been taken by some as proof that an ancient Chinese expedition passed through Oklahoma years, centuries, or even millennia before Columbus. Others believe that the statue is part of a stash of buried loot left by an outlaw gang on the run from the law. While these ideas are intriguing, is there any evidence linking the statue to these theories? Does either explanation merit the rewriting of Oklahoma history, or are they little more than just wishful thinking? Let’s examine the evidence together and see if either provides a logical explanation to this mystery.
The circumstances of the statue’s discovery begin where most buried treasure stories do – with digging. The story goes that in the late 1940s, a husband and wife were digging a water well by hand on their property just north of Luther, Oklahoma. The spot they had chosen for the well was a good one: it was near a natural spring that travelers on the old Ozark Trail had used since before anyone could remember and the land, located on the northern flood plain of the Deep Fork River, was mostly sandy and easy to dig. The couple, Mr. and Mrs. Eckert, had dug the well to a depth of about fifteen feet when they encountered a layer of hard red clay that was difficult to dig through. To get through the clay, the Eckerts set off a stick of dynamite in the hole, sending chunks of clay flying everywhere. One of the expelled chucks of clay captured Mrs. Eckert’s interest. Picking it up, she could tell by the weight that the soil was covering something heavy. She carried the clay covered object back to the house to clean it off. To her surprise, the clay revealed a carved wooden statue of a kindly-looking little man holding a lamb and a staff which was unlike anything she had seen before.
For a few years after finding it, the Eckerts kept the statue’s discovery mostly to themselves, showing it to friends and acquaintances who could not identify it. Then, curiosity likely getting the better of them, they decided to report it to a local newspaper. The statue quickly became a subject of local debate and discussion but remained a mysterious oddity with unclear origins until 1951, when Sister Mary Placida, head of the art department at Benedictine Heights College in Guthrie, showed the statue to two Chinese students at the school. They immediately recognized the statue as an image of Shou Xing, the Taoist god of Longevity.
Once the statue was identified, it became the subject of more intensive investigation. Historians, archeologists, and anthropologists from both the state’s universities puzzled over the artifact, and the statue eventually came to the attention of Dr. Cyclone Covey of Wake Forest University, a leading expect on ancient Chinese explorations. Dr. Covey examined the statue in 1973, providing a detailed scientific description of the artifact. He described the statue as eight inches tall and carved from an Asian species of wood that had been extinct for centuries. The wood had been lacquered at one time, and showed signs of charring by fire and was cracked from age and exposure to the elements. But despite its condition, the statue was still a finely carved work of art, done in the Chinese Ming style. He noted that this representation of Shou Xing was unusual in that the god was holding a lamb and staff when most other statues show him holding a peach and a scroll. A photo of the statue can be viewed here in the online archives of the magazine Oklahoma Today, who published an article about it in their summer ’73 issue. The photograph is on page 16, and it is one of the only two photos of the statue that I know to exist.
The discovery of an ancient Chinese statue buried under 15 feet of Oklahoma soil is a seemingly unbelievable occurrence and the theories put forth to explain it has been correspondingly unbelievable. Of these, I find the view that he statue is proof that ancient Chinese explorers passed through Oklahoma hundred or thousands of years ago the most difficult to believe. Proponents of this theory point to supporting documents in the Chinese historical record to provide a basis for their belief, and foremost of these accounts are the voyage logs of Admiral Zheng, the documented testimony of the monk Hui Shen, and the ancient Chinese work of literature, the Shan Hai Jing. These three sources record journeys by Chinese explorers to North America, all of which occurred before Europeans arrived in the Americas. The records of Admiral Zheng document his visits to Cuba and Rhode Island in 1421, seventy years before Columbus. Hui Shen’s report to the emperor in 449 A.D. stated that he spent 40 years in a land believed by some modern scholars to be ancient Mexico and accurately described things only found in Mesoamerica, such as corn and pit houses. Finally, the ancient Chinese classic Shan Hai Jing or “Mountain Sea Classic” is a collection of documents describing a Chinese expedition that traveled from the Alaskan Peninsula overland to Mexico around 1440 B.C. and appears to contain an accurate description of the Grand Canyon.
