California Desert trips,interesting places to visit: ghost towns, old mines, lost treasure, personalities and bits of the old west


The desert is sort of my second home. The places described below are special and worth visiting provided you know the story. That's what this blog is all about. Now I have tried as best I can to be factual but sometimes you hate to let facts get in the way of a good yarn.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Fig Tree John's Lost Gold Mine

Now I’m not one to put much stock in stories about lost mines or buried treasure, but I figure any tale about Fig Tree John whether true or not is worth telling. The story that I am about to give you is not well known and except for a few early articles in Desert Magazine has not, to my knowledge, been published.

JuanitoRazon (Little John) was a member of the Cahuilla group of Indians that, in early times, lived throughout the Coachella Valley of Riverside County. As the “whites” began to settle in the area, the natives were encouraged to move to reservations established by the government. When the shuffle came, Little John decided that he was not going to move and so remained on his plot of land located at the edge of the Salton Sea. He held strong views regarding protection of ones private property. Those who happened onto his land, for what ever reason, without permission could be faced by an angry Indian threateningly waving an ancient unloaded Winchester rifle. They say his disposition was generally friendly but unpredictable and a lot depended on how he viewed his situation at a given time. If you needed help or wanted to do a little horse trading he could be outgoing and friendly. He was always willing to give a helping hand to folks in trouble especially if they needed to have their vehicle towed out of the desert. In these cases, for a small fee, he’d hitch the vehicle to his mules and pull it into the town of Mecca where repair services were available.

There is some dispute about his age. Most agree that he lived to be over 100 years of age. He died in 1927 so that would place his birth date at around the1820s or 30s. He must have witnessed a lot of changes in the settlement of the West including Spanish, Mexican and early American periods of occupation. He may have been the native whom Lieutenant Parke encountered in 1853 on his expedition across the South West to determine the best route for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Early maps including AAA (Riverside County 1922) and Blackburn (Imperial County 1950) show a small dot on the old highway and note it -- “Fig Tree John’s” His name came from a fig orchard that he cultivated on his property near a spring: the only figs grown in the valley at that time. Over the years, this isolated dot became a well known watering hole for those traveling by automobile and needing to fill their radiator before heading south to the Imperial Valley. The spring was located on the east side of highway 86, one mile north of the Riverside/Imperial county line at: lat 33.436 north; Lon 116.043 east.

On special occasions and when greeting visitors at his home, he would dress up by putting on a US Army coat with large brass buttons and a black silk stovepipe hat. It was rumored that the coat was a gift from an army officer whom he befriended. For a pesso he would pose for a picture and sometime he would allow his wife and children to be included. They say the size and shape of his feet suggested that he had never worn shoes. He was quite a sight, a real character and you can believe he knew it.

In 1905, the Colorado River broke through the gates that controlled the flow of water that irrigated croplands in the Imperial Valley. As a result, the Salton Sea began to fill and eventually the water reached Little John’s orchard and home forcing him to move his family to a site three miles to the northwest at a place called Agua Dulce. He planted a new orchard and remained at Agua Dulce for the rest of his life but he never gave up his claim to the original Fig Tree Spring.

There were some who believed that Fig Tree John had a secret source of gold. Gene Hill, owner of a general store in Mecca, said that Fig Tree John sometimes paid for his purchases with raw gold. A local prospector stated that some of the elders among the Cahuillas that he had talked to believed it. As you might expect, after John’s death the story took on mythic proportions similar to many other lost gold cashes of the “Old West.” Fig Tree John’s son, Johnny Mac, when asked about his father’s gold mine was reported to have said, “maybe yes maybe no.” And that’s the way it stands –some believed the story but most didn’t.

In 1903, H.E.W. Wilson prospected in the Santa Rosa Mountains and camped at a spring called “Palm Oases” by the natives. He was searching for Pegleg Smith’s mythical stash of black gold. Some believed that there was connection between the two lost treasures and that these characters were actually partners.

In the 1930s, the famous desert artist and writer John Hilton ventured into the Santa Rosa Mountains in search of Fig Tree John’s lost mine. He was accompanied by Ben Toro a Cahuilla Indian who’d grown up hunting bighorn sheep by following ancient Indian trails throughout these mountains. According to Ben’s grandfather, Fig Tree John got water for his mine from a palm spring called “Palm Oases” located in a canyon.

I believe the trail took Hilton and Toro up Barton Canyon located south of Rabbit Peak. According to his story, as they round a bend in the canyon they abruptly arrived at the palm oasis mentioned by Ben’s grandfather. After some searching for evidence of a mine, Hilton’s attention turned to other interesting minerals that he found along the walls of the canyon and surrounding area including garnets, graphite in limestone, and wollastonite.

A friend of Hilton’s told him about two prospectors that worked a claim near the spring. The two had constructed a crude smelter near their camp. They kept to themselves and didn’t divulge where their claim was located. On a later trip, Hilton returned with this friend but they couldn’t find any evidence of the camp which they figured had been washed away.

Well that’s the story of Fig Tree John’s lost gold mine as best I can tell it. I’m thinking of taking a hike up Barton Canyon -- maybe next winter. John Hilton mentioned some other surprises that might still be found around the Oases or farther up the canyon. You just never know what a good flash flood down that canyon might uncover.



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