Charles Breyfogle And His Lost Mine
The legend of the Lost Breyfogle Mine
By Robert P. Ezzo
The legend of the Lost Breyfogle Mine holds an important place in the lore that enriches the heritage of the American West. While there have been numerous published versions of the tale, few have captured the full range of the adventures which led Charles Breyfogle to his chance discovery of gold in the Nevada desert.
Charles Breyfogle got his start as a prospector during the great gold rush to California in 1849, when he and his older brother Joshua joined 100,000 people – the “49er’s” – drawn from throughout the world to the Sacramento Valley and Sutter’s Fort by James Marshall’s discovery of “…something shining in the bottom of the ditch…”
While many prospectors in the California Gold Rush ended up dead broke and sometimes just plain dead, the Breyfogle brothers had at least some success. And a lot of adventure. This was especially true of Charles, whose story long lay buried in a diary by his brother, the newspapers of the day, and archives in Sacramento’s State Library and San Francisco’s Sutro Library.
In the early spring of 1849, according to Joshua’s diary, in which he chronicled some perfectly ordinary as well as some extraordinary events, the brothers left Lockhart, New York, headed west with a train of saddle horses, two wagons and draft horses.
After two days on the trail, they joined a group of 49er’s headed west from Columbus, Ohio.
Within a week, the Breyfogles and their new companions arrived at Delaware, Ohio, and soon thereafter, at Xenia, Ohio.
By April 9, they had reached the Mississippi River, taking a ferry across. During the crossing, a man named McCollum, one of the Columbus group, fell overboard and very nearly drowned before he could be fished out of the water.
Soon thereafter, the party arrived in St. Louis, a town Joshua described as being a very shabby, dismal-looking settlement with narrow streets. He attributed the appearance to the French, who had founded the city as an Indian trading post some 85 years earlier.
On April 25, the party headed south out of St. Louis, into Indian country. While crossing a creek, a wagon was banged up, with the bows supporting the canvas top sustaining the most damage.
On the night of April 30, a violent storm struck. Winds collapsed the 49er’s tents. Rain soaked their supplies. For awhile, the party would have to eat sea biscuits (unleavened bread made in the form of large hard wafers), the only food available.
The next day, May 1, the 49ers passed a Pawnee village with guns loaded in case of attack.
On May 2, they passed an Army post.
On May 4, they camped on the Little Blue River, which cut across the Great Plains. They spent a half day repairing the damaged wagon. They had good stock, Joshua said. A team of draft horses could pull a wagon twice a far in a day as a team of plodding oxen.
On May 10, the 49er’s shot at pronghorn antelope, hoping for fresh meat, but every man missed his prey. No one could do anything but joke and laugh at the poor marksmanship. On the same day, the 49er’s came upon a man – an Iowan – who had been wounded in a knife fight. They patched him up.
On May 31, they passed Scott’s Bluff, in Nebraska, and they killed three buffalo—larger and more ponderous targets than the swift and graceful antelope.
By June 3, they had reached the banks of the Platte River. They paid a ferry operator $2 a wagon to shuttle them across. With improving marksmanship, the men shot several sage hens, which furnished a welcome change in diet. With Indians appearing more frequently, the party doubled its guards for the night.
On June 23, the party reached Salt Lake City, where the men found and relished fresh vegetables. Three days later, they took to the trail again, with wagons repacked, loads reduced, wheels re-set, and water barrels filled—all in preparation for the desert crossing which lay ahead.
For three long days, the Breyfogle brothers and their comrades struggled along a trail of ever deeper sand and the suffocating air of a howling dust storm. For two of those days, they found no forage or water for their livestock. Their draft horses wore down, two thirds of them becoming completely exhausted. The party jettisoned gear to lighten the burdens. The trail, said Joshua, was plainly marked with dead livestock.
Finally, they approached Carson Sink, a swampy remnant of an Ice Age lake on Nevada’s Carson River. They unhitched draft animals. While Joshua remained behind to guard the wagons, Charles drove their livestock on ahead to the sink for desperately needed water. The brothers regrouped with the party at the sink, where the 49er’s would pause for two days to rest their livestock. The Breyfogle brothers, with their draft animals nearly spent, had to abandon a wagon. Moreover, they had lost their best saddle horse to Indian thieves.
On August 5, the party passed Lake Tahoe.
Finally, on August 14, the Breyfogles and their party pulled into Sacramento, ready at last to pick up gold nuggets and get rich quick.
On September 25, the Breyfogles began their search for gold in the promising areas of Butte Creek and the Chico River, in the Sacramento River drainage. Evidently disappointed, they soon returned to Sacramento. By early January, 1850, the brothers renewed their search, at the Yuba River, 12 miles above the California gold rush tent city of Marysville. They built a wing dam to divert the flow of water, allowing them to dig for gold in the bottom of the stream. A month later, again disappointed, they moved upstream, to Goodhues, where they started to work on a new claim, this time with some success. In his diary, Joshua noted that over several days, they recovered $15, $18 and $45 worth of gold in digging in the river bottom. They recovered another $12 in gold from the bank above the river, after storm waters overflowed the river bottom. Things continued to improve.
On December 7, 1850, more than a year and a half since they left New York, Charles Breyfogle left their diggings to return home, to his brother-in-law’s farm, carrying $20,000 worth of gold in a suitcase, leaving his brother behind.
Return to the West
In 1851, Charles returned to California with gold in his pockets. He settled in Oakland, where he was elected county assessor in 1854 and treasurer in 1859. His luck turned bad while he was treasurer, when, after an audit, he couldn’t account for $6500 of county funds. He landed in jail, although he was soon exonerated and released.
