During the Indian Wars of the early 19th century, Thomas Smith earned a reputation as a fierce fighter. In one especially brutal battle, his shin bone was shattered by a bullet. When Smith realized there was no way to save his lower limb, he took out his big hunting knife and sawed off his leg just below the knee. Ignoring the pain, he found a tree branch and carved himself a new appendage. After that, he was known as “Pegleg” Smith.
Besides fighting Indians, Smith hunted and trapped throughout the Rocky Mountains. For nearly 30 years, he made his living by selling animal pelts to the highest bidder. He also worked as a guide, bringing amateur hunters into the wilderness, so they could play at being mountain men. However, the trip he led to northern Arizona and southern Utah in1829 was a complete disaster. The game they sought – especially the ones with saleable pelts – had been hunted to near extinction, a sad commentary about the nation’s loss of wildlife. The angry hunting party disbanded. Discouraged, Pegleg Smith and his partner, Maurice LeDoux, turned west toward Southern California.
Smith and LeDoux weren’t at all worried about heading into the desert alone. When a sudden sandstorm blew through and completely disoriented the pair, their fate looked grim. The seasoned trail guides were lost and dangerously low on water.
That night, they camped near what they described as three low hills in what is today known as the Anza-Borrego desert. Smith, a restless soul who had never been able to accept defeat or being lost, climbed the highest peak to better assess their location. On the way up, he noticed the hillside was strewn with small black rocks. Curious, Smith scraped one with his knife. Much to his surprise, the pebble’s interior was a soft, copper-like substance. Finding the way out of the desert was his top priority at the moment, so he scooped up a few handfuls, filled his pockets and continued his ascent. Not surprisingly, Smith and LeDoux made their way to safety, winding up in a small settlement near Los Angeles. It was there that Smith learned the shiny substance was actually gold.
Pegleg Smith’s discovery of the gold-littered hill occurred about 20 years before the big discovery at Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento…the so-called first discovery of gold in California!
According to legend, Pegleg didn’t realize the value of his find until much later. Rather than returning to the desert to locate the hill of gold and rake in his fortune, the foolish trapper believed he could make more money by waiting for fur trapping to make a comeback. This was a grave miscalculation.
It wasn’t until he ran out of money years later that he returned to the desert to seek his golden mountain. Strange as it seems, Smith couldn’t find it, in spite of the fact that the three peaks, the tallest one in the middle, should have been an easily recognized landmark. After several more attempts, Pegleg Smith finally gave up his quest.
Apparently, Pegleg had run out of luck…and money. Settling down in the outskirts of Los Angeles, the old Indian fighter ironically married not one, but several “squaws” from a local tribe. (One account relates that the Indians were Piute renegades from the high desert.) Each of his wives had brothers or cousins, or half-cousins which Pegleg organized into a band of notorious horse thieves.
Pegleg was an expert horseman. And if there was one thing he knew well, besides hunting and trapping, it was quality horseflesh. California’s ranchos were known for their purebred horses. Because the herds roamed freely, grazing on the unfenced lands, they were easy pickings for Pegleg and his gang.
Something else Pegleg was good at was bragging, but when it came to the 800 horses he had stolen from ranchos around the Southland, he should have kept his mouth shut. When word of his horse-thieving reached the owners of the ranchos from which the horses had been stolen, they hired a makeshift posse to retrieve their valuable property.
It turned out that the posse was nothing more than a bunch of drunks who saw an opportunity to make some fast money, scalp “Injuns,” and get some free liquor and food from the ranchos they would visit. The day they rode out of Los Angeles, the “quick shooters,” as they called themselves, were already several sheets to the wind. Instead of filling their canteens with water, they filled them with whiskey. Stopping at each ranchero that had lost horses, the men were provided with food and shelter…and more liquor for their canteens.
Just why the posse went to the ranchos instead of chasing the banditos isn’t clear. Before the quick shooters had even galloped out of Los Angeles, Pegleg Smith and his gang were well on their way out of California. While the “fearless posse” slept, ate and drank their way around the Los Angeles area, hundreds of horse hooves were thundering east on their way to out-of-state horse markets.
Days later, one of the Mexican Dons criticized the posse for wasting time. He said that the banditos were likely so far away, that it was unlikely they could ever catch up with Smith’s gang. With that, the posse’s leader confidently announced that Pegleg must have known the posse was in “hot pursuit.” He consoled the ranchero by saying the posse had done its job. The renegades were gone and wouldn’t likely return to Los Angeles…if they knew what was good for them. The 800 horses were missing, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Meanwhile, Pegleg and his Indians pushed the horses across the Antelope Valley. The animals were allowed to pause long enough to graze or drink water, and then were herded on. The pace was grueling, churning dust that could be seen for miles. The young yearlings and older mares couldn’t keep up and were abandoned. But these horses were a hearty breed; their ancestors had been brought to the New World the first conquistadores. The strays were capable of adapting to new environments, and began a life in the high desert plain. As recently as the 1950s, vast herds of wild horses, remnants of the herd stolen by Pegleg Smith, were found in the remote canyons of California’s high desert plain.
Years later, Pegleg showed up in San Francisco. Drunk, alone, and broke, he continued to spin his yarns for anyone who would listen. In the more than one hundred years since his death, Pegleg Smith’s legend of lost gold has stirred the imaginations of countless treasure hunters.
Was the story of Pegleg Smith’s gold true, or did he and his partner merely concoct it? If it was only a story, why did they continue their pursuit for the golden mountain? Yet, no one has ever succeeded in locating the illusive mountain, even with today’s satellite technology. The hunt continues -- there are still those who believe the treasure is out there, just waiting for someone to find it.
In 1947 a monument was erected to Pegleg Smith in Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert. Each year, the “Pegleg Smith Liars’ Contest” is held at Borrego Springs to pay homage to the “Greatest Prevaricator of All.” Needless to say, most people think that Smith’s account of the gold was nothing more than a tall tale. The annual event held by the “Pegophiles” is filled with fun and wild stories, each participant competing to out-spin Pegleg’s legendary story.
For more information about the Pegleg Smith Liar’s Contest, which will be held on April 5, 2003, phone (760)767-5555).