The Lost Dutchman Gold Mine
This most famous of all fabled "lost mines" has a history that fails to stand up to skeptical scrutiny.
Today we're going to head into the dry backcountry of Arizona, where the rocks baking in the noonday sun stand in the same places as they were 200 years ago. It's a place where the heat is as oppressive as the silence; a place many of us would want to avoid, but that has drawn just as many others. The Superstition Mountains are perhaps best known as the setting for one of the enduring mysteries of the American West: the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine. Like many similar stories, it's the legend of a fantastically wealthy mine whose discoverer left only hints to its location, and thousands of men have searched for it ever since. The Superstitions are such a severe environment that Dutch Hunters, as they are called, still die even today, in the hunt for the legendary riches.
The basic points of the legend hold that German immigrant Jacob Waltz — the proverbial "dutchman" — found a fabulously wealthy gold mine in the Superstition Mountains sometime after 1863. When he died in 1891, he left a crudely drawn map giving only hints to the mine's location. Ever since, treasure hunters have come from all over the world searching, but none has ever found it. Today we're going to look into the depths of the tale and see what's probably true, and what other elements might spare the Dutch Hunters a great deal of effort.
It is Waltz's map that has been the centerpiece of the story. It's a fact that almost from the day he died, reproductions of it have been abundant and openly sold as tourist items, with no way for anyone to judge the origins of any of them. It seems quite hopeless to learn anything from any of these maps; in fact, the more research one does, the more one learns that none of them are trustworthy. Even Waltz's original map was suspect. It was made while he was on his deathbed, when he revealed his secret to Julia Thomas, owner of the boarding house where he lived. She drew that first map based on his description. After he passed, Ms. Thomas and two miner friends followed Waltz's instructions to the letter, but found nothing. To pay her debts, she began printing and selling souvenir copies of the map. All the maps that have ever existed since then have been copied or made up based on her original, which was already proven to lead nowhere. For a fee, Thomas sold her tale to newspaperman Pierpont Constable Bicknell, whose 1895 article in the San Francisco Chronicle made the Lost Dutchman mine a permanent fixture in history.
And since then, innumerable variations of the story have arisen, mostly the colorations of 20th century authors. Some have two "dutchmen", with a companion named Weisner joining Waltz; some have gunfights, robberies, and all sorts of romantic additions. It's such a confused mess of pseudohistory that it seems hopeless to do a serviceable skeptical analysis. This might be the case if it were not for one man, a 1930s Dutch Hunter whose tragic death in the Superstitions launched the Lost Dutchman mine from colorful story to eternal legend.
Adolph Ruth and his son Erwin, both veterinarians by trade, loved their hobby of treasure hunting. Although they hailed from Washington, DC, they traveled as far as California in search of legendary riches. For them, the adventure was not so much about actually finding anything than it was about father and son companionship. However, they had a very special advantage over other treasure hunters. During the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), Erwin, the younger, had provided valuable veterinary services to essential livestock for a powerful Mexican family. Señor Gonzales thanked Erwin with a gift of maps, maps that had come down from his cousins the Peraltas. The Peraltas were a noteworthy mining family who had operated mines throughout the American southwest when it had belonged to Mexico, and these maps showed the locations of many of their mines.
Adolph and Erwin Ruth made many trips together. They never found much, but were undeterred. The pivotal moment came when Adolph, the elder, made a trip to the Superstition Mountains all by himself to give the Lost Dutchman a try in the summer of 1931. There he met Tex Barkley, a rancher who owned much of the Superstitions, and who also outfitted and guided Dutch Hunters. Barkley had hunted for the Lost Dutchman himself, of course, and was most intrigued to meet this friendly elderly gentleman from the east who showed up with a pocketful of authentic Peralta maps.
Adolph Ruth was 78 years old, physically very frail, and limped with a cane due to a hip injury sustained in one of his previous adventures. It was June, one of the hottest months of the year, when even the most stalwart of Dutch Hunters avoided the savage heat of the Superstitions. Tex Barkley sent two of his best men to pack Ruth into the mountains, to a good camp with a permanent water supply. One of the men returned a few days later, with some supplies and (more importantly) to check on the old man to make sure he was all right. Sadly, Barkley's worst fears were confirmed: Adolph Ruth was gone.
Barkley and two local sheriff agencies immediately launched three large-scale searches. Erwin Ruth came as quickly as he could to direct the efforts to find his father, but it was to no avail. After three months, the searches were called off. Erwin accepted the inevitable fact that his father had perished in search of the Lost Dutchman.
