Monday, December 10, 2012

Lost Gold Mines of the American West

By Charles Michelson

Examining gold from the Pegleg Mine
On a hilltop in southern California, in sight of the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad, there is gold enough to satisfy the most avaricious man that ever loved the yellow god, ready to the hand of any one who will pick it up. It lies there in lumps, un­covered on the ground, much of it pure enough to be exchanged for coin at the mint. No fierce savages bar the way to it; no legal prohibitions make it inac­cessible; it is not on any Indian reservation or other preserve whence any man might be prevented from taking it.

To make it easier for a seeker after this gold, I am at liberty to state that it lies between latitude 32:30 and 34, not further east than 115:30, nor fur­ther west than 117. In order that the hunter may identify the place, I can further inform him that the scattered nuggets are on the rounding peak of the highest of three hills, none of which is particularly hard to climb. To show the accessibility of the peak and the presence of the gold on its summit, it is sufficient to say that the treasure place has been visited at different times dur­ing the last fifty years by at least four people, one of them a woman. Each brought away as many bits of gold as could be conveniently carried, and told of the great quantity that remains. I am informed that specimens of these nuggets are on exhibition in various mining museums in the West.

It is possible to be still more explicit as to the locality. From the gold strewn hilltop the smoke of the railroad trains can be seen as they pass near Salton station. To reach the spot, one can go west from Fort Yuma on the old Los Angeles trail, which approximately fol­lows the Mexican line, to a point near where it turns north. From this point the way lies a little to the eastward of Warner's Pass. If he is on the right road, the three peaks will loom before him; let him climb the highest one, and if he finds beneath his feet pebbles and cobbles of dark gold, then he may know he has found the lost Pegleg mine, the search for which has cost as many lives as most battles, and suffering and dis­appointment beyond reckoning.

The Pegleg is the greatest of all the mines which, having once disclosed their richness to man, have faded from his ken. It is in no sense a myth, like so many similar subjects of mining camp lore. There is an enormously rich deposit of gold somewhere in the fiery desolation of those southern mountains; gold from it has purchased articles of use or pleasure; some of its product has passed into the coin of the country. Its existence is proved by evidence that would be received in any court. Its history is a series of tragedies.

Most of the lost mines, real or chi­merical, have a history of the same sort, particularly in that strange, sinister country where the deserts are beneath the level of the sea, and the rotten crust of the earth lets the unwary trav­eler down into a lye strong enough to eat shoe leather; where the mountains pierce the sky, but have not enough soil on their slopes to give a hold to the hardiest of desert shrubs.


The Pegleg first came to the knowl­edge of men in the early fifties. A one legged frontier roustabout named Smith, coming from Yuma to Los An­geles, attempted a short cut across the desert and over the hills instead of fol­lowing the trail, which winds its cau­tious way from water hole to water hole along the frontier of Mexico and fi­nally turns north almost at a right angle to go up by Warner's Pass. Smith lost his bearings, and climbed a hill to search the horizon for a landmark. The hill was curiously sprinkled with dark, heavy lumps, which Smith did not rec­ognize—people were not looking for gold in that country then. He took several fragments of convenient size to put with his snake rattles, arrow heads, and similar frontier curios, and went on to Los Angeles. Some years later he showed his collection to a man who knew gold. It was much darker than gold is usually, probably because of the presence of some natural alloy; but the Los Angelanos attributed the color to the gold's having been exposed to the sun, and the phrase "sun burned gold" became engrafted on the language of the Western miners.

Pegleg Smith, never an intellectual giant, promptly went crazy on learning of his escape from great wealth. Vari­ous people beset him during his lucid intervals, and to them he told all he could. Every man who thought he might find the place started out secretly to look for it, and for several years the hills between Warner's and Yuma were full of them. The skeletons of these searchers continue to be found to this day.

