Catching Gold Fever in Holcomb Valley ~Tanya Hanson

First of all, the four frenetic days of the Romance Writers American National convention were fabulous, and having lunch with the fillies was the best moment of all. Now it’s back to the trenches, unpacking, catching up on lost sleep….and finishing the wip an editor asked to see.

The story is set in Holcomb Valley, California, the site of the richest gold strike in the south part of the state. Convincing hubby to take me there (his birthday yet) was one of the highlights of my summer. Located near the resort village of Big Bear Lake in the mountains about 2 hours east of Los Angeles, today’s small, silent valley buzzed with 2,000 residents in the 1860’s.

While tracking bear in 1860, hunter Bill Holcomb came across the valley and found a ledge of gold-riddled quartz. News of the find wasn’t secret for long. By 1862, thousands of claims had been struck. Towns like Belleville and Clapboard thrived.

At first, placer mining was the thing. Simply put, miners staked a claim, then dug down to the bedrock. Once “pay dirt” (black sand) was found, it was washed, or sluiced, in a pond of snowmelt to separate the gold from the gravel.

All the mounds and knolls dotting the valley today aren’t just pretty little hills. Now covered now with pine needles and small plants, they’re actually the “tailings,” the dirt and rocks removed and tossed aside every which way.

Remnants of the Metzger mine show the difficulty of hard rock mining. After the placer sites were all staked, prospectors looked elsewhere for treasure, and found gold-bearing quartz veins in the hills. They started digging. I couldn’t even stand up in the Metzger, and crawling through the horizontal passages was just back-breaking.

The oldest method for extracting the gold from quartz rocks was the arrastra, or ore grinder. A round rock wall surrounded a flat circle of flat, level stones. From a post in the center, a harnessed donkey or mule walked an endless circle in the arrastra, pulling a heavy drag stone to crush the rock. A single load of ore took over four hours to process in this manner.  Over 100 aarrastras dotted the valley. 

Today, about 60 wild donkeys still roam the resort area.

Of course, staking a claim in the wilderness was easy. Protecting it was not. An estimate of 50 murders occurred during the first two years of the settlement. Some outlaws, like Salt Lake’s Button’s Gang, dominated the valley so completely they simply occupied any cabin they wanted. But other outlaws couldn’t evade justice and found themselves hugging the Hangin’ Tree.

Although this juniper(above) is still hailed as the legendary widow maker, with the branch cut off after a neck stretch, it’s most likely the stump below is what’s left of the real thing. Sadly, the valley was denuded of most trees during the heydey, to build shelter and towns, and to shore up mines.

Well, there’s more to tell some other time. Have you ever visited gold country? 

John Augustus Sutter – The Man Behind The Gold Rush

Today  marks the 163rd anniversary of the discovery that marked the beginning of the California Gold Rush.  Most of you know that the gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, but how much do you know about Sutter himself?  Well, depending on which version of history you want to believe, the man was either enterprising, adventurous, supportive of the American settlement of California and a good and generous host to travelers, or the man was a cheat, liar, slaver, alcoholic and smuggler.  A controversial figure to be sure!

John Augustus Sutter was born in Baden, Germany  in 1803 to Swiss parents.  He married at 24, but the time he turned 31 he’d encountered a series of business failures that resulted in a mountain of debt.  Sutter, unable to face his creditors, decided to see if he would fare better in America.  He left his wife and five children in his brother’s care and traveled to New York, just a few steps ahead of the bill collectors.  From there he headed west to Missouri where he set up as a trader and innkeeper on the Santa Fe Trail. 

But Sutter had bigger dreams.  He wanted to establish his own agricultural empire ‘somewhere out west.’  In the spring of 1838, again escaping creditors, he joined a group of trappers headed for the west coast.  The party arrived at Fort Vancouver, near present day Portland, OR, in October of that same year.  Sutter looked for a ship that would take him to the San Francisco Bay area, but when one was not immediately available, he set sail instead on a ship bound for the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).  From there he sailed to the Russian colony in Sitka, Alaska.  Sutter managed to engage in profitable trade during these detours, and by the time he arrived in California in July of 1838 he could pass for a man of means.

