In the distance is Danby Lake (Dry), North of
Desert Center, CA. It appears bright white because of the solid evaporites left
elcome to the Desert!
In the American Southwest lies a vast region of moderate-to-extreme
desolation encompassed by the Sonoran Desert, the Mojave Desert,
and the Basin and Range Province. Die-hard folks (mostly from the
East coast and the South, but some from abroad) over the past
five centuries have explored, exploited, prospered and profited from
the land of the West. However, some have been lured by the sheer
thought of gold prospecting towards an easy life. In most cases, though,
amateur treasure hunters failed to make ends meet. Those who did find
anything of value were not guaranteed the pleasure of living off
their finds. A good number of prospectors -- after encountering good
luck in making a strike, ventured out again to find their horde and
extract greater amounts with more provisions -- and were never seen or
heard from again, their secret of desert treasure lost forever.
not. All too many lost gold mine stories stem from a similar
kind of event: a staggering, dusty, sunburned, near-dead prospector arriving in an outpost
town with a sackful of ore, confiding his information on his deathbed to an equally
gold-struck person. Not surprisingly, the confidant
almost always never
finds the site. Thus, a lost gold mine legend is born.
my favorite yarns passed down over the ages. Most have likely been altered
by storytellers to increase their mysticism and campfire excitement. But a
good deal of these have a solid, unrefutable grounding. Enjoy!
The Lost Pearl Ship
ocal Indians, from the coast to the Rockies, rarely considered gold precious
enough to covet. After all, they reasoned, there is so much of it in the hills,
that there was more than enough for anyone, even if it was worth something.
When the Spaniards arrived to the deserts of the west in the 16th century,
they’re passion for the stuff was the amazed wonderment of Native Americans.
Unfortunately, the invaders tortured the Indians and stole from them whatever
gold they had. Tribes tried to tell these bearded people that it was easier
to go into the mountains and playas and pick up the gold rather than extract
it from the Indians.
ut the Spaniards were not always hostile. Many Spanish captains engaged in trade
with Indians along the Baja California shores. In 1615, a captain by the name of
Juan DeIturbe had just enjoyed a lucrative bartering mission along the western
coast (of what is now Mexico). For explorers of the day, finding a secret passageway
to and from the Atlantic from the Pacific (other than sailing around the world,
or south around Tierra del Fuego), represented an enticing challenge. The ship sailed
north into the Gulf of California, through a narrow, mountainous strait, then
into a vast inland sea. His crew sailed around the sea, but found no waterway to
eanwhile, a flash flood had apparently choked their entrance, and for weeks
DeIturbe desperately tried to find the entrance in which they came, but never
relocated it. The ship was abandoned (along with its loot) somewhere on the
shores of this body of water. The party hiked south into Mexico proper until
they reached a Spanish settlement, after agreeing to eventually return to the site
to recover their goods. A return expidition waws never planned, however, as DeIturbe
apparently was unable to raise funds for another caravel.
he body of water in question, is likely the recurring natural lake that forms
in the Salton Sink. It is thought that DeIturbe had sailed up the delta of
the Colorado River, and sailed into a spillway that lies below sea level, known
as "Lake Cahuilla", which was once much larger than the present-day Salton Sea.
The shoreline extent of Lake Cahuilla is not known, making the exact location
of the shipwreck rather nebulous.
The only addendum
to this lost treasure story
comes from a 1775 story of a DeAnza expedition herder on his way to the mission
at San Diego. After trekking out of Yuma for several days, he encountered the
ruins, and pocketed as many pearls as he could carry. Over the years, he and his
Indian guides made many returns to the desert to locate the decaying caravel
(and its remaining treasure), but with no success.
here the ship lies today is thought to be a vast area extending north-south from
the Santa Rosa Mountains to the Cocopah Mountains, and east-west from the
Anza-Borrego highlands to the Chocolate Mountains. The geographic expanse of the
lost ship’s location is the largest extent of all but one lost treasure story in
Southern California -- the Legend of Pegleg’s Gold.
Pegleg's Lost Gold
A little chunk o' land in the Chuckwalla Mountains east
of the Salton Sea.