The search for Pegleg's find had pretty well subsided when a discharged soldier from Fort Yuma came into San Bernardino with a lot of dark nuggets. He knew what they were, and was will­ing to tell where he found them. He described the three peaks, and how he came to climb the gold crowned one. He went on a wild spree to celebrate his good luck, and would not guide anybody to the place until he had spent all his gold. At last he started out with half a dozen companions, well equipped with mule teams. Men not permitted to join the expedition trailed it far enough to learn that it did not go by Warner's Pass and Carriso Springs, which would have been the route had the soldier's account been a truthful one; but the trail was lost to the east of Warner's. Five years later prospectors ran across the skele­tons of men and animals, in the foothills of the Cuyamaca Mountains, thirty miles southwest of Salton. According to one story, there were but two skele­tons; but a man who said he helped bury the bones told me that a few rods away from the death camp he found a third, with a bullet hole in the skull.

One man is as competent as another to reconstruct the tragedy of the Cuya­maca foothills from these indications. At all events, neither the discharged soldier nor any of his companions ever appears again in the history of the Pegleg bonanza.

The mine next caused excitement in the days of the railroad building. The line was being run north from Yuma, and the rails had been laid to what is now Salton station. Suddenly there ap­peared to the track layers a squaw from the Indian reservation near the head of the Rio San Luis Rey. She fell ex­hausted as she came near, her tongue bursting from her mouth with thirst. They gave her water and revived her. In a handkerchief she had wrapped probably two pounds of the dark gold, a sight of which is enough to set any community in southern California in a frenzy. She explained that she and her buck were traveling to the Cocopah reservation, and that their canteen had leaked. In searching for a water hole they lost their way, and struck for high ground to look about. After two days' wandering they found the gold on the top of one of three hills, from which they caught sight of the smoke of the construction train. Her man, she said, had given out and died before they had gained the track.

The Indians of California know what gold is now, and the squaw knew the value of her find. She would not point out the treasure peak or even indicate its direction, and the various members of the section gang said they had seen her approaching the camp by utterly divergent paths. She had probably cir­cled the camp, Indian fashion, before coming in. On this slight clue, most of the gang quit work and started for the hills, and the scattered graveyard of the Pegleg was further augmented.

The squaw went back among her own people and was never identified, though many of those who saw her on the desert tried to find her again.

The last trace of the Pegleg that Californians tell about is in connection with a Mexican cowboy on Warner's ranch, with, after being absent without permission for several days, suddenly reappeared with a quantity of the dark gold. For a time he was the most gor­geous thing in San Bernardino County. His saddle was a miracle of carved leather and silver; his sombrero weighed a pound and a half, so thickly was it in­crusted with silver braid; he rode the finest horse in the Southwest, played the limit in every monte and faro bank within range, and made love to all the girls that would listen to him. When­ever his wealth ran low he would dis­appear for two or three days and return with more of the gold. A hundred men tried to trail him, but he took care of his tracks and nobody ever learned where he went. When he was cut to pieces in a knife duel with a rival, he had on deposit at Warner's four thou­sand dollars in nuggets and coarse gold, but he left no word of its source.

As usual, the country generally started out to search. Only Tom Carver, former sheriff, had anything to go on. Once, while hunting horse thieves, he had met the auriferous Mexican in the hills. With a companion, Carver sought the Pegleg, taking the place where he met the cowboy for a starting point. One day he left his friend in a buckboard on the desert, while he went up a little canyon on foot. He never came back, nor was any trace of his body found, though it was faithfully searched for.

The story of the Pegleg is, with few variations, the story of nearly all the lost mines in this little corner of the United States, which holds more of them than all the rest of the country combined.

The Breyfogle, which is almost as famous as the Pegleg, is said, however, never to have been seen by the man whose name it bears. Breyfogle, so the story runs, came into one of the South­western towns with a bag of gold quartz that was thickly speckled with yellow—richer, in fact, than anything ever seen in that rich mining coun­try. He started back to where he said he got the rock, and was not seen again. A friend of his long after told that the old prospector admitted that he found the bag of rich quartz in the hands of a dead man away out on the desert.