Ingratiating himself with Governor Alvarado, Sutter easily gained permission to establish a new settlement east of Yerba Buena (later to be renamed San Francisco).  The settlement was located near the spot where the American River meets the Sacramento River, an area formerly occupied only by Indians.  He started with tents and brush huts, but soon had set up a more substantial adobe building.

Setting his sights on a land grant, Sutter became a naturalized Mexican citizen in August of 1840.  The following June Governor Alvarado handed him the title to eleven leagues of land – approximately 48,800 acres.  Sutter named the grant New Helvetia, which means New Switzerland  (this would later become Sacramento).  

In 1844, Sutter completed Fort Sutter and established it as a frontier trading post.  This was an impressive structure, constructed of adobe and with walls 18 feet high and 3 feet thick.  Because of its placement along the overland trails, one of the most strategic locations in Northern California, it became a gathering place  and resting spot for settlers, traders and trappers in the region.  With his dreamed-of agricultural empire established, Sutter branched out into many additional enterprises.  He hired trappers to provide skins and furs for trade, built a distillery, established a blacksmith shop, and transported both freight and passengers between Fort Sutter and the San Francisco Bay.

In 1846, during the California revolt against Mexico, Sutter saw the writing on the wall and decided to side with the Americans.  In the years that followed, Sutter continued to prosper.  Though his reputation among the white settlers continued to be favorable, it was not so with the Indian population.  Much of the labor that fed Sutter’s empire was provided by the Indians who, according to some reports, were treated almost as slaves.

As a side note, though Sutter liked to speak of himself as a good family man, alluding to a home in Switzerland where his family was ensconced (untrue – they were charity cases living with his brother), he never did send for them.  In 1848 his oldest son, on his own initiative joined his father in California and in 1850 it was the son, not the father, who sent for the rest of the family.

In 1847, a chain of events began that would eventually bring about the downfall of Sutter’s empire but would ensure his place in history.  It started innocuously enough – Sutter decided he wanted to establish a sawmill.  For this purpose, he entered into an agreement with James W. Marshall.  They decided to build this mill on the American River at a spot called Collumah by the Indians.  On January 24, 1848, while inspecting the builder’s progress, Marshall spotted a bit of glitter in the mill’s tailrace.  Marshall took his discovery to Sutter.  Sutter confirmed the discovery was indeed gold by checking the entries in an encyclopedia.  He tried to swear his workers to secrecy, but it didn’t take long for the word to get out.  The gold rush was on!

To get an idea of how rapidly the fever spread, in the spring of 1849, the non-Indian population of California was in the neighborhood of 14,000.  By the end of 1849 it stood at almost 100,000, and by 1852, to over a quarter million.

But Sutter himself never profited from the discovery.  In fact, just the opposite.  His workers abandoned him, his lands were overrun by fortune hunters, his crops and cattle were stolen.  By 1852 Sutter was bankrupt and  New Helvetia was in ruins.  Sutter spent the rest of his life petitioning the government, both federal and state, for compensation for his losses but it was not to be.     He died, disappointed, during a trip to Washington D.C. in 1880

Alfred Packer – Cannibal Of The Old West

In the state of Colorado
In the year of seventy-four
They crossed the San Juan Mountains
Growing hungry to the core.
Their guide was Alferd Packer
And they trusted him too long:
For his character was weak
And his appetite was strong.

This is the first stanza to The Ballad Of Alfred Packer, by Phil Ochs.

I include it here because I was checking the This Day In History Calendar and I came across a rather grisly story of the old west.  In the late 1860s and early 70s, Alfred Packer was a Rocky Mountain prospector who supplemented his income by serving as a guide.  In the winter of 1873-74, Packer started out with a party of 21 men from Bingham Canyon, Utah headed for the gold fields in the Breckenridge, Colorado area.  Several months later Packer showed up, alone, at the Los Pinos Indian Agency.

