What the Prospectors Sought
Queho Posse Chapter
E Clampus Vitus
Tonopah , NV
September 15, 2013
Queho Posse Chapter 1919
E Clampus VitusÂ®
As directed by Noble Grand Humbug
Vern "Big Elvis" Brooks
"What the Prospectors Sought!"
Created, crumpled, cross-indexed, collated, cobbled, contorted, consecrated, and cursorily culminated
By Clamphistorian and Scribe of St. Vitus,
Mark "The Expert" Hall-Patton
XNGH, XPBC, X-TRASH Leader, X-Damphool Doorkeeper
And rendered into a near decipherable form by
The Obfuscationst Press
What the Prospectors Sought!
When we look at the mining camps of the old west, we see them as ghost towns or current communities. For most of us, it is hard to imagine the efforts of the many prospectors who wandered to and fro over the dry and desolate looking land trying to find the elusive sites which would produce the millions in gold, silver, platinum, copper, zinc, lead, etc. Prospectors had to learn what type of rock formation presaged the possibility of what mineral, and whether it was worth bringing specimens in from the desert to an assayer to see if their finds were worthwhile.
Of course, prospecting, of a sort, had been carried out by Indian tribes many years before. Deposits of obsidian, turquoise, and native metals were worked perhaps as much as a thousand years ago. In Clark County, a turquoise deposit in the Crescent mining district might have been worked as much as 600 years ago, based on copper bells found in the area which were made in Central America about that time. Trade routes would have brought the bells into what was later southern Nevada, and taken turquoise from our area as far south as today's Guatemala.
Our image of a prospector was developed in the nineteenth century in the desert southwest. He, and it was nearly always a he, was a lonely individual, often wandering the desert for months, looking for the next find. He would cover the same area over and over again, trying to find some mineralization which seemed promising. There were specific types of rock which they sought. If found, it could make the rest of their lives restful, or just provide a worthwhile and memorable drunk for a few days.
One of the first active prospectors in southern Nevada was Francis X. Aubry. Aubry was a merchant and explorer, who was born in Canada in 1824. He made his way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1846, where he worked as a merchant and freighter. He was successful, partially because he worked hard to move his goods to market faster than any of his contemporaries. In 1847, he started making two trips a year over the Santa Fe Trail, setting a record for covering the trail in 14 days, beating the old record by 10.5 days.
Convinced that he could break his own record, in 1848 he decided to make the trip three times from Santa Fe to Independence, Missouri. He made the first trip in 8 days and 10 hours, but still had a need for speed. On September 12, 1848, he decided to set a record which he thought could not be beaten. He left Independence with a copy of the local newspaper, which had written about his plans for a new record, and made it to Santa Fe on September 17, 5 days, 16 hours later. For this feat, he collected $5,000 on wagers, and became known as the "Skimmer of the Plains."
Settled now in Santa Fe, he looked for other routes. He eventually found a cutoff for the Santa Fe Trail which saved 52 miles of travel, and was named for him. In 1852, he decided to lead a freight wagon train to California. He went by way of Tucson, and then to Los Angeles and San Francisco. He returned to Santa Fe, prospecting along the way. He found gold along the Colorado River, in what was then New Mexico Territory and is today part of southern Nevada. It is Aubry who is considered the first to prospect such locations as Searchlight and Eldorado Canyon.
He was not able to follow up on his finds, as his next trip proved to be his last. He led a party herding 50,000 sheep to California, making it to Los Angeles in January 1854. On his return trip, he made it to Albuquerque where he ran into a newspaper editor, Richard H. Weightman. Weightman had written something about Aubry with which he took offence. When the ensuing discussion became a physical brawl, Aubry's gun misfired, and Weightman's knife did not, resulting in Aubry's demise.
We would not know today of his prospecting except for a lucky find. Looking through his personal effects, the diaries were found in his saddlebags, and saved. A part of the diaries were published in 1854, which led to an interest in part of a route he had found for a railroad, but the portions dealing with his prospecting were not published until 1975.
