Pegleg's Black Gold

Letter from a Man Who Found Pegleg's Black Gold

The office of Desert Magazine received a small package in 1965. The package contained a short letter, a manuscript and two gold nuggets sent by a man who claimed to have found Pegleg's lost mine. Following is a reprint of the letter contained in the package.

It is time, once and for all, to end the mystery, the speculation, and the controversy. Almost 10 years ago I found what has been known since 1852 as the "burned black gold of the Peg Leg." Without pinpointing the discovery on a map for reasons that are obvious, I will say only that it is less than 30 miles from the Salton Sea and within the confines of the map on page 10 of the November 1946 issue of Desert Magazine.

pegleg map

I've gone back to the location an average of twice a year since the first discovery, and, according to my records, I've brought out and sold a total of $314,650 worth of Peg Leg's black gold nuggets. This amount is not the "millions" usually associated with lost mines and treasures, but it is a fortune to me. The money has been wisely and quietly invested. Within a year after first discovering the gold, I retired from the work I was doing and have been enjoying life ever since.

Why, then, should I break a 10-year silence and write about the discovery now? Perhaps the answer lies in a remark made by a former editor of Desert Magazine in describing the men who came to Desert's office looking for information about lost mines and treasures of the desert. His parting words to all of them were, "Good luck and if you find it, be sure to write a story for Desert. So far we haven't had such an article, but there's always a first time."

For all these years I've intended to keep the discovery an absolute secret for the rest of my life, but those words "so far we haven't had such an article" and "there's always a first time" kept going around and around in my mind. Somehow I'd always assumed that more than one lost mine or desert treasure had been rediscovered and the riches claimed. Apparently this is not true, unless someone has found something and kept it quiet as I have.

Perhaps it is time also to give hope to those hardy souls who have spent months and years of their lives searching for lost bonanzas. There have always been Doubting Thomases who claimed that lost mines and treasures of the desert were nothing but figments of somebody's imagination. Well, now it is time to prove that at least one lost desert bonanza has been discovered and not lost again, for I know exactly where it is.

At this point let me qualify myself. I've lived most of my life in the Southwest and have always loved the desert. I've been a subscriber to Desert Magazine for many years and although I've enjoyed reading the articles about the lost mines and treasures, I never had any burning urge to search for them. A story on where to find a field of desert wildflowers in the spring or a map showing where to collect mineral specimens was just as interesting to me as a story about lost gold.

Secondly, now that almost 10 years have passed since I first found the Peg Leg gold and I am retired for life with a comfortable income to do as I please, the passion for secrecy is no longer important. Finally, I've already found all of the gold that can be easily collected without actual mining operations. With the surface gold gone, I don't think anyone else is going to find the Peg Leg for the simple reason that whatever gold is left is well underground.

The Discovery

I'd driven to that part of the low desert in my Jeep for a weekend of fresh air, good weather, some exercise, and a bit of rock hunting. Fortunately, in view of what transpired, I was alone on the trip. Saturday afternoon I drove the Jeep as far as I could go up a sandy wash and camped for the evening. Sunday morning, after a leisurely breakfast, I took off for a long hike, carrying only a canteen, a rock hammer, and a small sack to bring back specimens. Intending to come back to the Jeep for lunch, I walked about two miles through uneven terrain, stopping now and then to pick up rock samples, none of which, as I remember, were of any particular interest.

About 11 a.m. I sat down on top of a small hill to take a drink from the canteen and rest a bit before starting back. The hill I was sitting on was covered with a crust of smooth water-worn pebbles, the sand and dirt having been partly blown from them by the wind. After drinking I leaned over on my left elbow and idly began to flip the smooth pebbles down the slope with my right hand as I would shoot marbles, hardly paying any attention to what I was doing.

The eighth or tenth pebble I picked up was heavy, so heavy I retained it in my hand and sat up to examine it closely. It was black and rounded on the edges and about three-quarters of an inch in diameter. Hefting it two or three times, I quickly realized that for the weight of its small size it must be metal and heavy metal. Quickly I brought out my pocketknife and scraped the surface of the pebble with the edge of the blade. When I saw the yellow glitter I dropped it then picked it up again with a trembling hand. I'll never know how long I sat there paralyzed with that first black gold nugget in my hand.

I'd read the Peg Leg story in Desert some years before, but had forgotten all about it. As my numbed brain started to function again, it all came back to me and I realized the area I was in was part of the Peg Leg country described in the story. This was it! I'd found the black Peg Leg gold! The next thing I remember was scrambling wildly on my knees among the pebbles, picking them up by the handfuls and hefting for heavy ones. In the next two hours I found seven more nuggets, which later weighed out from a half ounce on up to one that went nearly two ounces.

