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The deserts of the American southwest have long been the discussion of lost mines and buried treasures. For hundreds of years, man has scoured the desert floor searching for any signs of the countless tales of lost riches. Some have claimed to have found the elusive treasures but only to be lost again, while others grew old or died trying. None the less, the legends live on as they are passed down from generation to generation. Maybe you will be the lucky one...

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A River Runs Through It

By James E. Mulkey

From page 42 of the December issue of Treasure Cache magazine.
Copyright ©1998, 2000 Lost Treasure, Inc.
The Padre's Cache of Gold

Before long, the Indians grew tired of being subjugated by the Spanish. The Quechans revolted in 1781, pillaged the pueblo, killed the padres and gathered up what gold they could find. Hours before the revolt, the padres heard rumors of an uprising, so they hid what gold was not already buried in the walls of the mission.

Most folks have been led to believe that gold was first found and mined at Sutter's Mill at Coloma on the American River by James Marshall in 1848. Few people know that gold was first discovered in California by Spanish Conquistadors at the Potholes in 1775.

The Potholes District, as it came to be known in the 1860s, is located 10 miles upriver north of Yuma, Ariz., on the California side of the Colorado River. Even fewer folks know that two missions were established in 1780 by Padres of the Franciscan order: one adjacent to the Potholes and the other on a hilltop across the river from Yuma, Ariz. Only a handful of people know that there are at least three caches of gold associated with those missions.

Late in the year 1775, Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the area now known as Yuma, Ariz. They brought with them, as was common in those times, a contingent of soldiers and two missionaries, or padres. The Colorado River spilled out across the countryside flooding all in its path in those days. Shallow in places, deep in others, the Spaniards found a suitable crossing at what is now Yuma, Ariz.

The troops crossed the Colorado at Yuma and were headed north when they met up with a tribe of Indians known as the Quechans camped along the river. The troops bivouacked nearby for a few nights. Rumors of gold to be found in the area soon ran rampant among the troops, who like troops everywhere, had spent their spare time fraternizing with the locals.

Known for their lust for gold, in the days that followed, the Spaniards sought out those Indians who knew the whereabouts of rich gold deposits. In a misguided gesture of friendship, the Quechans verified the presence of gold in the region by leading the Spaniards north to placer deposits at the Potholes. Not long afterward, the Quechans led a contingent of Spanish soldiers north to Picacho Peak and westward into the Cargo Muchacho Mountains where rich gold deposits could be found. The Spaniards soon enslaved the Indians and used them to mine for placer gold at the Potholes, inside deep mines in the Cargo Muchacho Mountains and in mines near Picacho Peak. The gold became a curse to the Quechans. In the meantime, the padres began converting the Indians to Christianity. Two missions were built in late 1780, the Purisima Concepcion on a hillside just across the river from present-day Yuma and San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuner, which was located adjacent to one of the richest gold placers in the Southwest, the Potholes. Almost all evidence of Bicuner Mission, as it's commonly called, and the nearby pueblo that housed soldiers and converted Indians, disappeared during the Great Depression years of the 1930s, flooded by the waters of the All-American Canal. However, the story of buried gold at Bicuner Mission - quite possibly the earliest lost treasure in California history - is still with us.

At first, Bicuner Mission was used to warehouse gold brought in from the Potholes and the nearby Laguna Placers, which are located directly across the river from the Potholes. Before long, however, pack trains laden with gold wound their way down from Picacho Peak along No-Name Wash to arrive at Bicuner Mission. Furthermore, weekly shipments of gold from the mines in the Cargo Muchacho Mountains, which are within sight of the location of Bicuner Mission, were brought to the padres for safekeeping. The padres began burying the gold beneath the floor of the mission.

Before long, the Indians grew tired of being subjugated by the Spanish. The Quechans revolted in 1781, pillaged the pueblo, killed the padres and gathered up what gold they could find. Hours before the revolt, the padres heard rumors of an uprising, so they hid what gold was not already buried in the walls of the mission. Perhaps the rumor was reinforced by an earlier act of treachery on the part of the Indians who had attacked a pack train loaded with gold while it was winding its way through No-Name Wash south of Picacho Peak. A single soldier survived. He buried what gold he could salvage from the pack train somewhere along the wash and made it back to the mission just hours before the attack on the mission. At any rate, the Indians took what gold they found inside the mission, hauled it across the river and scattered it around Sugarloaf Mountain. It is estimated that millions of dollars in gold lies buried below Bicuner Mission. Sugarloaf Mountain is located just east of the Laguna Placers where it is said that the ground was so covered with nuggets that it could be picked up by the buckets full.

The earliest recorded treasure hunt for the gold buried beneath Bicuner Mission was made in 1936 by Thomas Russell and Peter Weldon who, apparently, were authorized to do so by the Alcalde of San Diego. No gold was found, but Russell and Weldon were jailed as the authorities believed that the pair had found some gold but were holding out.

The Potholes District was so named because the gold was found in natural depressions along the floor of the desert. In the early 1860s, miners returning from the California gold fields stopped to work the Pothole Placers on their return trip to the East. By the 1880s, there were as many as 500 Mexicans and Indians working the dry washes, hillsides and the shallow depressions at both the Potholes and the Laguna Placers.

