Today, the California Diamond Jubilee Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers the expedition, one of many, begun on January 22, 1893 in search of the lost Peg Leg gold mine.
In the History of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, edited by John Brown and James Boyd, published in 1922, two excerpts, one from Volume I and one from Volume II, provide background for the lost Peg Leg mine.
Everyone almost who has got the wanderlust in his blood and comes to California with its wonderful tales of digging for gold and the lucky strikes wonders if there may not be some rich mines or strike of some kind somewhere in the mountains or in some inaccessible place for him — the most inaccessible and out of the way the better.
Then there is traditions of very rich prospects being found by solitary wanderers who were always forced by unforeseen circumstances to abandon the “find” for the time being until they can go on the inside and get fitted out in a way to take advantage of the treasure.
Then there were the traditions of Indians who would go away by themselves and come back with enough gold to carry them on for the time being.
All of these strikes were confirmed by rich specimens. There were always good reasons why these finds were lost, generally the death of the prospector.
Such a find was made by an old mountain trader and hunter called Peg Leg Smith, so-called because he had a wooden leg having lost his own in a skirmish with some Indians in a horse raid.
The specimens were there, but Peg Leg Smith died before he could get back.
Many a search has been made for the mine, but no one has ever discovered the gold.
Tom Cover, one of the early settlers of Riverside disappeared in one of these prospecting expeditions.
I went on one such expedition with a party both as a hired teamster and an interested participator out by Indio and across the bed of the Salton Sea and into San Diego county over a very dry and desolate country.
Back and forward to Indio for supplies and into what is called the bad lands, but after a weary and exhausting search nothing came of it and Peg Leg’s treasure is still on the earth.
The story goes that Peg Leg Smith started out with a party of fifty men from St. Louis in 1830, for an extended trapping expedition in the Southwest.
The party found themselves on the head waters of the Colorado River in 1836. They spent some time in this occupation, moving down the river until they found themselves as far down as the mouth of the Gila River.
Away down opposite Southern California they turned West. About the third day out they camped, when one of their number climbed a little hill or butte about fifty feet high, to get a look at the surrounding country.
He found the hill covered with loose pieces of black rock intermingled with pieces of yellow metal. This was before the days of forty-nine, with the remarkable results of the discovery of gold.
It did not occur to them that this was gold, although the presence of gold was known to the Spaniards, and so for the time being nothing seems to have been done with the discovery, although it was finally surmised that the yellow substance in the rock was gold, and Peg Leg Smith’s party all disappeared, and Smith seemed to be the only one left with any knowledge of the discovery.
The next we hear of Smith was as a sort of horse thief and trader in the Sierras, seemingly indifferent whom he got his horses from, sometimes helping one tribe of Indians steal from another, and again helping the Indians come down the Cajon Pass and drive bands of Spanish horses away out on the Mojave desert, to trade them off with needy travelers for jaded or worn out horses, or at Salt Lake.
Salt Lake was a good market for horses. On one of these raids. Smith got wounded in the leg, making it necessary to cut off the leg, which he did with the assistance of an Indian, the surgical instruments being a hunting knife, and an Indian or keyhole saw.
The loss of the leg did not incapacitate Smith for war raiding, for he was as active as ever. Horses were cheap in those days, a bottle of whiskey or a pound of powder being the value of one.
Uncle Sam coming in about this time to California, put a stop to Peg Leg’s raids, for he would not steal from his own countrymen.
The next we hear of Peg Leg was in connection with his rich specimens of which he never seemed to be without, and he was always about to disclose the location of his find, and is stated to have started out with a party for that purpose, but after the start, for some reason he turned back and this is about the last we hear of him for he disappeared.
Some say he purposely deceived others about the location.
There can be no doubt about the specimens wherever Smith got them.
Some say it was beyond Smith mountain, which took its name from him, out beyond Temecula.
Ever since that time expeditions have been gotten up to hunt for the Peg Leg mine.
Once in a while there comes a report that it has been found, but it is still hidden.
More recent stories claim the Peg Leg mine never existed, that the “rich” ore samples were simple pyrite or fool’s gold.
So, is the Peg Leg mine like that of the Lost Dutchman mine? Or, was it never a gold mine at all?
The California Diamond Jubilee Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows with an artist’s image of life in the gold mines, circa 1850.