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The Lost Adams Diggings


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Known as the "Fort in the Malpais", old Fort Wingate was established in 1862 on the edge of the famous malpais at Ojo del Gallo. Named in honor of Major Benjamin Wingate who died from wounds received at the Battle of Valverde, the old fort would see only 6 years of service. Those years would be marked by almost continuous conflict with the local Apaches and Navajos.

During its short life, old Fort Wingate served as a garrison for a number of military units including the 1st U.S. Cavalry and the 1st New Mexico Volunteers. Duty at the fort was never easy. Besides the incessant patrols and the drudgery of garrison duty, the fort itself was never really completed. For the first two years of its life, the fort had no hospital or guardhouse to speak of. Even the officers had it bad. Their personal quarters were still unfinished as late as 1864.

Within four months of its establishment, Fort Wingate had its first taste of what was to become an almost everyday occurrence for the soldiers stationed there. The fort's horse herd was raided by Navajos. The summer of 1863 would see an escalation of Navajo raiding but the days of Navajo supremacy were nearly over. In July of 1863, Kit Carson arrived at Fort Wingate in command of 750 soldiers and 200 Ute Indian scouts. During the next seven months, Carson penetrated into the very heart of the Navajo homeland. By the fall of 1865, the last Navajo holdouts had surrendered at Fort Wingate. The fort had reached its high water mark. It had served its purpose as a garrison for the military and had seen momentous events in its six years of life. It was at Fort Wingate that the Navajo nation was concentrated prior to its removal to Bosque Redondo. It was also to Fort Wingate that two bedraggled survivors of an Apache massacre were brought in 1864. The two men were nearly delirious when the soldiers found them wandering in the desert, but they had an extraordinary tale to tell when they reached the fort. It was a tale that has intrigued prospectors and adventurers for nearly a century and a half.

The two men were treated by the post surgeon at Fort Wingate, but within a few months one of them died. His name was Bill Davidson. The other man, known only as Adams, managed to recover from the ordeal and began to regale his listeners with the story of his survival. To the soldiers at the fort the story seemed utterly fantastic, for Adams told of a hidden zig-zag canyon containing a fortune in gold. Indeed, the soldiers would have considered him crazy except for the huge nugget that Adams carried in his pocket!

Fabulously rich, much sought after, and subject of the first half of J. Frank Dobie's classic book "Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver", the Lost Adams Diggings is one of the legendary lost mines of the American West. Frank Dobie considered it "the most fabulous of all tales of lost treasure". Immortalized by the 1969 movie production "Mackenna's Gold", the Lost Adams has become the archetypal lost mine story. It still excites the imagination today.

There are many accounts of the Lost Adams story, but all of them derive from two original testimonies, that of Adams and that of John Brewer. Both were survivors of the Indian massacre that took the lives of their companions. The numerous accounts of the Lost Adams basically follow two schools of thought.

  1. the mine lies in the mountains that straddle the Arizona/New Mexico border, somewhere near the headwaters of the Black River or the San Francisco River, just west or northwest of the Mogollon mines.

  2. the mine lies 100 miles northeast of the White Mountains of Arizona, somewhere in the rugged country stretching from the Datil and Gallinas Mountains of New Mexico northwest along the Continental Divide to the area north of Quemado.

Virtually every account of the Lost Adams story has the prospecting party beginning its quest in the Pima Indian villages of south-central Arizona in August of 1864. Traveling generally northeast, the party made their way to the rugged White Mountains and the famous Mogollon Rim. From a vantage point somewhere in the vicinity of Mount Ord, Mount Thomas, and Mount Baldy, the prospectors could clearly see the object of their quest, about 100 miles to the northeast. There in the distance, two mountain peaks beckoned.

As the prospecting party journeyed northeastward, they eventually crossed an old wagon road or trail that led to the military post in the malpais known as Fort Wingate. As they continued eastward, the prospectors found themselves camping near a spring that was surrounded by the remains of an old Indian settlement. The prospectors noticed a system of abandoned irrigation ditches overgrown with pumpkins and gourds. In a canyon near the campsite, the men discovered a hidden opening in the cliff wall. The entrance opened up into a

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narrow, zig-zag canyon known to the Indians as "Sno-ta-hay". At the head of the canyon, the prospectors discovered a little valley with a small stream meandering through the middle. Two rounded hillocks or mountain tops were visible to the west.

It was here in this valley that the men found the greatest placer gold deposit in the American Southwest. They constructed a small cabin in the little valley and stashed their gold under the fireplace for safekeeping. Everything seemed to be working out just fine and dandy - then Apache chief Nana showed up in camp!

