Francis Marion "Shady" Myrick
Death Valley Gemstone Prospector
by Peter Wild
The desert held him for her own as she did all the old timers. He was under the ‘terrible fascination,’ wrote Edna Brush Perkins about her encounter with Francis Marion "Shady" Myrick, the famous Death Valley gemstone prospector. Perkins' The White Heart of Mojave (1922) is a noted desert classic about two wealthy women traveling across the Mojave Desert to Death Valley. Admitting that in the rush of things she did not even learn his Christian name, Mrs. Perkins nevertheless acknowledges Shady Myrick with four pages in her book. Obviously, she was deeply impressed by the man. "Everyone knew Shady," she told her readers. Shady was not, however, the stereotypical miner we often encounter in Western tales, the cranky, miserly misanthrope who had turned his back on civilization, but a kindly, trustworthy sort. Mrs. Perkins recalled Shady’s gifts of gold and jasper just before she and her companion departed for their journey to Death Valley.
Although Shady remains something of a blurred figure smiling at us out of the shadows of the years, we have the advantage on Mrs. Perkins. We can not only put flesh on the outline of Shady's life, we can use him as one key to understanding the Mojave's larger story—and perhaps to understanding all of us who dream Western dreams.
Shady Myrick turns out to have been, as best we can tell, not only a good fellow and the Mojave's earliest non-native collector of semiprecious stones, but a man of civic pride, a natty dresser when he went out to civilization, and something of a cultural icon. Reporters in the coastal cities of Southern California were always glad to see Shady on their streets. He offered a ready source of copy for their newspapers. A likable desert rat who was hardly shy when it came to talking about his dreams and his prospects, Shady periodically appeared out of what was still considered wild country to spin lively tales for journalists’ readers.
He told them how when he became lonely out there in the wastelands he would talk to Jack and Old Bluey, his two faithful burros, and how once he stumbled upon a fabulous ledge of gold. It was just what the nation at the time wanted to hear, a West described as full of exciting possibilities, the dreams that we, too, longed to share. Shady was a man much like us—or as we might like to be. He was always welcome wherever he went. He lived in a cave. He followed his visions through the desert heat. A bit of mystery clung to Shady, as we would perhaps like mystery to cling to us.
Francis Marion Myrick was born in 1850 on a farm in Iowa. News of rushes for gold and silver were electrifying the nation, and as a youth, Myrick, along with much of the rest of the restless United States in the years following the Civil War, felt the lure of the West. By the age of twenty-one, he was prospecting in Colorado. He served for a time as a lawman in Leadville during its heyday in the 1880s. Early in his career, we get a hint of two somewhat opposing qualities in him. On one hand, he had the courage to be a loner, striking out on his own to follow his visions. On the other hand, he seems to have combined public spirit and an amiable nature, which put people at their ease.
After Leadville, Shady's path fades for a while. Apparently, again reflecting a national pattern, he began to wander, living in Utah, Idaho and other Western states, hoping to strike it rich. Somewhere during this period he acquired the nickname which stuck to him the rest of his life. As Mrs. Perkins suspected, there was nothing unsavory implied by it. Rather, drifting one summer into Oro Fino, in the San Juan country north of Durango, Colorado, Francis Myrick asked for prospecting pointers from "Gassy" Thompson, "Snow-Shoe" Charley Watkins and other old hands. Because of his height – he was only five feet five or six – and his slight build, he probably seemed much younger than his years, and the old timers apparently brushed him off as a callow interloper. It was a hot day, and becoming irritated by the youngster's persistence, an Irishman told him to "go over and dig in the shade of that tree." Ironic words. Much to the amazement of his reluctant mentors, Francis, after a bit of spadework, struck a vein of silver under the sheltering branches the large pine. He instantly became known as "Shady." That is one version of the story from a time and an occupation full of colorful tales.
Exactly what he did over the next few years is not known. However, unmarried and free to follow his interests, Shady, in 1900 and at the age of fifty, drifted even farther west, into the Mojave Desert of Southern California. There he would stay until his death in 1925, making the whole Mojave his home. Or what counted for home to a prospector.
For two and one half decades, he ranged across his beloved but bleak stomping grounds, a hundred miles back and forth between Death Valley on the east and the Johannesburg/Randsburg area over by the western edge of the Mojave. He had a shack in Johannesburg, or "Joburg," as it is still called. He collected his mail at the local post office, but for much of the time, he stayed in the various camps he established, scattered across his vast fields of exploration. He lived in tents and makeshift shelters. In one case, he set up a comfortable home, with a bed and stove, in a mine tunnel—a wise choice for the splendid insulation of the earth in a region where winters could be harsh and the summers could scorch the very soul.
