There are many who dismiss this story of this mine as the figment of a boozy old miner’s imagination – a fellow who would tell his story to anybody who was willing to pay for his drinks. But still, just like all lost gold legends, the “what if it’s real” factor keeps a lot of people interested and searching for it.
Just like most of the lost gold legends, the story of Thomas “Pegleg” Smith has a few different versions. By all accounts, Pegleg Smith was a rather unsavory character who wasn’t averse to horse rustling if he thought he could get away with it, along with beaver trapping and fur trading. While trapping in 1827 he took an Indian arrow in the leg, and after losing the leg to the subsequent infection, his friends made a wooden leg for him, thus his nickname.
After a successful trapping expedition on the Colorado River during the early 1830s, Pegleg and one other person in his group left the main party to deliver the pelts for sale in Los Angeles. While crossing the desert Pegleg supposedly found some heavy black pebbles in the Colorado desert on the top of one of three buttes.
Who knows what possessed him to climb to the top of the butte, maybe to get his bearings, but the three buttes figure into the legend as an important landmark. He thought the pebbles were most likely copper and took them back to Los Angeles with him. At some point they were determined to actually be gold instead of copper. The black covering them was likely iron staining that is common of many desert gold deposits.
Supposedly, Pegleg started a fight in a Los Angeles saloon while he was drunk, and the local authorities threw him out of town. Not to be bested, he stole several hundred horses with the intent of driving them to Taos, New Mexico, figuring he could sell them there and make a tidy profit.
Perhaps he figured he’d better mend his ways before he got hung, and he settled in Idaho along the Oregon Trail. He built up a trading post and specialized in – you guessed it – selling horses.
The Search for the Lost Mine
It is unclear why he hadn’t gone back to look for the butte until after 1849, but after the gold rush he headed back to California intending to get up a party of prospectors to relocate his find. While the party was wandering around in the desert Pegleg deserted his comrades and headed back to California. He decided to have another go at it in 1853 with another bunch of prospectors, but he had no better luck this time.
You would think people would have been a bit leery by this time of following a guy with this reputation anywhere, but the lure of gold is a powerful one.
Various Different Tales
The different versions of the story head off in several directions at this point. The Chocolate Mountains are considered by some to be the source of the black nuggets, rather than the Colorado Desert. Another tale suggests that a former soldier heading from Yuma to L.A. located the three buttes, and the nuggets. Putting together an expeditionary party to go out and bring more gold back, they headed out but did not return. Below the San Ysidro Mountains, the prospectors were found dead.
Another version has a prospector finding the three buttes, filling up his saddlebags with gold worth $7,000 and heading to Los Angeles with it. He subsequently became ill and was cared for by a Dr. DeCourcy. After telling the doctor of his find, they determined to go back as soon as he had recovered and recover further gold. But he never did recover, and died before he could return. Even though he hunted for the three buttes for many years. Dr. DeCourcy never located them.
Also Read: Find Gold in Arid Regions with a Drywasher
The Indians had several of their own versions of the desert gold. In one legend there was an area covered with gold, but as it was forbidden by tribal law to divulge the location, that secret was never revealed. Another legend tells of an Indian woman lost in the desert. After trying to get a fix on her location by climbing one of the three buttes, she found black pebbles at the top. From the top she could see a railroad camp, and she made her way to it where she was restored with food and water. She gave the workers one of the pebbles before she went on. This one doesn’t seem especially plausible, since you would think the construction workers would have hightailed it up the butte to see what they could find, after determining that the pebbles were in fact gold.
The third legend involving an Indian concerns a Yaqui who lived near Warner’s Ranch. He would make a journey into the desert when he was short of money, and returned with black pebbles each time. Supposedly no one was ever able to track him in order to discover his secret. The Indian was subsequently killed in a fight, and after his death thousands of dollars worth of “black pebble” gold nuggets were found in his bed.
You would think with a significant landmark like three buttes to look for, this find would have been discovered long ago if it in fact existed. But until there is evidence to the contrary, Pegleg Smith’s fortune continues to be considered lost.
More Lost Treasures