Wild goose chase for White’s Cement Mine
This suggests a mystery of eastern Arizona — the Black Burro mine, which got its name from the finding of a strayed jackass bearing a new pack saddle on which were lashed two raw­hide bags full of ore of incredible richness, but bearing nothing to reveal ownership. That was a third of a cen­tury ago, but no gold mine of any con­sequence has ever been discovered within a hundred miles of the spot where the burro was caught.  It was near the border of New Mexico, on the Mansfield trail, which runs from the San Francisco River to the headwaters of Eagle Creek, through what is now a great stock raising country, though at the time it was a hotbed of Apaches and white outlaws.

The Apaches are responsible for many lost mines, for they have shot many a prospector in his camp or on some remote trail, and the secrets of the murdered men died with them. Old man Mansfield, after whom the big trail was named, himself fell a victim to the Indians. He had a mine of undoubted richness, which he worked for a time, and by which he built a dugout. His saddle failed him one day, and he rode into Clifton bareback to get new buckles or something of the sort. On his way back the Indians killed him, and ever since the prospectors through that section have been looking for a dugout in which is a broken saddle.

The Breyfogle and its twin lost mine, the Gunsight, appertain to the Death Valley region of California. There is a belief out there that the rich mines found at Randsburg, in Kern County, ten years ago, were really a relocation of one or the other, or perhaps both, of the famous lost claims.


Some of these lost mines have been rediscovered, beyond a doubt. About two years ago Isaac Newton Fowler, a Brooklyn man, while hunting in Chi­huahua, Mexico, with a former inspec­tor of Texas Rangers named Singleton, found an old tunnel, the mouth of which had been walled up at some re­mote time. There was the usual local tradition of a lost mine which had been worked by the Spaniards early in the century, and which had been abandoned by them in consequence of the hostility of the Apaches. There does appear to have been a mine known as La Tiopa, trace of which had been lost; and the discoverers of the walled up tunnel de­cided this was it. The mine is now a paying one, but is hardly the Arabian Nights dream of tunnel walls alight with gold and ore so rich that a bishop's punch bowl was hammered from a single lump. For so tradition describes La Tiopa in the old Spanish days.

A still richer find was that of a prospector on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande near Fort Hancock, Texas. An old dump had been there so long that nobody knew who had taken the rock out. This prospector made an assay on the stuff, and found it moderately rich. He interested capitalists, and they re­opened the old workings. The practi­cal miners, though satisfied with what they were making, determined from the pitch of the vein and other indications that the mine could be worked with greater profit by tunneling further down the mountainside. They cleared the face of the hill for a tunnel, and were astonished to find a solid wall of masonry, laid in cement, and so hard that they had to blow it down with dynamite. Once through the wall, an­other old tunnel was revealed; entrance to which was barred by a massive door of hard wood logs fastened by a huge lock of antique Spanish workmanship. They broke in and found that the tun­nel ran about four hundred feet to a breast of ore many times richer than the pay rock in which they had been working above.

The miners of a hundred years ago, whoever they were, had as good judg­ment as the late corners as to the best place to run a tunnel in that forma­tion: A revolution or Indian rising had probably caused the abandonment of the mine, and the workers, with the characteristic subtlety of their time, had hidden the bonanza, leaving ex­posed what under the crude processes of the last century was a comparatively worthless mine.

Probably the longest lost of the mines that have set men crazy was lo­cated by no less famous a character than Kit Carson, the hero of more dime novels than any man of the great army of pioneers. Forty five years ago Kit Carson, Jim Kinney, and a half breed Indian brought to Fort Randall, in what is now South Dakota, a lot of nuggets, which they said they found on Cabin Creek. They told a circumstan­tial story of the find, describing a very rich deposit. The place was in the heart of the Indian country, and Sioux and Cheyenne’s were both on the war path at the time, but this did not pre­ vent hundreds of men from going out to look for the great prospect. Nearly all of them fell victims to the marauding Indians.

