The famous mountain man Thomas L. "Pegleg" Smith holds a special place in the annals of the early West. Indeed, in some ways he has attained a nearly legendary status. In his forty years on the western frontier Smith wandered the length and breadth of that vast wilderness. From the Missouri River settlements to the western shores of California, Smith fought, trapped, and traded his way across the continent.
In 1824, Tom Smith began his western odyssey by signing on with a wagon caravan owned by William Becknell, M. M. Marmaduke, and Augustus Storrs. Recruited by Ceran St. Vrain, the young Tom Smith traveled west with the caravan to the sleepy towns and pueblos of New Mexico. Smith quickly took up with the American trappers based in Taos and Santa Fe and began his first career in the mountains. By the following year, Tom Smith and a fellow trapper named Maurice LeDuc had completed a grand circuit of the Colorado Plateau while hunting for beaver. In 1826, Smith was back in Santa Fe, outfitting for a trapping venture along with a distinguished group of mountain men that included Old Bill Williams, Alexander Branch, Sylvestre Pratte, Michel Robidoux, and the "Thunderbolt of the Rockies", Milton Sublette. Later that year, Michel Robidoux's trapping party was ambushed and nearly wiped out by Papago Indians near present-day Phoenix, Arizona. A retaliatory raid by over thirty trappers caught the Papagos and worked a considerable slaughter on the Indians. This party included Ewing Young, Tom Smith, and Milton Sublette.
1827 was a momentous year for Tom Smith. In the fall of that year, Smith joined a trapping expedition led by Sylvestre S. Pratte bound for the beaver streams of the Central Rockies. While in Colorado's North Park, disaster struck the party. First of all, Pratte was bitten by a rabid dog and died a horrible death. Secondly, Tom Smith was shot in the leg by an Indian while checking his traps. The leg eventually developed gangrene and had to be amputated. Incredibly, Smith cut the leg off himself! The legend of "Pegleg" Smith was born with that amazing feat.
By 1840, the fur trade was dead. It was the end of an era. That year, the last rendezvous was held on the Green River, near the junction of Horse Creek. The declining fur trade forced the mountain men into other occupations. Some chose to act as guides for emigrant trains traveling west, a natural livelihood for that "reckless breed" of wanderers. Others chose a more nefarious profession, that of stealing horses in California and driving them eastward over the Old Spanish Trail to the settlements in New Mexico. Mountain men like Philip Thompson, Bill New, Richard Owens, Doc Newell, and Thomas l. "Pegleg" Smith chose this particular means of employment. Smith probably stole more horses and mules from California than any of his fellow mountain men. During the early 1840's, he became notorious for his raids on the haciendas and presidios of California.
After a few years, Smith left the deserts of the American Southwest and made his way north to Idaho where he worked as a trader. But the restless mountain man soon had enough of that sedentary life and returned to California in 1850. There was a reason for his return to southern California.
Way back in 1829, Smith and his trapping partner Maurice LeDuc had decided to sell the beaver pelts taken that season in California. From the Yuma villages on the Colorado River, they journeyed west for 3 days until they sighted three small buttes in the distance. On top of one of these buttes, Smith found a fabulous deposit of curious, black-coated gold nuggets! He collected some of the nuggets and continued on westward, eventually arriving in Los Angeles. "Pegleg" Smith never forgot about those three buttes back in the desert. He organized several prospecting trips from California to search for the gold but all were fruitless. As the years passed, an aura of romance and mystery began to surround Smith. The "Pegleg" Mine grew to become California's most famous and popular lost mine. As for Tom Smith, he ended his days in the golden west, dying in San Francisco in 1866.
The Salton Basin of southern California contains no major gold-mining districts, although a few minor producers do exist in the area. The Chocolate Mountains have a venerable mining history extending back to the days of the early Spaniards. As early as 1780, Spanish prospectors were working the gold placers near Picacho and the gold-filled depressions at the southern end of the range known as the "Potholes". Rich pockets of placer gold, some of it coated with black desert varnish, have also been found along the western flank of the range. The slopes east of Glamis were the most productive. This area includes the so-called Mesquite placers which were discovered by an unknown prospector in 1880. Some of the pockets at the Mesquite diggings were amazingly rich. The
area was worked extensively from 1881 to 1885 and then again from 1893 to 1896.
The Chuckwalla District was a minor producer of both lode gold and placer gold. The ore bodies were small but locally quite rich. Several isolated pockets of rich bonanza ore were discovered during mining operations. A number of mines occur in the Chuckwalla Mountains including the Red Cloud Mine (the richest), the Great Western Mine, the Lost Pony Mine, and the Aztec mines. Although not noted for large nuggets, the placer deposits in the Chuckwalla Mountains are still productive today. Some of the richest ores lie between the Aztec mines and Chuckwalla Spring.