Miraculously, the Apaches allowed the prospectors to work the stream within the valley itself, but warned them against ascending it any further. Of course, the miners just couldn't resist climbing up the valley to search for the source of the gold. This proved to be their undoing.

After working the stream and valley for a few weeks, the miners began to run out of supplies. It was at this time that a group of the men led by John Brewer left the diggings and headed for the fort in the malpais to buy supplies. They never made it back. Only John Brewer survived the Apache ambush near the entrance to the hidden canyon. Meanwhile, the prospectors back in camp were attacked and wiped out by the Indians. That is, all except Adams and Bill Davidson. They managed to escape and were found wandering in the desert by a detachment of soldiers out of Fort Wingate. At Fort Wingate, the two men were treated by the post surgeon, but only Adams survived. With his survival, the Lost Adams legend was born.

Adams would return to the mountains of western New Mexico many times to search for the fabulous placer. He always returned to the area near Milligan's Plaza (now known as Reserve, New Mexico) to begin his search. He said that "the mountains looked right there", but Adams was a notoriously bad frontiersman. It seems that he was unsure of even the approximate location of the mine, sometimes looking in the mountains west of Mogollon, sometimes looking in the rugged Datil Mountains of west-central New Mexico, nearly 130 miles away! In any case, Adams was to be frustrated till the end of his days. He never found the hidden canyon of gold. On September 21, 1886, Adams passed away in Los Angeles, California. The fabulous mine remains hidden today.


The volcanic peaks and canyons of southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico cover an immense area comprising nearly 20,000 square miles. For all its size, the region is relatively barren of economic precious metal deposits. For example, no known gold placers exist near the heart of what is regarded as Lost Adams country. The closest placer districts occur at the southern "entrance" to the Lost Adams country. These include the Clifton/Morenci District, the San Francisco River placers, and the Gila River placers.

The history of mining in this vast wilderness of rugged volcanic peaks must surely begin with the early Spaniards. One of the most significant of the early Spanish mining districts is located near Silver City, on the southern edge of the Datil-Mogollon volcanic field. In 1800, Lieutenant Colonel Jose Manuel Carrasco learned of a massive copper deposit from an Apache chief, who showed him a sample of the ore. Carrasco named the location Santa Rita del Cobre. But the Spanish prospectors found very little gold on the sprawling Mogollon-Datil volcanic field. In fact, it wasn't until 1850 that the first indications of hidden wealth were revealed in the Mogollon Mountains. It was during that year that an explorer named Aubrey discovered gold in the Mogollons. Ten years later, rich deposits of placer gold were discovered only a few miles northwest of the old Santa Rita copper mines, near a place called Pinos Altos. The Spaniards had missed these deposits 60 years before. But 1870 was the big year in the history of mining in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico. In 1870, a soldier from Fort Bayard named James C. Cooney discovered rich deposits of gold and silver on Mineral Creek, near present-day Mogollon. That same year, some ranchers from Silver City, New Mexico discovered rich deposits of placer gold in Gold Gulch, located in the famous Clifton/Morenci District of southeast Arizona.


Some of the richest mineral deposits in the state of Arizona are found in the southeastern part of the state, along the San Francisco River and in Gold Gulch, Chase Creek, and Morenci Gulch. The San Francisco River placers were probably discovered by Henry Clifton in the mid-1860's, but it wasn't until the following decade that the really big pockets were uncovered. The town of Clifton sprang up nearby as prospectors poured into the area. Today, the Clifton/Morenci District is one of the most important copper mining areas in Arizona. It has also produced more than 200,000 ounces of gold, but most of this was a by-product of the copper mining.

The Mogollon discoveries of 1870 were purely lode deposits. Of the nearly 400,000 ounces of gold produced from the Mogollon District, none of it was placer 2gold. The Mogollon District is responsible for nearly all of Catron County's recorded production of gold. It is located about 20 miles south of Reserve and only 12 miles from the Arizona border. One of the first mining camps to spring up in the area was the town of Cooney, named for the Army sergeant from Fort Bayard. The mining camp known as Clairmont was founded on Copper Creek just after James Cooney's big strike near Mineral Creek. Mogollon, the most famous of the local mining camps, was located on Silver Creek. The Mogollon ores were rich and abundant. Some of the ore bodies were bonanzas and these sustained the district for a number of years. By 1959, nearly 400,000 ounces of gold had been recovered from the Mogollon District.