Unfortunately, whatever other claims the famous scout and guide had to greatness, a reputation for truth telling was not among them. He never tried to find the mine himself, nor did Kin­ney, though both drank up or gambled away their store of nuggets within a week. Nevertheless, the "Lost Cabin mine" has been hunted for ever since, for Carson and Kinney often repeated their story, and even drew maps to guide anybody who cared to seek for the bonanza.


Most fascinating of all these stories of treasure is the history of White's Cement mine, which divides the inter­est of Rocky Mountain prospectors with the Lost Cabin. White was an old Cal­ifornia gold seeker who came to Colo­rado with the prestige of having found numerous paying claims. He prospect­ed alone, but indulged himself in the luxury of a half breed Indian camp at­tendant. One day in 1858, he came into Horse Head Gulch to buy supplies. He took a number of odd specimens to a German assayer in the camp and learned that they carried a thousand ounces—fifteen thousand dollars—to the ton. Of course a discovery of such magnitude could not be kept secret. White's specimens were apparently white clay, very hard, and speckled over with bits of gold. When the lumps were broken, it was apparent that the gold ran all through.

"Where did you get it?" was natu­rally the first question put to the old prospector.

"That's my business!” was his prompt reply.

"Is there much of it?” was the next query.


No other information than this would he give, though he was urged by men to whom he was under obligation for help extended when he was down to bed rock in his grub box.

That night there was a miners' meet­ing held in Horse Head Gulch. It was presided over by a brother of the late Senator Sharon of Nevada. The camp was in an uproar, for it had been well-nigh a dead camp, and the knowledge that such a bonanza was somewhere close at hand was like the smell of meat to wolves in winter. The miners' meet­ing resolved itself into a committee of the whole, and, headed by Sharon pro­ceeded to the shack where White was sleeping, cynically unconcerned with the turmoil in the camp. They awakened the old prospector and told him firmly that he must lead them to his find. He could, they told him, reserve for himself the pick of the claims, and they would work it for him if he wished; but they would not permit him to hold out the whole country.

White told them to go to a certain distant camp—not the one whose streets are paved with gold.

This answer was the signal for the arrival of a sub-committee, which came in bearing a rope taken from a windlass of a neighboring claim. After a short session with the sub-committee, White recon­sidered his determination, and consented to lead them to the rich cement deposit on the terms offered by the miners.

The camp went wild at the prospect, and the miners' enthusiasm did notwane even when White told them that the place of promise lay a hundred and fifty miles or more away to the southeast, which would locate it in northern New Mexico. The supply stores were seized, and outfits were fairly divided among the prospective millionaires, for it was determined that everybody should have a square show; and in two days the start was made. Horse Head was deserted.

The first day's march saw the army trailing over the roughest part of the Rocky Mountains. White and his Indian boy were, of course, in the lead. Those of the miners who had been lucky enough to obtain mounts kept close, to them, and the rest struggled along be­hind as fast as they could come. The bad feeling of the night of the com­mittee's visit was forgotten, and every­body was pleasant to the gray haired prospector who was leading them to fortune.

Lingard’s Lost Bonanza.  Nearly one half of the pebbles were gold
By the first night half the horses had gone lame, and the guard that kept up with White was thinned. By the end of the next day, the weaker miners had dropped so far back that there was a trail of stragglers extending for miles along the trail. When three days had passed, most of the crowd had parted with everything except what was abso­lutely indispensable, and many had gone beyond the line of safety in les­sening their loads.

That night found the head of the weary column on a remote ridge, while before them lay a desert country, bounded on the far horizon by a stu­pendous range of gray rock. Among these forbidding cliffs, White said, lay the cement Eldorado. The men lay down for the night in their clothes—for blankets had been thrown away—on the bleak ridge, being too much spent to move down into the canyon before them, where there might have been water.

