And now for something completely different! The lure of gold has created a rich history in Arizona, with the elusive Lost Dutchman Mine one of the top targets for treasure-seekers. Believed to be in the Superstition Wilderness, about 50 miles east of Phoenix, generations of would-be prospectors have risked life and limb with little or no return. No matter that the area has been closed to mineral prospecting for years now, they still come.
My own search was not about gold, at least not until the end, but was more about assembling the clues, and fitting them together to figure out the next step. That odyssey began in 1967 when Bruce Benner showed me a topographical map with an area labeled “Massacre Grounds.” This, he said, was where the Apaches, protecting their sacred mountains, wiped out a Peralta mule train loaded with gold. They took the mules, Bruce told me, and the leather sacks that held the ore, dumping the gold on the ground.
So we set out from San Francisco that Spring day with a metal detector, topo maps, three canteens of water, and freeze-dried meals along with sleeping bags and other camping gear. Those topo maps showed “intermittent streams;” little did we realize that “intermittent” in the desert meant they ran for a day or two after a big rain – and it had been a dry winter. We had no desert experience, hiked in off any recognized trail, going up a thousand feet in a hard mile to a waterless ridge. We spent the night and then hiked out, hallucinating from dehydration, getting up close and personal with jumping cholla. We did it all wrong, but survived, and I was hooked. I started assembling the old books and extracting the clues that I would follow for the next 33 years.
There is a map credited to a Peralta descendant that appears often in books about the Lost Dutchman. It is said to be the map that led treasure-hunter Adolf Ruth to a grisly death in the summer of 1931. Ruth’s head was found a mile from his body, with the words “Veni, Vidi, Vici” inscribed in his journal: I came, I saw, I conquered. There have been many mysterious deaths in the Superstitions, and summer is not a hospitable time in the desert.
This map, known widely as the Peralta-Ruth map, is, I believe, accurate, but it does not take you to a gold mine. Indeed, geologists say that the Superstitions are not gold-bearing country, although there was a working mine just outside its western edge when I first visited. Because Weaver’s Needle is a dominant landmark gold-hunters have assumed that the El Sombrero on the map is that distinctive peak. But there are many el sombreros in desert mountains, and the Peralta-Ruth map actually shows Minor’s Needle, to the south. These are the major clues I assembled from the old, mostly out-of-print, books:
— Adolf Ruth wrote, “It lies within an imaginary circle whose diameter is not more than five miles and whose center is marked by Weaver’s Needle.”
— Jacob Walz, or Waltz, or Walzer, the “Dutchman,” said, “There is a great stone face that looks up at my mine.”
— Joe Dearing, who found gold, said, “There’s a kind of trick in the trail, not much of a trick, but you have to go through a hole to get to my mine.”
— Dr. Abraham Thorne, blindfolded and taken by Apaches after helping them to a place with gold on the ground, laughed with his companions about a nearby peak that looked, they agreed, like a “stallion’s distinctive organ.”
— The Peralta-Ruth map shows a caverna con casa at the mine site.
— Barry Storm quotes the Dutchman as saying that he “could not be seen from the military trail in the canyon below, but that he could easily watch the trail from his mine.”
Gold has been found in the Superstition Mountains, but it is gold that has been mined elsewhere and partially milled for transport in rock arrastres, possibly on the north side of Bluff Mountain, and which was dumped by the Apaches. The Peralta family made many trips north from Mexico, probably to a mine near what is now Wickenburg, and used the Superstitions as a way station, a defensible place to rest and water mules. There are remains of an old dam in a creek bed on top of Bluff Mountain, and the old mule trail up the mountain was still worn white when the late David Castro and I found it and followed it up. There is also a steep trail down the north end of Bluff Mountain, and I fell and broke my wrist there, as deep into the wilderness as I could be, and – stupidly – alone.
Mexican artifacts have been found on Bluff Mountain and the spring at its base only dried up in relatively recent years; artifacts have also been found across from Minor’s Needle, along with rock sleeping circles to break the wind.
