The price of gold at press time was $270.40 per Troy ounce, according to the London gold market’s quote … enough to buy a nice vacation. Got some time on your hands? Tired of scraping and saving just to get by? One pocket-sized nugget of gold and you could vacation for a year, maybe two. And if you believe the legends, that gold just might be in the nearby Uinta Mountains. That is, if you believe the legends …
Legends, Myths and Just the Facts, Ma’am
If only the story were as simple as “just the facts, ma’am.” But this is gold we’re talking about … the stuff of folk songs and legend. The facts are shrouded in lore, hearsay and stories—lots and lots of stories. And stories mold to the facts like rivers mold to rocks. Different facts make different stories.
The story of gold in the Uintas differs, depending on whether you believe there is even gold out there. To believers, the story of gold in the Uintas rewrites Utah’s history—and any time you rewrite history, you provide ammunition for suspicion. Few are as devout as the believers. Book upon book has been published. Not much gold has been found; few people have struck it rich. But then again, who would spread the news when the government might take your find, or tax it heavily? Who knows if there is gold in the hills? A handful of authors cover the subject: George Thompson, Gale Rhoades, Kerry Boren and Steven Schaffer, and they revisit the subject repeatedly, like devotees. Who knows?
The historians think they do; theirs is billed as serious history. Of the four historians interviewed, not one gave any credence to this myth. Sources exist for both sides, but the relative credibility of those sources is up for debate. After hours of reading and hours of interviews, the only real conclusion is a question: Who really does know?
But still the story survives. Let’s start with the story from the believers’ perspective.
The Gold Tale Begins
The story begins with the Spanish lust for gold, far back in Utah’s history. Before we were a glimmer in Brigham’s eye, we were just a tiny part of the Spanish Empire. In 1521 Cortez conquered the Aztec nation and sent the bounty of his booty back to the queen. Spain craved more gold. Rumors of gold sent the Spanish north from Mexico. Coronado hunted for the fabled “seven cities of Cibola,” cities so wealthy that their streets were paved with gold. He followed the legend deep into the unexplored territory of the Americas, but returned empty-handed and partially crazy.
Coronado’s explorations mark the point where historians claim this myth veers from history. He sent one group to do exploring in the Utah region. Believers say that Cardenas pressed farther than that, and that for a couple of hundred years before Escalante christened Utah Valley ground, the Spaniards were in Utah tapping into the vast riches of the Wasatch, Uinta and other Utah regions. Believers tell Indian legends of forced labor at the hands of Spanish “iron shirts.” Estimates from the believers’ side give this figure: 85 percent of the riches of the New World were Spanish bullion mined in Utah by the sweat and blood of the natives.
As the Spanish pressed deeper into Utah, they enslaved the Indians to mine the gold. Believers say the Spanish were crazed for gold—crazed and cruel. One story tells of the capture and torture of a Native American man for a small quantity of gold. According to the story, gold nuggets were given to braves as a token of their passage into manhood. Only the medicine man knew the exact location of the gold. The Spanish captured one Native American with gold—the son of the chief—and demanded he tell them where he got the gold. In typical conquistador manner, they tortured the young Native American man to death. When the chief learned of his son’s death he drove the Spaniards out.
Bloodshed is common in the early stories of gold. The Spanish enslaved the Indians; the Native Americans massacred Spaniards to free themselves from Spanish subjection. The stories tell of bloody struggles and the loss of many Indians lives. If you believe in this early Spanish presence, then this loss of lives and blood blends well with the story. The Indians paid for their freedom with the blood of their own. To the Native Americans, gold was sacred. The Native American name for the sacred mines appears to have been Carre-Shin-Ob (though it was not verified by the Tribal Council). They also called it “money rock,” and they never quite understood the white man’s obsession with it. Back then, they didn’t have the white man’s problem of “gold fever.”
