Craig places the prospector’s family background and times into context in an engaging introduction, then opens Schieffelin’s story with the frontiersman’s accounts of his first prospecting attempts at ten years old, his flight from home at twelve to search for gold, and his initial wanderings in California, Nevada, and Utah. In direct, unsentimental prose, Schieffelin describes his expedition into Arizona Territory, where army scouts assured him that he “would find no rock . . . but his own tombstone.”
Unlike many prospectors who simply panned for gold, Schieffelin took on wealthy partners who invested the enormous funds needed for hard rock mining. He and his co-investors in the Tombstone claim became millionaires. Restless in his newfound life of wealth and leisure, Schieffelin soon returned to exploration. Upon his early death in Oregon he left behind a new strike, the location of which remains a mystery.
Collecting the words of an exceptional figure who embodied the western frontier, Craig offers readers insight into the mentality of prospector-adventurers during an age of discovery and of limitless potential.
Portrait of a Prospector is highly recommended for undergraduate western history survey courses.
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About the Author
Craig is the editor of the fiftieth anniversary edition of Freeman Tilden’s classic work, Interpreting Our Heritage, and author of Treasonable Doubt: The Harry Dexter White Spy Case and The Apprenticeship of Alger Hiss.
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Early Life, 1847–1866
I WAS BORN IN TIOGA COUNTY, Pennsylvania, in October, 1847; the family was a large one, and came originally from New York City, where father was born. My mother was born in the North of Ireland, whence she and her brother, Joseph Walker, were brought to America when very young. Her brother came to California in 1849 and remained in this state until 1853, when he went to Oregon. During the Fraser River excitement of '56 or '57 he went to that country and after several years nothing more was heard from him.
Until I was 9 years old I lived with my parents, brothers, and sisters on the farm in Tioga County, Pennsylvania. In 1856 we removed to California, where my father had gone in 1852. We arrived in San Francisco in the fall of 1856, and remained there and in Crescent City [Oregon], until about February 1857. We then went to Jackson County, southwestern Oregon, experiencing a very severe trip across the mountains from Crescent, about 100 miles, on mules and horses. The snow was so deep on each side of the trail as to reach in places the height of a man's shoulder as he sat on horseback. The wind was fearfully cold, and we suffered a great deal on the way; my mother, sister, and brother and myself, as well as my father, who had come down to meet us at Crescent City, were in the party.
On arriving in Oregon, the first thing I did was to get a shovel and a milk pan, and to go down the bank of the river looking for gold; that was my first experience with mica.
Finding particles of mica through the sand, and thinking they were gold, I stopped right there and tried to accumulate it. I started in the morning soon after breakfast, and by the middle of the afternoon had gathered probably half a teaspoon of the mica. I then came into the house, and met my uncle, who was quite delighted with my work, and seemed considerably amused. He told me the substance was not gold, and I then learned what mica was.
We remained for a few years on the farm, during which time once in a while I would take a pick, shovel and pan, and go off into the hills in the neighborhood, washing for gold in the gulches. Sometimes when out hunting, I would break the quartz and look for gold in it. This went on until I was about 12 years old, when the Salmon River mining excitement occurred, and I was seized with it and wanted to go there. The fever was so strong that I ran away from home and got about 60 miles away. One of the neighbors brought me back. I remained home until I was 17.
My First Prospecting Trip, 1864–1865
I well remember my first prospecting trip. I guess I was about seventeen. It wasn't my first prospecting by any means, but the first time I packed a horse and went out into the mountains to be gone any length of time. And then it was only for a couple of weeks and only about ten miles from home, but at that time I thought it was a long ways. I got to wondering how those that went through the country first must have managed, and what they probably thought when they was hundreds of miles from anybody and Indians everywhere.
It didn't seem so far nor as much of a trip as it did the first night or two. The first night the old work horse that belonged to Father that I had pressed into service to pack my outfit got loose by a coyote cutting the rope. The mule went back home leaving me entirely alone. My first impulse was to go after him, but on thinking over the matter for a while, I concluded that I was where I wanted to be, and had no immediate use for him. Anyway, if I got him again the same thing would most likely occur. So that I decided to let him go until I wanted either to go home or somewhere else — then I'd go and get him, for I was sure that he had gone straight home which I afterwards found to be so.
I guess I had been there about a week, sinking holes in gulches and creeks, and gouging around one place and another, occasionally finding a little gold but nothing of any consequence. Then, one evening about dusk, I went along up the main creek on which I was camped to see if I couldn't kill a deer. But it was too late so I didn't go far but came back to camp as I went without any deer.
Just up on the side of the mountain, a couple of hundred yards or so was quite a thicket in the head of a small gulch that ran down close to where I was camped. I was just starting a fire to get supper having set my rifle, an old muzzle loader, against a big pine tree within a few feet of where I was building a fire. All at once the damnedest racket I ever heard started right up in the thicket spoken of. For a second or two I didn't realize what it was and went for my rifle. My hat fell off and whether I knocked it off in my haste to get my rifle or whether my hair rising on end pushed it off, to this day I don't know! But I do know I was very badly scared for a little while in fact, until the fight ended, which it did in a very few minutes. I heard them run but it was too dark to see. But I heard them run over the point away from where I was, which was a great relief to me.
