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Camp on Clear Creek


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New York Times / Nov 23, 1890



minerOfficers who were cadets at West Point shortly after the close of the war will no doubt remember one of their number, whose Indian blood attracted the attention of all with whom he came into contact. He was not bright, but had a magnificent physique, and finally "scraped" through the different examinations until he was graduated and assigned to one of the colored regiments then serving in the Southwest. His father was a "squaw man" among the Sioux, and it may be presumed that the young officer never saw him after becoming a cadet. The enforced idleness of garrison life was too much for the young Lieutenant, who rapidly became intimate with the worst element of the post; took more interest in draw poker than his drill, until he came to his senses with four or five months’ pay accounts "shoved up" at the post trader's. Soon after this he disappeared so completely that no trace was found of him for years; he was dropped from the rolls of the Army, after three months’ absence as a deserter, and the post trader charged up his set of pay vouchers to profit and loss.

The important towns of Arizona at that period were nothing more than stage stations. Phoenix, now with 15,000 inhabitants, had only 200 or 300 people, who every night took all precautions against surprise from the roving bands of hostile White Mountain Apaches. The Southern Pacific Railway survey stakes had not yet been planted, and a few isolated, distant army posts lent but little aid to the early settlers. Mineral wealth was known to be in all the mountains north of the Gila River, but the mines of the Tombstone and Bisbee districts had never been dreamed of, and if they had been known to exist no prospector would have dared to venture many miles south of Tucson. The northern country was completely closed through fear of the Apaches. The many old Mexican families living in Tucson had preserved legends of the Spanish mines of the north, and many letters are still extant describing the arrival in the plaza of the town of so and so many mules loaded with gold and silver bullion from the mines.

The reorganization of the army took place; officers were transferred, and some of the older men of the regiment referred to found themselves stationed at Lowell, only seven miles from Tucson. Being the only city of any size in the Territory, it was the centre of trade for Arizona, the southern portions of Nevada and California, and all of New-Mexico west of Santa Fe. All cattlemen and miners and peaceful Indians came there to spend their savings, and Tucson then, with her hauling trade, was a far busier place than to-day.

Among the Indians from the north who came down to buy was a band of White Mountain Apaches from Coon Creek, a small mountain stream which flows into the salt river a few miles north of where the town of Globe now is. These Indians were always known to pay for their purchases with "free gold," and the Jewish tradesmen were always known to underweigh the gold, until on one occasion an altercation arose between the leader of the Indians and the trader, which was settled by taking the gold to the assay office, where the leader showed an excellent knowledge of chemistry and mineralogy. The army relied upon the town for social needs, and in the course of time the curious fact of an Indian knowing chemistry became known at Fort Lowell.

The Coon Creek Indians were enemies of the Papagoes, who lived to the west of Tucson, where they spent a quiet life irrigating their lands and supplying the town with vegetables, and when the northern Indians had made their purchases they mounted their animals to raid through the Papago country, running off all the stocks they could lay their hands on. The army was finally called upon to protect the peaceable Papagoes, who are no match for their warlike persecutors. For two years the Coon Creek Indians outwitted their pursuers, owing to the ability of their leader, and as the incursions into Papago territory ceased, the troops returned to their posts and the fugitive Indians to their old haunts, again to visit Tucson, bringing their "free gold." The "free gold" story was common talk among all the prospectors and miners of the Territory, but none dared to venture near Coon Creek, and the members of the band were so discreet that no intimation of the approximate location of the mine was ever worked out of them. Many small parties were organized to push up into the Superstition Mountain Country, as it was called, but their nerve generally gave out after crossing Tonto Creek, which flows down the east side of the mountains.

Army officers were as much excited as the others, and those who would have "cut" a young Indian Lieutenant before were now endeavoring to please him, after finding him as leader of the Coon Creek band, and, more than that, probably owner of the mine. This former "disgrace" was now a welcome guest, but he, too, had learned to be discreet, and he never divulged the secret. Shortly after this he was unfortunately killed in a Papago raid, but his secret was passed to some other member of the band.

