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Mojave Desert History: Death Valley History

In Search of the Lost Gunsight Mine in 1869

A TRIP TO DEATH VALLEY
By George Miller


On April 12, 1869,I started from W. W. McCoy's ranch, now known as Crapton, in company with W. H. Rhodes, Paul Van Curen, Eugene Lander—a party of four with pack animals—for Death Valley, to look for the Gun-sight mine, so much talked of.

This man Rhodes was one of the survivors among the emigrants who came through Death Valley in 1849, and picked up the silver—which proved to be almost pure silver—out of which they made a gun-sight. Mr. Rhodes told me that two men, named Martin and Townsend, brought the ore into camp, at the place now known as Summit Camp, or Emigrant Pass, between Death Valley and the head of Panamint Valley, this being the second camp after they left their wagons. That was why it was called the Gun-sight mine.

The place where they left their wagons was about 18 miles west of the mouth of Furnace Creek, known as the Poison Springs, or Salt Springs, in Death Valley. From this place they went on foot, and drove their cattle loose— what they had left of them, for most of them had died. Their provisions were all gone, and all they had to live on was those poor cattle. They died more from starvation than they did for want of water. So Mr. Rhodes told me. This camp at the Summit Pass was the last camp they all made together. There they killed their cattle, and dried the meat, as best they could, to carry it along with them.

They broke up into small parties there. In Mr. Rhodes' party there were either 11 or 14—I have forgotten which. They had one old ox packed with their belongings and equipments. They had separated in small parties from one another, taking different directions. Mr. Rhodes and party —seven in all left alive from his party—arrived through Tehachepi Pass, or near Fort Tejon Pass, more dead than alive. These men, Martin and Townsend, got through on Kern River, and—I believe—then Walker's Pass. They were both murdered by some Spaniards afterwards. I do not think that Rhodes ever saw them from the time he left them at Summit Camp in Death Valley. The snow fell on them in that camp about 4 inches deep.

Mr. Rhodes told me that before they separated at this place they divided up the money they had, each taking what he wanted, and dumped the rest in a blanket, about $2,000.00 or $2,500.00, and buried it under a greasewood bush. While we were there, we made good search to find the money, but unfortunately there had been a cloud-burst on that side of the pass, which had obliterated everything from that side of the canyon where they buried the money. 20 yards away on the other side of the canyon the charcoal from the camp-fires was still there, and the bones of their dead cattle were there. These pesky cloud-bursts in the desert regions are common occurrences.

This was the camp where the silver ore was brought in. Mr. Rhodes told me that he did not know whether these men found the ledge of ore, or whether they just picked up the float that they brought into camp. He said that he held it in his own hands, and that it was silver. But what interested them the most just then was the question whether the Lord would spare their lives, and let them get back once more into civilization.

Now, when we left San Bernardino, four of us in one party, only three of us had pack-animals, Van Curen having just a saddle horse. We went out through the Cajon Pass and down on the Mojave River, four miles below the point of rocks there, leaving the river, and going in a northerly direction, with no road. The first camp we made after leaving the Mojave River was on the summit north of the dry lake that lies East of Fremont Peak, a dry camp among the Yucca Palms. There Van Curen's horse got away during the night. So I unpacked my mule for him to ride, and we divided up our packs, taking some of our things behind our riding saddles. I threw my pack-saddle up in a Yucca Palm, and I guess it is there yet. I have never been back since. We went on our way out by Granite Springs. There we came upon the first Indian sign—some Indian tracks, a few days old. We did not see any Indians. They were not very peaceable at that time. We had to stand guard after that, as there were only four in our party, but we were fairly well armed. I had a breechloading rifle beside a sixshooter. The other boys had one sixshooter each, and Van Curen had two. They were all of the cap and ball type, or what we called the muzzle-loader.

We went on our way, travelling northward. Sometimes we would have an old Indian trail, sometimes none. We went through what they call the Slate Range, and on into Panamint Valley, up the Panamint Valley West; then North up Wild Rose Canyon, to the summit between Death Valley and Panamint Valley. Then we turned East on the summit, and North of Telescope Peak. There we got too far North, and could not get into Death Valley. We went back southward toward Telescope Peak, on the West side of the canyon, that came down from the Peak, on a big slide that put into the canyon going East. We let our animals down the slide one at a time. We led the animal, one on either side, and slid him to the bottom of the canyon.

