PEGLEG SMITH'S LOST GOLD
His tale of riches, repeated numerous times over the years, goes something like this: While on a beaver trapping expedition in Arizona, Smith and a companion reached the Colorado River near what is now Yuma Arizona and from there proceeded across California’s desolate and uninhabited southern desert. They traveled on horse back with bales of hides packed on mules that trailed behind. They hoped to find a market for beaver pelts in Los Angeles.
On the way, they encountered a severe sandstorm and soon became lost. When the wind subsided, Smith climbed one of three small hills to determine which direction they should head. He picked up some small black stones which he thought contained copper. Years later he became aware that the items in his pocket were nuggets of pure gold encrusted with some dark mineral. This is the essence of what has, for over 170 years, been told and retold. Details vary, but it’s generally believed by most that the mine, if it exists, will be found either on the east side of the Imperial Valley near the Chocolate Mountains or on the west side in the Borrego foothills somewhere near the monument dedicated to Smith’s memory.
After plowing through 15 articles and untold letters to the editor of Desert Magazine, I decided, against my better judgment, to try and find the truth about Smith and his many adventures. As those of you among my limited readership know, I’ve avoided stories about lost gold mines and buried treasure. But Pegleg Smith has become so much a part of desert lore that I decided to give it a shot.
Thomas L Smith was born in Kentucky in 1801 and died in San Francisco in 1866. That’s a fact, take my word for it.
In 1824, he joined a wagon caravan heading for Santa Fe, New Mexico which, at that time, was part of Mexico. He left the caravan at Taos and with three other trappers headed for the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. At the end of that season he returned to Taos with stories of his travel through central Utah’s Sevier Valley up to where the Green joins the Colorado River. [Hutchings’ Illustrated California Magazine, July 1860]
During the 1826-27 season, Smith joined an expedition into Arizona led by the famous “mountain man” and trapper Ewing Young. Their course wandered through tributaries of the Salt River and down the Gila to its junction with the Colorado River near the present town of Yuma. The homeward leg took them up the Colorado River and on into Utah. Smith is specifically named as being a member of this expedition. [“The sketch of the Life of George C Yount”] As far as I can tell, this was the only time that he was in the Yuma area and there’s no mention of his leaving the group with a companion for a desert trip to Los Angeles. Smith’s account of this expedition [San Francisco daily Evening Bulletin, Oct. 26, 1866] is fairly close to that of George Yount. At the close of this season, Smith returned to St. Louis where he remained only a short time.
All 1827-28 expeditions by Americans were forced by the authorities to confine their trapping to areas outside of what was then Mexico. During this season, Smith partnered with a group trapping the area north of the Platte River in Colorado. It was on this trip that Smith lost his foot and the lower part of his leg. As he tells it, “I was ambushed by an Indian and shot in the leg”. After the leg was successfully amputated, the party waited around and when Smith refused to die, they slung him between two horses and continued on to the north. Bad weather forced them to take winter quarters near the Colorado-Wyoming border. Smith emerged in the spring with a wooden stump that he had whittled out of an oak sapling and a new name.
Smith tells a reporter that during the 1829 season he and his partners trapped the Santa Clara and Rio Virgin rivers in Utah. “As the season was not half over, it was decided that two of the party should take the spoils to Los Angeles and dispose of them. Smith was one of those commissioned to perform the duty as it was considered to be extra hazardous. He was successful and was so pleased with the country that he determined to make it his future home”. [San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, October 26, 1866]. If true, the two trappers probably followed the Spanish Trail across the Mojave and through Cajon Pass and not, as some believe crossed the southern route through Imperial Valley. No mention of finding black gold on this trip.
By 1840, the fur trade had reached an end forcing the “mountain men” to find other ways to survive in order to remain in the West. A few, including Pegleg Smith, began stealing horses from ranches in the southern and central parts of California. Spanish records suggest that Smith was feared by the authorities who referred to him as El Cojo, the lame one. The raids continued until the end of the war with Mexico and accession of California to the United States. [Pieced together by David Lavender, “Bent’s Fort”. 1954]
He tried his luck in the Sierra gold fields and in 1850 decided to go south find some partners, get outfitted and start to look for his lost hills of gold. “He penetrated as far as Warner’s Ranch, where a band of Indians swooped down on his train and stole everything that they did not kill, leaving only Pegleg and his mule to survive the expedition”. [The Examiner, San Francisco, Feb. 21, 1892]
Smith spent his final years in San Francisco wandering along Montgomery Street spinning yarns and, for the price of a shot of whisky, entertaining his listeners with an Indian war-whoop. [San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, Oct. 26, 1866]
What about Black gold? “As far as I know there is no black gold. The nature of gold is that it does not discolor, tarnish, oxidize, decompose, corrode or otherwise mix with hardly any other substance…” so says an interpreter speaking for the California State Mining and Mineral Museum.”
There is a lot we don’t know about the man. But from what I’ve uncovered so far I doubt that there ever was a lost black gold stash. I kind of hope I’m wrong, you know, those of us who write about the West don’t want to spoil a perfectly good yarn especially one as old as this.