I thought of this twitching prospector and the chicken holding prospector and the dead, headless prospector and said, ‘it would seem to me that the solitude of working in the wild is not healthy for a man.’
–Patrick Dewitt, The Sisters Brothers
The incidental reading of Dewitt actually pales before the sordid reality experienced in Arizona with all of its killings over base metals. They have no grace or humor. Finding out about the history of the Superstitions though…I’m not sure I know of a more sustained story of greed and murder stretching across the years. Those old Wild West ‘antics’ just make you sad even when they have the same veneer as Victorian sepia prints, but they sure ain’t so palatable when taking place in the late 1950s.
All of it is set against the backdrop of the magnificent Sonoran Desert, and part of me just can’t understand how such beauty and its clean, if fierce, struggle for life didn’t straighten all these people out. It’s a particularly human madness, this lust for gold, it doesn’t make sense in the desert.
Of course the greed and murder all started with the conquest of Arizona first by Spain, and then by the U.S. (stripping both Spanish land grants and ancestral tribal lands) — structural, expansionary greed backed by the geopolitics of nations, a mixture of armies and missionaries and people desperate to build a better life all come together to conquer and colonise. Any amount of violence occurring after that can hardly be surprising on this bedrock of force used to confer rights. This is what is left out of most accounts of the west along with Jane Eppinga’s Apache Junction and the Superstition Mountains, upon which most of the following is based. Nothing about this death-dealing race to mineral wealth is natural, it is rather twisted around a sordid history of genocide and a larger seizure of land and resources.
It’s a strange bug, prospecting. One I know well because my dad was always out in the hills with Jim and Harold and Frank and Don, looking for copper and gold. I used to go with them sometimes, I’ve staked claims and filed them with the Bureau of Land Management. It is hard, dirty work. I loved those days, up early and into the truck and out for the whole day in a desert free of other human beings. Of course actually marking our claims once likely places were found always seemed to involve plowing through a whole lot of white-thorn acacias, so we definitely marked them in blood. At least it was always our own.
For my dad and his friends, it was as much about camaraderie, heading out into the desert in the old 4X4 Ford, exploring old back roads and mining lore. Adventure ahead with every sparkle of epidote and every fault and fracture, and the glimmer of an escape from the toil of working-class life. They worked damned hard, they deserved an escape. They knew this probably wouldn’t be it. That wasn’t the point.
This is what I have always loved about prospecting, and probably what draws the folks who continue to live in places like Apache Junction, Clifton, Tucson, Miami, Globe (and small towns across Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada), reworking old mines, seeking out new ones, panning for gold. There are still lots of them out there.
Jacob Waltz (probably), and several of those who followed him, were just a bit different. A German immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in 1846, he became yet another lone prospector in Arizona in 1861 in the face of Apaches bravely fighting to keep their lands, as well as other prospectors seeking instant wealth. Supposedly he and his partner Jacob Wieser found a rich vein of gold, Wieser died shortly thereafter. Waltz claimed Apaches killed him, but that sounds quite a convenient story to me. Rumour has it he killed up to eight others.
But then there’s another source states he was harmless, and lived the end of his life in poverty: ‘Contrary to stories of hoarded gold, he lived out his final years on his homestead at Henshaw Road (Buckeye Road) and 7th Street in poverty. He literally sold himself into peonage by deeding his property to a neighbor in exchange for that neighbor’s taking care of him for the rest of his natural life.’
Yet another source has Wieser escaping the Apache attack wounded, being taken care of by a Pima medicine man. Giving him a map to the treasure.
These conflicting accounts and more are from Jack San Felice’s rundown of accounts, which is very thorough indeed. There could be no better testament to the way that the mythical (and violent) west has been spun out over time.
Somewhere in the growth of this myth of the ‘Lost Dutchman Mine’, the German became a Dutchman (or Deutchman?).
Waltz never fully worked his claim or sold it, supposedly he simply lived off the gold. Eppinga follows one thread of the possible story in this, where Waltz was cared for in old age and sickness by Julia Thomas, a baker, who supposedly received a large sum of money from him to save her business and directions to his claim given her just before he died in 1891.
She was an African American woman out here on the frontier, she would have possibly been born during times of slavery, she owned a home, supported herself and cared for others. Yet there is no picture of her, no history. She is a footnote to a quest, and to me far more interesting than a lost mine. Another key storyteller of the Lost Dutchman is Tom Kollenborn, he writes this of her partnership with the Petrasches to find the gold:
Toward the end of the third week, the expedition collapsed from exhaustion and the lack of food and water. The search for the Waltz’s mine was abandoned and the three returned to Phoenix defeated and unsuccessful. A local newspaper, the Arizona Weekly Gazette, noted the expedition with the following excerpt on September 1, 1892, “A Queer Quest, Another Lost Mine Being Hunted By A Woman.”