In his diaries, Aubry talked about the trip to California. When they reached the Colorado River, they moved north about five miles, and decided to cross the swift-moving stream. After fashioning a raft, it took the group five days to cross the river, so they camped along the shore. A Mexican boy with the part noticed some shiny flakes in the gravel, which turned out to be gold. Other members of the group, including Aubry, proceeded to pan some of the gravel, using tin cups. They found sufficient gold for Aubry to note it in his diaries with other findings in his diaries, but not enough to stop the progrewss of the wagon train.
Aubry was not a prospector, like those of later years who were solely focused on the ground. He was much more interested in trails and the eventual building of a railroad through the area. The gold find was a side-light on the journey. He was a merchant looking to be both successful in his field and the fastest over the land.
The next group of individuals who prospected through southern Nevada were intentional amateurs. These were soldiers from Ft. Mohave, in today's extreme southern Nevada. Between 1859 and 1861, many of the soldiers at Ft. Mohave tried their hands at prospecting for gold in the mountains along the Colorado River. Out of these men came an early prospector who was instrumental in building some of the southern Nevada mining districts of the 1860s. This was John Moss.
Moss was born in Utica, Iowa, in 1839. He made his way to California in 1857. By 1861, he was active in locating claims in Eldorado Canyon, in what was then New Mexico Territory. His claims, which included the Moss Ledge, helped create the Colorado Mining District, which later became the Eldorado Mining District.
Moss was also noteworthy for his interactions with the Indians in the Eldorado Canyon area. On probably his most notable trip, Chief Iretaba of the Paiute accompanied him all the way to Washington, D. C., to be presented to the President in 1864.
Moss was typical of many of the early prospectors. Liked being on his own without many other people around. He was interested in finding the claims, but not working them. He located dozens of claims in the area along the Colorado River, but sold them all without working them, often for substantial sums. He was also quite successful in finding claims in Eldorado Canyon, but by 1863 he decided it had become too crowded. He again sold his claims and moved south, continuing to stake claims and sell them.
In these early years, most prospectors sought gold. They looked for certain types of rock, especially quartz veins which might be exposed on the surface of a mountain side. With gravel near a water source, such as along the Colorado River, attempts would be made to placer mine the gravel to see if gold was present. The men involved in these efforts were basing much of their work on what had California's gold rush of a few years before, when placer mining was the earliest form of gold mining, and hard rock mining came next.
However, if there was money to be made, other minerals would also be sought. When Daniel Bonelli, a Swiss convert to the Church of Latter Day Saints who moved to the Muddy River area in the 1860s, was prospecting in the later 1860s and 1870s, one of his major finds was a huge belt of rock salt in the area near today's Gold Butte. Salt was a necessary mineral for gold processing, and Bonelli, who claimed and worked the area for awhile, shiped salt from the Gold Butte area to Eldorado Canyon. This salt ledge is now under Lake Mead.
Throughout the nineteenth century, prospectors ranged far and wide over the basins and ranges of southern Nevada. Other finds were sometimes notable, such as the borax found in Death Valley. Francis Marion "Borax" Smith exploited this find, having become quite an expert on borax starting the 1870s with an ulexsite find in Teel's Marsh near the ghost town of Marietta, Nevada, in Mineral County.
Borax was a mineral most prospectors were unaware of in their wanderings. In Death Valley, the first claim to a borax site was made in 1875 by Isadore Daunet. An earlier find than the Death Valley ones, was Searles Lake in the Searles Valley, a couple of valleys west of Death Valley. Originally located by John Wemple Searles in 1862, this site continues to produce borax, and many other chemicals and minerals today. Daunet's and Searles' finds did not stop Aaron and Rosie Winters from locating the largest find in Death Valley, though.
