His hands trembling, he waded into cold clear
water of the eddy. He dug out a shovelful of
gravel and sand, water streaming from the blade,
and he emptied it into his gold pan. He squatted
at the stream's edge. He examined and discarded
the stream pebbles in his pan. He filled the
pan with water. He swirled the cloudy mix, washing
loose sand and silt over the lip of the pan.
At last, he discharged everything but the
residue, a small handful of mud. He fanned
it across the pan's bottom, which measured
about 10 inches in diameter. Nothing. He
repeated the sequence. Again, nothing. He
repeated it again. Still nothing. He repeated
it still again. This time, in the dark smear
in the bottom of his pan, he saw it: a yellow
speck, not much larger than a flake of dandruff.
It twinkled merrily in a ray of sunlight.
He tried to not let himself get too excited
- it might not be worth much - but he knew
that he had found gold.
Early the following morning, he rushed into
the mining camp. He filed his claim, which
encompassed both the quartz outcrop and the
placer, with a local merchant who also served
as the district recorder. In preparing the
claim, the recorder wrote down our prospector's
name, the site location and the date on a
piece of paper.
Our prospector, unable to write, prevailed
on the recorder, as a favor, to prepare a
notice, signifying exclusive legal right
to the claim.
He hurried back to his site to post the
notice, which seemed to ratify the promises
he had made to his wife.
The Catwalk Trail, near Glenwood, winds
through the narrow
Whitewater Canyon, following a pipeline
that once delivered water
to a mill at the old gold and silver
mining community of Graham
during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
(top) Ruins of
a cabin in the old mining community
of White Oak, NM
(bottom) Remnants of a miner's cabin,
near Pinos Altos, giving a suggestion
of the hardship of the Argonaut's life.
The Hard Work of Mining a Claim
He fell to work at once, shoveling the placer
gravel and sand into his gold pan, picking
the occasional gold flecks and, rarely, a
small nugget from the residue, stashing them
in a small leather pouch. Within days, other
prospectors appeared both upstream and downstream,
filing their own claims, recalling their
own dreams and promises. With the approaching
winter - when rains and even traces of snow
might fall, daytime temperatures would cool
and nighttime temperatures could turn freezing
- our prospector took time to build a small
lean-to cabin with boards he had scavenged
from the mining camp. Otherwise, he mined
his claim compulsively, from first light
to twilight, with a sense that fortune might
lie at his fingertips.
He worked perhaps 40 or 50 pans full of
the placer material on an average day.
At nights, he sometimes visited with fellow
miners, who gathered around campfires or
in the larger cabins. They smoked their pipes,
played cards, drank a little whiskey. They
talked about big strikes that prospectors
had found in neighboring foothills. They
talked about their day's finds, which seldom
seemed to be worth the effort they had spent;
new arrivals, who had come too late to find
decent claims; a new saloon, which had good
but expensive whiskey; the new girls, some
of them known to veteran miners from previous
camps; a new gambler, who, some said, cheated
at the gaming tables; a thief, who got caught,
tried and hung in a nearby camp; and the
mercantile store, where the owner charged
Sometimes, they remembered home - their
wives, their children, their dreams - and
how they hoped that they could go back, buy
land, build a house and educate their children.
Sometimes, too, they spoke of prospects in
other lands, for instance, the Rocky Mountains,
which surely must hold fortunes in gold.
They even talked about mining desert arroyos,
maybe in New Mexico, where gold-bearing placers
must have been deposited by streams that
dried up many years ago. "All you've
got to do is find it," they said. Maybe
the Rockies or the desert might hold the
most promise for the future. Prospectors
had already overrun the California mining
As winter gave way to spring and summer
came - the season when our prospector had
hoped to return home with some real money
in his pocket - he had made barely enough
to feed himself and his horse and burro.
He had neared the bottom of his placer, however,
and they said it is at the bottom where you
usually find the most gold because its density
caused it to filter down through the sand
and gravel to the rock floor.
