Monday, June 6, 2005

The Legacy of Lost Gold

June 6, 2005 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved. 

The Superstition Mountain area of central Arizona has fascinated men and women for more than a century. The beauty and solitude of the region attract most, but some come to these rugged mountains to search for gold or hidden treasure, and this story of lost riches is centuries old.

The legend of lost gold in the region began when the first Spanish conquistadors landed on the Mexican coast near Vera Cruz in 1519. The soldiers under the command of Hernando Cortez captured the Aztec city of Tenoctitlan. The discovery of this city of gold created hundreds of rumors about hidden treasure to the north and south of Tenoctitlan.

Stories tell of gold being buried in the Superstition Mountains by the Aztecs shortly after the Spanish invasion of the Mexican mainland in 1519. These wild stories led to many expeditions. The conquistadors searched for gold with Coronado and found no gold in the north, but rumors continued to persist. The conquistadors were followed by the Jesuit priests who allegedly forced the Native Americans to mine silver and gold for them. The priests reportedly then hid the gold and silver for the church without paying the Spanish royal fifth as required by Spanish law. Still, no documentation remains today that proves this happened.

The Jesuits were expelled from the New World by the Spanish king in 1767. They were followed by Mexican prospectors and miners looking for gold and silver. One family, according to legend, was the Peraltas of Arizpe, Sonora, Mexico. The Peraltas supposedly had eight rich gold and silver mines in the mountains north of the Rio Gila. 

Some stories claim they had at least eighteen mines in the Superstition Mountain area.

One version of the story says the Spanish Peraltas hid their mines from the Mexicans when Mexico received its independence from Spain in 1821. After a period of time the Peraltas returned to the mines and worked them until 1847.

The Peraltas were massacred at their mine in gold fields west of Superstition Mountain. Their ore laden burros and mules were scattered over the bajadas of Superstition Mountain. Only one Peralta escaped the Apache attack and its said he claimed the Apaches buried the mines to discourage the return of the miners and prospectors. It was from this period of time the famous Peralta Stone Map allegedly appeared. 

Other storytellers will tell you the Mexicans and Native Americans hid all the gold and silver mines when the Americans acquired the area shortly after the Mexican-American War in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.

Another famous myth about the Superstition Mountain area is the story of the Apache “Thunder God” protecting the gold of Superstition Mountain from American prospectors and miners by killing them when they entered the Superstition Mountain area.

Then there was the story of Jacob Waltz, a stubborn old German prospector, set on finding a rich gold vein in the Superstition Mountains. According to the legend, Waltz penetrated this vast and rugged mountain wilderness, evaded the Apaches, and found a rich gold mine. The rich gold ore found under Waltz’s death bed in 1891 fueled the legend of the Dutchman’s Lost Mine. This story in the hands of a great storyteller like Pierpont Constable Bicknell, a freelance newspaperman, produced one of America’s greatest lost mine stories.

Today, Superstition Mountain and the Dutchman’s Monument in Apache Junction stand as reminders of the great American West that is slowly vanishing. The monument represents an era that has been replaced by more regulation and new urban population. This rapidly growing urban population requires controls to protect the limited open space we still have in our state.

The future of Superstition Mountain and its wilderness undoubtedly is destined to be a recreational ground for the Salt River Valley. The wilderness and the legend are one of the greatest assets our community has. It is the dream of finding a rich gold mine that continues to stir the imagination of those who follow in the footsteps of “Coronado’s Children.” For almost five hundred years men and women have dreamed of finding this gold.

A myth about lost gold is sometimes more powerful than reality itself. The old prospector and his burro are still icons of our community.