Fast forward to the Latter-day Saints. Now the story blends history and religion into one, making it vulnerable to a two-sided attack. A Mormon friend, esteemed and studied enough in the church to serve as bishop, had never heard this version of Mormon history. After all of these conflicting stories, paranoia—a milder version of what the miners must have felt—may have been setting in.
The Legend of Thomas Rhoads
The story goes as follows: When Brigham Young arrived in Utah Valley, he pursued a kinder policy with the Indians; he thought it better to feed them than to fight them. This won him the respect of the Ute Chief Wakara. Long before, Wakara had received a vision that one day white men would come needing “money rock,” and that until that time Chief Wakara was to save the gold. Wakara agreed to tell one person of the location of the Carre-Shin-Ob. Since Brigham was consumed with his position as church leader, he chose one man—Thomas Rhoads—to collect this gold. Wakara and Young continued their friendship, and Wakara was even baptized into the faith.
Rhoads was shown the location of the sacred mines under solemn and secret oath; he was to reveal its location to no one. For approximately four years, he mined rock when the church needed money, and was known to give gold to people in need. For years he was the only white man—barring the massacred Spaniards—to know the location of the mine. The mine paid for temples and was the money behind the Mormon mint and hence the Mormon empire.
When Rhoads died, his son Caleb followed in his footsteps as the only white man allowed to mine the gold. Caleb mined the “money rock” for four more years. He tried to pass the knowledge on to his nephew, Enock, but Enock was killed on his first expedition to a mine. Legend says that he was killed because the Indians did not recognize him. By this time, Chief Wakara declared that the Mormons no longer needed the aid of the gold, and the mines were closed forever to white men.
Caleb Rhoads continued to mine several Spanish mines. He found seven of them, five of which were not sacred. True to his oath, Caleb never returned to the Carre-Shin-Ob. Every Rhoads honored the secret oath to the Utes. So consequently—and conveniently—the story leaves the location of the mine in the mouths of dead men, and in the realm of myth.
The Other Side Speaks
Kerry Gee, geologist for Park City Mines, makes his first remark about gold in the Uintas a quote from Mark Twain: “A gold mine is nothing but a hole in the ground with a liar at the top of it.”
Gee continues in his own more scientific perspective: “The thing about gold is, it’s one of those metals that is easy to find. The bigger deposits have all been found.” Gee explains, “You can find a little bit of gold anywhere; all granitic rocks have gold in them. But if there was gold in them, you would find it in the streams.” He mentioned that the Nevada gold jackpots did not have much gold present in their streams, “but everyone has stories.”
Indeed, Brigham Young University history professor Tom Alexandar thinks the stories are folklore: “They sound pretty fanciful. Most of the gold for the Mormon mint came from California. Evidence is available from California journals.”
Thomas Rhoads himself brought back a large chunk of gold from California in 1849, enough to start the Mormon mint. Although Alexandar doesn’t fully discredit the possibility of gold in the hills, he doesn’t buy into the claims of fabulous wealth. “I believe that there are mines in the Uintas,” he says. But I’d like to see records of the amount of gold taken and where the gold ended up.”
Jeff Johnson, with the Utah State Archives, asserts that the history is wrong, particularly the sentiments between the Native Americans and Mormons. “Brigham Young kept saying to feed the Indians,” Johnson says, “but it was hard. First of all they had settled on the place where Indians got their food. And the cultures clashed. In all ways the white people won. Not until after the Blackhawk War [did tensions subside].” Johnson does, however, acknowledge that Chief Wakara, known also as Chief Walker, was good to the Mormons, and was baptized into the faith.
Will Bagley has written several books on the subject of Utah’s history, and he sees flaws in the tales. “There are all kinds of stories about the lost Spanish mines that don’t track,” Bagley comments. “There might have been Spanish adventurers up here looking for gold, but Spanish presence was illegal.” Most Spanish explorations required a Catholic figurehead, like Father Escalante. The priests were often the only people with enough education to accurately log their travels, which makes any unauthorized and therefore unrecorded expeditions immediately suspect. “Because of Spanish laws, they weren’t allowed up here,” Bagley says. “They were all in New Mexico. The guys that came up here came illegally; they were essentially smugglers.”