Morning dawned, but White was no longer with them. While the sleep of exhaustion held the other miners, their guide and his In­dian had slipped away, nor did any one of the band he had tricked ever see him again. It is said that half of the men who started with him from Horse Head Gulch never got back; but even the story of suffering and disaster told by the survivors could not stop the rush that the news of White's find had started all through the Rocky Mountain country.

It was three years later that White was heard of again. Then he turned up in Salt Lake City, with more of the wonderful speci­mens that had been associated with his name wherever men talked of gold and gold mines. He stayed but a short time, and would not talk about his adventures, parting only with enough of his gold spangled clay to provide himself with a few necessities. He disappeared from Salt Lake at night, and was never heard of again. That was thirty years ago. The White Cement mine has been re­ported found a dozen times, but no speci­mens like those that White brought to Horse Head and to Salt Lake have ever been shown to make good the stories of treasure trove.

Such tales are thick as sand burrs in the West. Every section has its lost mine, and each believes implicitly in its own, while scoffing at all other stories.


One of the prettiest of these legends of lost fortunes is that of Lingard's Lake, which is an article of faith in all the old placer country between the head of the Feather River and the Yuba in northern California. In the fall of '53 there came to Nelsonpoint, a mining camp on Feather River at the mouth of Hopkins Creek, Francis Lingard, a prospector. At the store and roadside house of John B. Car­rington he had dinner, and pur­chased a bill of supplies, paying for them in raw gold, according to the cus­tom of the time. But in­stead of dust, Lingard ten­dered a nugget worth about a hundred dollars, and dis­played several more of the same kind. During the next two or three months Lingard several times came in for sup­plies and paid for them with big nuggets. Each visit to the camp showed him more worried over something, but he took none into his confidence until late in November, when he came in "broke."

Lingard told the storekeeper his story, and offered, in consideration of a grub stake, a share in his chance for great wealth. The prospector explained that a year before he had been prospect­ing in the high Sierras, and, getting short of provisions, he struck across country towards the camps on the Feather. There had been a great drought, and there was little water in the hills. One hot afternoon, when he had been without water for twenty four hours, he saw a large lake a long way off. In scrambling down to the water's edge he came to a little creek which cascaded over a rocky ledge and then ran over a pebbly channel into the lake. He clambered to the foot of the fall to slake his thirst; but as he stooped, he started back in surprise, for the pebbly runway was dotted with nuggets. Fully half of the pebbles, he said, were pure gold.

He slept beside his riches that night. Next morning he gathered from the shining trail that led from the foot of the fall into the lake, a distance of twenty feet, all the nuggets he could carry, and started for Nelsonpoint, the nearest camp he knew. After traveling a few miles through a rough country, he found he had overestimated his strength, and made a cache of most of his lumps of gold at the foot of a big sugar pine tree that was on a line be­tween a prominent cliff and a point of the golden lake. Then he went on to Nelsonpoint and made his purchases.

Last finder of the Pegleg Mine
While he was in the camp, the drought broke. The sky opened, and it rained as it rains only in the California Moun­tains at the beginning of the wet sea­son. When Lingard went forth again, he failed to find the waterfall that dropped into a bed of gold. He found a lake which he thought was the right one, and made his way clear around it; but nowhere along the shore did a creek run into it over a channel floored with nuggets.

He tried to get the line from the hill, but the hill eluded him; the bold pro­jection he had made his landmark could only be noted from a particular place, so his store at the roots of the sugar pine was lost, like its parent treasure place. He hunted for a year, spending his nuggets one after another for sup­plies, until all were gone. Then he spoke.

Carrington fitted out the prospector, and he returned to the search. As be­fore, he kept it up until the winter drove him from the mountains. Then the storekeeper laid the matter before a number of his friends, and they re­solved on a systematic search for Lin­gard's Lake. Lingard and Carrington, with Jim Beckwith, the discoverer of Beckwith's Pass through the Sierras; Joe Cooper, the man who killed a hun­dred Indians to avenge the murder of his brother by a California redskin; Nat Brown, and Frank Wheeler, all well trained prospectors and frontiers­men, districted the country between the rivers and combed it over, but found no trace of the gold. They account for this by the rise of the lakes after the long dry spell. Lingard's gold, they say, was revealed only when the lake was ex­tremely low.

