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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Legend of the Lost Gunsight Mine

Legends of lost treasure are always intriguing, aren’t they? California history has several legends of “lost” mines of gold and other valuable ores. That is to say, treasures accidently stumbled upon—but for whatever reason the discoverer lacked the wherewithal to fully explore or document a potential bonanza—that was never found again. Such is the tale of the Gunsight Silver Mine of Death Valley.

In October, 1849, a large group of would-be prospectors—many accompanied by their wives and children—gathered in Salt Lake City, bound for the rich gold mines in California, but it was far too late in the season to safely cross the Sierra Nevada before winter snows closed the passes. Then they heard of the Old Spanish Trail, a route that went around the south end of the Sierra, safe to travel in winter, and found someone knowledgeable to guide them over it: Captain Jefferson Hunt, who had led the Mormon Battalion to California over the same trail three years earlier. Calling themselves the San Joaquin Company, the group’s 107 wagons rolled out.

Some three weeks along, the company was losing patience with its leader: the pace he set was too slow, they thought. Then Captain Hunt failed to locate a water source he expected to find in the Escalante Desert, forcing them to backtrack to a previous campsite, which further eroded their confidence in him. On October 22 a pack train of trappers, led by Orson Smith, temporarily joined them. After hearing their complaints, Smith produced a hand-drawn map showing another route west that was supposedly 500 miles shorter. Already discontented, and despite Hunt’s warning that the alternate route would send them “walking into the jaws of hell” the party split, with most of the 107 wagons determined to take the shortcut.

The few who remained with Captain Hunt all arrived safely in California. The others—known collectively as the “Lost ‘49ers,” or the “Death Valley ‘49ers”—would end up splitting again … and again. The details of their extreme sufferings as they traversed Death Valley is another story; but one of them, a young man named Jim Martin, chanced upon a deposit of silver ore.

Some of the now-splintered party traveled along the furnace-like valley floor; others, including Jim Martin, decided to hike over the Panamint Mountains. Near starvation, Jim spotted an antelope moving among the rocks. He pulled his rifle, only to see that its gunsight was missing. In desperation he grabbed a thin, wire-like piece of shale that was nearby, wedging it into the slot where the gunsight should be, aimed and fired, killing the animal.

There is some belief that Jim Martin knew, when he picked it up, that the piece was silver ore. At the time, however, he and his exhausted, tattered companions had no interest in exploring riches; they just wanted to be delivered from hell. Weeks later, safe and sound in Southern California, Jim Martin took his rifle to a gunsmith for repairs. After carefully examining the piece Jim had used as a makeshift gunsight, the smith declared it was pure silver.

The story of Martin’s “discovery” quickly spread—no doubt inflating, with each retelling, the richness and extent of the lode somewhere out there in a wasteland—inciting a prospecting boom. Martin himself had no wish to return to the scene of his horrific experiences, but within a year others began searching the desert. Ten years later, a Doctor French organized an expedition, determined to find the now legendary Lost Gunsight Mine. Thirteen years after that, another trio set out. None of them found it.

In fact, although dozens of prospectors successfully found hidden wealth in Death Valley, and the trio in 1873 did come upon a ledge of silver in Surprise Canyon that contained silver ore assayed at $4,000 per ton, The Lost Gunsight Mine has never been found … and Death Valley’s greatest legend lives on.

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