Shady, however, had better things to think about than physical hardships. "There is a romance about mining," Shady once glowed to a reporter, "and the longer one stays in the game, the more romantic it becomes." Despite the appealing words, that hardly tells the whole story, for in another way, prospecting is a business full of physical and mental tortures, full of hard work, alluring promises and failed dreams. For this, miners, perhaps more than most of us, go through extremes of emotional ups and downs.
Shady's letters show that at times he was heavily dependent, both for encouragement and financial backing, on his Lightburn relatives in Long Beach, California. A man enthusiastic but full of doubts, Shady worried about his responsibilities to those who grubstaked him. Whatever his fame, his dreams did not always pan out. Showing a human side, one which he likely did not expose to eager reporters, in a letter of April 13, 1925, he thanks nephew George Lightburn for sending him oranges, then, crestfallen, he sighs that after all these years he thinks he will quit California, for "I am out of luck here." But Shady never quit. He picked himself up and moved on to the next dream, the next promise of gems awaiting him in the hills.
Shady was a true believer. In the issue of the Calico Print honoring him (September-October 1951), he sits in a photo, perched proudly in his wagon pulled by Jack and Old Bluey, his big dog alert and erect beside him, both eager to be off on another desert adventure. Through those years and those lands striped with confectionery colors, Shady staked dozens of claims, wresting opals and jaspers from the earth—proof that the Mojave, often thought a wasteland, holds not only material wealth but psychic riches in its folds. A visionary, he thought, contrary to just about everyone else, that there were diamonds in the Mojave. However, on his persistent, lonely forays, he discovered not only gold and a variety of semiprecious stones but a mineral called "myrickite," after Shady’s name. The label took root locally, then nationally.
Today, any large museum with a mineral collection is likely to have a specimen of myrickite. Lapidarists delight in fashioning the stone into cabochons and displaying them at local gem and mineral shows. No doubt the association of this popular gem with Shady's name has greatly enhanced his reputation. When holding the white, translucent chalcedony with clouds and streaks of pink or red, turning it over in the hand, one senses the mystery and becomes a believer—as are gem collectors in China, where the popularity of myrickite rivals that of jade. Shady shipped such wonders to the Lightburn family, who sold the gems to local dealers. He also distributed them to international firms ranging from dealers in Japan to Tiffany's in New York City.
Shady never got rich, but on one occasion he almost did. This is the way family researcher John Lightburn tells the story: Once, toward the end of his life, while returning from a prospecting trip east of Joburg, Shady stopped to take down an old claim marker he had once erected, when he struck a lava formation with his hammer and saw the glitter of gold. As things happened in those frothy times, the buoyant news spread almost overnight, and a tent city sprang up. But the mine, promising as it first seemed, was condemned due to faulting.
Shady read a good deal as he sat in his tunnel and his stove puffed away on a cold winter night, but he also did his civic duty. When staying in "Joburg," he participated in local politics. When the U.S. Navy, caught flat-footed for equipment during World War I, called for donations of telescopes, Shady packed up the instrument he used to scan ridges for promising signs, and he sent it off for use in spotting German submarines.
Locally, he was known as a man always ready to drop what he was doing and strike out across a country he knew better than anyone else to rescue tenderfoot adventurers who had foolishly plunged off into the Mojave's waterless spaces. Until his dying day, he kept on dreaming, and kept on searching for those gems he knew were out there waiting to be found. No wonder Mrs. Perkins, who had a richly poetic side, instantly liked him.
She might have gasped in horror, however, had she been along with Judge James B. Nosser when he was invited for a meal in Shady's "cave," the tunnel at his Bloodstone Mine on Brown Mountain where he periodically lived. Stooping to enter, the good judge bumped his head and fumbled his way to the table. "I heard something slipping up from behind me," he said, " I saw it was...a huge chuckawalla lizard. It came to the table, and got right up on it. Shady fed it bits of bread and other things and soon a second one came to dinner. They were both extra large... Shady had made them his pets."
The chuckwalla, by the way, can reach the length of a man's arm. No, it only seems that long when a fierce devil-like head appears over the edge of your table and then the rest of the leathery lizard slithers up and over the plates. Such are the stories about Shady.
And by the way, that table, along with Shady's chairs, stove, and bed, are still there – albeit needing a good dusting – still sitting in his cave on Brown Mountain. That is part of the charm surrounding Shady.
The Mojave is full of fetching stories about desert "characters." Why the focus on Shady? Why bring him to the fore and make him a solid part of the Mojave's history? Primarily because of the role he played in mining. When, in 1881, prospectors discovered a bonanza in the Calico Mountains and millions of dollars of silver began flowing out of the bare hills, the public’s attitude toward the Mojave changed. In a sharp example of the link between wealth and the perception of beauty, what once was considered a useless expanse now became a wonderland. How many more Calicos were out there waiting to be discovered?