My hands were getting raw from handling the pebbles so I sat down for awhile to gather my wits and to do some thinking. The first thing was to make sure that I knew where I was and could come back to the same place again. If the black nuggets of metal in my pockets really were gold, then I was damned if I was going to rush back to the Jeep half cocked and end up not being able to find my way back like so many others have.

Forcing myself to stay calm, I retraced my route to the Jeep by placing stone markers every 50 feet or so. It was late in the afternoon when I arrived at the Jeep, but without even realizing my acute hunger, I rolled up my sleeping bag, snatched a couple cans of food, and headed back to what I already had named "Peg Leg Hill." It was there, exactly as I had left it. I unrolled my sleeping bag on top of the hill, cut open the cans, and ate the cold food.

It wouldn't be fair to say that I slept that night, for I didn't. I lay there wide awake, my mind racing. During that sleepless night I arrived at three absolute decisions. (1) I would go back to the Jeep a second time and be positive that I could find my way back to the hill again. (2) I would mark the spot where the Jeep was, turn it around and measure exactly by the speedometer the distance to the next road and the main highway, and draw myself a map and mark the distances on it. (3) I would go home and find out if the black nuggets really were gold.

At first light in the morning, I sorted more pebbles with my tender hands, more slowly this time, and added two more black nuggets to the seven already in my pocket. Then I rolled up my sleeping bag and headed back to the Jeep. There were many questions churning in my mind. Should I announce the discovery, provided the nuggets turned out to be gold? Should I call a newspaper and tell them about it? Should I confide in my friends? The first obvious answer to these questions was a resounding NO! The best thing to do, I decided, was to keep the whole business absolutely secret and tell no one and do nothing until I'd had a lot more time to think things over.

On the drive home another thought occurred to me. The story of Peg Leg's black nuggets was well enough known that it wouldn't be a good idea to show anybody a black nugget while trying to find out what it was. I'd scraped through the black varnish or coating with my pocketknife, so maybe there was a way to remove it so I could show something that wasn't black. After some trouble I finally removed the black coating from one nugget and took it to an assay laboratory. They ran a spectroscopic assay and it was, indeed, gold.

I later learned that the so called black desert varnish or coating on the nuggets was simply copper oxide. Most gold found in its native state, particularly in California, is usually alloyed with silver, which averages 10 to 20 percent. The Peg Leg black nuggets contain about 70 percent gold, 20 percent silver, and 10 percent copper. It was the copper molecules that oxidized and gave the nuggets their black color.

Later, I will explain my theory of the origin of the Peg Leg gold, but at one time or another all of the nuggets were either uncovered by the elements and exposed to the heat of the sun and the oxygen in the air for long periods of time which allowed the copper to form into black oxides, or, at some time, perhaps millions of years ago, after the nuggets were alluviated (i.e., had their sharp edges worn off by the abrasive action of sand and water), they were exposed to either volcanic heat or the internal heat of the earth's crust, which caused the copper molecules to oxidize and turn black.

Let me say here that I am neither a mining engineer nor a geologist, and there may be a more precise, scientific explanation of the black nuggets, but during the past 10 years I have read a great deal about gold and gold mining and do have a fair knowledge of the subject. Had these nuggets been in a running stream all of these years, like those found in California's Mother Lode country, then the action of the water and sand would have kept them clean and shiny with perhaps some oxidation in the pits or cavities in the nuggets.

The point is this: Pure 1000 fine gold, or even gold with 10 to 15 percent silver alloy, will not tarnish and will stay golden in color under almost any circumstances. It is possible that a coating of some kind may build up on the outside surface, but in the case of the Peg Leg nuggets it is the copper that turned them black.

As to the origin of the Peg Leg gold, my theory is that millions of years ago, gold was present in a lode or vein that was embedded in a mountain. As the mountain slowly eroded away, the gold, being heavier than the surrounding material, gradually worked its way down into the lower areas. It is known that the Salton Sea basin was part of the Gulf of California and probably at one time received quantities of rain. The action of the water and sand on the nuggets alluviated or rounded the sharp edges off of them and ultimately most of the gold in the lode or vein made its way to the bottom of the watercourse.

Undoubtedly, there was shifting of the earth's crust and probably what was once a stream bed was lifted up or possibly buried completely. The original mountain carrying the lode was totally eroded away so the gold was simply buried in a pocket of what had once been a stream bed. In the case of the Peg Leg nuggets, I believe the continuing erosion of land that finally turned into a desert exposed the nuggets again on the surface.

Within 10 days of the first discovery I was back at Peg Leg Hill, this time with a metal detector and a small shovel. I stayed there six days and brought out 720 ounces of nuggets that later netted me a little more than $20,000. Now that I knew exactly how to get there, the problem became one of hiding or concealing my trail so that no one could follow me. This is the main reason why I went there only two or three times a year. I was very careful to fill up all the holes I dug to recover nuggets located with the metal detector and to replace the pebbles and make the surface look as undisturbed as possible.