The prospecting bug bit him again. This time it was the lure of Nevada’s new silver bonanzas, which drew him to Virginia City. While there, stories began to circulate about a mining rush at the Reese River near Austin, Nevada, where W. H. Talbot’s horse had kicked up a fragment of quartz which contained gold and silver in 1862. More stories arose about the gold found in central Nevada’s Big Smoky Valley. Charles saw opportunity. He opened a real estate office in a two-story hotel at the mining camp of Geneva.
Bad Timing, Bad Luck
Unfortunately, his timing and luck would both prove to be bad. The Geneva veins of ore were already dwindling, and opportunities were fading. As fate would have it, however, one night in 1863 – while the Civil War raged in the east – three men checked into the hotel. They ordered drinks from the bar in the lobby. Breyfogle overheard them discussing a crude map. He concluded that the document must be the key to the legendary Lost Gunsight Mine of Death Valley. Apparently eavesdropping on the conversation, Breyfogle became convinced that the three men were on to a good lead. He followed them across Nevada, catching up with them somewhere between Tonopha and Goldfield, about half way between Reno and Las Vegas.
To Breyfogle’s considerable surprise, he learned that the men where headed, not on a search for the Lost Gunsight Mine, but to Texas to join the Confederacy. The crude map would supposedly lead them safely past Union outposts. The men invited Breyfogle to join them, which he did, since he was apparently always drawn to adventure. The party headed for the Salt Lake to Los Angeles trail, where they would join a wagon train headed east. They could travel safer, they reasoned, if they joined a large group.
Three days later, Charles Breyfogle and his new companions encamped south of Ash Meadows, an oasis of warm springs in the Mohave Desert’s Amargosa River Valley. Fortuitously, he laid his bedroll out in a sandy, shallow depression east of the campfire, apart from the others. In the middle of the night, Breyfogle awoke to discover that Indians were bashing in the heads of his three comrades. He had not been seen. He grabbed his blanket and boots. He fled into the darkness.
Breyfogle wandered in the desert for several days, with no provisions and no weapons, but his luck was about to change, momentarily for the better. He found a spring. He drank and rested. He took off his boots to use as canteens. Somewhere near the spring, he discovered a deposit of quartz embedded with a brownish-looking metal. Gold! Excited, he broke off several small samples to take with him. He didn’t know it at the time, but he would never see the spring or the strike again, although it would not be for not trying.
He headed south, steering clear of a hostile Indian village, eventually discovering wagon tracks, which he followed to Stump Spring in the Pahrump Valley, in Nevada’s eastern Mohave desert. He had found the immigrant trail.
Thinking that sooner or later a wagon train would show up and rescue him, Breyfogle waited at the spring. Unfortunately, his luck was about to change again, this time for the worse, when the Indians found him, taking him prisoner and making him a slave.
For months, he had to gather wood with the squaws. He served as a horse for the Indian’s children. He had to “buck” as they prodded him with a stick. He couldn’t buck high enough to suit one of the heavier children, who smacked him over the head with a club.
He was in bad physical condition – although he had managed to hold on to his samples of gold ore, perhaps driven by the dream of wealth – when a wagon train of Mormon pioneers finally discovered him in the Indian village and freed him with a ransom. The pioneers carried him to a ranch at Manse Spring, a desert oasis in southern Nevada, where they left him, nearly dead, in the care of the owner’s wife, Mrs. Yount, and her daughter, Mrs. Harsha White. The two women nursed him back to health. Grateful, he told the family about his discovery of the rich outcropping of gold. He showed them his rock samples, which, he hoped, foretold wealth. Allegedly, Indians later showed the family similar samples.
After his recovery, Breyfogle returned to Austin. Over the next 26 years he organized parties to search, in vein, for the vein of gold, concentrating on the region northeast of Death Valley. He covered a wide swath of southwestern Nevada, from Daylight Spring to Salt Spring, from Goldfield through the Rhyolite Hills to Tecopa. Charles Breyfogle’s name appeared in print for the last time in 1889, when he helped to start a new lead and silver mining district at the camp of Eureka, Nevada.
Through the years, writers have offered many theories about the location of Breyfogle’s discovery. In 1953, for example, in Lost Mines and Buried Treasures Along the Old Frontier, John D. Mitchell suggested that the lost mine was located near Las Vegas. Ten years later, in Lost Desert Bonanzas, Eugene Conrotto indicated that he thought the mine was near Salt Spring. At around the same time, in Lost Mines of Death Valley, Harold O. Weight wrote that he believed that mine was located in Daylight Pass.
In an article about the Breyfogle discovery published in 1964 in Western Treasure Magazine, author Burr Belden said that he was assured by Yount family descendents that the ore shown to them by Breyfogle came from the Johnnie Mine, near Johnnie, Nevada, north of Pahrump. The samples were similar to others they knew came from the Johnnie Mine. Using the information provided to him by the Yount descendents, Belden proposed that Breyfogle wandered to the vicinity of the Johnnie Mine (in what later became known as the Johnnie Mining District) by way of the East Chicago Valley as he skirted an Indian village in the Pahrump Valley. Belden believed that the Yount version was correct because it came from Jim and Della Fisk, the son-in-law and daughter of Harsha White.
Even if the Lost Breyfogle Mine and the Johnnie Mine are one and the same and the mystery has been solved, Breyfogle’s story will continue to attract researchers and hobbyists. It remains one of the West’s epic yarns of lost treasure.