 To read about what happened in the interim, check out this link: Alfred Packer – Maneater

And to see the rest of the lyrics to the ballad, check this link:  The Ballad of Alfred Packer

Before and After a Boom

I absolutely love this picture. This is just the kind of image of that can transport my brain to another era, like falling into the rabbit hole.  Doesn’t it just come alive? Makes me feel like I’m standing right there on the edge of town…a tiny new community popping up in the middle of no where…which is exactly what happened in this historic town of Bodie, California. I came across this picture while looking up info on Montana mining towns, but I marked the site because I was really struck by the contrast in pictures, like I”d been pulled into the bright shiny start of a new gold rush community and then dropped into the aftermath following the boom by the picture below.

Here’s Bodie from another angle, the ghost town I’d expect to see nowadays with a skeletal reminder of its booming heydays. Can you see the church?  Kind of  spooky the difference lighting and angle can make. Bodie was a Quintessential boom town, making a sleepy start in 1859 when prospector W. S. Bodey discovered some gold. He died during a freak blizzard in November of that year, so the town was named in his honor…sort of.  A painter accidentally lettered the stable sign to read “Bodie Stables”, and the new spelling was adopted by the town.

Bodie remained an obscure little mining community with a handful of residents until 1876. A large deposit of gold-bearing ore was discovered and by 1880 the population had exploded to nearly 8,000.  The town grew to more than 2,000 buildings, including two banks, a brass band, railroad, miner’s and mechanic’s unions, several newspapers, and a jail. Over the years Bodie produced nearly $34 million worth of ore and bullion.

At its peak 65 saloons lined Main Street, which was a mile long. Murders, shootouts, barroom brawls, and stagecoach holdups were regular occurrences. “Badman from Bodie” described the town’s rambunctious inhabitants, earning the community a reputation for violence that rivaled Tombstone, Deadwood and Dodge City. Eventually the gold went the way of water in these hills…and the booming town dried up along with it.

Here’s an interesting tidbit I found on Bodie

The Founder Has His Day

“Bodie’s confirmed status as a gold-producing community inspired its historically-minded citizens to wonder about the unfortunate prospector who had succumbed in a snowstorm some 20 years earlier and become the town’s namesake. They located his shallow grave and dug up his bones. One area pioneer said the remains were those of William S. Bodey from New York, but his presumed widow in Poughkeepsie said his first name was really “Wakeman.” The New York Times printed “Waterman.” Despite uncertainty, which continues to this day, citizens organized a grand funeral procession and formally interred the bones in the town cemetery. But they failed to mark the new grave and quickly forgot its location.

Still, it’s the spark  of life in the first picture that really takes me back.  Do you feel it?  Or maybe that picture really makes me believe in GHOST towns 😉

Caroline Fyffe: Eureka!

There’s gold in them thar hills…somewhere!  Throughout the history of the West, stories are told of lost, forgotten and misplaced mines.  Many have been sitting undisturbed for years, shrouding their boundless wealth, just waiting to be re-discovered.  Gold and silver-bearing regions are awash with stories of miners losing their way; Indians killing off the miners and then hiding the markings; flash floods destroying the lay of the land; earthquakes changing the rock formations that helped a miner find his way.  
Some of these accounts, of course, are surely yarns, just like the “fish-stories” told by sailors.  But many are the true tale of mines “gone missing” to the poor fools that lost them.  In Arizona alone, there are thought to be at least twenty such sites.  Can you imagine how many the vast American West could be hiding?  

The naysayers can scoff, but in 1959 the Burro Mountains gave up their treasure of the long-lost Spanish mines, twenty-five miles northwest of Lordsburg, New Mexico. And in 1965, Arizona’s “Lost Coconimo” mine was found in the state’s Sycamore Canyon.  

If you’re feeling lucky and have been bitten by wanderlust, you might want to check out a few of the accountings I’ve listed of some of the most famous or colorful lost mines:

—Lost Blue Bucket at the Malheur River in eastern Oregon.  The date was 1846 when a wagon train pulled into camp on the middle fork of the Malheur.  Some pioneers, finding some stones in a creek bed, filled a hand-made blue papier-mâché bucket. Later they learned their finding was gold. Status: still lost.