The Winters were not originally looking for borax, but when a stranger stopped by their dugout and joined them for dinner, he told them about the mineral. Rosie asked how you could tell whether a white powdery rock was borax; the stranger explained that when burned, it gave off a green flame. Later, Rosie remembered a patch of something white and powdery in Death Valley, so she and Aaron took off to check it. When they got to the large area, they tested the mineral, and found one of the largest borax sites in North America. They eventually sold their claim to W. T. Coleman, who employed Francis Smith, and the borax era in Death Valley took off.
The search for gold was not over, however, no matter what else was found. If you could make money on what you found, you would certainly make a claim, no matter what the mineral. In southern Nevada, one of the earliest lead mines was found another way many early claims were found - by having them pointed out by the Indians in the area.
In today's Clark County, Mt. Potosi is a notable landmark, and the site of one of the earliest Mormon mining efforts in the area. Known, for obvious reasons as the Potosi Mine, it was originally opened as a lead mine by Mormon miners. They were led to the site by a Paiute Indian, who was shown some ore of the type they sought. The Indian took them to the outcropping, and in 1856, mining started.
Unfortunately, the lead turned out to be laced with zinc. It did not melt well and did not produce usable bullets, one of the uses for which it had been sought. The Mormon miners did not stay long, leaving after less than a year. However, years later other prospectors came and recognized what was there, and mined lead and zinc from the site for many years.
One point this shows is the influence of finds on future prospectors. While most prospectors, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, looked for gold or silver, if there were other minerals to be exploited they were happy to look for them as well. For example, a copper find would bring prospectors looking for more veins of copper-bearing rock. A zinc find, like the one on Mt. Potosi, would lead to others looking for similar metals. In the case of Mt. Potosi, zince was one of the many metals taken out of the Yellow Pine Mining District in large quantities over the many years after the first find. Any find often brought prospectors looking for similar rock in similar locations.
By the turn of the century, many of the older gold and silver finds had been worked out. The boom towns of the late nineteenth century were shrinking or had closed altogether. Nevada was shrinking in population, though the plans for a new railroad in the south were to have a great impact. This railroad, the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City would lead to the creation of the community of Las Vegas, and new growth. While the railroad would many support commerce, about 100 miles north of the new railroad, a series of finds were to reinvigorate the mining industry in southern Nevada.
Near a spring known as Tonopah to the local Indians, a new gold rush brought prospectors back to southern Nevada. James L. "Jim" Butler, a rancher and attorney in Belmont, Nevada, as well as a part-time miner, was wandering the hills and valleys of central and southern Nevada in the spring of 1900. He knew the area well, having been through it many times over the years. On this trip, he found some interesting quartz-based ore, and brought some back to be assayed. What he had found would create the next great gold rush in southern Nevada and forever change the state.
Butler's initial find, when assayed, showed $206.00 in gold and 640 ounces of silver per ton of ore, an incredibly rich find. Butler, busy with his ranch (it was haying time), did not return to locate the claims until August of 1900. He returned to the spring site, locating a number of what would become very successful claims. Soon there after, word got out, and the rush was on.
Within a couple of years, claims in what became Goldfield were also located, and between the two areas the gold rush was on. Soon after that, Frank "Shorty" Harris and Ernest L. "Ed" Cross located some interesting green rock, which lead to the Bullfrog gold rush as well. Harris, who more than many others became an exemplar of the "single blanket jackass prospector" (as he asked to be carved on his headstone). He also became known for his inability to hold onto a great claim. When he and Cross got the stone assayed, it was obvious that they had found the next great lode.
In 1909, four years after his find, Shorty told his story in a reminiscence for the Rhyolite Herald newspaper, which was reprinted in Harold and Lucile Weight's booklet on Rhyolite. In it he said,
It does have to be noted, that Shorty's version of events does not square with versions told by Cross, who claimed to have found the first green rock. Either way, however, since there were only the two of them there, and they are both dead today, it is probably most correct to say they found the lode.