As this story
is also the most famous of its kind in this region, it has also been infected more
by misinformation than fact. So many sidebars and coincidences have been added on
by ranchers, travelers, drinkers and prospectors that it is very difficult to
ascertain just what happened in 1828.
The man in question
is Thomas L. Smith, a one-legged trapper and horsetrader originally from Kentucky, who ran away from home at 16 to work on the steamboats of the lower Mississippi River, but soon found his fate to the frontiers on the western side of that waterway. He traversed much of the West, but primarily worked the desert between present-day New Mexico and the California coast.
One thing is for sure: somewhere off the trail, he discovered heavy black stones that "lie
atop one of three dark hills". Pocketing a few pieces of what he reckoned were
interesting native copper samples, he later had them investigated by an assayer/friend
in Los Angeles.
The samples were
pure gold nuggets, covered with "desert varnish."
it is at this early stage
of the tale that then branches off into many different endings. It is generally accepted
that he immediately struck out for the desert to reclaim more.
researcher Henry Wilson believes that Smith simply disappears forever. Another
that he was a prolific drinker. This branch has him frequently staking out for
the desert to retrieve more gold when his propensity for the good life in coastal
towns finds him penniless. Yet another spin has him never returning to the strike;
Smith then lives out the rest of his existence in taverns up
and down the coast, spinning his colorful story of lost gold treasure for patrons
willing to pay him in whiskey (Bailey, 1947).
Adding confusion to
the matter, it later surfaces that another "Pegleg" Smith -- this one a Thomas O. --
prospected his own mine in the Chocolate Mountains.
Many possible routes
can be imagined through the desert. Narrowing down where Thomas Smith indeed made a
strike is difficult due to the population of dark buttes that, legend has it, most
believe was along a major trail. But which one? The two prominent paths of the day
were the Old San Bernardino Road and the Butterfield Stage Road (The Bradshaw Stage
Trail wasn't established until 1862). The spacial extent
bounded by these routes is staggering, and the description of three black hills is
satisfied multiple times along each trail; so much so that one begins to wonder
what geographic definition exactly qualifies the necessary condition. John D. Mitchell,
on a meteorite-hunting expedition in the 1940s, pocketed a few heavy black stones -- but
didn't have them looked at for another 30 years. They too were varnish-covered gold,
and he claims to have found them somewhere in the Orocopia or Chocolate Mountains.
Until definite evidence
shows otherwise, the Lost Pegleg Mine is just that -- lost.
Lost Gold Ore Along the Tabaseca
The Bradshaw Route
today delineates the northern border of the Chocolate Mountain Gunnery Range
administered by the U.S. Military, just south of the Orocopia Mountains. It traverses
perhaps the most desolate area of the desert, and many travelers avoided it completely.
Others found the trail by
accident -- and found gold. Such is the story researched by Harold O. Weight in the July
1955 edition of Desert Magazine, of a man known only as "Slim". A miner in the Glamis
area, "Generous" Tom Clark, gave Slim forty dollars in gold, and encouraged him to venture
into the Chocolates to find his fortune. From the account, as told by Eugene Conrotto in
his book, "Lost Desert Bonanzas", Slim was
probably not very skilled with pack animals, and the burros he hired out of Glamis were
prone to wandering off every moment he rested.
After crossing the Chocolates
at Heyden’s Well, Slim proceeded due north until he came across the Bradshaw Trail. Proceeding
west, Slim twice had to retrace his steps eastward to recover the burros. Exhausted, the
prospector decided to bolt west to one of the towns at the foothills of the Orocopias.
Somewhere off the trail, between Chuckwalla Spring and Dos Palmas, Slim rested and noticed
that the interesting dirt around him was bright red, and (perhaps more out of curiosity than
anything), filled a sack of it and loaded it onto a burro.
Upon assay, the bag yielded
$120 of gold dust. But the arduous roundups apparently took its toll on old Slim, and he
was unable to recover. Upon hearing of his friend’s condition, Clark rushed to Dos Palmas,
but Slim died before his arrival. Waiting for him, however, was an envelope in which a third
of Slim’s find -- and a crude map -- were enclosed.