—Lost Rhoades in the Uintah Mountains, northeastern Utah.  This mine was said to be owned and strictly guarded by the Mormons.  Only Brigham Young and a handful of elders and two other members of the Rhoades family knew of its location.  In 1877 the Indians placed a ban on visits to the ledge where the mine was located, because it was on the Uintah Reservation.  In 1905, Caleb Rhoads, the last living person to know its whereabouts, took the secret to his grave and the “bank” of the Mormon Church was lost, so to speak.  He left a crude map with only Rock Creek and Moon Lake as landmarks, but others have been unable to find its location. Status: still lost.

—Lost Padre, somewhere in the 113,809 square miles of Arizona.   This mine, originally owned by Indians, was taken over by Spanish missionaries.  After the California gold strike of 1849, the Southwest had a surge of hopeful miners looking for their Eureka.  To keep their mine secret, the padres sealed it off. It’s been re-discovered several times, but with all the lucky finders ending in a violent death. Status: still lost.

—Lost Gunsight in California’s Death Valley.  No date is given for the first discovery of a reef that was said to be heavily laden with silver.   It was discovered by a single man who was part of a Mormon migrant party.  He fashioned a gun sight for his rifle with the silver from the reef.  Stories of this silver reef in Death Valley have circulated for years, and it’s been found and lost several times.  It’s believed that the cause of its elusiveness is the shifting sands.  Status: still lost.

—Lost Adams, south of the Little Colorado River in northeast-central Arizona.  In 1864, this gold-bearing dry wash was discovered by a man known only as Adams, along with a party of prospectors.  They were led by an Apache half-breed.  Soon after the colorful discovery, a war party descended and killed many of the men and ran the others off.  For ten frustrating years, Adams tried to get back to the findings, but was always held off by the Indians.  Finally, after the Apache Indians had been moved, Adams went back in search but was never able to find the correct spot.            This discovery is also known as the “Lost Adams Diggins” and has been made into a movie called Mackenna’s Gold. Status: still lost.
As you now see, there is still gold in them thar hills! You just have to be lucky enough to find and keep it.  Have you ever been gold panning?

Have you visited a haunted mine or discovered something special?  We’d love to hear about it…
Today, in celebration of the release of MONTANA DAWN, I’m offering a signed copy to a commenter.  Also, if you go to my website ( and sign up for my News Letter on the contact page, you will be entered in the drawing for a basket filled with candies, chocolates, muffin mix,  a handsome coffee mug (filled with even more chocolate!) and a jar of scrumptious jam, all made from the Big Sky State’s coveted huckleberry.  

Also included is an autographed copy of both MONTANA DAWN and WHERE THE WIND BLOWS.  It’s as easy as pie. The winner will be drawn on December 10th, 2010–just in time for Christmas.
 It’s wonderful to be here again at Petticoats & Pistols.  

Thank you to all the Fillies for having me.  It seems like only yesterday when we were talking about Pioneer Teachers and how they helped shape the West.  Don’t know about the rest of you, but time seems to have jumped its bank…and there’s no holding it back.


The Bard of the Yukon

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Few periods in American history have spawned as many legends as the 1896-99 Klondike Gold Rush.  The rush brought out the best and worst in the men and women who swarmed north in search of wealth.  The tales of their adventures, some true and some myths, have filled many books.  But few writers captured the spirit of gold rush life like poet Robert W. Service, sometimes called “The Bard of the Yukon.”  His writing was so expressive, and so evocative of the time that his readers took him for a hard-bitten old Klondike prospector. 

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Robert William Service never prospected for gold and did not, in fact, arrive in the Klondike until years after the gold rush played out. 

Service was born in 1874 to a Scottish family living in England.  Trained to be a bank clerk like his father, he left Glasgow for Canada at the age of 21, hoping to become a cowboy.  He drifted around western North America for a time and finally took work with the Canadian Bank of Commerce.  After working in a number of branches, he was posted to the branch in Whitehorse in 1904, then later to Dawson City in the Klondike in in 1908.  Inspired by the vast beauty of the wilderness, Service began writing poetry about the things he saw.  Conversations with local characters who’d lived through the gold rush led him to write about things he heard, embellishing them with his own imagination. 

