Mountains of Gold

by Tom Noffsinger

Most people think the gold rush in the West started in 1849, when gold was discovered in the California Hills. In truth, gold was mined from the western mountains, particularly in Utah, well before the first white settlers came west. Native American Indians first worked the mines of Utah, but not for themselves; they were enslaved by Spanish explorers who had an almost unnatural desire for the yellow ore.

The Spanish were present in Utah as early as 1667, much earlier than western settlers. Marks on a canyon wall in central Utah, believed to have been left by Jesuit Priests, contain a cross symbol, with the date "1667". In fact, what many originally thought were Indian hieroglyphics and pictographs are actually markers along the Spanish Trail, which led from Mexico to the Uinta Mountains, and beyond. The trail was the main link between Mexico and Spanish outposts in the western mountains. These outposts are believed to have been started as religious outposts, a theory supported by the large number of cross symbols found carved into trees and marked on rocks along the trail. The Spanish presence actually lasted well into the 1800s, when pack trains of "Mexicans" were reported heading out of the Uinta Mountains supposedly laden with gold. The name "d. Julien" can be found inscribed on a cliff south of the old Fort Robidoux, along with the date "16 Mat 1836".

Aside from marks on rocks and trees, exciting artifacts of Spanish origin have also been found in and around Utah's mountains. Spanish cannon, cannon balls and swords have all be found, indicating military explorers were also on the Spanish trail, perhaps to guard Spain's new-found fortune. Perhaps the oldest discovery is pictured on the cover of Faded Footprints The Lots Rhoads Mines and other hidden treasures of Utah's killer mountains, by George A. Thompson. That small cannon contains roman numerals, dating the bronze piece to 1517. Other cannons have also been found, including a full-size cannon currently on display at the National Guard Armory at 1300 South in Salt Lake City. The cannon was cast in Seville, Spain in October of 1776 and was found near the mountain valley town of Kamas, Utah. Some historians believe the cannon was used to guard Spanish gold mines in the mountains east of the Kamas Valley.

The cannons and numerous other artifacts provide proof positive there was a Spanish presence many years before the first white American settler headed west. And to some, more important than the fact the Spanish were present, are the gold mines they left behind. Until the 1800s, the tales of the Spanish gold mines were the subject of Indian history, with few white men knowing of the mines. Early settlers surely realized they were not the first white men in the area, after discovering ruins of rock homes, forts, tree carvings and various artifacts. Little did they know that those clues pointed the way to vast riches in gold and silver ore.

The Indians knew where the mines were, but only because they had been forced to work in the deep tunnels as slaves of the Spanish. After many years of oppression, it is believed the Indians revolted, killing most of their Spanish captors. The Indians then returned the gold bullion to the earth, sealing the precious metal in the very mines it came from. It was only when the Indians began telling the white man about the gold that the secrets began to unravel.

One of the first white men to fully understand the implications of the Spanish Mines was Thomas Rhoades. According to most books on the subject, Rhoades was a close assistant to Mormon Church leader Brigham Young. Young had apparently become a religious leader to a Ute Indian, Chief Walkara, who told Young of a secret cache of gold in the Uinta Mountains. Although the exact nature of the agreement is unknown, essentially the chief agreed to give the gold to the church and Rhoades was selected to transport the gold from the Indian hiding spot to Salt Lake City.

The gold cache was actually bullion left from the days of Spanish mining operations. However, the Indians would not remove the gold, since it was cursed by those who placed it back in the mines. Because the gold had already been mined from the earth, it was relatively easy for Rhoades to obtain it. Reports indicated Rhoades first trip to and from the "lost" mine lasted two weeks and he returned with more than 60 pounds of pure gold.

Over the next several years, Rhoades continued to procure gold for the church, until 1887 when he apparently discovered other mines, located off Indian ground. It is those mines which have since spurred even more interest in the lost Spanish gold mines, as people realized the so called "church mine" was not an isolated source of gold.

Just as Rhoades began to discover other gold mines in the Uinta Mountains, the hills around Heber Valley turned up their share of gold and mysterious mines. One of the earliest Heber residents to discover mines was Aaron Daniels. Daniels originally settled in Heber Valley in the area now named after him: Daniels. Daniels Canyon and Daniels Creek were also named for the early pioneer. Aside from settling the valley, Daniels was also known as a prospector and explorer in the Uinta Mountains. Daniels was certainly a friend of Rhoades and other successful prospectors, and managed to find his share of lost mines.

In his book Faded Footprints, Thompson has printed an excerpt from Daniels' journal: "In 1858, I took a herd of cattle to Heber Valley and started a ranch on the Provo River, about one mile north of where Daniels Creek enters that river. I trapped and explored the valley during the winter, and in the spring I discovered a Spanish mine near the summit of the ridge of Daniels Canyon."

Only a short time later, in 1896, valley resident Bill Bethers discovered a strange rock and later an old mine tunnel with Henry Boren. An article about that find appeared in the Feb. 12, 1897 issue of The Wasatch Wave. The following is taken from that article: "All early settlers of this valley have heard that some eight or ten years before the first people arrived here (about 1849), there existed valuable mines in the surrounding mountains which were worked by Mexicans. Those miners would return to their homes each fall, taking a long pack train of burros heavily laden with golden riches, which they had dug from mines which all of the first settlers said were located above this valley. One old Mexican said the mines were about thirty miles from a large lake (Utah Lake), and could be found by following up a stream which flowed from the first canyon which entered this valley (Daniels Canyon). He told how miners had been driven from their mines by Indians. Many miners were killed, only a few escaping to tell the tale of a treasure left hidden in those mines. Now comes the claim that those mines have been found by Messrs. Bethers and Boren.