For it wasn't long after the fight began before I was satisfied that it was a couple of grizzlies fighting. Although I had never heard bear fighting before, the noise sounded to me worse that if all the dogs in the country was fighting at the same time, together with an occasional clap of thunder thrown in. I was sure it was bear.
I knew there was plenty of them there, although I had not seen any. Still I saw their tracks every day and panther as well. I would hear them scream almost every night and would sometimes think sure it was a woman's voice so much so that once or twice I answered, but receiving no reply, knew it was a panther.
In the morning I went up to have a look at the battle ground, but didn't find no dead bear. I had read that usually where wild animals that got to fighting, one of them would get killed. It wasn't so in this case, nor was there blood, flesh, nor any bones, but only here and there a little tuft of fur. But the brush looked as if a tornado had struck it, and the ground was somewhat scratchedwhere they had stuck their claws in. Otherwise no one would never know there had been a bear in the country but for the noise they make, especially where there is heavy timber at night which makes up for all else — at least for a boy, that being his first experience with bear will think so.
I expected to meet with some of them while I was there but didn't. I remained there some time after that, long enough to satisfy myself that there was no mines there, nor has there been any found yet.
When I was about seventeen there was a mining furor in Montana, and I wanted to go there, but both my father and mother opposed, and finally I consented to give that up and go into the placer mines in our neighborhood.
I went five miles off and went to work in a mining claim where I worked one month. Then, with what money I had made, I bought an interest in a claim, which I worked 2 or 3 months; then I quit on account of lack of water.
I next went to driving a team on the freight road for wages and continued at this until fall. In the fall I again prospected, and thought I had found a good prospect. I prepared for the winter, and dug a ditch to put water on the claim. When the winter came, which was late in the season, I worked a week or so, and found that the claim was not of any value. I gave it up in disgust. The winter had been a pretty hard one, and the water had not come until late, so that with the time I had lost, it was now well on towards spring.
I went to work for wages in a mining claim some four or five miles from where I had been prospecting. I worked there only about a month when the water failed. Then I went to work again on the road until toward fall when I went prospecting again. I found another prospect. It was in rather heavy ground and required considerable work to get at it. I built a cabin, and got tools, provisions, etc., ready for another trial. After working awhile, however, I concluded it would not pay, but I have since thought that I made a mistake, and that more than likely there was gold there, but in the bedrock instead of in the gravel. If I had worked up the bedrock I think possibly I might have got something out of it. As it was, however, I did not, but left that place, and during the summer and fall I prospected considerably in different localities.
Encounter on Birdseye Creek, 1866
Along about 1866, during my first experience of prospecting in the placer mines of southwestern Oregon, in a small gulch that empties into a small creek called Birdseye's Creek, not far from the Rogue River, I thought I had found rich diggins. Accordingly, I built me a cabin, dug a ditch nearly two miles in length and made preparations generally for a winter's work. But, it was all for nothing for I didn't make a quarter of a dollar out of it.
One evening after being all ready to go to work, but having no water for the rains that winter was late in coming, I had been hunting and was coming home when not far from the cabin I saw smoke. At first sight I took it to be the cabin a-fire but it proved to be a couple of men from another mining camp about twelve miles away. They had come on the creek that day a-prospecting. Seeing that somebody lived in the cabin and would most likely be there at night, they concluded to camp there so as to interview me that evening and learn what they could concerning the prospects on the creek for diggings. When I got there I took them into the cabin, although they could have went in themselves for there was no lock to the door. As they had some grub with them I didn't give them any supper, but I did make their breakfasts.
During the evening we told stories, swapped lies and made time pass very pleasantly. I also learned that they had got there early in the day, about the middle of the forenoon and had been up and down the creek occasionally washing a pan of dirt. But they found nothing encouraging. One of them, the one who owned what tools (a pan) that they had brought with them, said that in the morning he was going back home as he didn't like the creek and didn't believe there was anything of any account on it. The other one seemed to want to stay a few days as I had told them that they could stay there with me as I had plenty of provisions. Since they had their own blankets there was nothing to hinder them from staying as long as they liked. But Shoe Butcher, which I afterwards learned was his name (getting it from mending boots), wouldn't stay.
The next morning, bright and early, he struck out for home. So I told Palmer, the other fellow (an Englishman), that if he wanted to try the creek farther that I would loan him a pick, shovel and pan and that he could staythere in the cabin with me. There was plenty of grub, all he would have to do was cook it when I was away, which would be during the day for a few days but that I would be there nights. (I was going to help George Burns finish a ditch that he was digging. Burns lived on the left hand fork of the creek, some three miles above.) For all of this he seemed to be very thankful.
So I got the pick, pan, and shovel for him, took my rifle, and started out for Burns. When he shouldered his tools Palmer said that he would go along up with me and see Burns' diggings. He would then prospect from there down to the forks and up the right hand fork as he had been on it the day before and saw a place that looked well.
