Thursday, October 23, 2008

Legends of Lost Gold: the Lost Pegleg Mine

(Part of Anza-Borrego State Park.)

Lost gold mine legends abound in Western treasure hunting and mining lore. Some of these mining "will-'o-the-wisps," like the Lost Dutchman Mine in Arizona, have developed into treasure tales of mythic proportions. Others, though not as well known as the Lost Dutchman, still retain "classic" status. Southern California's Lost Pegleg Mine happens to be one of the latter.

The man at the center of one of the most enduring lost gold mine myths of the American West was "Pegleg" Smith. Even at this late date it is difficult to determine what is fact and what is fiction when it comes to Pegleg and the details concerning the finding and losing of his treasure. Ostensibly, Pegleg was a mountain man and fur trapper who lost a leg to an American Indian arrow in the 1820s (thereby earning his nickname). Pegleg has often been described in various accounts as a man of somewhat disreputable demeanor and behavior. Or to put it bluntly, he was a drunkard and a great liar. In my eyes, these are not the best of attributes to base the credibility of a lost mine legend on, but so it goes.

The Legend Begins

The Lost Pegleg Mine legend begins in the early 1830s with Pegleg and an unnamed partner heading for the distant settlement of Los Angeles after a successful pelt hunting expedition along the Colorado River between modern day Arizona and California. At some point along the way near "three buttes" Pegleg scooped up a handful of unusually heavy rounded pebbles coated with black "desert varnish," a sort of oxidized coating created by extreme heat and chemical reaction, something quite common in California's Colorado Desert. According to the legend, the ground was covered with similar pebbles for as far as the eye could see. Scratching the surface of one of these dark pebbles with a knife blade, Pegleg spotted the gleam of an orangish-yellow metal which he assumed was copper. Thinking no more about it, Pegleg shoved the pebbles into his pocket and, with his partner, headed for Los Angeles.

Gold, Horse Theft, and New Mexico

After arriving in Los Angeles and selling off their pelts, Pegleg and his partner went their separate ways. Pegleg, still curious about those heavy metallic pebbles in his pocket, decides to have them examined by an experienced assayer who promptly declares Pegleg's pebbles to be gold nuggets. Now here is where the Pegleg legend misses a beat, for me at least. Instead of heading back to try and find his "lost mine," Pegleg goes on a drunken bender including a saloon brawl or two, steals a few hundred horses, and heads for Taos, New Mexico to sell the stolen horses off. Obviously, logic does not apply to Pegleg (or his lost mine myth).

Fast Forward to 1849 and 1853

Now we fast forward to 1849 and Pegleg has been quite busy in the intervening years. Do I mean searching for his lost mine near the "three buttes" (sometimes also described as three conical hills)? Why no, actually. Since his discovery of desert ground coated with black gold nuggets Pegleg has had other, more important fish to fry, including running a trading post somewhere along the Oregon Trail. Makes sense to me (well, not really...).

But the California Gold Rush has intervened and now Pegleg's interest in gold has been piqued again. He organizes a search party and heads back into the desert to find his "lost mine." The group wanders the Colorado and Anza-Borrego Deserts unsuccessfully for some time until Pegleg deserts the dissatisfied and grumbling crew, and shows up once again in the quaint settlement of Los Angeles where, in 1853, he organizes another unsuccessful search party to locate his black nuggets of gold. What Pegleg did during the four year layover in Los Angeles is open for discussion, but he obviously did not feel a pressing need to get back out there and find his gold.

A Kernel of Truth?

Due to his questionable character traits, many would-be treasure hunters don't place much faith in the Lost Pegleg Mine. However, others believe there is a kernel of truth to Pegleg's story and, as a point of fact, most myths and legends contain such kernels, no matter how outlandish or embellished they become over subsequent years. These latter-day treasure hunters, or "believers," continue to research the legend for additional tips or signs and the hunt for the "three buttes" and desert ground strewn with varnish-coated nuggets of gold continues.

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Serious searchers for Pegleg's gold have concentrated their efforts in either the Anza-Borrego Desert (note: no treasure hunting is allowed in Anza-Borrego State Park) or the Colorado Desert closer to the Chocolate Mountains a bit farther east. Some even claim that Pegleg's gold was found in the opposite direction around the old gold mining region near Julian or even Jacumba, near the Mexican border. No one knows.

Or do they? At least one person claims to have found and "cleaned out" Pegleg's black gold nugget patch.

You can read that very intriguing story, "Legends of Lost Gold: Pegleg's Gold Found? (Part 1)," at:

(c) J.R. 2008

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