"After finding Messrs. Bethers and Boren at their homes on Daniels Creek, the writer took a long and tedious march under their guidance to the spot in question. Just one hour and twenty minutes were taken up in the ascent from Boren's ranch up the dividing ridge between Daniels and Center Creeks, at an angle of what seemed forty-five degrees, to the newly discovered mine and about two miles distance and almost on top of the Wasatch range. Here we found a tunnel which had been driven about twenty-five feet into the solid rock following a vein of ore from the surface, which vein is reported to return very good assays in gold. This tunnel is the result of labor at odd times during the past year of the two men. Northwest of this prospect is another which has only recently been known to exist there, although it has every appearance of being there for many years past. How far this tunnel enters through the solid rock into the side of the lofty mountain remains yet to be found out, as the work of cleaning out the dirt and rock that now fills it up has only been completed far enough to enable the prospectors to determine its course and dimensions.

"A short time ago there was still another mouth of a tunnel accidentally stumbled onto, lying southeast about 75 yards of the other two, and on a direct line. This also was filled up with loose dirt and rock but very easy digging. The work of cleaning out the tunnel is done mostly with shovels, laying bare the top and sides of solid stone, which plainly demonstrates that the implements of man have been used in the first excavation.

"The foregoing are some of the reasons advanced for thinking that these tunnels might at one time have been the source from which the Mexicans in former days replenished their larders. Another circumstance which is also used in this connection, is a large granite rock which stands perpendicular in the ground about half a mile distant down the ridge from the prospect. It is covered with peculiar looking hieroglyphics cut into it with apparently an instrument after the style of an ordinary punch. The rock is of a wedge shape, being about a foot thick on one side and tapers down to about two inches thickness on the other; it stands about five feet high and is about four feet wide. The characters upon it can only be translated by those accustomed to such signs. One of the figures is of a man with hands thrown up as though suddenly surprised; another is what we would call that of a burro or pack mule; another a half moon, and there are a number of others, while perfectly visible, we were not able to decipher their meaning.

"Messrs. Bethers and Boren, the owners of the find, argue that these hieroglyphics have been put on this rock as a guide for the persons who formally worked the mines to go by in returning to them after several months (or years) absence, as would be of necessity been the case if the Mexican theory is true. A careful watch is constantly kept by the men engaged in cleaning out the tunnel for bones of the murdered Mexicans who were thrown therein, but none have been discovered as yet. Whether or not the gentlemen have found any lost mine is a matter that will unravel, but they have found prospect holes of some description, made by human hands, is a positive certainty, and we hope that development will open up to them a bonanza, whether Spaniards first discovered it or not."

No further mentions of the tunnels were made in The Wave, but local legend says the Bethers family still knows where the old mines are located. Thompson's book mentions several other finds in the Daniels Canyon area.

Searching for lost mines was by no means limited to the Heber Valley area. An earlier report in The Wave, on Aug. 2, 1895, states: "Kamas Kinks: Some very good prospects are being found in the mountains nearby. Eight claims were taken up last week about three miles east of Kamas by three strange miners. We hope their discoveries will reap them a rich reward in the near future."

Of course the mines are difficult to find, but to some they have proved deadly. In the early years there was no shortage of tales of prospectors being shot and killed, often by Indians protecting the sacred mines. However, these killings were not limited to the wild west days of the 1800s. As recently as 1939, a Mr. Babcock was reportedly killed by Indians near a mine on Pole Creek, before it reaches the Uinta River. The mine Babcock was working is apparently still untapped, although it was worked off and on until 1986 when Wallace Muir was killed during a suspicious mine explosion.

Thompson also tells of a more recent incident when a Salt Lake City man reported having three of his fingers hacked off by Indians while searching for a mine in the Rock Creek area of Indian country. Others, as recently as 1990, report being shot at as a warning by Indians protecting lands along nearby Farm Creek

If the tales of the old Spanish mines are not enough to convince you of gold in the Uinta Mountains, take a drive through nearby Park City, Utah. The present day ski town was once a booming mining community, with high concentrations of gold and silver taken for various mines. Although most of the mines have closed down, there are still a few active operations going on, even today. Many of those Park City mines extended well past the Park City boundaries, into Wasatch and Salt Lake counties.

Hiking the hills of Wasatch County's Snake Creek Canyon, one can see abandoned mines. Not of the Spanish, but old none the less. The Green Monster mine and a few others are still easily found, and modern prospectors frequently pan Snake Creek and nearby Daniels Creek. While it is beyond the scope of this article to present the details of specific mines and their reported finds, readers should realize the mines are there... if you dare search for them. If you do find an old mine, no matter what the age, be warned of the danger of entering an unstable tunnel. There is often a lack of oxygen even a few yards inside an old tunnel. There is a constant threat of cave-ins and the possibility of wild animals using the mine for shelter. Also, there are the curses of the Indians and the harsh history of death associated with the Spanish gold.


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