There I picked up a piece of ore, almost pure lead. It would weigh about 20 Ibs.—very little quartz in it, or quartz-rock—almost the pure stuff. I was a little excited when I picked it up, being right in the vicinity where the silver ore, that we had come to look for, was found. I handed a piece to Rhodes. He looked at it with a smile, and said, "George, you think you have struck it." I answered, "Haven't I?" He answered, "That is lead. We don't want anything that we can't carry out on packs, and make pay." He was a good judge of ore, and he said to me, "Come out home with me on the Colorado River, and I will give you a lead mine. All you will have to do is to cart it down to the river, and load it on a boat." But nevertheless I took a piece of it, and had it assayed. It proved to be 72 p. c. lead, and 10 p. c. silver. So he knew what he was talking about.

We continued on East from there, and got into Death Valley, East of Telescope Peak. We then went up the Valley North by the Bennet Wells. Mr. Bennet, the father of Judge Rolf's first wife, was among the survivors of the emigrants, I spoke of. Marthy and Matty Bennet—I knew them both—the two daughters. Both of them were little short women, about four feet high. We went on up the valley through the saleratus and salt. It was clear, like ice. We estimated it as being four feet deep. The horses would hardly make a foot-print on it. I have been told that it has proven to be borax, and has all been located, and worked since.

We went on up what they called Furnace Creek, where these emigrants came in to Death Valley. There we saw the first live Indian. We had seen lots of tracks of Indians, but never could get sight of one. This fellow had seen us before we saw him. He was running across a dry lake against the wind. His hair was streaming straight out behind him. All the clothes he had on was what we called a Gee-string, and it, like his hair, was fluttering to the wind. We never bothered him.

We went on into the mouth of Furnace Creek. There we found the tracks of the emigrants' wagons, and the cattle tracks, plain to be seen. Following over those alkali flats you could see them for hundreds of yards ahead of you. We followed on until we came to the Poison Springs —some call them the Salt Springs—about 15 miles West of Furnace Creek in Death Valley. That was the place where Rhodes' party left their wagons. The Indians had burnt the wagons, but the irons, logchains, skeins, staples from their ox-yokes, and linch-pins from their wagon axles, were there. Some wagons had gone on far West up the valley. We followed on some eight or nine miles further. The tracks did not look more than six months old. We came to a sandhill, about the size of Ferris Hill, where our City works are. The hill was sand blown up over the tracks since the wagons had gone along. We went on around the mountain, and found a continuation of the track. It went to show that the mountain had been made since the wagons had gone along. We followed on a short distance farther, and the wagon tracks disappeared in the sand. We could not find any more traces of them. We were then near what appeared to be the upper end of Death Valley, this point being North about 12 miles from Summit Pass. We then went back to Summit Pass, or Grape-Vine Spring, Northeast from the Pass, about seven miles. We stayed there and prospected for a few days, and then moved up about two miles nearer the Summit, at the Doves' Spring. We were closer to grass, there being a big mesa on the Summit, covered with bunch grass.

There had been an old Indian village there, some time or other, from the appearance. There were on the rocks images of animals, resembling ancient pictures, one representing a goat. They were written on the rocks with some kind of indelible paint.

We stayed there some time, prospecting between the two valleys. We then went back to Salt Springs, and took up the wagon-trail. We followed it to where we lost it the first time. We could not find any further traces of it.

We went on into some mesquite timber, with a lot of cane grass—quite a large opening with grass. Just as we went into this grass opening, on the edge of the mesquite, we found a little hole of water with a basket sitting in it, and Indians' tracks about. The wind was blowing, and sand and dust were flying about. There were only a few grains of sand in the basket, and the Indians' tracks were fresh. We were satisfied that the Indians were close by. Rhodes said to me, "George, you have the only rifle. Take one of the boys with you, and track them up. I will take the animals with Van Curen back to the opening, out of reach of their arrows." I went ahead, and Lander followed me. I saw that there were but three tracks, and, when we got about 50 yards, I saw something dark in a mesquite bush. I whispered to Lander, and told him I thought it was the Indians. I bade him keep a sharp look out all around, and said that I would keep my eye on them. Sure enough it proved to be the Indians—one buck and two squaws. They had no weapons—bows and arrows— and they lay there as if they were dead. I spoke to them, and told them to come out. They would not move or answer. I then went in to the buck, and took him by the arm, and led him to the horses, and the squaws followed. Rhodes could talk good Spanish, and Van Curen could talk Piute, but we could not get a word out of them, or even a grunt.

