The Lost Pegleg Mine: Flibbertigibbet’s Fancy

Love him or hate him, one has to admit Pegleg’s story is intriguing. It is clear people knew different versions of the same man, as their stories vary wildly. Before he was known as Pegleg, he was known as Thomas Long Smith. Some people said he was born in Kentucky, although Smith himself said he was born in Ohio. Pegleg claimed while as a scout for an expedition, an Apache shot him with an arrow in his leg. Gangrene set in, forcing an amputation just below his knee to save Smith’s life. It is said Smith performed his own amputation and almost completed it before passing out from the loss of blood.

However, an 1894 newspaper article said Smith was shot in the leg by a drunk French Canadian trader shattering the bone, so others partially removed the leg. Later, a 1921 newspaper article said Smith was wounded on a train headed south from Fort Laramie, Wyoming, when a skirmish occurred in Utah from an Indian war party, thus wounding Smith necessitating a primitive amputation performed by Forty-niner Jonathan Tibbet Sr. and a few others. Tibbet claimed he was the one who made a tree branch prosthesis to assist Smith thus earning him the nickname Pegleg, who periodically worked on the Tibbet Ranch near El Monte, California. So, as you can see, the real story surrounding the loss of Smith’s leg is as clear as mud.

Although Pegleg may have fancied himself of the same ilk, famous frontiersman Jedidiah Smith was not his brother, as author Burdick opined in 1906. Born just two years apart but in allegedly different states, Jedidiah Smith’s death by the Comanche preceded Pegleg’s death by 35 years years. One may surmise the familial relationship is not one Pegleg would have denied, and perhaps even promoted. If you’re wondering why he didn’t claim to be somehow related to Francis Marion Smith, who was born 20 years before Pegleg died, it was because Smith didn’t become known as the “Borax King” for more than two decades after Pegleg’s demise.

The Mystic Mid-Region: The Deserts of the Southwest by Arthur J. Burdick, 1906.

“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.”

Stanislaus County Weekly News
Modesto, California · Friday, June 09, 1893

“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.

Pegleg’s memorial was erected by Desert Steve Ragsdale in 1949 next to Harry Oliver’s original monument from 1947. The sign instructed anyone who wanted to seek Pegleg’s gold to leave ten rocks on the pile in the back.
Los Angeles Herald
Los Angeles, California · 
Monday, March 05, 1894
Here goes nuthin!
Bulletin, 27 Nov 1921
Open the mailbox at the original Pegleg Memorial to find a tiny library. Remember, if you take one, leave one. No fibbin’.
The Los Angeles Times, 21 Sept 1930

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.

In the tradition of Pegleg’s alleged whoppers…we think John found Pegleg’s missing wooden leg!
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 
The Beaver Press
Beaver, Utah · Thursday, December 10, 1981

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.

Suggested Resources

Sketches from the Life of Peg-Leg Smith,” Hutchings’ Illustrated California Magazine, Vol. V, no. 5 (November 1860), 203–204.

2 thoughts on “The Lost Pegleg Mine: Flibbertigibbet’s Fancy

  1. As you say, there are almost innumerable stories about Pegleg and his lost gold. I was a little surprised you didn’t mention the letter to Desert Magazine from a reader who claimed to have found Peglegs gold in February of 1965. The writer remained anonymous, but included photos that were supposedly gold nuggets covered with desert “varnish” which were what Pegleg described. As I recall, the writer carried on a conversation by letter with the magazine for several months and even sent them a sample “black” gold nugget. Here is a link to a reference in DesertUSA website … .

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