Desert Gold

Pegleg Smith and Jacob Walt

Gold fever has stricken thousands of men and women over the years. The most significant and debilitating bout occurred in 1849 after goldgold on quartz was discovered at Sutter's Mill the previous year. This event led to the California Gold Rush, a time when gold fever plagued even the most innocent and content of men.

Legends and stories of gold mines filled the hearts, souls and minds of prospectors, driving them into some of the most dangerous and desolate lands in search of gold. The desire for gold can be so great that it motivates men to endure unbelievable hardships including starvation, dehydration and death.

The dry desert lands of the U.S. have been the location of many famous mines and gold discoveries. Mining towns such as Tumco, Bodie, Oatman and Randsberg were once booming with growth due to the mining operations which provided jobs and drew gold seekers from all over the country. When the mines closed, the towns died, and their remains have become ghost towns and tourist attractions. Only empty buildings, cemeteries, and broken-down stamp mills remain to tell their story, along with brief notes in the history books documenting their existence.

Open pit mine near Tumco

A few mines are still being actively worked today, but most mining companies that have tried to revive the old mines have been unsuccessful. The stories of lost gold mines still lure prospectors, even today. Many believe it is easier to find a mine that has been lost, than to discover a new location. The question is, "Do these lost mines exist, and are the legends of the lost treasures true?" We must ask ourselves the toughest question of all -- "Do I believe there is still gold to be found in the desert?" If I do believe, how can I find gold in the desert and where do I begin searching?

To help you get started on your journey, I will share with you some of the most famous legends and tales about lost mines and how they were once discovered and then lost again. These tales have been told by prospectors, doctors, law enforcers, rangers and by every common person who believes enough to retell the tale. Some of the stories have many versions, each containing a few facts that differ from each other. The differences are evident in the variance of descriptive landmarks, dates, and historical information.

The individuals who truly believe in a particular legend, spend the greater portion of their lives collecting data and facts about the lost mine they so eagerly seek. They build files which contain details, bits and pieces of a legend so old and peculiar, they cannot rest until the mystery is solved. They keep hoping that one day soon, they will be the lucky one who discovers the long lost mine, the one which has been sought after for years by others with similar faith.

Each step into the desert may bring you a little closer to a fortune. Keep your ears and eyes open, for you may be the lucky one who discovers the three buttes where Pegleg Smith found his black-coated gold nuggets, or a gold filled saddle bag from the Peralta Family's last mining expedition.

Two of the most famous lost mines are the Lost Dutchman Mine of Arizona and Pegleg Smith's Mine of Southern California. To this day, both lost mines are actively sought after by old time prospectors and treasure hunters.

Pegleg's Lost Mine - video Riding on Gold - Pegleg Smith

It is said that more men have sought Pegleg's black nuggets than any other lost mine. There are multiple versions of the Pegleg legend as well as other stories of black nuggets that seem to correlate with some of the facts stated in Pegleg lore.

Pegleg Smith was a rugged mountain man who traded furs and supplies, rustled horses and trapped beaver. Pegleg, also known as Thomas Smith, lost his leg to an arrow during a trapping expedition in the fall of 1827. After his leg was amputated, his friends fashioned him a wooden leg, thus earning him the name Pegleg.

The famous legend began during a trapping expedition down the Colorado River in the late 1820s or early 1830s. Pegleg and his party had acquired a large number of pelts during their trip and selected Pegleg and another member of the trapping party to take the supply of pelts across the desert to Los Angeles for sale.

During their journey through the desert, Pegleg had gathered some pebbles which he found on top of a butte in the Colorado Desert. The butte was one of three, thus entering the significant landmark of three buttes in most versions of his story. He gathered the black pebbles thinking they were copper and carried them to Los Angeles where he later discovered they were gold.

It is said that Pegleg got drunk while in Los Angeles, started a brawl in the local saloon and was quickly kicked out of town by the authorities. On his way out of California, he stole 300 to 400 horses and drove them to Taos, New Mexico where he planned to sell them.

Many prospectors and historians wonder why he did not go back to the desert and search for the butte where he discovered the gold. During the 1830s and 1840s, Pegleg settled down and started a trading post along the Oregon Trail in Idaho, specializing in the sale of horses.

Click here to view the video Riding on Gold - Pegleg Smith.

Lost gold area

It wasn't until after the 1849 Gold Rush that Pegleg returned to California to organize a prospecting party to search for the butte where he found the black gold nuggets. The group wandered around the desert unsuccessfully, and Pegleg ended up deserting the group and turn up later in Los Angeles.

In 1853, Pegleg organized a second search party which had no greater success in finding the butte where he found his treasured black-coated gold nuggets. A third party was organized to search for another lost mine near the Virgin River, were Dutch George Yount, a trapper, claimed he discovered a ledge full of gold, which of course he was never able to relocate.

Pegleg's questionable character and his reputation for drinking and lying add to the controversy surrounding the legend of his lost mine. Since there is more than one version of the story, there are many contradicting facts. Some stories claim the butte where Pegleg found the black-coated gold nuggets was located in the Chocolate Mountains and not in the Colorado Desert area.