The story of a mine giving gold nuggets of two and three pounds traveled to Santa Fe, and a young physician of Albuquerque locked up his surgical instruments, became a prospector, and set out on his mule for Arizona. Though dissuaded by nearly everybody, he took the route through Phoenix to Fort McDowell, then to Old Camp Reno, across Tonto Basin, to a point on the Sierra Ancha Mountains in sight of "Jerked Beef Butte." This strangely shaped mountain was supposed, by all those familiar with Mexican traditions, to be the centre of a mining district, and as it was near Coon Creek the doctor struck straight for it. The mountain is on the south side of the Salt River, and rises straight out of the plain to a height of 400 or 500 feet, having a flat circular top of about four acres in area. It derives its appropriate name from a queer circumstance which occurred not many years ago while the United States troops were at war with the Tonto Apaches. A large herd of Indian cattle were secured by the troops, and as it was impossible to drive them back to the post, the commander of the expedition, rather than have the cattle fall into the hands of the Indians, drove them up to the top of the mountain, where he had them shot down, hoping that the hot sun would render them unfit to eat in a few hours. After this wholesale slaughter had been accomplished the troops marched away, and the Tontos, who had watched the proceedings from the surrounding hills, returned to make the best out of their loss, and "jerked" all the beef; hence the designation "Jerked Beef Butte."

Not far from this butte our adventurous young doctor was made captive by the Indians, who at first regarded him as crazy to have ventured into such danger, and he would surely have been immediately put to death by them when he explained that the object of his visit was to discover the mine had it not been for the fact that one of their number had a few hours before suffered a compound fracture of the leg and they needed a physician to attend him. He was taken to their camp, where he proceeded to help the sufferer, and he was assured that unless a complete cure was effected he would forfeit his life. The physician afterward said that he had never before thrown his heart and soul into a case as he did with his poor Indian. The sick man recovered; the Indians kept their promise not to kill the doctor, and were so grateful that at his request they promised to show him the mine he sought.

Early one morning he was blindfolded and placed on the mule with his face toward the tail, in order to confuse him as much as possible with reference to the direction taken; after which, in this position, he was led over mountain trails, across streams and ravines until sundown, when after some preparation his bandage was removed from his eyes, and he was permitted to see a most wonderful outcropping of gold quartz and nuggets. He was permitted to assure himself that it was a true fissure, but was not allowed to wander from the spot to get his bearings. After selecting some of the fine specimens of "free gold," and ore enough to convince any mining "expert" of the immense richness of the main body of rock, he was again blindfolded and conducted as before to Tonto Basin. The time occupied in his ride to Basin he judged as having been thirty-six hours, because he spent one night in the saddle, but he was unable to judge of his roundabout course. He was kindly treated by the Indians, who dismissed him with the injunction not to return under penalty of death.

The doctor brought back his Arabian Nights tale, though he fortified it with his specimens, but he had had enough personal mining experience in the Superstition Mountains and settled down as a practicing physician in Tucson. Many hardy frontiersmen who had heard his story combined together to form a party of at least a hundred strong, enough to overcome any band of hostiles who should oppose their explorations. This determined crowd traveled due north from Tucson, crossing the Gila River, Pinal Creek, and the Salt River, until they drew in sight of "Jerked Beef Butte," after which they carefully trailed their way to the point where the physician had instructed them to go. Accustomed to all the artifices of Indian warfare, these men attacked and destroyed an Indian camp on Pinal Creek, which was the remnant of the Coon Creek tribe. Among those who escaped death and was captured was a middle-aged squaw who at the time was not suspected of having any knowledge of the mine, though among the dead bucks’ blankets were found many small nuggets of gold.

Arriving at a certain unmistakable hill on the trail, now known as "Seven Mill Hill," the band halted and determined to scout in the form of a circle with that point as a centre. It had been agreed that whoever should discover the mine would divide with the others. Among these men were two Californians, named Johnson and Swift, who prospected together. They left the main party and are supposed to have found the identical treasure of the West Pointer. They deserted their companions after due location and concealment of their "find," and went to the town of Phoenix to record their "location," where they made a confidant of a man named Shaw, who afterward became Mayor of the town. Owing to some irregularity in their "location" they were advised to return to their mine to perfect the preliminary steps to acquiring the title. In the meantime their companions had searched the ground carefully, but with no favorable result; had gone home, disbanded, and given Johnson and Swift up as lost. As soon as these two got a little mining outfit together they passed through Fort McDowell, on the Verde River, en route to their mine. On Tonto Creek they met Major H. R. Brown, who had just returned from a scout through the country of their destination. They told him of their wonderful discovery and said that, while they had seen enough gold in sight to make fifteen men rich, they did not think there was enough for a hundred, so they had kept the property for themselves. They were warned of the dangerous risk they were running in going into the Tonto country, but the stake was too great for any danger to deter them. The last seen of these two men alive was as their small train of mules disappeared over the summit of "The Devil's Jump-Off," where the trail from Tonto Basin reaches the Prieto plateau.

