The Lost Peg-Leg: A 1919 Account with Related Desert Matters
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    Dec 2008
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    The Lost Peg-Leg: A 1919 Account with Related Desert Matters

    A 1919 Account of the Lost Peg-Leg, and Related Desert Matters

    From : California Desert Trails by J[oseph]. Smeaton Chase (Boston: 1919). I have edited these excerpts, generally re-arranging some of it. My purpose is to make available a source many readers may not yet be aware of. The wise researcher will quickly turn to the original source – it’s a remarkable book, well-written and well worth reading. There is essential information here: history (such as the important story of Warner’s Ranch) and first-hand experience.

    --- o0o ---

    The gullibility of mankind with regard to lost mines or buried treasures is staggering indeed. The number and giddiness of these wild-goose chases amount to a phenomenon. No story is too unlikely, no clue too frail, to gain the belief of men in other respects judicious enough. The “old Indians” who, when dying, have spoken of some wondrous cañon in the Humbug Range; the prospectors found at “poison springs” who at the last gasp have babbled of glittering ledges or placers, abandoned by them under stress of famine; the others who in this or that county hospital have whispered to some attendant the “sure thing” secret of the long-lost Blue Dog, or Holy Smoke; to say nothing of the variegated legends of Peg-Leg – these must run into hundreds, and their devotees into a veritable host.

    Borego Springs is one of the important watering-places on the Colorado Desert. Lying near the mountains, it is a strategic point in the operations of cattle-men whose ranges extend over the Santa Rosa, San Felipe, Volcan, and Cuyamaca country, and who once in a year or two may have occasion to drive cattle into or out of the mountains by the desert route. These drives are often for long distances, say from Arizona or Sonora, and in large herds, so that only the few spots that furnish abundant water are of service for resting and watering the stock. Borego Springs makes a convenient one-day stage before entering or leaving the mountains.

    When I was camping here with some friends on another occasion, we were disturbed in the middle of the night by the arrival of a “bunch “of cattle that had just “pulled in,” en route to Borego Valley. Nicety is observed in the West as to the use of nouns of number. Thus, it is a band of horses or sheep, but a bunch of cattle, of steers, of yearlings, or whatever the case may be. A concourse of hogs, those flower-like quadrupeds, also are property spoken of as a bouquet. So, by the by, are fellows. Thus, the leader of a college prayer-meeting has been know n to open his petition, “We come, a bunch of fellows –“ etc.

    In the morning, when the drove was getting under way, we were passing the compliments at the corral bars with two of the vaqueros. Names were exchanged. “And who is that lively young fellow?” one us asked, pointing to a lively young “puncher” in red shirt and well-worn “chaps,” who was rounding up the stragglers. “That ‘young fellow’ is this fellow’s wife,” one of the men answered, indicating his companion. El habito no hace al monje (the dress does not make the monk), says the Spanish proverb.

    The old house bore testimony to many years of usage by cattle-men, surveyors, prospectors, and other haunters of the open spaces. On the back door I found an elaborate decoration, dated four months earlier. The two men who signed it stated themselves to be in search of that old will-o’-the-wisp of prospectors, the Peg-Leg Mine; and in lightness of heart had drawn a picture representing Peg-Leg Smith himself “looking at Borego Springs from Gold Hill.” The great man was realistically shown mounted on a burro, pipe in mouth, pick on shoulder, and “peg” advanced as if hospitably greeting the beholder. Peg-Leg Smith, who might by courtesy be called the patron saint of California prospectors, deserves more than a passing reference.

    In the course of this journey I came on his tracks so often that at times I felt almost haunted. To be for two hours in company with a prospector and not have Peg-leg come into the conversation is among the impossible things of life. I heartily wish that someone would find that mine, and put the old eternal anecdotes and theories to final rest. “Well, sir” (this is the sort of thing), “Dutchy kin say whatever he’s a min’ ter. I claim to know them ‘ere Choc’lates purty (blank) well, see’ I’ve dry-washed every (blank) gully from Dos Palms to Carga Muchach’, an’ I tell you they ain’t no chanst for that (blank) formation in the hull (blank) lay-out. Why, look a-here: ole Peg-Leg he says --.” And off we would go once more into the threadbare history, with changes rung on “buttes” and “monnyments,” “ledges” and “bearings,” till I remembered to go and water Kaweah [the author’s horse], or put my rice to boil, or whatever excuse came easiest to hand.

    To make a brief statement of the case, for the benefit of any citizen of the United States who may not have heard it: This particular Smith, Thomas L., conspicuous among the tribe by the circumstance of a timber leg, was a brother of that Jedediah Smith who ranks high among Western pioneers. Thomas L. became the leader of one of those bands of trappers who in the thirties and forties rover over the vast spaces of the West in quest of furs and adventure. (The peg-leg itself was a souvenir of the adventures, he having amputated the natural member himself when it was shattered by a bullet in the course of a fight with Indians.) On one of these journeys the party reached the Colorado River, worked down the stream to it junction with the Gila, and crossed into California, when they struck northwest toward the pass, later known as “Warner’s” or the “San Felipe,” which was at that time the only known approach to the southern coast.