While we were advising what to do, the buck Indian began to walk back and forth, and put one hand up over his head, looking toward the mountain. Rhodes said, "He is making signs, there are more Indians about." We looked in the direction that he was looking, and there, coming down the mesa on the run, were about 35 Indians, all armed with bows and arrows, making straight for us. Rhodes said, "Keep cool, boys; don't get excited. I expect they will get us, but we will stay together, and we will give them the best we have got, and get as many of them as they do of us." When they got within 200 yards, Rhodes shouted in Spanish for them to stop. They stopped. One of their party could talk Spanish. He and Rhodes talked back and forth, and the Indian said that he had a letter from a white man, and he was a good Indian, and held up the letter so that we could see it. Rhodes told them that, if they were friendly to us, they must lay down their arms before the could come any closer to us. They did not want to do that. So Rhodes told them that they must leave their weapons there, if they were friends. They parleyed awhile. Finally Rhodes said to them, "If you are friends, lay down your weapons, and come on, and we will unpack a mule, and get you something to eat, and show you we are friends. If you come any closer to us with your weapons, we will open fire on you." About half of them threw down their arms, and started toward us. When they got within 50 yards, Rhodes met them. The one that had the letter came in advance of the others, and handed Rhodes the letter. He was the only one of them that had any clothes on. The rest of them wore nothing but a Gee-string. Rhodes came back to us, and read the letter. It ran something like this. "To whom it may concern—This Indian worked for me at the Coso mines. He is a treacherous scamp; don't trust him." From the looks of the bunch, the recommendation suited to the dot.

Rhodes unpacked one of the mules with the provisions, to get them something to eat. "He told them to come on, and he stopped them about twenty yards from us. He told them to stay there until he had prepared a meal for them. Rhodes told us not to allow them to come any closer. They might jump on us, and try to overpower us, and take away our arms from us, that being an old trick of the Indians. We managed to keep them back until the meal was prepared. Then he took it out to them, and spread it upon the ground for them. The others, who had not come in yet, could not resist any longer. They threw their weapons on the ground, and came on, and joined in the feast. Judging from the looks of them, they needed it. They looked as if they had never had a square meal!" After devouring about a month's supply of our provision, they were in a better spirit to talk. We told them what we came for, and that we wanted to be friends with them. We would like one of them to go along with us, and show us about where they found water and grass. We offered to pay one of them so much money, and a suit of clothes, to go with us. They were not favorable to that proposition, but we forced the thing a little on them, and promised to give the man all he wanted to eat. We got out the suit of clothes, and put them on one of them, and closed the bargain, by agreeing to bring him back on a certain date to his home. When we parted from our friends with our Indian, Rhodes told them that we would keep our word in good faith, but that, if they attempted to do us harm, we would kill the Indian with us first, and as many more as we could of them.

With these words we parted, we travelling West to some small rolling hills. This seemed to be the upper end of Death Valley. We went on through a kind of wash, and the valley opened up again larger than ever. The Funeral Range was more prominent than ever, and the valley seemed to widen, and continued on in a northerly direction.

We had been standing guard before this, each a halfnight at a time. Now a new order of things began, since our new companion arrived. Rhodes made a bedfellow of him. I told him that, if he would sleep with the Indian, I would stand guard in his place. Our pilot took us on up the valley some distance—I think about 45 miles. We turned in North to the foot of the Funeral Range, where a big black round mountain stood out toward the valley. Like all the rest of that range, there was not a bush or a living thing—just the black glistening rock. When we got a short distance from the mountain, I heard a kind of squeaking noise. I looked up and saw a wild duck, with an Indian arrow sticking through the lower part of its breast, flying about. I called the boys' attention to it. The Indian pointed to the mountain—to a kind of depression or canyon—and I saw the top of a cotton-wood tree. Pretty soon I could see a little grassy glade. The Indian wanted us to stop, and let him go on up. We would not do that, but told him to halloo out. He did so, and an Indian stuck his head in sight. And then they began poking their heads up all around. Our Indian talked with him a few minutes, and then the other Indian commenced. He talked about ten minutes. He seemed to be very mad. Finally about eight of them came down closer to us, about 50 yards away. They parleyed awhile. Then they beckoned to us to come on. We went on up to the tree and grass, about 100 yards from them, and about the same distance from the hill. A little stream of water ran down through the grass, and we pitched camp under the tree. We built breast-works of our saddles and of rocks that were there, and tied our horses close in to camp. The Indians, about 20 in number, gathered together a short distance from us, and sat down in a circle, and talked in very low tones to one another. As soon as we got things fixed around camp, I walked over to see what was going on.

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I found that there was quite a stream of water running there. They had put in a dam, across the stream, and backed the water up, and formed a pond, and had built blinds of the tules that grew there. They were all shooting wild ducks from the blinds they had built in the pond. There was a considerable number of ducks there. The buck Indians would sit in those blinds, and, as the ducks swam up to them, they would kill them. The squaws would skin them with their fingers. Then they would take their long thumb-nails, and strip every bit of meat from the bone, and lay the meat in the sun to dry. They would throw the guts on the fire, and roast them and eat them, then and there. The dried meat they ground up in a mortar that they used for that purpose. They would grind up mesquite beans, tule roots, and other seeds, with a little dried duck's meat, and lizards. When they were ground and mixed up, in a conglomerate mess, into a dough, they spread it out to dry in cakes for bread later on.