This lack of any large official Spanish support made any large Spanish mining operations impossible, in Bagley’s opinion. He also questions the Rhoads myth—“It’s funny that he delivered the gold, but died broke.”—and the supposed gold support for the temple—“They bled the people dry to get that temple.”
Ken Sanders, head of Dream Garden Press, the publisher of many of the books pertaining to gold, brings up this point: “All the stories have the same thing in common: Whoever finds this lost treasure gets lost. There’s a common mythology running through all of the stories. There is something very enduring about lost gold … people continually go off the deep end [regarding these stories].”
The bottom line is that many of these myths can only be supported by a trip to the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain. Only Spanish records can show where and how much gold was mined. Many present-day treasure hunters begin their quest in Seville. And although many of the books written on Spanish gold trace their information to Seville, very few of the authors have been there, relying instead on second-hand sources. But as Will Bagley admits, “No one has really explored those archives.” Which leaves the question open: How extensive were the Spanish mining forays into the Americas? Until someone investigates the Seville archives, the answer is anyone’s guess. But one man is putting his money where his mouth is: He’s offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who can show him Spanish gold.
Claims of a Found Mine
Not everyone is so skeptical. In fact Brad Eatchel is a true believer. He owns a stake in what he calls one of the biggest mines in Utah history: The Lost Josephine mine. “I can prove to you that there are 200 mines from Kamas to the Colorado border. I know the approximate location of the lost Rhoads … very few have been there … and not all of the good mines are on Indian lands.”
Eatchel is part historian, part prospector and he’s got an actual stake in his claims of gold. He showed me page upon page of photos and old-timer journal entries, waybills from Spain (though he’s never directly researched it, he would love a chance) and Spanish symbols carved into trees. He claims a mother lode mine is right in our backyard, up on Hoyt’s Peak near Kamas. “It’s an incredible history,” he says. “The most incredible part is that it’s true. It’s a fascinating history that needs to be told.”
Eatchel claims there are 11 mines on Hoyt’s Peak alone. “There are Spanish symbols everywhere. If you know how to read them, they lead you right to the mines.” He told me the exact location of the mine, and invited me to check out the symbols.
“The church paid for a telegraph system and several temples,” Eatchel notes. “They bought a steam engine from England for their Utah Central railroad. There are church records that state they minted thousands of coins.”
How did the church afford such ambition? “They must have paid in Spanish bullion,” Eatchel says.
Eatchel and his partner Steven Shaffer—author of many books on the subject of gold—are currently mining their claim on Hoyt’s Peak. They’ve invested an estimated $100,000 into the mine, and approximate that with another similar-sized chunk of cash, they can unearth the Spanish treasure. They’ve had experts come in to map out the inner chambers of what they believe is a massive Spanish mine. And even he is skeptical of the stories he hears surrounding the gold: “Some of the stuff you read is b.s., some of it is fraudulent. Some of it is crazy.”
He’s not the only one with a claim on Hoyt’s Peak. Lonnie from Wyoming is another Hoyt’s Peak claim-holder. His mine is currently filled with water, but he hopes to rig a pump soon. He and his partner Larry warned me about maps: “None of the landmarks from the maps are in this county …” Lonnie has worked his claim since 1992, with no gold yet discovered. Why does he keep going? “Self-satisfaction,” he replies serenely.
What Will the Neighbors Say?
If you ask the people that live in the Uintas, near the supposed gold, few give the story much credence. Although Spanish mines are known to be well camouflaged, locals know the area. Most are part-time prospectors; there is such a thing as “prospectors’ eyes.” At the Sagebrush Café in Tabiona, the man behind the counter told me, “The only gold was for the people writing the books.”