There were other questions that came up. I thought seriously of going in to file a claim, but after careful thought, I discarded the idea. The minute I filed a claim, then at least one other person would know the location. Obviously, I wasn't going to mention the gold, but the very fact that I filed a claim on a particular spot in the desert might just make somebody curious enough to talk and someone else curious enough to go snooping around.

The worst fear here was the fact that the nuggets could be found on the surface or close to the surface, and even if I filed a legal claim, I couldn't spend the rest of my life standing guard over it with a double-barreled shotgun. Or, if I hired someone to guard the claim, what was to prevent him from picking up nuggets or telling someone else? Once the word got out, nothing on earth could ever have prevented a stampede of people from overrunning the claim. Nothing could have come out of it except trouble in one form or another. No, the gold had been there all those years. I decided to take my chances and play it alone and in secrecy. Time has proven me right.

The next most important thing was how to sell or dispose of the nuggets. The thing that bothered me most was the fact that black gold nuggets would arouse or provoke curiosity anywhere and talk would be rampant. Sooner or later the cat would be out of the bag, especially if I tried to sell any sizable quantity of black gold nuggets at one time. The first problem, therefore, was the matter of removing the black color.

After serious study and a good deal of experimentation, I finally devised a method to accomplish what I wanted. By dipping the nuggets into a hot chemical bath, all of the copper oxide was dissolved and stripped off, leaving the bright yellow gold nuggets. Certain solutions, I discovered, would strip off most of the copper but still leave the nuggets with a reddish tint that was quite natural. This was desirable in view of the plan I had to dispose of them.

The first thing I decided was to never sell or display any of the nuggets anywhere in the Southwest. What I did that first summer was to fly up to Nome, Alaska, taking the nuggets with me. The gold dredges were still operating there and gold nuggets were rather plentiful around town in the various curio and jewelry stores. I soon got on friendly terms with some of the prospectors hanging around, learned the jargon of placer mining, and went up the creeks myself to "prospect."

Actually, I just camped out, did a bit of hunting and fishing, enjoyed my vacation thoroughly, did some "panning" with my gold pan, and generally went through the motions of placer mining. Back in Nome, I let it be known that I had worked hard, had found a little "color," but nothing to get excited about. I then sold the gold, a few ounces at a time, to various stores, jewelry makers, private parties, and anyone else who was interested, but never more than 15 ounces at one time.

Why all the secrecy? Well the strategy worked in that I've kept the discovery of Peg Leg a secret these 10 years, and undoubtedly could for 10 more. Actually, there were two areas at Peg Leg Hill that contained nuggets -- the hill itself and a large mound about 60 yards to the west. During the six days of the second trip I covered the whole countryside for several miles in all directions, searching carefully for nuggets and using the metal detector everywhere. It was the detector that located the nuggets in the mound, as all of them were underground from about four inches down to two feet, where I discovered some of the largest nuggets. The three hills of the original Peg Leg story were not in evidence.

In any event, I've covered the ground so thoroughly that I believe I've found every nugget both on the surface and underground within range of the most powerful and sensitive detector. In short, I've found all of the easy gold. I've got my share of the Peg Leg black nuggets and then some. I've wondered whether I should reveal the location now that I've cleaned out all of the easy gold, but if I did there would still be a wild stampede and I would always feel some sense of responsibility for all of the hardship and struggle of those who failed to find the gold.

I'm sure there are more nuggets underground, probably great quantities of them along the ancient watercourse into which they were washed ages ago. They may be anywhere from four feet to thousands of feet underground, or wherever the twisting and faulting of the earth's crust has exposed or buried them. There may even be other places where they can be found on the surface as I found them on Peg Leg Hill and the mound, and they may be miles away.

I've also thought about going in to file the claim now, but again I discarded the idea. Why? To go after more of Peg Leg's black nuggets would require the expense of forming a mining company, taking in partners or associates, the purchase of expensive equipment, the expense of moving it to the site, and the bother of 1,001 other problems that would arise. I'm happy now and I've got all I can spend in a lifetime. My time is my own with no problems of any kind. I'm healthy and there really isn't anything else I want.

Besides, I'm reminded of the stories the Alaskan prospectors told me about the men who found a rich pocket of gold and, after having cleaned it out, they still were not satisfied and spent it all digging deeper trying to find more. Greed is one of man's weaknesses.

No, I'll say it again. I've got my share of the black gold and I'm satisfied.

Riding over Gold on Your ATV in Ocotillo Wells

Video: Are you riding your ATV over gold?



What Do You Think?

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