Lost Skills of the Old West Prospector

From Idaho to Arizona, prospectors staked claims in creeks and quarries, looking for the mother lode.
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From Idaho to Arizona, prospectors staked claims in creeks and quarries, looking for the mother lode.
Credit: Erwin Sherman

Credit: Erwin Sherman

Gold Fever
After gold was found in 1848 in California, stories of easyriches compelled thousands of young men to pack up theirbelongings and head west. To accommodate the ballooningpopulation of prospectors, boomtowns sprung up across theWest—Deadwood, Dodge City, and Tombstone among the morefamous. A prospector had to be enterprising and tough, notonly to survive the notoriously rowdy mining camps, but to besuccessful at an endeavor that was dangerous, difficult, andoften disappointing. In a letter to his cousin, postmarked March1850, California miner S. Shufelt detailed the sacrifices manyprospectors made in the name of gold fever: “Many, very many,that come here meet with bad success and thousands will leavetheir bones here. Others will lose their health, contract diseasesthat they will carry to their graves with them. Some will have tobeg their way home, and probably one half that come here willnever make enough to carry them back. But this does not alterthe fact about the gold being plenty here… .”

Some prospectors used a dowsing rod,a forked branch that would supposedly lead them to riches. The tip of the branch would dip down or vibrate over a spot that contained gold.

Don't be a Fool
It didn’t pay to be a miner of pyrite, a shiny metal also called fool’s gold. How did prospectors know the difference? Unlike pyrite, gold is malleable and can be scratched with a knife. Pyrite also gives off a sulfurous smell when rubbed vigorously.

Knock Knock
Some superstitious miners believed in tommyknockers, tiny leprechaun-like men who wore traditional mining garb, lived underground, and caused mischief. Leaving small gifts around mining sites bought their favor.

Stake Your Claim
Panning for gold isn’t just an Old West pastime. Modern-day miners can still prospect and stake claims on public lands in 19 states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Before you set out to strike it rich, check with the state’s BLM first.

Read the Stream 
Experienced gold panners knew to look for streams with black sand in the sediment and banks with orange and yellow stains— these were indications of the same geologic forces needed to create gold. Then, a smart prospector would look for a bend in the stream, or a rock that created an eddy; water slows here, and because gold is heavy, it drops out of the current and collects in these places.