There are men who have claimed to have found Pegleg's lost Mine. One story describes the journey of a discharged soldier who followed Pegleg's trail from Yuma to Los Angeles. During his travels through the desert, he discovered the three buttes described in Pegleg's legend and finds gold nuggets. When he arrives in Los Angeles, he shows his friends the nuggets and organized an expedition to return to the desert to bring back more gold. The expedition never returned, and the members of the party were later found dead at the foot of the San Ysidro Mountains.

Prospectors often recite stories that support the fabled legend of Pegleg's lost mine. In one story, a miner is crossing the desert between Yuma and Warner's Ranch, when he climbs up one of three buttes to get a better sense of his location. When he reached the top of the butte, he discovered free particles of gold scattered about. He packed his saddlebags with approximately $7,000 worth of gold and continued on to Los Angeles. When the miner reached Los Angeles, he became ill and was taken under the care of Dr. DeCourcy. The miner confided his discovery to Dr. DeCourcy, and they made plans to search for the buttes as soon as he was well enough to travel. He died before he was ever able to return to the desert in search of his gold-covered buttes. Dr. DeCourcy searched for years, and was never able to find the three buttes the miner described on his death bed.

There are three Indian legends of black-coated gold in the desert that support Pegleg's legend. The Apache Indians spoke of a place in the desert where the ground was littered with gold nuggets. It was against the tribal law and beliefs of the Apaches to tell others where the gold was located. Because of their superstitions, their secret remained well kept.

The second legend concerns an Indian woman who was wandering about the desert in a state of dehydration. She climbed upon one of three buttes to try and figure out where she was and on the ground she found black-coated gold nuggets. While on the butte, she saw a railroad construction camp where she was given water, food and time to rest. While at the camp, she told the workers about the gold nuggets she found and left them with one of the nuggets before she continued on her way.

The third Indian legend is about a Yaqui Indian who lived and worked near Warner's Ranch. He made frequent trips into the desert whenever he needed money, always returning with black gold nuggets. No one was ever able to follow the Indian into the desert to discover his secret gold mine. Later, after the Indian died in a fight, $4,000 worth of gold was found in his bunk.

The Lost Dutchman Mine

There is another lost mine, equally as famous as the Pegleg mine, which has crazed the minds of prospectors and treasure seekers for years. It is called the Lost Dutchman Mine and is said to be located in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona.

The Superstition Mountains (their name inspired by Pima Indian legends) have been a source of mystery and legend since early times. The area is dotted with ancient cliff dwellings and caves, many showing signs of former habitation. It is not certain who these people were; some believe they were Salado or Hohokam Indians who populated this part of Arizona several centuries ago. Later, Pimas and "Apaches" (some of whom may have been Yavapais) occupied parts of the region. However, the name "Apache" came to be closely associated with the Superstitions, and the mountains became an Apache stronghold in the 1800s.

During the 1840s, the Peralta family of northern Mexico supposedly developed rich gold mine(s) in the Superstition Mountains. In 1848, during a routine expedition to carry gold back to Mexico, the large party was ambushed by Apaches, and all were killed except for a few Peralta family members who escaped. According to the legend, the Apaches buried and hid the gold and covered up the mine. This area is known today as the Massacre Grounds.

A number of other people, in addition to the Peralta family, had knowledge of the mine's location. Numerous maps have surfaced over the years, only to become lost or misplaced when interested parties pressed for facts. Men who claimed to have found the Peralta mine were unable to return to it, or some disaster occurred just before they could file a claim, all adding to the lore of a "lost mine."

Superstitions location of the lost gold?

In the 1870s, Jacob Waltz, "the Dutchman" (actually a native of Germany), was said to have located the mine through the aid of a Peralta descendant. Waltz and his partner, Jacob Weiser, worked the mine and allegedly hid one or more caches of gold in the Superstitions. Most stories place the gold in the vicinity of Weaver's Needle, a well known landmark. Weiser was killed by Apaches or, according to some, by Waltz himself. There are records of Waltz selling or transporting gold which are estimated to total $254,000.. The records do not account for any gold that was sold locally or given to family or friends.

Jacob Waltz moved to Phoenix and died in 1891, at the age of 83. $15,000 of gold was found under his bed after he died. He supposedly described the mine's location to Julia Thomas, a neighbor who took care of him prior to his death. Neither she nor dozens of other seekers in the years that followed were able to find the "Lost Dutchman's Mine." Subsequent searchers have sometimes met with foul play or even death, contributing to the superstition and legend that surround these mountains.

In 1916, two miners found an old Spanish saddle bag filled with $16,000 worth of smelted gold near the site of the Peralta Massacre. This evidence, along with the stories and records of gold transport issued by Waltz, confirms the legend of the Lost Dutchman.

More on the Lost Dutchman

Do You Believe There's Gold in the Desert?

gold panAll of the legends and stories mentioned in this article have been told many times by miners and prospectors who believe that the Pegleg and Lost Dutchman Mine exists. The Indian legends of sacred gold caches, and the correlating stories of many others who have, in some way, encountered black-coated gold nuggets and other supporting data of these two lost mines, provide strong evidence that they do indeed exist.

In fact, there is a man who claims to have found Pegleg's Lost Mine in 1952. Join DesertUSA as we continue the search for gold in the Desert.

By Jim Bremner


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