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An Overview of Mining in the California Desert

Placer Gold

Placer gold, eroded from its host rock and deposited as nuggets or flakes in stream-bed gravel, provided the first non-native American mineral production in California. Shortly after the establishment of a Spanish community at the present site of Yuma, Arizona, placer gold was discovered about ten miles to the northeast on the California side of the Colorado River at the Potholes. The deposit was worked from 1779 to 1781. (The Yuma Indians wiped out the Spanish community on July 17, 1781.) About this same time placer gold was discovered and worked briefly in the nearby Cargo Muchacho Mountains. The Potholes again began to yield gold following Mexican independence in 1823.

On the western-most fringe of the Mojave Desert, Francisco Lopez, Domingo Bermudez, and Manuel Cota discovered gold on March 9, 1842 just some 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles and 50 miles from Palmdale in Placerita Canyon. Gold was mined here actively until 1845. However, these early gold discoveries are simply historical footnotes in comparison to John Marshall’s find on January 24, 1848 on the South Fork of the American River. Marshall made his discovery nine days before the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo. This treaty called for Mexico to cede 55% of its territory, present- day Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Colorado, Nevada and Utah, in exchange for fifteen million dollars in compensation for war-related damage to Mexican property. In May 1848, Kit Carson, acting as official courier for the U.S. Government, left Los Angeles, carrying a dispatch to Washington D.C. announcing the discovery of gold in California. On the trip east, following the Old Spanish Trail, he would have naturally have stopped at Salt Springs at the south end of Death Valley. The reports of astoundingly rich placer gold finds caught the imagination of the entire civilized world. Soon it seemed that everyone was on his way to California to strike it rich.

In October 1849, some 500 gold seekers in 110 wagons, who had arrived too late in the season to safely cross the Sierras, chose to head south guided by Jefferson Hunt – at $10 per wagon. The route from Salt Lake City approached the gold fields via snow-free southern California. On November 1, near the Utah–Nevada boundary, a group 100 immigrants decided to follow a doubtful map to cut hundreds of miles off the route. Those that left soon disintegrated into a number of smaller groups that found themselves lost in the Death Valley country. Somewhere in the Panamint Range, Jim Martin picked up a rock which was nearly pure silver. Later, when he had arrived in Mariposa, he had the specimen made into a gun sight. This discovery has been known as the “Lost Gunsight Mine” ever since.

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