When we got to Burns and after looking at the claim, he went up on the ditch with us. After standing around awhile he went away. When he had gone George says to me, "That fellow won't do any prospecting."
"Why?" I says.
"Oh, he's no Prospector. He ain't shaped right."
That night or evening, when going down the trail, I thought I could see his tracks all the way down but thought nothing of it particularly; only it was a queer way of prospecting — to follow a trail all the time. But when I got to the cabin, I found out that he had done no prospecting for there set the tools up by the side of the door, perfectly clean, as I had given them to him in the morning. He had went in, cooked his dinner and I suppose ate it. It was gone at all events, and so was he. But the interior of the cabin looked like the devil, for he had been through and turned everything topsy-turvy, looking for something. What it was I don't know, unless it was money. I looked all around but could miss nothing whatever. Everything was there, only scattered around.
Then, when it was, I suppose, a couple of months afterwards that my brother Al came up one day and was looking at some quartz that I had brought in from time to time. (When I was out hunting or traveling around and would see a nice piece of quartz, I'd bring it home and throw it down by the side of the door. I had accumulated quite a little pile.) Al thought he saw some fine gold in one of the pieces and went to get a very fine magnifying or quartz glass that had been given me a year or two previous. I had always kept it in a little box nailed up to one of the logs over the head of my bed which served both as a shelf to set a candle on at night when I wanted to lay and read, and also as a shelf for small things. But the glass was gone. Al called to me that the glass was gone or that I had moved it. But I hadn't for I had not used it. We both hunted high and low and looked everywhere. We hated to give up the search because it was a very powerful and fine glass, one that I not only valued for its quality, but as a gift. At last it dawned on me that that fellow, Palmer, had taken it. Not being able to find anything else that was handy to carry and would be of any use to him and seeing it was an extra fine glass, he had taken it, feeling sure it would be some time before I missed it, unless by accident.
It was a mean trick. As Burns had said, he wasn't shaped right for a prospector. But, he was gone and so was the glass. I never saw or heard of him afterwards.
"Grubstakes" Early Wanderings, 1866–1872
THE WINTER FOLLOWING [CIRCA 1866–67] was a dry one, and there was not much being done in the mines. The next spring I went to Nevada, following a band of cattle in order to get there as far as Surprise Valley. From there on I went through the country with another companion, and we struck the Humbolt River, not far from Winnemucca. There I began my first prospecting for silver ores, and spent about two months there. Then I went to Owens River, California, prospecting on the way. At Owens River I went to work for wages, for about a month, chopping wood.
The Salt Lake excitement next attracted myself and three others, making a party of four. We started from the Owens River on New Year's Day, 1871, going down through the Pioche country through southern Nevada. The four who started traveled together three or four days, when — after we got to Montezuma (a small mining camp which had just started and where there was a demand for miners) — two of our number stopped to go to work in the mines. Myself and the other one of the party went on as we had started. We did some prospecting, until we got near Pioche, when we did quite considerable.
We then went on to the Salt Lake district, prospecting there until March, 1871, but we found nothing. My funds ran out, and I sold my saddle mule, put my blankets on my back, and packed them in and out of Salt Lake City, up to Corinne, and on up the Montana stage road, until I got up on Snake River. Here I went to driving stage, and did this for three or four months, getting a little money together. Late in the fall, I then went to Boise. I did not like that country, and came back into Nevada, where I spent the winter.
Encounter at Mountain Meadows, 1872
EDITOR'S NOTE: In their own version of Manifest Destiny to establish a New Zion in the American West, Mormons focused attention on the settlement of the Colorado River region. But in this quest, they were not alone. Some emigrants sought to settle there, too, while others would merely pass through "Mormon country" on their westward journey.
In September 1857 a group of about 120 men, women, and children from Arkansas and Missouri camped at Mountain Meadows, Utah, and were killed by Indians and Mormons. In the annals of western and Mormon history, the tale of the Mountain Meadows massacre remains both legendary and controversial.
Schieffelin's visit through Mountain Meadows in March 1872 took place less than a year after Mormon officials had terminated the church's systematic expansion into the Muddy area. Still, some Mormon families remained in the area, often providing foodstuffs for miners and westbound immigrants.
Schieffelin's account depicts what he characterized as "that dark and bloody deed," a noteworthy description that reflects the prevailing negative attitude of many towards the Mormon settlers who, throughout the 1860s and early 1870s, were systematically establishing "stations" for migrating "Saints" from the East to the Mormon territory.
Excerpted from "Portrait OF A Prospector"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
Chronology of the Life of Edward Schieffelin,
1. Early Life, 1847–1866,
2. "Grubstakes" Early Wanderings, 1866–1872,
3. Up the Colorado, 1872,
4. Southwestern Wanderings, 1872–1877,
5. The Discovery of Tombstone, 1878,
6. Alaskan Adventures, 1882–1883,
7. Ever a Prospector, 1883–1897,