In the few succeeding years, no attempts were made to prospect for the mine; the Indians were too bad and encroached even into Tonto Basin. Major Shaw only a few years ago had some of the marvelously rich ore specimens still in his possession, and had many times to tell to strangers the story of the lost Johnson Mine. Knowing the country thoroughly in the vicinity of the Butte, and having heard the story of the lost mine, I determined to make a secret effort to discover it. In the south-western portion of the territory I had myself found old and abandoned "workings" of the early Spaniards, and had carefully studied their manner of concealing their shafts when forced to abandon them temporarily during troubles with the Apaches. Having business at the San Carlos Agency, while there I chanced to find the squaw who had not been killed, but I could never have recognized her from her description. When captured she was middle-aged, but plump and comely. She had passed to another tribe, and owing to her persistent refusal to give the location of the mine, which had caused her such sorrow and misery, she was subjected to all manner of abuse and hardship until she sank to the position of a kitchen drudge in an Indian camp and in appearance was a wrinkled old hag.

I approached her diplomatically on the subject of the Coon Creek region and found her familiar with every foot of it. Referring to Johnson and Swift, her memory was distinct. She described them and their outfit and the manner of their death. She was with her adopted tribe starving in the mountains during an unusually severe winter, during which the troops had been in hot pursuit of them, when early one morning they espied the two miners wending their way up the trail. The Indians did not wish to kill the men, but they needed the mules to satisfy their craving stomachs. And ambuscade was prepared, and the two men were shot dead without knowing that any danger was near. The outfit was divided, the two corpses removed from the trail, and one mule killed in the firing furnished plenty of food for an all-night feast. While listening to her tale I knew that if I could find the scene of the murder I would be on the right trail to the mine, unless the two men through fear of detection and discovery had gone in a detour to deceive any followers.

I asked the old woman if she supposed that the two men were going to Nadjeski's mine, mentioning the Indian name of her chief, the Indian Lieutenant. Her eyes brightened when I mentioned his name, and she replied that she thought they were on their way there, but that no one could ever find it. She, herself, I found very obstinate, and after three days’ persistent work, I discovered from her only the scene of the murder. I also wished to obtain some points from her about Nadjeski, but nothing could induce her to break the Indian custom of not to converse about the dead. With two young San Carlos Indians whom I knew I went up the country to "Jerked Beef Butte," and from there to the scene of Johnson's and Swift's mishap, telling the Indians it was for the purpose of gathering some stray cattle. The squaw's story was true; a short distance from the trail I ran upon the two skeletons of the unfortunate men, and not far from them the bones of the mule which had furnished the supper. What clothes had been left on the bodies of the Indians [sic] I carefully searched for any papers and diagrams of the mine. I found absolutely nothing, and, in some degree disappointed, I sought a comfortable camp from which to prospect and to send the Indians out for stray cattle.

For three months I continued, searching every rocky ledge, the bottoms of ravines, the shores of mountain streams, and everywhere within a radius of 30 miles. Often at night when too far away from the home camp to return I slept on a bed made of the heavy pine grass, dreaming all night that the mine had been found and that its shafts and drifts were cut through the solid yellow metal. A stray deer or elk would sometimes startle me, wake me from the dream, but only for a moment, when it would again resume itself. Nearly a month and a half passed; sometimes discouraged, I would determine to relinquish it as a wild-goose chase, when, with that desperation of despair only seen at the card table, I would start out again in some new direction. Toward the middle of the third month the Chiricahua Indian war broke out, and their cousins, the White Mountain tribes, began to roam. It was too much like courting death to remain longer. We went out of the mountains by way of Pleasant Valley, which we reached in the nick of time, for in the skirmish around the house in the valley I lost one of my Indians and reached San Carlos with the other after suffering many hardships and only able to travel during the darkest nights.

I never mentioned the story to my associates, and my attempt, I believe, was the last made to discover the lost Johnson claim. That the mine exists there can be no doubt; neither can there be any doubt of its immense value, but for this generation it has probably been concealed by some act of nature, such as a landslide, a fall of rock, or by some immense deposit of debris, which, carried down the mountain courses in cloudbursts, has completely covered and hidden this great treasure.



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