Friday, October 8, 2010

Lost Silver Strike

Oft told tales of old-timers and the hard facts of history, fitted together, provide us with this story of the virgin silver of White Mountain.

The first settlers of the Black Rock Desert in west central Utah were the Mormons. They established Fillmore as their territorial capitol in 1851, but they followed a trail that was old even then. Indians, conquistadors, mountain men and fur trappers had blazed this territory long before the Mormons came on the scene. And for many years after the rock-solid territorial capitol was completed, emigrant parties, en route to the gold fields of California, followed the old trail southward.

It was such a party, lost and wandering in the wilderness, that found the white crystal mountain -- then lost it forever! The unmerciful desert had claimed all of their livestock and property, but spared them to tell their tale which became known as the story of the "wonder bearing White Mountain."

Accounts of the White Mountain silver strike found today in rare books or in pioneer diaries, written by different people at different times, and with each unaware of the other, give an unquestioned degree of authenticity to what some have called legend.

Sir Richard Burton, the world famed British explorer, wrote a brief account of the strike as follows: "An emigrant company had lately followed this new trail, but was obliged by the death of their cattle and livestock to abandon their kit and everything owned. On their forced tramp, they discovered virgin silver, samples of which they carried to California with them. The company later sent back an exploring party to locate the silver, but they failed to find the lead."

This was written in 1859 while Burton was en route to Salt Lake City.

No one, today knows who was in the emigrant party described by Burton, nor what became of the "exploring party” they sent back to search for the White Mountain silver. "They failed to find the lead" is the only known fact.

But a clue to the lost ledge might be the "kit and everything owned," which they abandoned, for surely parts of wagons, or pieces of mining equipment or camping gear remain somewhere in the shimmering wastes of the dread Black Rock Desert. If settlers found any part of the emigrant party's property, no record remains to tell of it.

It isn't likely that any of the Mormon settlers searched for the lost silver, for Brigham Young discouraged his followers from prospecting. The Mormon Prophet liked to tell the following story to Saints who dreamed of becoming millionaires by mining.
"Whenever I see an old man going along with a worn-out mule that can hardly stand up, with only a frying pan and a threadbare quilt, I say to myself, 'there goes a millionaire in prospect.' These millionaires are all over the country. They are in the mountains and deserts, on our roads and in the streets, and they haven't got a six-pence between them!"

In his now rare book, "The City of the Saints", Burton gave another clue to the lost native silver when he wrote, "At the western extremity of the White Mountains there is a mammoth cave of which one mile has been explored. It is said to end in a precipice, and the enterprising Major Egan (Howard Egan, a well known trail-blazer of that period) is eager to trace its course."

It wouldn't seem difficult today to locate a "mammoth cave" a mile or more deep, except for one thing. There are no White Mountains shown on today's maps of Utah! Apparently the name was one used by the pioneers, but which is unknown today. There are many unexplored caves in the still seldom visited Black Rock Desert country of west central Utah, but none answering Burton's description has been found.

Fortunately, there are other references to the same silver strike and the mysterious mountains where it was made. One of the most famous of all pioneer Utah frontiersmen was Porter Rockwell. He served as bodyguard for Brigham Young and was the first Marshall of the Utah Territory.

Brother Port, as he was usually known, trailed many a horse-thief and murderer, and few men knew the back trails of the desert as he did. Because of his knowledge of the territory, Rockwell was often asked to guide overland travelers or to advise them of which trails to take. He often warned them to watch for "White Indians, the worst of their kind!", or to avoid Major Egan's trail across the great salt desert, which Rockwell claimed "was about as fit for travel as Hell is for a powder magazine."

When Sir Richard Burton was preparing to leave the Salt Lake Valley en route to California, Rockwell cautioned him against the White Indians too, and told him not to attempt to cross the salt desert, but instead, "to go by way of Fillmore and the wonder bearing White Mountains."

But if he told Burton exactly where the mountains were located, Burton never mentioned it in his book.

Rockwell did try to reassure the famed explorer, in his own rough way, for Burton wrote, "Finally he comforted me with an assurance that either the Indians would not attempt to attack us, or else they would assault us in force and wipe us out!"

Fortunately for Burton, but unfortunate for today's treasure hunter, Burton chose to follow the salt desert route favored by Major Eagan, so he mentions nothing further of the White Mountains. Since Burton did make it to California, and became famous for his explorations in Africa and the Far East, we know that the "White Indians, the worst of -their kind" never got him.

It takes patience, but the pieces of a puzzle can be fitted together, and if one is persistent enough he may find a missing clue to the location of the mysterious White Mountains. No common state road or schoolroom map will reveal the clue. Even the detailed geological survey maps fail to give a hint about the missing range. But there may be a map that does.

Obtain a copy of Froiseth's New Sectional & Mineral Map of Utah, published by B. A. M. Froiseth at Salt Lake City in 1878. First, locate Fillmore in Millard County and then the Black Rock Desert to the west, remembering that on Froiseth's map, it is shown as the "Sandy Desert".

Today's highway goes south from Fillmore, but Froiseth's 1878 map shows a stagecoach road called the Devil's Gate & Mountain Valley Road going west, then turning southwest toward a mountain range which is called the Confusion Range to the north, the Beaver River Range west of Fillmore, and the Mineral Range further south. Approximately 11 miles southwest of Fillmore along the old stage road, a mail station is shown -- and its name is the White Mountain Stage Station!

The old mail station is shown situated near the base of a nameless mountain located among many other similar peaks, but most of the others are shown as volcanic cones. From the present highway one can see many black volcanic cones rising from the lava crust of the Black Rock Desert, but nowhere can a white crystal mountain be seen. However, if Froiseth's map of 1878 is compared with a modern Richfield Quadrangle 1:250,000 Geological Survey Map, and one measures about 11 miles southwest of Fillmore, there is a mountain shown as Tabernacle Hill. Is it the "wonder bearing" White Mountain of a century
ago? Is there really a white crystal mountain out there somewhere among the black volcanic cones?

Before you begin your search, there is one other reference which indicates that White Mountain and Tabernacle Hill may be one and the same, During the depression years of the 1930's, the Works Projects Administration (WPA to you old timers) employed a lot of fine but unemployed writers to prepare a now little-known manuscript which was published under the title "Utah, A Guide to The State".

It describes in detail the mineralized desert ranges of the Black Rock Desert country, and then in describing Meadows, a tiny livestock raising community some 8 miles south of Fillmore, it states in part, "Far to the west of town rises the crystal white cone of White Mountain, a volcanic dike located between lime hills."

It all sounds quite easy. just follow the old stage road 11 miles southwest from Fillmore to the ruins of the White Mountain Stage Station, or hike west into the desert from Meadow to the White Mountain itself, But there's one thing you should know first. There isn't any stage roads from Fillmore any more, and if any trace of the old mail station remains, it is only a pile of stone in the foothills near the desert's edge. But no one remembers today, so the old stone ruins might be just a cabin or a corral built by some pioneer a century or more ago. And if you plan on hiking west from Meadow, remember, the Black Rock Desert is waiting out there!

If you go, go well prepared, for it will take a well prepared and equipped party to find the lost silver lead that the California emigrants couldn't find, and remember, they had already been there once. The Black Rock Desert is a dangerous place and not too unlike the moon surface shown in photos brought back by the astronauts. If you get lost out there, you'll be just as lost as though you were on the moon.

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