Thursday, April 9, 2015

Discovery may prompt new gold rush

If you were an outlaw from the Gold Rush era, where would you hide all the gold coins you stole from banks, trains and stagecoaches?

Maybe if you were Black Bart, credited with 28 stagecoach robberies in Northern California and yet caught only once, you'd put all the gold coins in steel cans and bury them next to a big oak tree you'd never forget.

Or perhaps if you were Joaquin Murrieta, the martyred bandit whose gang killed more than 40 people, you'd hide your share of the gold coins in the deep craters of honeycombed sandstone formations on the west slopes of Mount Diablo.
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If you found such a stash, you would be an instant gazillionaire.

That is what happened for a couple in the Gold Country, it was reported last week, as they found six buried steel cans that contained 1,427 gold coins dated 1847 to 1894 and worth an estimated $10 million. According to the story, they were walking their dog on their property when they sighted a piece of a rusty steel can that was slightly exposed from surface erosion around it. Inside the can they saw the first glimpse of gold coins. And the treasure hunt was on.

The idea that stockpiles of gold contraband worth millions of dollars could be discovered with a little detective work, a metal detector, shovel and a sifter could set off a new gold rush in Northern California.

Gold coins and other treasures could also be discovered at mining sites and ghost towns from the 1850s and '60s.

The Gold Rush set off multiple frenzies, of course. Miners migrated en masse to California, followed by bankers, and in turn, outlaws. The outlaws robbed the banks and the stages because, after all, "That's where the money is." Then, not trusting each other, they hid it.

Years ago at Apple Jack's, the bar in La Honda, a guy in his 90s repeated a story first told to me by Billy Prior, who once had a cabin there: Cole Younger, the outlaw from Missouri who rode with the James Gang, eventually got out of jail after the failed Northfield raid, and headed to California and exile in the woods outside of La Honda. According to the story, he stashed several bags of gold coins in the hollows of a few downed redwood trees, and then, on a return trip to Missouri, did not risk taking the gold coins with him. Except he never went back to La Honda. And those bags of gold coins were never accounted for.

Another story, far more circulated, is that Bob Ford did not shoot Jesse James, but that the James boys faked the whole thing. The lesser-known epilogue, provided by the late Ted Fay, the legendary fly-fisher from Dunsmuir, is that after Jesse James faked his death, he ventured to Northern California and lived in Dunsmuir. Somewhere in the canyon, Ted told me on a trip to the Salmon River, was a hidden stash of Jesse James' loot. Years later, Ted forgot he'd told me the story, and when we fished together on the Upper Sacramento River, he'd spend a fair amount of time hunting around the root cavities of trees along shore, pretending he was looking for a rare plant.

The contraband of the era was mostly gold coins. During the Gold Rush and Civil War eras, paper money was not considered legal tender.

With bags of gold coins, Black Bart, Joaquin Murrieta, Cole Younger, a few unscrupulous bank managers and all the other bandits were unlikely to keep the swag at home, vulnerable to robbers.

So they put it in the ground. In tree hollows. In sandstone craters. Under boulders. And the spot is always marked by a special rock or landscape form. In a favorite movie of mine, the bags of gold coins are stashed in the otherwise empty casket buried at a vast military cemetery.

Another strategy to find gold coins is to search out old mining sites and look for coins dropped by careless (OK, perhaps very drunk) miners.

On the Klamath River last week, Jim Dwyer tested such a hunch. He identified a former mining site by tailings (a pile of rocks), and then with a shovel and sifter, found a copper penny dated 1847. It's probably worth less than $20, but it's an exciting find, a coin that predates the Gold Rush and statehood, when only a few thousand people lived in the north state.

You can find prospective sites by studying photographs from the gold mining era, analyzing vintage maps and books that describe the location of historic mining camps, and looking for small piles of tailings along rivers (rather than the giant piles from more modern-day machine deposits). As water levels at reservoirs drop this summer, many old mining encampments will be exposed; make sure it is OK with the local posse to hunt for gold coins before venturing out on a lakebed with a metal detector.

On many government lands, it is illegal to use a metal detector and then dig up a find. Off-limit sites include state and federal parkland, and any archaeological site. If you make an archaeological find, stop and report it or face arrest. You also must not disturb any plant or geologic feature; in other words, leave no trace. If you do dig, leave the ground the way you found it. If you are unsure of legal boundaries or rules, then ask.

The $10 million treasure in gold coins won't be the last in Northern California, that's my guess.

And with the treasure hunt now on, there will be many lesser finds, though exciting just the same.

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