By Len Wilcox
It took strong wills and hearty bodies to settle the West, and a lot of our pioneering forefathers were the stuff of legends. But before the wagons rolled across the plains there were the mountain men – those strong, solitary characters that came to the wilderness to trap, trade and hunt for furs.
These were determined, strong-willed men who knew what they wanted and how to get it. Unfortunately, not all of them were men of good character; there were charlatans and crooks among them. One of the questionable ones was a man called Peg Leg Smith.
Smith left Missouri in 1820 on a two-year expedition among the Sioux and Osage Indians. Then, in 1824, he went to New Mexico and Arizona. In spite of the Apache, Navajo and other dangerous tribes that had firm control there, he seemed to fit well in the desert lands. He also became an accomplished horse thief. With his cohorts he’d steal hundreds of horses at a time from the California ranchers and drive them to Santa Fe.
He was a man given to tall tales, spinning yarns that would earn him free drinks in any bar in the West. It was somewhere between Yuma and Los Angeles that Peg Leg made his biggest legend that kept him wet for the rest of his life. He was trying a new shortcut to Borrego Springs when he lost his way, and climbed an oddly-colored hill to get his bearings. At the summit he found some black rocks that looked strange to him, so packed some samples. When he got to Los Angeles, he broke them apart and found they were gold.
He spent the next 50 years hunting for that odd hill, but never found it again. All he had was the story, which he would tell to anyone willing to share a bottle. He’d find willing partners that would go out on the desert with him to hunt for that hill, but he’d leave them as soon as their whiskey went dry.
Peg Leg’s gold became legendary over the years, and while some people say it’s been found, people still go hunting for it to this day on the desert west of the Salton Sea. If you go, be sure to drop some ten stones at Peg Leg’s monument near Borrego Springs – it’s supposed to bring you luck.
I’m Len Wilcox and that’s the Western View.
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