After collecting enough poems for a book, he offered a publisher $100 of his own money to publish the work.  The publisher returned the money and offered Service a contract.  The book, published as The Spell of the Yukon in America and The Songs of a Sourdough in England, made him world famous and also very wealthy.  Within two years he was able to quit his job at the bank and travel to Paris and Hollywood.  Service remained a British citizen for life.  During World War I he served as an ambulance driver.  He wrote many poems about the war and about other places he visited – more than 1,000 poems in all, as well as two autobiographical novels.

He married a Parisian woman and lived most of his life in France, where he died in 1958.  His wife, thirteen years his junior, died in 1989 at the age of 102.

If you’ve never read Service’s Gold Rush poems you’re in for a treat.  I especially love “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” quoted in part at the beginning of this blog, about the prospector who was always cold.  It’s too long to include in its entirety, but here’s a link:


The Glory Days of Black Gold

pat2One of my all-time favorite films is “Giant,” a sprawling epic of Texas with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and the ill-fated James Dean who was killed in an accident immediately after the filming.It was the highest grossing film until “Superman” assumed that the honor, and it was nominated for eight Oscars, including best supporting actor for James Dean. One theme of the movie was the conflict between oil men and the ranchers.
I was reminded of those raucous oil years not long ago when I heard one of those old family stories that occasionally pop up. My dad’s family homesteaded in southern Arizona in 1911, and I have great family stories, including one in which my then toddler father played with a rattler. But then that’s another story.
There were three brothers and three sisters. The three sisters were all older than the brothers. My oldest uncle, an intrepid fellow who later became a war correspondent, worked on the early wells to earn money for college. One of my aunts ran a boarding house for roustabouts.

So I thought I would check out a little history of oil in the west. It was a little ironic that men searched so long and hard for minerals when black gold lay beneath their feet across the great plains.

One of the first finds was in Texas. Indians had known of places where brown fluids seeped from the earth, oils which healed battle wounds and skin diseases. Around such seeps were invisible substances in the air that would burn forever – better than pine torches to light the night during times of tribal ceremonies. The first pioneers learned to use the brown fluids for softening leather, lubricating wagon axles and making ointments. But most ranchers hated the stuff. It ruin their water for drinking.

In 1886, a rancher near San Antonio drilled for water and hit oil instead. He was not a happy man, not until he discovered he could use it for fuel around the ranch.

But nothing more happened until 1894 when a well being bored for water at Corsicana suddenly spouted oil in a steady stream. It caught fire and started the first oil boom in the west. Corsicana was soon producing petroleum commercially – 1,450 barrels the first year. Four years later production rose to more than half a million barrels.

The find encouraged other petroleum drilling, leading to the Spindletop, a oil gusher near Beaumont that was big enough to surprise even a Texan. The driller expected maybe fifty barrels. With his old fashioned rig, he drove down a thousand feet. According to “The Settlers West” by Martin Schmitt and Dee Brown, the drill pipe shot up out of the casing and knocked off the crown block. “In a very short time,” the driller said, “oil was going up through the top of the derrick and rocks were shot hundreds of feet into the air. Within a few minutes, the oil was holding a steady flow at more than twice the height of the derrick.” Spindletop spilled oil all over the Texas landscape, a hundred thousand barrels a day.

In a few weeks Beaumont was running a high fever. Wooden oil derricks shot up like weeds. The population jumped from ten to thirty thousand. Land values soared from $40 to $1,000,000 an acre.

From then oil fever consumed the country, just as gold fever had a few decades earlier. Oil was found in an impoverished Oklahoma near a sleepy village which the natives called Tulsey Town. Gamblers and speculators and the new fraternity of oil men in big hats and laced boots swarmed into the little town on the Arkansas River. Little Tulsey Town became Tulsa.

The finds in Texas and Oklahoma spurred more searches north and west across the great plains, and strike followed strike. There was so much oil that there weren’t enough storage tanks and thousands of barrels flowed back into the earth or wells caught fire and burned for days.