In 1848 Apaches attacked a Peralta expedition of perhaps 200 mules, killing most of the miners and dumping the gold on the ground. That is likely the treasure that gold seekers have actually found. The Peralta-Ruth map is real, but it does not lead to a gold mine, but to a stash location, a defensible spot where found gold could be stored and protected. That place is a broad ledge on the slope of Minor’s Needle.
Across from Minor’s Needle is an unusual rock formation known variously as Castle Rocks or Skeleton Ridge. One of the large boulders looks like a huge head, the Dutchman’s “great stone face.” Another rises in a thin spire, labeled S. Sima on the map, like Dr. Thorne’s “stallion’s distinctive organ.” There is a large cleft in the rocks that corresponds to the hoyo on the map. There is a matching intermittent stream between Castle Rocks and Minor’s Needle, and I have seen it running. The location also fits Adolph Ruth’s description within the “imaginary circle.” As grist for further arguments, however, the Castle Rocks formation is reversed on the Peralta-Ruth map.
Leaving the Dutchman’s Trail, now Forest Service Trail No. 104, on the desert floor, and wary of jumping cholla and rattlesnakes, we approach Minor’s Needle. There is a large rock outcrop, and we go around it, ignoring the failed mine blasted into its base in modern times, and we see a wide ledge. Above the ledge is a concave wall, perhaps the caverna con casa, and a petroglyph of uncertain origin. It shows a large circle, with a line straight up to a smaller circle, perhaps a “you are here and need to go up there.” To get up there you go through a three-foot-wide space where a boulder has split in half, Joe Dearing’s “trick in the trail.”
What is “up there” is a rocky lookout point with a rectangular sandy space where a small person could sleep comfortably. There is a commanding view of the valley and the old military trail, with Minor’s Needle at your back, just as the Dutchman described it. Not quite a casa, but a defensible space to camp and stash and protect a horde of found gold. That’s where the Peralta-Ruth map takes you.
I poked around in the sand and came up with a faded and crushed aluminum beer can. So much for gold, or even artifacts. But, I had assembled the clues and established their accuracy to my satisfaction, and hiked a lot of rugged and demanding, but beautiful, desert mountains. The Superstitions are a place to humble humans, to make us right-sized.
Years later, in the late 90s while taking a bunch of archaeology classes at San Francisco State University, I made one last trip with the goal of treating the sandy space as an archaeological site. The Superstition Wilderness was still pristine, although civilization was encroaching from all sides. I did my thing and found nothing of interest except for some soft volcanic tuff with yellow streaks in it. I took some back to San Francisco, washed it, and looked at it under a strong light with a magnifier. It looked like gold! A geology professor did me the favor of examining my find and told me it was just biotite, common in volcanic tuff. Okay: end of story. It’s all about the journey, right? Right.
In the winter of 2000, driving to Tucson to scout out neighborhoods and amenities for retirement, I looked at a Roadside Geology book. It mentioned biotite and described it as black mica. That was not black mica that I had found! For the first time in this decades-long odyssey I got Gold Fever. I cut my Tucson trip short a day, drove to the Superstitions, hiked in to Minor’s Needle, and looked for more of the yellow-flecked tuff. There was none to be found, and a few days later I read online that biotite weathered into a sort of fool’s gold. Now it really was the end of the story, but it’s been fun, despite heat, rattlers, jumping cholla, blisters, and that late attack of Gold Fever.
If you decide to explore there, remember that it is hard hiking, marked water holes are unreliable at any time, and you should never go alone or in the heat of summer. No vehicles allowed, just hikers and horses. Bring long-nosed pliers to pull out the inevitable cholla barbs. Books worth checking out for background include, if you can find them, Sims Ely, The Lost Dutchman Mine (1953); Curt Gentry, The Killer Mountains (1968); Robert Blair, Tales of the Superstitions (1975); Erle Stanley Gardner, Hunting Lost Mines by Helicopter (1965); and Barry Storm, Thunder Gods Gold (1945). While the Superstitions are now closed to mineral exploration, Gold Fever still lingers in the air!