We now had to work pur way back in order to get our Indian friend home on time agreed to by us previously. When we got back to within a mile or so from where we first took the Indian, we turned South West up a narrow canyon with very steep cliffs on either side, about wide enough to drive a wagon through. We travelled on about a mile up the canyon. It opened up into a more rolling country, the main canyon running South with cottonwood trees and plenty of water. We traveled on to the head of this canyon, and came to the home of our Indian friend. There was quite a cienega there, both water and grass.

We came upon them quite unexpectedly. They were busy gambling. They had a little track, or trail, about 30 yards long, made perfectly smooth, like a path, and with a small hoop, made of small willow branches, woven or wound in a circle, with a hole about two inches wide through it. Each Indian had a stick about two feet long, sharpened to a point at both ends. They would roll that hoop, or ring, through the path made for it, and from either side they would throw those sharpened sticks through the hole in the ring or hoop. That is how they were gambling.

They were glad to see us with their Indian brother. They saw that we had taken good care of him, and that we had put some flesh on his bones. The Indian, who had the letter of recommendation, was there, but in a different mode of dress. He had gambled all his clothes away. One had his hat, one his shoes, and one had his shirt, and others his pants and coat. He was dressed up in his Gee-string. We stayed there that afternoon and one night.

There I saw a freak of nature that I shall never forget. One of the squaws carried a child in a net on her back. Her breasts reached down to her thighs. She would lift her breast over her shoulder and let the baby, that was in the net on her back, nurse.

The next morning we left that camp. One Indian was moving his family to another place, and went along with us, until we came to a trail that led back East to the head of Panamint Valley. That was the last we saw of our Indian friends.

We went on into Panamint Valley, up Wild Rose Canyon, North over the summit, on the Death Valley side, to the Grape Vines Springs. We prospected about; found plenty of good-looking quartz, but nothing that would pay to pack out on mules. Our provisions were now gone—not a thing left. I killed a jack-rabbit, and a few birds and a hawk. It was too tough to eat. So we prepared to start home next morning.

The next morning, just before daylight, a man came along down the Wash. We halted him. It proved to be a white man. He and his party had come in the evening before from Sierra Gorda, Inyo County, looking for the same mine that we were after. So we went back up to their camp at the Doves' Spring with him, and told him our condition. We got a supply of provisions from them at just what it cost them in Independence, Inyo. We then joined them in search for the Gun-sight mine there.

Then Rhodes, Van Curen and Lander, started back for San Bernardino. I let Van Curen keep my mule to ride home on. I stayed with the other party a week or 10 days, and then one of their party, by the name of Jake Phold, and myself started for Lone Pine, Owen's River, intending to go on to White Pine, where there was mining excitement. When we got to Sierra Gorda at the head of Owen's Jake Phold got a letter from his partner at White Pine, telling him to stay home; and that he was coming back as that country was overrun. So I went to work in a smelting-furnace, for a man by the name of Belshaw, at $4.00 a day. There I met a man, by the name of Sam Bell, with whom I was well acquainted down here. He worked for Frank Talmadge at the mill. I also met a man by the name of Callaghan, who worked for John Brown, Senr in the Cajon Pass on the toll road. I worked there till the furnace brick melted out, and they had to stop for repair. I went on up to Independence, Owen's River. There I met Joseph Payne, and Willard, and David Wixom. I worked for Payne a while. I then went on to Fort Independence, and cut hay for a man by the name of Matthews. I then went up to the Black Rock Saw-mill, and cut logs for the mill until Fall. Then I came home by the way of Los Angeles.

I might state for the benefit of some, who may read this, how those emigrants got into Death Valley. They had started from the Eastern States for California by the way of Salt Lake. They could not cross the Sierra Nevada mountains up North on account of snow. So Capt. Jefferson Hunt agreed to pilot them through on the old Santa Fe trail. Mr. Hunt is the father of Mrs. Edward Daley, Sr, living now in San Bernardino. They got out on the desert about Amargosa, and they became dissatisfied. They thought he was taking them too far South, and some of them rebelled, and would not follow him, and went farther West on their own account, and got lost. Those who stayed with Mr. Hunt came in all right. Others who had undertaken to follow, when they came to where the wagon-tracks separated, did not know which way to go, and became lost in the desert. When Mr. Hunt got in, he reported the facts, and they got up a party, and went to the rescue, and brought back all they could find. Fin Slaughter was one of the rescue-party. He lived at Rincon, or Chino.

(from The Historical Society of Southern California quarterly, Volume 11)


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