They found the grizzled prospector’s body slumped over a sample of ore on the floor of the rude log cabin he’d been staying in, deep in the wilderness of southern Oregon, late in the spring of 1897. He’d apparently dropped dead one evening while assaying out the samples he’d gathered that day – probably poisoned by some of the chemicals he was using.
But this wasn’t just any random gold prospector. This badly decomposed body was all that was mortal of the most famous prospector of the American West ‑ and certainly one of the richest and most successful: Ed Schieffelin, the man who discovered and named the Tombstone mine in Arizona.
And by the time Ed’s body was securely buried under a tall miner’s cairn near Tombstone, the hills near that cabin were already alive with eager prospectors following up on the “lost gold mine” legends that sprang up following his death. At least one of those legends is still bringing hopeful prospectors out into the hills of Southern Oregon today.
Ed Schieffelin was born in 1847 back East, in Tioga County, Pennsylvania. When he was four years old, his family pulled up stakes and went to California to join the Gold Rush. By the time they got there, though, all the action was up north in Southern Oregon; so that’s where the family ended up, settling near Jacksonville.
Growing up, Ed spent most of his spare time looking for gold. He was one of 10 siblings, and sometimes his brothers got involved as well; but mostly, it was just Ed, at the age of 10 or 11, shouldering his pick and shovel and hiking off into the hills for the day, breaking off bits of quartz to look for threads of gold and washing up creekbed gravel with his gold pan.
When he was 14, gold was found on the Salmon River in Idaho. Ed ran away from home; he made it 60 miles before a member of the search party caught up with him and dragged him back home. Three years after that, he tried to leave for Montana. But he was only 17, and again, his parents wouldn’t hear of it; so instead, he got a job at a local mining operation working for wages.
Ed would spend much of the first half of his short life working for wages and building up his grubstake so that he could get back to prospecting. Because prospecting was not an inexpensive hobby. One needed a good mule or two, packsaddle and saddle, various picks and shovels, chemicals (mercury and cyanide, among others) to assay the ore with, blankets and camping supplies – and, of course, a good assortment of shooting irons: a rifle certainly, a shotgun maybe, and of course a good sidearm – not to mention food.
Ed learned early on that it was well to not underestimate his needs. At least once, and probably many times, he was forced to abandon a potentially promising claim because his supplies ran out, and he had to slink back to town and take yet another job for wages.
Finally, in 1869, Ed decided he’d laid around and played around Southern Oregon too long. He was 22 now, and his parents couldn’t hold him back; so, having worked up a small grubstake, he hit the trail. Over the next five years or so, he basically bummed around all over the West, eagerly chasing rumors of rich gold strikes hither and thither, dipping with his pan and chipping with his hammer whenever the opportunity arose, burning through grubstakes, taking jobs to build them back up, and repeating – always broke, never hitting anything worth settling down for. Disaster nearly overwhelmed him several times, including on one awful prospecting trip in the Grand Canyon in which two members of his party drowned.
Ed was young, and a lifelong teetotaler. But a diet of flour biscuits and cold water will grind anyone down eventually, and Ed’s health finally got around to collapsing around the time of his 28th birthday. He’d sold his mule to buy biscuit fixin’s by now, and was packing his bedroll and tools around on his own back. Somehow he managed to get home to Oregon to convalesce. He probably had to sell the rest of his things to do it.
It was a long convalescence; whatever he was suffering from involved a fever, and was very persistent. But perhaps it was the exhaustion, more than any virus, that was responsible for Ed’s prostration.
In any case, he stayed with his folks for several months, and during that time he did some serious soul-searching. He decided that the reason his life had been such a colossal flop so far was, he’d spent it chasing other people’s smoke: rushing to Surprise Valley on the rumor of a gold strike, getting talked into joining a party prospecting on the Snake, listening to advice from confident talkers. What he needed to do, he determined, was to hold tight, keep his own counsel, and trust himself. He’d been prospecting now for more than half his life; he knew more about geology and mineral formation than most 1880s geologists. He would, from now on, have faith in himself and his instincts.
When he was strong again, Ed borrowed $100 from his father and went back out on the trail again. When that was gone, he took a job, worked for 14 more months, and went back at it again.
That was in January 1877. Within six months, he had found the silver strike that would make him rich and famous.