Tom Clark’s own mining operation
was lucrative enough that he probably never used the map. However, in 1942, an 84-year old
Clark disappeared in the wilderness somewhere between Blythe and Los Angeles, taking the secret
-- and the map -- to his death.
It is believed that Slim found the
ore near the Tabaseca Tanks.
Black Butte Stash
About 34.5 miles east along the Bradshaw Route from its intersection with
State Route 111, a trailhead begins that winds northward into the Chuckwalla
Mountains. About 3.5 miles in lies Gulliday Well. Passing it and continuing
on the trail is particularly difficult, due to the number of floods
that periodically cascade out of the hills.
The route is now impassable
and hardly discernable. According to a story
told by Delmer G. Ross in his book,
"Gold Road to La Paz -- An Interpretive Guide to the Bradshaw Trail",
an unknown prospector hid two sacks of gold nuggets along one of the
old trails that traverses the Chuckwallas.
The Lost Frenchman's Bull Ring Mine
nother tale along the Bradshaw Stage is just as colorful. As many lost gold
mine stories begin, fate plays the first hand. An unnamed Frenchman and two
others were shipwrecked along the Colorado River in 1862. Announcing to his
companions that he was intrigued by the stark mountains to the west, he decided
to leave the two and investigate.
anywhere from ten to forty miles inland, he is said to have found gold in a
foothill canyon. He took just a sack of nuggets, enough to transport him and
his ore back to his home country, then covering the site. Before leaving, he confided
the location of
his mine to another countryman, who, after successfully locating it and taking
his share, invited his friend to help himself. This third man, Tom Dumans, was unable
to find the shaft covering, which was fashioned from boat timbers, with one log
fastened with a thick, brass ring.
thickens when, almost forty years later, a family traversing the desert from San
Bernardino to Ehrenberg made camp along the Bradshaw Route. After establishing
an evening-place, the two children, who played nearby before supper, declared to
the father that they had found "a well with a ring in it". The man ignored this
as fancy, never having heard of the lost mine story.
To his alarm
three years later at a dinner party, two men had informed him of the tale after the
father had demonstrated his children’s imagination, case in point some fanciful brass
-ring well while camping along a desert road.
The father and child
were unable to retrace their steps to the Lost French Bull-Ring Mine. It is perhaps
located in the Black Hills, Palo Verde or Mule Mountains.
Papuan's Lost Placer
This colorful story
takes place just north of the Bradshaw Trail, before it hits Arizona.
Bill McCoy was
both a wise prospector and a shrewd businessman.
At Ehrenberg, across the Colorado River from modern-day Blythe, he owned
a very successful store; travelers and desert residents
insisted on trading there. His outfit was so successful that he
had allowed himself much time to prospect the neighboring mountain
ranges for gold. The McCoy Mountains were named after him; it is
estimated that his claim yielded $75,000-worth of gold.
One of his customers,
Papuan, a Papago Indian man who moved into the area after
troubles with the Apache, seemed to never lack in the yellow metal.
It is said that his wife (a banished Mojave) had rewarded Papuan
for marrying her by giving up her secret -- a large gold strike in
the McCoys. McCoy himself tried everything to trick the Indians
into yielding the location, but the two never revealed it.
Papuan had adopted
a Mojave boy named Chinkinnow. Eventually, he was allowed
to mine the gold find with his parents. After Papuan's death years later, the retired widow
was befriended and wooed by a German prospector named Hartmann. His
intention was as devious as McCoy's, but the method he applied was
much more subtle. After much work, Hartmann failed to impress the old woman. But he did
discover that Chinkinnow was still actively mining the unknown site. The
German then tried to get into the good graces of Papuan's son, but to no avail.
Chinkinnow perhaps has the
last laugh -- every time he was followed
towards the McCoy Mountains, he disappeared, losing his trackers. Is it
possible that he doubled back and made toward the Big Maria Mountains to his father's mine?
Other accounts place Papuan's find in the Castle Dome Mountains
across the river in Arizona.