Around the turn of this century, large scale methods were attempted at the Potholes, in the Cargo Muchachos and Chocolate Mountains, the latter being located northwest of the Cargo Muchachos. According to William Clark, in his Gold Districts of California, "All of these attempts failed because of high equipment and operating costs, erratic distribution of gold values, rough terrain and scant moisture, which even in desert placers, makes it difficult to separate the heavy and light particles. Also, much of the recoverable gold had already been removed from these deposits."

During the Great Depression, miners used hand-operated dry washers to work the deposits at the Potholes. The same methods were used to work the placer deposits to the west in the Cargo Muchacho Mountains and to the north around Picacho Peak. In those days, the placer deposits along both sides of the Colorado River were again worked by miners willing to settle for as little as 50 cents per day.

How times have changed. Today, the Picacho Mine, located at the base of Picacho Peak, brings in an estimated $60 million in gold revenues per year and employs 100 men and women. The American Girl Mine, located in the heart of the Cargo Muchacho Mountains, employs more than 200 men and women and brings in $100 million in gold. Both the American Girl and Picacho Mines are open-pit operations which extract gold using the cyanide leech-pond method. No such large scale operation exists at either the Potholes or Laguna Placers.

Today, miners using metal detectors are still finding nuggets at both the Potholes and Laguna Placers. Miners using dry washers are still recovering flour gold. In fact, well-known nugget-shooters, including Arizona's Chester Long and Pieter Heydelaar, have found many nuggets at both the Potholes and Laguna Placers. Also, the author's friends, Clarence Thomas of Independence, Ore., and Jerry Johnson of Hemet, Calif., have each tried their luck at one time or another at the Potholes and Laguna Placers using their gold detectors. My first visit to the Potholes was in 1975 when I met two old-timers from Nevada who were operating a homemade dry washer. Right after I snapped their picture, I asked them if they had had any luck. They grumbled about this and that, got into an argument about where to search next and packed up and left without ever answering my question.

Can gold still be found by detector users at the Potholes? You bet. If you don't believe it, just ask Chester Long, or Chet, as he likes to be called.

"The nuggets may be small and they may be hard to find," Chet said, grinning from ear-to-ear as he pointed out a scattering of nuggets in his gold pan. "But conditions change after every rain or wind storm. New nuggets are exposed by these kinds of erosion, or at least they are uncovered to the extent that you can find them with a metal detector."

Chet and I once traveled to the Laguna Placers, located on the east side of Laguna Dam, then drove past a gravel operation up into a canyon. The hills were pockmarked with shallow diggings where miners had dug for gold. Highly dangerous "coyote holes," which are no more than crawl holes dug into soft ground by miners in years past, are to be found in the Laguna District. Stay out! A cave-in may occur at any time. Chet told me that he had found nugget patches on hillsides in the past at Laguna Placers.

The Potholes, which are supposedly located adjacent to Bicuner Mission, are another story. Chet told me that he has fond memories of the Potholes. It was the place where both he and his dad found small nuggets on their very first outing with their gold detectors.

Clarence Thomas and I checked out the Potholes a couple of years ago. On that morning, we met up with a couple of guys who were trying their luck at dry washing. They had just bought their first dry washer. Later in the day, we stopped by to ask them how they had made out. They told us that all they had recovered was about a dollar's worth of gold; however, as the two men explained, the ground was still too wet from recent rains for the dry washer to be effective.

While Clarence and I didn't find any nuggets during our visit to the Potholes, I can't say that the place is "worked out" because every time I do, someone else says otherwise. For instance, I was at a gold show — one of those trade shows where detector manufacturers show off their new models — when I mentioned that I had never had much luck down at the Potholes. The fellow I told that to, a well-known nugget hunter from Australia, pulled a nugget out of his pocket and handed it to me. It was a beauty. And he claimed he found it at the Potholes. TC The Padre's Cache of Gold.

The treasure:
Gold nuggets buried below the floor of a mission during the days of the Spanish Conquistadors. Nuggets are still being found by detector users in the immediate area even though the mission lies submerged beneath the waters of a canal.

How to find it:
1. Although the treasure may lie beneath the waters of the All-American Canal just west of Laguna Dam, in recent years chunks of adobe and wooden framing have been found nearby dated to the period when the Indians razed the mission to the ground. Drive 14 miles north of Winterhaven, Calif., to Laguna Dam. Although the canal and the sunken mission lies due west of the dam, you cannot search below the waters.

2. To reach the Potholes, California's first gold camp, drive north of the dam, staying on the paved road until you come to the first bridge that crosses the canal — folks often camp and fish on the bridge — take a dog-leg turn once you cross the bridge and head in a westerly direction until you come back out on high ground. Small signs direct travelers to the Potholes, where you can find nuggets with a metal detector and where much of the gold was mined that made up the padre's golden cache.

Clark, William. Gold Districts of California, Bulletin 193, California Division of Mines and Geology, Ferry Building, San Francisco, 1970.
Penfield, Thomas. A Guide to Treasure in Arizona, Carson Enterprises, Deming, N.M. 1973.
Penfield, Thomas. A Guide to Treasure in California, Carson Enterprises, 1982.