And wherever oil was found, tents, shacks, saloons and gambling houses, and boarding houses sprung up just as they had in the old cattle trail towns of an earlier generation.

California had some small fields before the Texas finds but boomtowns and oil fever was constrained, perhaps as an aftermath of gold fever until a gusher blew in neaar Lake View and poured out 90,000 barrels a day.   The spray covered an area 15 miles around and the well became the richest of all time.

Do any of you have any stories of those black gold glory days. And have you seen “Giant?” If not, do yourself a favor and rent it. The music is great, too.





Hunting for Gold in The Lone Star State





“A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar at the top.” – Mark Twain

When I began doing research for my debut novel, Touch of Texas, I knew I was searching for a special type of location. It needed to be isolated, with a means of support for those who settled in the town. I didn’t want the town to be too prosperous – that eliminates some of the available conflict for a story. Also, the area had to be right for the nefarious to operate – cattle rustling, horse stealing, etc. – and have numerous places for them to hide.


The hero of the book was a Texas Ranger, the tall, dark and dangerous type, who preferred taking on assignments that sent him out alone, far from civilization. My mental picture of the heroine was his total opposite, a fragile-looking woman with golden hair…

Golden? Aha! A gold mining town. But was gold ever mined in Texas in the 1800’s? I don’t mind making stuff up in the name of my art, but I believe fiction needs to have a basis in the credible.

Silver mining has been going on in Texas since the Franciscans Friars discovered the precious ore near El Paso in 1680. These mines were hidden by the good Friars from the Jesuit brothers and the locations lost for many years. One mine was rediscovered in 1793, then lost again, then found again thanks to church records in 1872. In 1880 the Presidio Mine was discovered. In the ensuing years, strikes were made in all over the western half of the state, and even in the Hill Country.

From The Handbook of Texas Online: “In 1905, 387,576 ounces of silver were produced in the state, and in 1908 the Bonanza and Alice Ray Mines in the Quitman Mountains in Hudspeth County were producing ore valued at $60 to $65 per ton. In 1918 the Chinati and Montezuma mines closed. The Presidio Mine was one of the most consistent producers of silver in the country; from 1880 until it closed in 1942 it had produced 2,000,000 tons of ore from which 30,293,606 ounces of silver, about nine-tenths of the total output of the state, had been extracted, along with a small value in gold and lead.”

There it is. The answer to whether anyone ever mined for gold in Texas. The operations weren’t profitable, but there have been gold mines in Texas since the 1800’s. In fact, there has been a gold mining operation going on in the Hill Country continuously since the expeditioBig Bend National Parkn of Bernardo de Miranda y Flores left San Antonio in February, 1756.

Most gold mining took place in the far southwestern part of the state, in the area called Big Bend. (That’s a picture of Big Bend National Park to the right. Gorgeous, isn’t it?)

There was some mining around Fort Davis and in the Davis Mountains, and also in Presidio County.

 While reseFort Davis, Texasarching the history of Fort Davis, a United States Army post in operation from 1854-1891, I found mention of a wave of gold seekers coming through on their way to California from San Antonio. The need to protect these adventurers and pioneer was part of what helped drive the placement of the fort.

Amateur prospectors have discovered arrastre, granite bedrock milling stones, abandoned by the Mexicans and Spanish in and on the banks of the creeks where they searched in vain for gold.

But since when has gold fever been cured by the words “you aren’t going to find it panhandlerhere”.  To this day, the persistent legends of large veins scattered through the state are enough to keep hopeful panhandlers searching.
Panning still turns up small amounts of gold around the ruins of Fort Davis, as well as in the Hill Country around Llano and Mason Counties, where there were mostly placer mines—that’s the mining of alluvial or sediment deposits for minerals. Despite the odds against finding anything, they’re still mining for gold in the Lone Star State.

While no one person or mining company ever got wealthy digging or panning for gold in Texas—the total recorded value of the gold dug out of the ground is less than $250,000—they did and still do hunt for the precious metal. And for a fiction writer, that’s all I needed to create my own little piece of the past.

Maybe Mark Twain had it right – although I’d rather consider myself a weaver of a tall tale rather than a liar.