A prospector working near the bottom of
a placer just downstream had found a nugget
as big as a kernel of corn in his pan. Another,
just upstream, found a sliver of gold in
the bedrock in his claim. They said a man
from a big mining company had come around
asking about buying some claims.
They said claim jumpers now hung around,
looking for unguarded or neglected sites
like vultures searching for carcasses. Our
prospector made sure to wear his .44 Colt
Percussion Revolver, his cherished hold on
security, on a regular basis. With hopes
rising, he intended to protect his claim
As the days wore on and he stripped the
bottom of his placer, he began to find slightly
more gold flecks and nuggets in his pan,
just like other prospectors had said. He
cached it in his leather pouch, always attached
to a rawhide thong that he hung around his
neck, inside his shirt.
As a second winter passed, a second spring,
and a second summer, he knew that his wife,
back in San Antonio with the children and
her parents, worried and fretted about him.
He knew that she would have told their friends
that when he returned home, with some real
money in his pocket, they would buy some
land, build a house, educate their children.
Having exhausted his placer, he turned now
to the quartz outcrop, driving his pick,
day after day, into the rock surface. He
hammered the stone fragments into rubble,
which he panned just as he did the placer
gravel and sand. He teased out more flecks
and small nuggets of gold, stashing them
in his leather pouch.
By the beginning of fall, a full year after
he had filed for his claim and more than
a year after he expected to be home, he had
accumulated about eight or ten ounces of
He had grown weary from the brutal and relentless
work. He yearned for his family and home.
He knew that he could not take time to go
back for a visit because he might forfeit
his claim if he left it unworked for more
than 10 consecutive days.
Then, one day, a man who represented a big
mining company came around buying claims.
The company had the capital and machinery
to undertake big-scale operations. The man
offered our prospector $2500 - more money
than he'd ever seen in his life - for the
rights to his site.
A few nights later, our prospector went
over to the saloon, with some real money
in his pocket, to have a little whiskey just
to celebrate. Early the next morning, he
planned to start for home and his family
and his dreams. He wondered whether his wife
and children would recognize him with a full
black beard - the trademark of the prospector.
He talked to other miners who had sold their
claims to the man from the mining company,
drinking a little whiskey just to celebrate.
He knew that a brotherhood born of shared
hardships and dreams was fading from his
life. He realized that he would miss campfires
and cards and yarns and local gossip. When
he left the saloon, he could feel the earth
swaying beneath his feet.
Our prospector woke up the next morning,
lying in the dirt at the door of his lean-to
cabin. He felt a pounding ache in the back
of his head, as if he had been kicked by
a mule. He could feel the blood crusted in
his hair, his beard and his shirt collar.
He felt for the money he had had in his pocket.
He reached for his treasured .44 Colt Percussion
Revolver. Gone. He felt for the few ounces
of gold in the leather pouch at his neck.
Still there. Thank God.
Through the fog of the pain and a numbing
hangover, he looked mournfully at the quartz
outcrop and the stream eddy that had been
his claim. Remembering his promises, he knew
that he couldn't go home to his wife and
children without some real money in his pocket.
He wondered idly if she still prayed for
He took stock. He had some gold he could
sell for a little money. He still had his
horse and saddle and his burro. He still
had his camp gear, his musket, his Bowie
knife and a few clothes. He still had his
shovel and pick and gold pan.
Maybe he would try the Rocky Mountains next.
Maybe New Mexico's desert placers. He knew
that any man willing to work hard could get
rich. That's what everybody said, and he
still had his dreams.
From the Author ~
In preparing this composite sketch of an
Argonaut, I have drawn most heavily from
The Miners (from the Time-Life series on
the Old West) by Robert Wallace, Gold and
Silver in the West by T. H. Watkins and Gold
Rushes and Mining Camps of the Early American
West by Vardis Fisher and Opal Laurel Holmes.
Those three books paint a rich story of
the prospectors and miners of the Old West.
|(right)A White Oak saloon,
where the Argonauts would gather to have
a little whiskey just to celebrate a
little luck now and then.