It happened in Arizona, deep in Apache country. Ed was staying at the Army’s Camp Huachuca with a garrison of soldiers, tagging along with them when they went out patrolling for Indian war parties and prospecting along the way; but he found this so slow and tedious that he soon started striking out on his own.
The soldiers warned him darkly that he was running a great risk by doing that. “Oh, I’ll be all right,” he’d say, “and I really think I’ll find something out here."
“All you’ll find is your tombstone,” one of them told him one day, in answer to that remark.
And the comment must have stuck in his mind, because when Ed Schieffelin found the great subterranean ledge of silver that would make him rich and famous, he named his claim “The Tombstone.”
Ed never had money trouble again after that, of course. He and his brothers sold their claims for $600,000, and in 1882 they traveled to Portland and commissioned a sternwheel steamer which they shipped to Alaska and used for prospecting on the Yukon River. They found nothing, so they returned.
In 1883 Ed married Mary E. Brown, and settled down with her in a comfortable home in Alameda … or tried to. He no longer needed to prospect, but he seemed unable to stop. Soon he was making short excursions into nearby areas, looking for another strike.
Then, in the mid-1890s, he went on a longer trip – back into the wilds of Jackson and Douglas counties in Oregon. His goal was to find some of the prospecting spots he’d tried and given up on in his youth. Now that he was older and more knowledgable, he was pretty sure some of them were the real thing.
And that was what he was doing, there in a friend’s cabin near the confluence of Day’s Creek and Moore Creek, in the spring of 1897, when he met his death at the age of 49.
The legends started almost the instant Ed’s body was discovered. The first of these has become known, today, as the “Lost Red Blanket Mine.” Ed was known to have had two good wool blankets, a blue one and a red one. The friends who found his body wrapped it in the blue one for burial; but of the red one, there was no sign. Ed was known to have frequently made overnight camping trips up various creeks and washes in search of possible deposits; the conclusion drawn from the absence of the red blanket was that he’d gone on one of these trips and made a camp, then for some reason left it behind and made a beeline for the cabin, where he on the instant started in assaying his ore samples. The ore samples he was working on when he died had gold in them; accounts of how much range from $7 per ton (that’s what his widow said, in a letter to the owner of the cabin) to a rumored $2,000 per ton.
The $2,000 figure is surely a wild exaggeration. But Ed’s brothers dropped everything to race to the scene and join the search, and it’s highly unlikely that they would have done this if the ore had assayed out at only $7 a ton.
There also was, according to the story, a diary that Ed kept, in which the last entry read, “Struck her rich again, by God!” Or, maybe it read, “Found at last, richer than Tombstone.” Or “A prospect at last!” Or maybe Ed didn’t keep a diary and wrote absolutely nothing at all. All of these variations can be found, in various versions of this legend.
In any case, so far as is known, no one has ever found either Ed’s red blanket, or Ed’s last lost “richer than Tombstone” mine. People are still looking for it today, most of them in a sort of desultory recreational fashion, but some of them in real earnest.
The other “Ed’s Lost Gold Mine” story that’s sometimes circulated comes to us courtesy of legendary Oregon raconteur and sorta-historian Stewart Holbrook. In Holbrook’s version, Ed mailed a letter two weeks before his death that included the line, “I have found stuff here in Oregon that will make Tombstone look like salt. THIS IS GOLD,” and left a treasure map in the cabin. The map was passed to one of Ed’s nephews, who, mortally wounded at Verdun during the First World War, gave the map to a friend on his deathbed.
“I know this man and have seen this paper,” Holbrook wrote, in an article for the June 1944 issue of The American Mercury. “The writing on the map is beyond doubt that of old Ed Schieffelin. Two places on the map are marked ‘Here.’ The problem presented by the map is to know certain distances that are outlined. These are in cypher of Schieffelin’s own making.”
So, there’s that story. Of course, the idea that a fellow as laser-focused on prospecting as Ed Schieffelin would take time off from the diggings to invent his very own personal secret code may be a little hard for most folks to swallow.
As with all “lost gold mine” stories, what we basically have is an ore sample with a ratio of about two ounces of truth per ton of drama. But, would we really want it any other way?
(Sources: Treasure Hunting Northwest, a book by Ruby El Hult published in 1971 by Binford and Mort; “The Silver King: Ed Schieffelin, Prospector,” an article by Richard E. Moore published in the December 1986 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: email@example.com or 541-357-2222.