I can see why people are drawn to this theory. The idea that ancient Chinese explorers may have visited Oklahoma hundreds or thousands of years before Columbus would be history changing. If this theory were true, history books would have to be rewritten, and China would appear to play a much greater role in the spread and expansion of foreign civilizations across North America. Unfortunately, the facts do not support this theory. To start with, given that the Luther Shou Xing statue is in the Ming style (which began appearing in the 14th century, A.D.), it is not old enough to have been an artifact from the Hui Shen’s journey or that of the Shan Hai Jing. That leaves only the voyages of Admiral Zheng, which did occur during the Ming Dynasty, but his expeditions purportedly stayed on the coast and did not travel far enough inland to reach Oklahoma. Also, the idea that the ancient Chinese explorers reached America before Columbus has not found wide acceptance in academic circles, primarily based on a lack of evidence in the archeological record. Besides the Luther statue (and a 66-pound carved statue found near Granby, Colorado that disappeared a few years after discovery) there are few other artifacts to be found other than those mentioned in vague and unsubstantiated rumors.
Dr. Covey also stated that the statue’s presence in the state doesn’t prove that Chinese explorers passed through ancient Oklahoma. In addition to the date-limiting characteristics of its style, the professor stated that we cannot assume that the statue was brought to Oklahoma hundreds or thousands of years ago simply because of how deep it was buried, given that it was found in the flood plain of a river that could have easily deposited fifteen feet of silt and clay over an object in as little as a hundred years. Because no date can be established for when the statue was dropped or buried, the professor hypothesized several different scenarios for the statue having been found in Oklahoma, beginning with the statue being carried from China to Mexico by Spain’s Manila Galleons which made regular trips between the two places from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The statue could then have been carried by nomadic or migrating tribes, traveling traders, lonely pilgrims, or even Coronado himself. Any number of realistic scenarios can be conjured by the imagination to explain the statute’s presence if no date for its arrival can be established. And because of these inconsistencies, I believe it is highly unlikely the statue of Shou Xing was left by pre-Columbian Chinese explorers in Oklahoma.
Another theory, proposed by the local Oklahoma author and editor Bill Burchardt, is linked to a local Luther legend. The legend has it that in the late 1880s, a group of six outlaws robbed the Wells Fargo bank in San Francisco, making off with $80,000 dollars worth of gold. The thieves made good time before a posse was sent out to track them, traveling all the way to Oklahoma territory along the old Ozark Trail. While camping at a spring along the trail, just north of modern day Luther, the outlaws became aware that the posse was catching up with them. With their pursuers getting closer, the outlaws decided to bury their loot not far from the spring. The posse caught up with the outlaws less than a day later and in the ensuing firefight, five of the six were killed. The loot was never found by the lawmen, and the surviving outlaw was taken back to California as a prisoner. Given that San Francisco has a sizable Chinese community and several known collections of Chinese art objects, Burchardt put forth that the little statue could have been part of the loot from the bank robbery and that perhaps it had been buried where the Eckerts were digging their well. There is no record or evidence of the treasure ever having been recovered, and the story is now part of the local mythos.
The outlaws and buried loot theory is interesting and has relevance as a romantic local legend, but has no verifiable evidence to support it. No gold coins or bars, wooden pieces of a strong box, or decayed bank bags have ever came to light. The legend has grown over the years since the discovery of the statue, telling of a mysterious man who was observed digging in the vicinity of the spring in the mid-1940s who later disappeared without a trace, and of two local men who claimed to have dug down and discovered a buried wooden strong box in the location where the Shou Xing statue was found, but who lost the treasure when the strong box sank out of sight into the quicksand before it could be pulled out. Burchardt adds further to the story by relating how, in later years, someone brought in a steam shovel to dig at the alleged treasure spot. The digging occurred mostly at night, with armed men allegedly guarding the excavation, but no record of any discovered gold exists. While the legend is an interesting story with the thrill of buried treasure and outlaws on the run, I think it is nothing more than that – a story. I seriously doubt that any authentic connection exists between it and the discovery of the statue.
Now that I’ve debunked the two primary theories for how the Shou Xing statue came to be buried in Luther, I suppose I should offer up my own theory for debunking by others. My theory is rather mundane compared to those above ‘” it doesn’t have the potential to change history and likely doesn’t involve desperadoes or stolen gold. It is, however, based on the available evidence and history of the land where the statue was found. My theory is this: I believe that the railroad brought Shou Xing to Luther. Before the laughing begins, let me explain why I believe this to be so.