And then, in December of 1931, an archaelogical expedition was in the area to study some ancient ruins from the Salado culture. The archaeologists had a dog, Music, who had gotten himself into trouble by eating up all the expedition's steaks. But Music redeemed himself by following a scent to the base of a palo verde tree, where sat Adolph Ruth's skull, upright among the cactuses. The skull was punched through side to side, apparently by a bullet.
When the news broke, Tex Barkley and a party of five rode and found the rest of Ruth's body about a kilometer away, and about ten back-breaking kilometers from Ruth's original camp. This search was thoroughly documented by several of the men who were present, including a couple of newspapermen. In a small memorandum book in the breast pocket of Ruth's body was found the following handwritten note:
Then below this, also in ink, was:
(Latin for I came, I saw, I conquered) And below that, in pencil:
Barkley's party of five wasted no time in following up this new lead. Barkley knew well the canyon and the place described in the note; Weaver's Needle remains the centerpiece landmark in the Superstition Mountains. One of the party, deputy sheriff Jeff Adams, wrote in an official report:
The press went into a frenzy over the news of the old treasure hunter murdered for his map; and most especially, for the tantalizing handwritten note. News spread that Ruth's map had been a Peralta map. Research into Jacob Waltz revealed that Julia Thomas had discovered high grade gold ore under Waltz's bed. No doubt remained, in the public eye, that a magnificent gold mine lay waiting in the Superstitions. Estimates say that as many as 80 Dutch Hunters have died since, searching for the riches for which Adolph Ruth had apparently been killed. This suspicion was bolstered by the result obtained when Erwin had the skull sent home for identification by Dr. Aleš Hrdlička:
The December 19th, 1931 Arizona Republic proclaimed "Skull Believed that of Missing Prospector Found in Mountains". All the ducks were in a row for the story to be true as popularly believed. But what about that map, the map of impeccable provenance, the driver of so many deaths such as Ruth's? Following its thread, the story begins to unravel, stitch by inevitable stitch.
There's little reason to doubt that Adolph and Erwin used genuine Peralta maps, gifted by the Gonzales family, to pursue various treasures. However, it turns out that there's no evidence that the Peraltas ever mined in the Superstitions. The Superstition Mountains are, geologically, not a place where gold would be abundant. Placer mining — the type practiced by Jacob Waltz — takes place throughout the region to a limited degree, but there have never been any profitable strikes. In placer mining, gold flecks are scattered in the soil, having washed down from the mountains above. When miners find such gold on a slope, they follow it uphill to the source. If a rich deposit did indeed exist at the surface somewhere, it's likely that some placer miner would have found its tailings in the alluvial fans below.
Whatever "map" Adolph brought to Tex Barkley was not a Peralta. Note that Deputy Adams described it only as "the map or directions"; there's no record that Adolph Ruth had a pictorial map at all. And furthermore, the text of Ruth's handwritten directions found on his person came from — you guessed it — P.C. Bicknell's 1895 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. The map accompanying the Arizona Republic's 1931 article was — you guessed it again — virtually identical to the ones sold by Julia Thomas forty years earlier.
With little doubt, the infamous treasure map that led Adolph Ruth to his doom was little more than a secondhand verbal account, told by a lady who made a living selling a story attached to souvenir maps, based on the alleged claims of a miner who never made a red cent mining. Among the few contemporary accounts of Jacob Waltz were that he kept a small supply of rich gold ore in order to attract interest in his mining claims; probably what Ms. Thomas found under his bed. Ore like that came from quartz, and was unlike the placer gold found around the Superstitions.
Suppose you were Jacob Waltz, a poor immigrant prospector in the late 19th century, and you stumbled upon the richest placer mine anyone had ever dreamed of. Would you stake a claim? Waltz filed claims in California, but never in the Superstitions. Would you extract any of its gold? There are no records that Waltz ever made any significant money from mining. Would you leave it be, freely available to anyone else who might happen along, while suffering the same life expenses and hardships of all the other poor farmers and prospectors, willfully foregoing a financial windfall for decades? That's what we'd need to believe if we are to accept that Bicknell's fanciful article, based on Ms. Thomas' verbal account of Waltz' credibility-straining story, is a factual literal account of the existence of the Lost Dutchman mine.
It was the characters of those hardy people who lived and adventured in the Superstition Mountains who comprised the real story of the Lost Dutchman mine, and not some apocryphal and improbable stash of gold. It was the courage and craftiness of Jacob Waltz; the opportunism of Julia Thomas and P.C. Bicknell; the call to adventure heard by Adolph Ruth that spoke so much louder than his age and infirmity; the grit of Tex Barkley; the love of Erwin Ruth for his father; and the roles played by so many other colorful figures that we've not even mentioned here. As we find so often in urban legends promising something fantastic, the real treasure almost always lies not in some wild phenomenon, but in the people whose lives became the stuff of legend.
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