This is the reason why the men of Plumas County haunt the shores of the mountain lakes in times of drought, and grub about the roots of every big sugar pine they pass. Lingard kept up the search for twenty years, whenever he had money enough to keep him in provisions for a time. They never do give up a search like this.


I remember some years ago, while hunting on the Iroquois River in south­western Oregon, our camp was haunted by a little old man who never came in, and who, when approached, would threaten with his rifle and finally slink off into the tall timber. He watched that camp during all our stay in that region, and followed one man after an­other like a shadow, as they left the brush shanty to look for game. Some­thing like half a century ago, this little, frightened ghost of the Chetco Hills was a young German who came into that country gold hunting. He found a great prospect, and began to develop it, when the Indians surprised him at work. His one companion was killed, but the young man escaped and made his way to Rogue River, still hugging some bits of auriferous quartz. It was years before he came back with money enough to open the mine, the knowl­edge of which had made him rich dur­ing all the weary time of hard work and self-denial when he was laying by the grub stake that was to keep him from the necessity of sharing his wealth with a partner.

Of course he never found the mine again. At last, his money being ex­hausted, he told of his find, and showed the specimens that he had kept by him all the years. Long ago the miners of that country tired of looking for the lost mine, but the German never gave up, and still moves feebly about those hills in a state of terror lest anybody should find the gold before he does; and the Crazy Dutchman mine is the Pegleg of Oregon.

The list of these phantom claims is interminable; their stories bear a cer­tain family resemblance, but each one has an individuality some feature that makes it interesting apart from the rest. There is the the Lee mine, a rival of the Pegleg in its own country. But the Lee was a real mine, not merely a deposit of nuggets seen once and then lost. The Lee's location is on-file among the archives of San Bernardino County, its whereabouts described gen­erally, as is the custom in the absence of a survey.

Thirty years ago a miner named Lee located the claim. He hired a man to help him, built a windlass, and sunk a shaft. He also put up an arrastre to reduce his quartz, and at intervals came to San Bernardino to sell the dust and to purchase tools, powder, and provi­sions. It must have been a pretty good mine, and at various times capitalists, notably Governor Waterman, consid­ered buying it. Lee was not, however, anxious to sell. The locality was re­mote and difficult of access, and the negotiations never got so far as to make a visit to the mine necessary.

Lee came to town as usual one day to get provisions, and mentioned that he had to hurry back, as his helper was almost entirely out of food. The next morning he was found dead on the out­skirts of town, with a bullet hole through his heart. The body had not been robbed, and there was nothing to indicate who assassinated him or why it was done. Mindful of the plight of the helper left at the mine without pro­visions, the public administrator and some others started out immediately. They failed to find shaft, arrastre, windlass, or cabin, and nothing was ever heard of the miner Lee had left there. He could scarcely have come away without supplies, for that was not a country where men could find food along the road—and that is all that has ever been learned about the Lee mine.

There is another story that has great vogue—the tale of the Indian who knows of gold deposits of untold rich­ness, and who, moved by gratitude to­wards the man who saves his life or otherwise picturesquely serves him, dis­closes it to his benefactor. The Klon­dike is a great field for this old standby of the dime novelists. This story dates back to the days of Pizarro in Peru. In that time, and among the Incas, there may have been truth in it, but the Western Indian knows no more about gold as it occurs in nature than about the ultimate zero or the fourth dimension. If he had knowledge of a Golconda, the first man who came along could buy the information for a bottle of whisky or an old plug hat. Gold was not currency among Sioux or Pimas, Cocopahs or Umatillas, before the white man came, and they shunned the barren, gameless regions where most of this fairy gold abounds.

From Munsey’s Magazine – 1901.


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