Myths draw us in with their colorful stories and characters. The ones that tell of lost treasures are even more compelling, because we love to think we could discover them, whether or not we actively pursue such dreams. The legend of the Lost Peg Leg Mine is commemorated by California Registered Historical Landmark No. 750 in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
You can find multiple versions of the story behind the infamous Thomas “Peg Leg” Smith. Suffice it to say that he found gold nuggets in 1829 and, years later, traded his tale and guide services to gullible prospectors in exchange for liquor. He died in 1866, but people continued looking for the “lost” mine.
Cabot Yerxa was a prospector as well as a homesteader and museum operator. He panned for gold in the desert and in Alaska. Letters in Cabot’s Pueblo Museum archives indicate he and his friend Harold Kinney followed the Peg Leg myth around this time 72 years ago. We begin with a letter Kinney wrote to Cabot on August 26, 1949.
I told you of Mrs. Sophia Williams, the medium who rode around helping a doctor find hidden or rather buried crosses. I presumed she still lived in Chicago and would not be available for us for the Peg Leg deal. But she has lived out here for a year.
I’d better explain that she is not only a direct voice medium, but anyone present can hear the voice emanating from her body. In a room in daytime with windows and doors open and sunlight streaming in, she merely sat quietly and evidently called mentally for my [presumably deceased] father in my presence.
To boil this down, let me say that he said he has found the mine; he will be present with us when we go there with Mrs. Williams and tell us exactly where it is. …. It involves digging the topsoil off a foot maybe to get at the stuff, and later probably involve regular mining operations. When I asked him if there was enough of it to be worth setting up mining machinery, etc., he said there’s plenty there.
I have arranged with Mrs. Williams to ride down with me this coming Tuesday evening to Desert Hot Springs to meet you and stay overnight, getting an early start — you, she, and I — Wednesday morning, going to the mine, setting up monuments for two claims (dad says), and then returning you home and going on to record or file the claims on Wednesday.
I am assuming you will be willing to go along and can furnish two shovels or spades and maybe a pick-axe, plus a compass to take bearings for filing the claims.
I had to borrow money at the bank a month ago to keep going, so hope we’ll find enough nuggets in the loose topsoil from our short efforts Wednesday to cash in and have something to operate on. I am hoping that you can take charge of the mining operations, with of course others to be hired who have done such work and know it well.
If you see any hitch in these plans or cannot go with us Wednesday, wire me collect to the above address so I can make other plans. Please make hotel reservations at an inexpensive place for Mrs. Williams and for me. I’m footing the bills and haven’t any to waste, so make it light on the bill.
I hope to reach your house by 9:30 p.m. But if you want to get to bed earlier, I’ll just look for a note on your gate so as not to disturb you.
A subsequent letter (undated) reads in part as follows:
Finally found a place to get forms today and have just finished filling them out; will take to p.o. now to register mail.
Seemed foolish not to file a claim for you. Called it The Psychic!
I have your pick and shovel in trunk of the car.
Driving back down to mine site to hunt in canyon and dig. Will bring two fellows along to help.
Must set up a monument for you. Suggest you drive down too and help with that and with the hunt. If you come, please try to bring a lantern, plus snake-bite kit if you have on hand, plus post. If you don’t show, I’ll send your shovel and pick to you by parcel post. Like to visit your place, but too hot and takes more time.
Kinney signed the following document, addressed, “to whom it may concern,” on September 16, 1949.
This is to certify that the three claims known as The Judge, The Collie [both of the foregoing refer to Kinney’s father] and The Psychic — claims believed to cover the Peg Leg Smith mines — and recorded in the names of Mrs. Sophia Williams, Mr. Cabot Yerxa, and Mr. Harold Kinney with the Recorder of San Diego County, are to be pooled so that any assets or discoveries of value in any one of these shall be jointly owned by all three persons above mentioned.
The claims are located in the Cleveland National Forest, approximately three miles east of Highway 79 on the road marked Indian Flats Camp.
The three parties concerned hereby declare their intention to pool all resources and efforts and work toward the retention and exploitation of these three claims, to share equally in any profits accruing from same.
We do not know if these claims yielded anything of value, but we can believe that the parties involved enjoyed exploring the potential of a myth.
Cabot’s friend Harry Oliver, also a desert rat and spinner of tales, started a Peg Leg Smith Liars Contest held in Borrego Springs. The photo is from the annual Peg Leg Day celebration includes Oliver (black hat and pipe) and Cabot, holding a copy of Harry Oliver’s Desert Rat Scrap Book.