“In 1837, a one-legged man named Smith found a mine of wonderful richness in the Colorado Desert. He was piloting a party over the desert from Yuma, when he came to three hills which rose out of the plain. Not being sure of his bearings, he mounted the taller of the hills to get a view of the surrounding country. Upon this hill, which seemed to be composed of black quartz or rock, he found out-cropping ore fairly sparkling with the precious metal. He took specimens away with him and learned, upon reaching his destination, that the metal was really gold. The mine became known as the “Pegleg Mine” from the fact that Smith wore a wooden leg and was known as “Pegleg.”
“After conducting his party safely to Los Angeles, Smith returned to the desert to investigate his find. He could not locate it. He could not even find the hills which had been the landmark upon which he depended. In 1861 or 1862, a prospector passed over the trail from Yuma to Los Angeles. In the Colorado Desert he chanced upon three hills, and upon the larger one he discovered gold. He reached Los Angeles with $7000 worth of gold nuggets.
He told of his find and described the location. It tallied with the description given by Smith of his find. A party was formed for the exploiting of the mine, and the prospector was preparing to guide his associates to the spot when he was taken ill and died. The mine was again lost and has never been found. Note: “Pegleg” Smith was a brother of the famous trapper, Jedediah Smith.” Excerpt from: The Mystic Mid-Region: The Deserts of the Southwest by Arthur J. Burdick, 1906.
Lest we not forget about someone who claimed they found Pegleg’s mine in February 1965 and even sent a small black gold nugget to Desert Magazine, which was confirmed as authentic. The mysterious writer remained anonymous but included photos of alleged gold nuggets covered with desert “varnish” like Pegleg had described. Many thanks to Dave Williams for informing us about it.
Page 26 / Desert Magazine / May, 1968 Let us concern ourselves only with where [Pegleg] found the gold, not with where he went later. The key here is the New River and "bubbling mud marshland." The Salton Sea did not exist in 1829, but the mud pots near the south end of the Sea did exist. So let us proceed westerly and somewhat north of these mud pots, keeping in mind that in those days there were no roads, highways, nor civilization of any sort in this God-forsaken place. The first long, low rise in the terrain is a group of low hills just north of Hwy. 78 and partially west of Hwy. 86 (Old Hwy. 99). There are three main hills from one to one-and-a-half miles apart. Their elevation averages only 200 feet. They are covered with small buttes, hogbacks and saddles. Due to the sheer simplicity of their location, could this be the home of gold sought for so many. Jack J. Pepper
Although Pegleg may have led a colorful life in his era, it was wrought with an ill reputation that ran the gamut of masterful purveyor of bull excrement, pathological liar, alcoholic, human trafficker, bigamist and the most notorious horse thief in the southwest, depending who told the tales. Others embellish his skeptical virtues and heroic deeds, keeping Smith’s liar legacy alive. Say what you may, but Smith undoubtedly was most famous for his lost gold mine and this is the stuff legends are made.
Pegleg Smith sold maps and claims of the mine until his death in 1866 in a San Francisco hospital, yet a 1930 newspaper article claimed Pegleg died in a bar fight in Los Angeles in 1880. Although nobody has ever re-discovered the fabled mine, Pegleg’s legend lived on in books, television shows, movies and even an Oregon Trails II computer game. Bad fortune fell on whoever claimed they found the lost mine before it could be authenticated.
California Historical Landmark #750 about Pegleg Smith was dedicated in 1960 in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park near a mailbox and a pile of rocks. In 1947 Harry Oliver established the original Pegleg Smith Monument which was a sign that read “Let those who seek Pegleg’s gold add ten rocks to this pile.” The mound of rocks continues to grow. Every year on the first Saturday in April, the Pegleg Smith Liars Contest is held at the park in his honor.
Directions: From Borrego Springs, the marker is a straight seven miles on Palm Canyon Road (S-22) to the east. At the seven mile mark, there is a signed turnoff for “Pegleg Road.” At this point, the sign, mailbox, and giant rock pile are visible. There are two modern outhouses within an easy walking distance from the marker and ample room for self-contained recreational vehicles. No potable water. The marker is very close to the Clark Dry Lake.
WARNING: Metal detectors are prohibited in Anza Borrego Desert State Park.
Top Photo: ‘An aged prospector’ by C. C. Pierce & Co.
Sketches from the Life of Peg-Leg Smith,” Hutchings’ Illustrated California Magazine, Vol. V, no. 5 (November 1860), 203–204.