From the United States-Mexico border, up through the high desert near Bishop, California is spotted with a number of unique locations that are now protected as public lands. However, as any history buff knows, these public lands were once a variety of wild locales marked by official and unofficial mining claims that were inhabited by scoundrels, mountain men, prospectors, and general never-do-wells. During these times, the men who lived in these areas were in some respects, bigger than life because of the lives they had lived, and the stories of those lives that may or may not have occurred. While John Samuelson of Joshua Tree, Gus Lederer of Corn Springs, and Shorty Borden of Death Valley all had fantastical tales and lives, the desert dweller with the most impressive tales that remain to this day was none other than Pegleg Smith.
Born as Thomas Long Smith in 1801, the boy who would become Pegleg Smith set out for a life of adventure at a young age, running away from his home in Kentucky to work on boats on the Mississippi River. In his twenties, Thomas went into New Mexico as a scout for Alexandre Le Grand’s expedition, which ended badly when he was shot in the leg. Nineteenth century medicine being what it was, he was forced to amputate his own leg at the knee, but survived, which led him to acquire the wooden “peg-leg” that he ultimately became known for. After he lost his knee, Pegleg continued further west and became involved in a number of decidedly unsavory activities including kidnapping and selling native american children into slavery; and horse thievery. During this time, Pegleg visited - and prospected in the Anza-Borrego basin, where according to him, he “found” a large amount of gold bearing quartz, and in later years, claimed to have had a mine. Because of the popularity of the gold rush around 1849, and later, Pegleg was able to sell “maps” to his lost mine, which perhaps not surprisingly, never led to any mine, nor any gold in the Anza-Borrego desert, or anywhere in the Southern California region. While it seems odd, given Pegleg’s nature that anyone would believe (even today) that there was gold, or a mine, or any of it, the legend remains today, and some treasure hunters are still looking for the gold.
As a further strange twist in the story, in 1947 Harry Oliver established the original Pegleg Smith Monument which was a sign that read “Let those who seek Pegleg’s gold add ten rocks to this pile.” While there was no historical basis, nor really any rationale for this idea, the pile has grown (exponentially) from that time. Today, the pile is quite large, and the original sign stands next to a California Historic marker, and a mailbox.
Directions: From Borrego Springs, the marker is a straight seven mile shot on Palm Canyon Road (S-22) to the east. At the seven mile mark, there is a signed turnoff for “Pegleg Road”, and at the turnoff, the sign, mailbox, and giant rock pile are readily visible. The marker is very close to the Clark Dry Lake.
Additional Strange Facts: Every year, on the first Saturday in April, there is a “Pegleg Smith Liars Contest” that occurs at the marker. Finally, even though there likely was never any mine or gold, and the maps that Pegleg provided were spurious at best, for a time, some people thought that the mine might be on Mount McGinty in San Diego - over eight miles to the south. While Mount McGinty does have caves, tunnels, and an old mine shaft or two, this connection has ever been proven either.