As the momentous year of 1848 came to a close, the strident call of "Gold in California" reverberated through the land. 1849 would see a virtual exodus of adventurers, prospectors, and emigrants streaming toward the California goldfields. An immense and forbidding wilderness awaited them. By the end of 1849, the Argonauts were using three basic routes to cross the mountains and deserts that lie between the goldfields of California and the Missouri settlements. The Overland Trail followed the Humboldt River of Nevada and was the northernmost route of the three. The western terminus of the Overland Trail was Sacramento. The so-called southern routes included the famous Gila Trail and the untested Death Valley route. The Gila Trail was a venerable old road used by Mexicans and Spaniards to cross the desert wastes of northern Sonora and southern Arizona and California. Nearly 10,000 Argonauts chose the Gila trail as their pathway to the goldfields. The Death Valley Trail was touted as an alternate route around the Sierra Nevadas by men who had never been there! That it was attempted is a tribute to the resilience and perseverance of mankind. The 49'ers who chose the Death Valley Trail were confronted with some of the most dangerous country in North America. By the end of 1849, the first companies of Argonauts were on the eastern edge of this hellish land.
The Death Valley 49'ers were comprised of a number of companies including the Manly-Bennett party, the Jayhawker party from Illinois, a group of southerners from Georgia and Mississippi, the Towne party, and the Wade party. The various companies separated and regrouped as they worked their way westward across the seared wasteland. As they climbed out of the smoldering valley, some of the survivors carried a secret with them.
The 49'ers who crossed the Death Valley wilderness had truly "seen the elephant". They were also very lucky. It seems incredible, but when the 49'ers finally emerged from Death Valley, not one, but two fabulous precious metal deposits had been discovered! Indisputable proof of the discoveries was carried out of the valley by some of the survivors. One of them carried it on the front of his rifle in the form of a gunsight fashioned out of raw silver. Two others carried it in their pockets in the form of large gold nuggets.
The Panamint Mountains presented quite a barrier to the Argonauts traveling west to Los Angeles. The range was by-passed around its northern end by some of the parties while others breached the range at its southern end, near Manly Peak. Most of the 49'ers used Six Spring Canyon and South Park Canyon to cross the Panamints, but at least two of them used a canyon further south.
John Galler and Wolfgang Tauber were German prospectors come west to make their fortune. It was a fateful moment when Galler and Tauber decided to take the southernmost canyon across the Panamints. As they wandered down the canyon to the Panamint Valley below, they discovered a rich deposit of gold near a small spring. They filled their pockets with gold nuggets and eventually reached Los Angeles, where Galler went into business as a blacksmith. Ten years later, John Galler returned to Galler's Wash (now known as Goler Wash) to search for the gold, but he was unable to find it. He never did.
The history of mining in the Panamint Range of Death Valley really began with the discovery of rich silver deposits in the heart of the range, near Sentinel Peak. Discovered in 1873 near the head of Surprise Canyon, the ore bodies at the surface were incredibly rich. A mining camp called Panamint City sprang up near the crest of the range. The camp quickly acquired a bad reputation among Death Valley miners and prospectors. Prior to the discovery of silver in the area, the canyon had served as a hideout for outlaws. Indeed, the first silver strikes had been made by desperadoes hiding out in the canyon. Although incredibly rich at first, the ore bodies at Panamint City quickly played out. By 1877, the mining camp was on its deathbed.
Prospectors and miners returned to the Panamints during the 1890's. In 1897, extremely rich gold deposits were discovered on the northwestern slope of Slims Peak, 7 miles south of Panamint City. The mining camp known as Ballarat sprang up near the mouth of Pleasant Canyon. The mines in
Pleasant Canyon poured out a stream of yellow metal during their lifetimes. Over a million dollars worth of gold were produced from the Radcliffe Mine, one of the best mines in the district.
After the turn of the century, prospectors returned to the Panamints for one last fling. They were not to be disappointed! Rich deposits were uncovered at Harrisburg in 1905 and at Skidoo the following year. The "Skidoovian" gold deposits were massive. Nearly a quarter of a million ounces of gold were ultimately produced from this district.
The Slate Mountains rise up from the desert floor only a few miles west of the southern Panamint Range. The Slate Mountains contain many small but rich gold-bearing quartz veins, most of which occur on the western flanks of the range. Part of the Slate range lies within the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Prospecting is restricted on this facility.