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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Pegleg's Lost Mine

Few things inflame men’s imaginations as the idea of a hidden fortune in gold— so the tale of Pegleg Smith and his lost gold mine has continued to thrill treasure-seekers for the better part of two centuries. Born Thomas Long Smith, but known to all as “Pegleg” from the day in 1827 he began wearing a wooden stump to replace his amputated lower left leg, Smith was a fur trapper in the southern Rockies. He was also a hard drinker, a brawler, a spinner of tall tales, and a skilled frontiersman who kept on trapping despite his disability. In 1828, Smith joined a small party to trap the lower Virgin and Colorado rivers, where beaver was still abundant. After accumulating a hefty pile of furs, the group decided that two of their party would go to Los Angeles to sell it; Smith and another trapper set out through a sun-parched, arid landscape with pack mules. According to Pegleg’s later account, he climbed to the top of a butte to search for signs of distant water, and found the whole hilltop covered with black-coated stones. Striking one against a larger piece exposed a yellow surface he thought might be copper, and he put some of the smaller pieces in his pocket. In Los Angeles the men sold their furs—and Pegleg claimed an assay of his rocks proved they were solid gold! Strangely, he wasn’t interested in going back to stake a claim because he had “other things to do.” These “things” included a bout of heavy drinking, a fight with a prominent citizen, and the earned enmity of the locals. Ordered to leave town, Pegleg embarked on a new career as a horse thief. He settled in Utah until the California Gold Rush lured him back, apparently reigniting his interest in locating the desert butte where he professed he had found the black-varnished gold twenty-one years earlier. In the autumn of 1850 Pegleg organized a party of prospectors in a fruitless search for his elusive mine. Five years later he tried again, but was again unsuccessful. He spent his last years in San Francisco, supported by friends and well supplied with whiskey, always eager to regale strangers with tales of his lost gold. When he died in October 1866, the legend only grew larger. Over the decades, many men have tried and failed to locate Pegleg’s lost mine: in western Imperial Valley, eastern San Diego County, the Santa Rosa Mountains, and in the twisted maze called the Borrego Badlands. Some, however, insist that it lies farther east in the Chocolate Mountains. Is Pegleg’s tale fact or fable? His lost gold may or may not exist, but legends die hard. #California #history

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