    Before reaching the mountains, some of the party one evening climbed a low hill near camp, and noticed that the dark outcropping rock was thickly sprinkled with yellow metal. Strange to say, though the men were interested enough to carry away specimens, they seem not to have guessed that they had found gold, until the year of 1848, with the historic “strikes” on the Sacramento, turned all men’s thoughts to one idea. Then it was found that the specimens brought from the desert knoll were phenomenally rich in gold.

    Smith was then in San Francisco along with the rest of the world. In 1850 he got together a party to make a search for the precious butte. Before getting well started, the loss of some of the equipment of the expedition put the leader out of humor with the affair, and it was abandoned: nor did he ever renew the attempt.

    This is all ancient history, and it might seem strange that the legend of Peg-Leg’s find, rich as it may have been, should have survived through two generations. But from time to time there have occurred seeming corroborations of the fact of such a wondrous mine in just such circumstances of position and “formation” as are named in the details of the discovery. Indians figure largely in these later evidences and not merely to the extent of word of mouth. There have been incidents showing that they had access to some rich store of gold in the region of Smith’s memorable “strike" and always the hints have been of “buttes” and the mysterious “black formation.” These accessory details have not only kept alive the belief in the mine, but have extended the field of believers until the Peg-Leg Mine is a household word in California. From first to last (though the last is yet unreached) the number of those who have gone out on this adventure must run to hundreds, and the tale of those who have never returned is tragically long. Hardly a year passes without two or three parties taking up the search, following some new theory or clue. My predecessors at this old cabin were among the latest additions to the list. I may say here that a month or two later I chanced to meet a man who had recently see them, safe and sound, but of course unsuccessful, well on their homeward way.

    As for me, though I am not of the breed that Peg-Leggers come of, and long ago resolved, following a well-known example, to die a poor man, yet I feel the fascination of the gold-hunter’s game, and have sometimes, over my camp-fire, played with the idea of sudden freedom from impecuniary cares by stumbling on a mine. Here at Borego Springs I overlooked the very ground where, if anywhere, Peg-Leg Smith’s bonanza is awaiting an owner. From all evidences it could not be a day’s march away – a little hill, such as I walk up any day for the view, but – behold! littered with nuggets that one could pick out, like walnuts, with a pocket-knife! It was an exciting idea, and I almost resolved to make a practice of climbing all little hills hereafter. But there came a soberer thought – of the poor wretches who had fallen to the lure, “followed the gleam” ; and the gleam had led them on and on, a little farther, to the next rise, the cañon beyond, till the terrible “bad lands” had them locked in their scorching maze, there to wander till, crazed and raving, they staggered and fell: scrambled with frantic terror to their feet and stumped on (the thought of gold a frightful mockery now) till they fell once more and did not rise again. If ever the Peg-Leg Mine is found, it would not be surprising if there are seen about it he bleaching bones of the fortune ones who reached the goal. Then it should be renamed “The Death’s Head,” and christened with the dregs of a canteen of Seventeen Palms water.

    One hears a good deal on the desert about arsenic water. Prospectors especially are full of tales of arsenic springs, where death snatches the traveler unaware. I believe competent authorizes deny that arsenic in dangerous quantity exists in any of the desert water, and account for the fact that men have died from drinking the water of certain springs by the theory that the men in question, arriving at the suspected spring suffering from thirst and perhaps weak from hunger as well, drank too freely and succumbed to the excess, which, likely enough, was rendered more dangerous by the unwholesome substances often found in the water of these desert springs. (It is a common experience to find one’s expected water-supply contaminated with dead coyotes, foxes, birds, or snakes, and water-holes that are seldom visited, and therefore seldom cleaned out, may become poisonous even from decaying vegetable matter.) I have not the means of giving a personal opinion, but one knows the hold that poison legends, like those of lost mines and buried treasure, take on popular imagination: and prospectors as a class are notoriously open to any touch of mystery or superstition.

    On calling at the store for mail and the news I learned that two days after I passed Clay Point a party of three men had met disaster a few miles farther south. One perished of thirst, the others barely escaped with their lives.

    While preparing these pages at least four cases of this kind have come to my notice in the local newspaper. The latest, a typical one, reports the end of a prospector who was found dying beside one of the so-called “poison springs” on the northern part of the desert. He had reached the place famishing for water and probably had drunk too much.

    So every year the desert takes its toll.

    Make America Think Again

    Do you have good books in good condition you are never going to re-read? Clean 'em out!
    Operation Paperback collects gently used books and sends them to American troops.



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