People poured into the Mojave, convinced that their El Dorado lay just ahead in those beautifully colored hills. Most of the newcomers, of course, failed to find their dream, but strikes of gold, borax and more silver did occur – often enough to make mining the chief early impulse for settling the desert. Shady is a prime example of the independent yeoman prospector. Furthermore, despite a gold find now and then, his specialty was finding gems where others thought there was none. His nearly preternatural success at this is summed up in bronze. The plaque on Shady’s headstone forever proclaims him "The Godfather of American Rockhounds." To this day, members of Shady’s tribe wander the Mojave dazzled by the possibilities they always expect to see glinting in their path.
Other factors, almost as important to historians, certainly are there but not as readily measurable. Most people who lived, worked and died on the Mojave are now forgotten. Shady, however, is unusual because, due to his popularity with the press and the interest of his family in his work, he left an exceptionally detailed record. This becomes all the more valuable because in his day, only a few people lived scattered across the great distances of the desert. As a result, each person is individually important. Each one we can pluck out of the past assumes a near iconographic value.
There is a special excitement to all this. In the Mojave, history is so recent that it is, like the visions of those jewels, almost palpable, an enticing thing to seize out of the past. Now. Before it fades and disappears forever. Such was the impact and the memory of this man that in 1952, historians and gem collectors gathered to erect a monument and plaque to Shady at his grave in the little town of Johannesburg.
Lastly, we need to add a note of confirmation to all this. In Shady’s day, people looked upon the West, and especially the desert, as a place of fantastic possibilities. Double that for mining, an endeavor where uncertain but tantalizing rewards combined to excite the imagination. Colorful tales tended to grow up around desert characters from those heady times of rumored bonanzas.
We hear the stories with an indulgent smile and nod. Knowing the human penchant for exaggeration, we take them with a grain of salt. For example, just about every major article discussing Shady’s life mentions not only that he was the "Sheriff of Leadville" but that he served in the Colorado state legislature as well. Just the sort of dramatic detail storytellers might spin about a chromatic figure from an age perceived to be far more heroic than ours.
Then we confront the facts. Shady was not a sheriff. He was, in fact, a deputy sheriff at Leadville, as records in the Lake County Clerk and Recorder’s Office confirm. Records in Colorado’s state archives do confirm his election to Colorado’s state legislature. In this case, then, not all stories are based on myth. Unlike the misleading but colorful stories rising out of the Mojave about the deeds of many of its early settlers, with Shady, we have the real thing.
Much of the credit for preserving Shady’s image is due his family, who through four generations saved a wealth of photographs, letters and other important documents. That interest continues to the present, intensified by the recent formation of the Shady Myrick Research Project, dedicated to filling out the missing details of Shady’s life and times.
A strange thing happened when I recently traveled to Yucca Valley, California, to meet one of the chief forces behind the undertaking, Mr. John Lightburn, Shady’s great-grandnephew. He showed me specimens from Shady’s collection. He drew out of its case the telescope which the patriotic miner shipped off to help with the war effort. He showed me the check for $1.00 which Shady received as token rent from the government. When it came time for me to go, Mr. Lightburn pressed a fine piece of bloodstone into my hand. I remembered the gifts the old prospector had given to Mrs. Perkins. It was almost like meeting Shady himself.
Much more needs to be done in following Shady’s alluring trail. Many of the more dramatic articles clipped from the Los Angeles newspapers by Shady’s relatives were passed on without citations. As to newspapers, people might be surprised to learn that the weeklies of the mining towns booming from discoveries of gold typically were ephemeral. No doubt, they had a good deal to say about Shady, but many of them have evaporated like the rain of the Mojave’s summer storms. Nonetheless, the search goes on. And in the process, one always remains alert for the discovery of old timers' journals which might have close-up information about Shady. For all that, an amazing amount of information exists about Shady. The hope is that the early attempts to collect it will be a help to those interested in understanding the Mojave and one of its colorful figures.
Note: The Shady Myrick Gem and Mineral Collection with the associated archive arrived in Goffs, CA safe and sound, on June 25, 2009. The collection, consisting of some sixty crates weighing upwards of fifty pounds each, will be housed for an indefinite period (in accordance with an agreement) under the stewardship of the Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association.
New Exhibit Hall at the Goffs Cultural Center Jan 1, 2016
Copyright 2000-2016, Shady Myrick Research Project
About the Author: One of the foremost poets of the American West, Peter Wild has published over sixty volumes of history, literature, and poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize nominee Cochise. Relating to this article are two books by Peter Wild: Daggett: Life in a Mojave Frontier Town (1997), published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, and The Opal Desert (1999), from the University of Texas Press. A longtime student of the desert, Peter Wild was a professor of English at the University of Arizona, Tucson. He died in Feb. 2009 at the age of 69.
Randsburg, Johannesburg and Red Mountain
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