Around here there are stories of nearby, but now defunct, Stockmoore. Two clever young realtors named Stock and Moore salted the ground with gold (salted mines are another common theme to the stories of gold), started a mini gold rush and sold property fast, making off with the loot before they were found to be frauds.
Rabbit, a long time local, knows all about gold fever. Both he and his wife have tried their hand at panning. “It really does something to you,” he says. “Sometimes I think the prospectors lived just to see the gold, it’s so beautiful. A little speck will make you go crazy. My wife had it bad; she won’t go near it now.” What cured his gold fever? “Probably age,” he says.
And the Bottom Line is … ? There are other cautionary tales as well. Dell Nuzman runs White’s Prospecting in Spanish Fork, part of the Spanish Trail into Utah. The first thing Dell did was to alert me to the dangers in gold seeking: “From what I’ve learned, the Indians will kill you. It sounds far-fetched, but they have Indians that will guard places 24 hours a day. Gold is sacred to them. But whose gold is it? Who does it belong to?”
If you believe the myths, then you believe that the Indians lost their own blood for the cause, and you can imagine who they think it belongs to. If you don’t believe the myths, then you can understand them not wanting white men coming around and ruining reservation land the way they ruin their own. The reservation land boasts some of the most pristine water around. It’s a resource the tribe would like to keep that way.
The Indians don’t give much stock to the myth of gold on their land. Mostly they’re just tired of people poking around and ruining their land. “It’s a problem, these books about Spanish gold. They hike in and dig at night,” relates Larry Cesspooch of the Ute Tribal Council. Ron Wopsock heads the business committee and feels the same way: “It’s a big time [problem]. They dig into banks … the erosion is bad. It’s wearing away the hills. There is no gold in the Uintas. The end result has been nothing.”
Back in 1993, the tribe hired treasure hunter Jim Thompson to investigate claims. After three months and much high tech equipment, the hunt turned up little more than fresh holes.
Bobby Chapoose, head of fish and wildlife, was there: “They dug and they dug and they dug some more. They never ran into anything. I’ve done my share of looking; the gold is in the stories.”
But Chapoose has heard some wild stories: hands cut off, people killed or beaten, people having bad experiences and never coming back. He’s also heard the hilarious gold source stories: Aliens put it there; it’s Montezuma’s treasure; the land once was inhabited by giants that collected the gold.
Chapoose says that, besides mild dementia, one thing he does see is the danger of “gold fever.”
“There’s no respect. People really are a nuisance. I’ve run my share of people off the land. Where’s the respect? I see the greed factor. I think they’re greedy,” he says. “Greed changes their character. Most people are good, but the sneakers, they’re no good.”
You should also know there is a double curse on the gold from the Carre-Shin-Ob. The souls of the massacred miners are doomed to roam their tunnels for eternity (they died without receiving the last rites of their Catholic faith) and the Indians cursed the gold as well. Strangely, the majority of the treasure hunters around have died of unnatural causes. Remember the Pharoah’s curse?
The Indian reservation is accessible by permit only, and trespassers are punishable in Federal Court. “All we ever wanted was to be left alone,” laments Chapoose. “We don’t need this headache.”
The only sure facts about gold in Utah: Bingham Copper Mine has the richest gold mining operation around, reportedly “enough to pay for mine operations.” Bingham currently mines the biggest concentration of precious metals in the state, bigger than even the Comstock gold rush. Perhaps this is Utah’s only mother lode.
SOURCES: This article just scratches the surface of stories and lore out there. The primary sources were Footprints in the Wilderness A History of The Lost Rhoads Mines, by Gale Rhoades and Kerry Ross Boren, published by Dream Garden Press in Salt Lake City, and George Thompson’s Faded Footprints: The Lost Rhoades Mines And Other Hidden Treasures of the Uintahs, published by Roaming West Publications.
This story was previously published Sept. 14, 2000 in Mountain Times Weekly.