This prospecting venture reduced Julia Thomas to financial ruin. She and the Petraschs were in a somewhat destitute situation with no source of income or a place to reside. Julia soon parted company with the Petraschs and married a farm laborer named Albert Schaffer on July 26, 1893.
At Schaffer’s encouragement, Julia produced maps with what information she could remember. She became very resourceful and began producing excellent maps illustrating how to locate the lost gold mine of Jacob Waltz. These fraudulent sheets of paper were probably the first maps to the Dutchman’s Lost Mine.
I love that there is no known picture of Waltz, but a large collection of pictures that could be him. I love that there is not one map, but loads of them. Here they are collected in the Superstition Mountain Museum (so worth a visit if you are in the area, words can’t describe it, and there are even more maps on another wall):
They are drawn on paper, and incised into clay with sections that are removable like so many mythical map halves to buried treasure.
Eppinga’s book is quite an amazing collection of photographs with detailed captions as are most of the ‘Images of America’ series, but there is less introduction here than in others and some of the captions a little repetitive. I wished it had been a little more chronological, instead it jumps around though the content is essentially all the same whether placed in chapters titled ‘Coronado’s Children’ or ‘Miners and Madmen’. There is page after page of weathered old men (and one or two women) who walked the Superstition mountains in search of gold.
The second murder came in 1931, when another German immigrant went missing. The elderly Adolph Ruth was working off a map received from his son Erwin. According to the book Erwin had been fired from a car-dealership in Texas, worked for the Mexican President eradicating ticks, met a guy named Gonzalez in prison and helped his family across the border. All that resulting in possession of a treasure map. Everything about these stories is hard to believe. Still, an archaeological expedition found his father’s skull a good distance from the body, and the forensic expert stated the hole through it was caused by a bullet from a high-powered gun.
In the 1950s a feud broke out between rival claimants and treasure seekers: Eddie Piper and his army vs Celeste Jones and hers. Amazingly, Celeste Jones was a second African American woman braving the desert and some really crazy white guys to find the Lost Dutchman’s mine, resulting in a fairly brilliant article from Ebony that you can read here. It throws in another popular legend of the mine’s Spanish origins, whereby its initial discovery was by a young Mexican ‘lover’ (Peralta) fleeing his sweetheart’s father who stumbles upon the mine and then he and others returning with him to get the gold are murdered by Apaches. Two boys escaped from the massacre, and were in turn murdered by Waltz.
That’s ancient, and like all of it, quite dubious history. An alternative history from Celeste Jones holds that the gold they sought had been hidden by Jesuit priests in the late 1700s. Real and sordid history? Three more men were killed in 1959 as part of this continuing feud over the gold. The book contains a few pictures of the armies but doesn’t discuss the racial politics (three of Celeste’s soldiers are clearly Mexican (though unnamed), unlike Bill Pipers crew — their names are all known, a microcosm of western historiography). After the murders Eddie Piper died of cancer and Celeste Jones disappeared — perhaps back to L.A. to continue her stated career of opera singer.
I’m so curious to know more about Celeste.
Then there is Robert Simpson Jacob, aka Crazy Jake. His list of crimes include: fraudulent mining securities, prostition and white slavery, pornography, narcotics, extortion, animal cruelty, and income tax invasion’ (42). He was selling shares in a fake company after having claimed to have found the Lost Dutchman, in 1986 he was convicted of fraud.
Clearly the only fortunes to have been made in these mountains have been those emerging from myth-creation. There is a most impressive chronology/bibliography of the Lost Dutchman Mine to be found here of what must be several hundred titles. This also seems to explain the large number of dubious maps that have never shown the way to anything. It is a puzzling thing, this proliferation of drawings to nowhere. I have never seen anything like it.
The most successful myth-maker was probably author John Clemson, aka Barry Storm, who filed claims in the mountains, took down oral histories, and also wrote Thunder Gods Gold in 1945 (among other books cashing in on these stories). It was made into the film Lust for Gold starring Ida Lupino and Glenn Ford. Obviously only very loosely based on the story of the Lost Dutchman, but I’m looking forward to watching it.
Eppinga’s book has a section on the Dons founded by Oren Arnold in 1934. Another successful cashing in on the legend through the writing of pamphlets and the creation of a historical society created to keep alive the myths of the Lost Dutchman in which white couples dressed in traditional Spanish clothing, called themselves the Dons and Doñas, and went on a yearly picnic and treasure hunt.
Definitely a slappable offense.
There’s a chapter as well on building the Apache Trail (this title is also a slappable offense, given whites killed most of the Apaches and took this land) and Roosevelt Dam. A final chapter on the Superstition Mountain Historical Society and Museum. More on the Apache Trail later, but here are some final pictures of the beautiful Superstitions:
For more on mining…