During the course of researching Luther’s Shou Xing statue, I decided to visit the location where the statue was found, just north of Luther. Working off of directions and a dig site photo in Burchardt’s article and property records at the county court house, I found the spot where the statue was blasted from the earth by the Eckerts in the 1940s. An rusty old crane, with patchy yellow paint and sitting on flat tires, is still resting near the dig site just as it was in the photo taken by Burchardt in 1973. I observed that much of the property around the crane was bare earth, leading me to wonder if the current owners have been digging for the buried outlaw loot. While pondering these details, I noticed that a raised berm of earth, almost like a road bed or buried pipeline, ran through the site at an angle, almost parallel with the nearby river. Wondering what exactly the raised berm was, I began studying aerial photos of the site, which showed it stretching for miles in both directions, passing almost directly beside the crane. After noticing that in the photos the berm appeared as a rough line connecting several nearby towns, I realized that what I was seeing was an old railroad bed. The iron rails and wood ties were long gone, probably removed for salvage, but the raised bed of crushed rock was still there beneath the grass. A map of Oklahoma railroads from the 1920s placed a name on the old railroad line, calling it the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas ( M, K & T, or “Katy”) line, which ran between Oklahoma City and Kansas.
While the existence of the railroad itself is probably not the direct means for the statue to have ended up in Luther, a worker building the track may have been. My theory is that the statue of Shou Xing probably belonged to a Chinese railroad worker helping to build the track, who somehow lost the statue. I base my theory on the fact that by the late 1880s, hundred of thousands of Chinese immigrants had come to the United States and were working hard to make a life for themselves here, many of them working on railroad construction crews, such as those who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad. Several immigrants of Chinese decent were living in Guthrie since before statehood, having arrived in Oklahoma Territory working on the railroads. Additionally, there was a thriving community of Chinese immigrants living in Oklahoma City from the city’s founding until the late 1930s, and it is believed that they also first arrived in the area working for the railroads. Given that this branch of the Katy railroad was built in 1903, four years before statehood, I’m willing to bet that the track crew building consisted of a least a few Chinese immigrants. Odds are, the little statue of Shou Xing belonged to one of these hard working immigrant workers. Of course, I have no conclusive proof that the statue was dropped, stolen, or otherwise left by a Chinese railroad worker building the Katy line, but my theory has the benefit of linking the statue’s location and Chinese immigrants to the discovery site. Like I said earlier, my idea isn’t history changing, but maybe it will inspire someone else to dig digger into this mystery to bring our understanding closer to the truth.
History is an amalgam and a patchwork. It is the story of the past put together from many sources: oral traditions handed down from our ancestors, the stories and legends of a culture, and artifacts and archeological evidence. As we learn more about the past and find new evidence, we add to this story, placing the new discoveries in the pattern we have established. This works well when new discoveries are complimentary to the historical record we’ve already established; when the pieces fit well, it strengthens the narrative. But what happens when a discovery does not fit into our carefully constructed story of the past? What must be determined for discoveries such as this is whether we should change our understanding of history to include this new find, or dismiss the object as an outlier or anomaly, something not relevant to the time line of the past.
The statue of Shou Xing is a historically relevant find, but most likely it is not proof that ancient Chinese explorers passed through Oklahoma. Also, I find it strongly doubtful that outlaws on the run buried the statue along with stolen gold. But I do think it likely that the statue is an artifact that tells us something about history. I believe it likely that the statue tells us something about the hard working immigrants who built much of the railroad that crossed the countryside and linked cities and towns together. But who knows? Perhaps in the future more evidence will be found to shed more light on this fascinating discovery.
Augustus J. Veenendaal, Jr. “Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railway”, Oklahoma Encyclopedia of History and Culture.
“Chinese Statue a Mystery”, The Oklahoman, Sept. 30, 1971, p. 41.
Cyclone Covey, Ph.D. & Bill Burchardt, “Shu Shing Lao”,Oklahoma Today, summer 1973, p. 15.
Dianna Everett, “Asians”, Oklahoma Encyclopedia of History and Culture.
Doug Loudenback, “Underground Chinatown”
Henrietta Mertz, 1973. Pale Ink. Swallow Press, Chicago.
Larry Johnson, “The Underground World of Willie Hong”,Oklahoma City Metropolitan Library System Archive.
Nellie Murphy, “The History of Fallis Oklahoma”, Oklahoma Cemeteries Website.
Ruth Moon, “Ancient Statue Found in State Poses Mystery”, The Oklahoman, Sept. 16, 1951, p. 6.