This story, though, gives an idea of the workings of the prospectors. They would wander, and may see interesting locations, quartz "blowouts" as Shorty noted, but not actually do anything with them for years. Sometimes, if they remembered what they had seen, they could come back year's later and might do quite well.
Cross was a good example of this. He held onto his half of the Bullfrog claim until he got $125,000 for it. This he used to buy a ranch for he and his wife near Escondido, California, where they lived until his death in 1958. Shorty was not so sensible.
Shorty went on a six-day bender, and when he was done, somehow he had sold his part of the claim. How much did he get is still somewhat questionable, with Shorty claiming various amounts from $500 to $25,000 over the years. According to Richard Lingenfelter in his Death Valley & the Amargosa, it was actually $1,000 that Shorty was paid. In any case, Shorty lost out on his one big claim, and continued to prospect in desert country for the rest of his life. He died in 1934, and his headstone bears the inscription he wanted.
Sometimes, the rock associated with gold or silver in one location would be sought elsewhere. A classic example is the mineral alunite. Alunite was located in Goldfield in close association with gold-bearing ore. The connection between alunite and gold ore was so close that when Professor Robert Hill found significant alunite deposits in the Railroad Pass area of the Vegas valley, he was able to get funding for a decades long search for gold. His lack of success did not stop ongoing investment until many years of effort, but the patented mine site he left behind did allow others to make money in the form of the Railroad Pass Casino, opened in 1931.
The art of prospecting in the west was one learned by men, and a few women, who were ready to live in very primitive conditions, wandering the mountains and deserts, looking for the next great find. When one was successful, many would try in the same vicinity, until they decided it was time to move on. It is to their efforts, however, many of the great strikes were indebted, and many of the fortunes were made from their locations.
To conclude, I would like to quote an answer made by Charles Labbe, a prospector, to a question about the difference between "exploring, jacassing, and Breyfogling," or various forms of prospecting -
There was a man who knew whereof he spoke!
For further reading, the brethren are hereby directed to the following volumes, utilized by the author of this extraordinary document you current hold in your quite probably sweaty hands -
Bastin, Edson S., and Laney, Francis B., The Genesis of Ores of Tonopah, Nevada, 1918, GPO
Belden, L. Burr, and Walker, Ardis Manly, Searles Lake Borax; 1862-1962, 1962, Death Valley '49ers, Inc.
Cartter, George R., Twilight of the Jackass Prospector; Death Valley Area Portraits of the 1930's, 1982, Sagebrush Press
Caruthers, William, Loafing Along Death Valley Trails, 1951, Desert Magazine Press
Chaput, Donald, Francis X. Aubry; Trader, Trailmaker and Voyageur in the Southwest, 1846-1854, 1975, Arthur H. Clark Company
Crampton, Frank A, Deep Enough; A Working Stiff in the Western Mine Camps, 1956, Sage Books
Elliott, Russell, R., Nevada's Twentieth-Century Mining Boom; Tonopah, Goldfield, Ely, 1966, University of Nevada Press
Farish, Thomas Edwin, History of Arizona, Volume 1, 1915, Filmer Brothers Electrotype ompany
Hewett, D. F.; Callaghan, Eugene; Moore, B. N.; Nolan, T. B.; Rubey, W. W.; and Schaller, W. T., Mineral Resources of the Region Around Boulder Dam, 1936, GPO
Labbe, Charles, Rocky Trails of the Past, 1960, C. H. Labbe, Las Vegas
Lingenfelter, Richard E., Death Valley & the Amargosa; A Land of Illusion, 1986, University of California Press
Malach, Roman, Adventurer John Moss; Gold Discovery in Mohave County, 1977, Mohave County Board of Supervisors
Weight, Harold and Lucille, Rhyolite; Death Valley's Ghost City of Golden Dreams, Ninth edition, 1980, Calico Press
Woods, Fred E., A Gamble in the Desert; The Mormon Mission in Las Vegas (1855-1857), 2005, Mormon Historic Sites Foundation
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