image: the headstone of the legendary Jacob Waltz, the octogenarian prospector whose gold fever could only be quenched by death
East of Phoenix and north of Tucson in Arizona is a mountain range the locals call the Superstitions. Guarding the entrance to this formidable area is a 3,000 foot peak called Superstition Mountain. Considering our nation has only been around for about 240 years, it’s easy to forget that this part of Arizona has a history that goes back hundreds of years to the time of the Spanish Conquistadores. In those days that part of Arizona was home to the Apache, who considered the Superstitions to be the realm of the Thunder God, calling them “the Devil’s Playground.”
Like so many of our other stories featuring Spanish explorers and conquerors, this story is about gold and a lost gold mine that is supposedly hidden somewhere in that rugged terrain; an area that’s largely inaccessible even to this day. What’s peculiar is the region is mostly igneous rock, and geologists will tell you that’s not usually where gold is found.
Around 1540 Spanish explorers learned from the Apache that there was gold in the area. Anxious to start exploring, the Spanish ignored the Apache warnings that the area was cursed and the Thunder God did not take kindly to strangers disturbing his realm. Within days the Conquistadores started disappearing, only to be found days later mutilated and decapitated. Soon the expedition had to implement rules that no one could stray even a few feet from the camp alone. Eventually the Conquistadores fled, calling the area Monte Superstition, they refused to return. Over the next hundred years more explorers would arrive and actually find rich deposits of gold and silver.
Fast-forward to the 1800s, when descendants of the original Spanish explorers once again came north from Sonora to mine for gold in this Mexican territory, risking both the curse of the Superstitions and wrath of the Apache. This time the explorers came back with gold, and a lot of it. They immediately started planning another trip but the Mexican-American War disrupted those plans and threatened to see Arizona become part of the United States. But before that happened, members of the group was determined to extract as much gold as possible before the Americans took over.
Making a return trip the mining group received a warning that the Apache were angry at their intrusion on sacred ground. The miners hastily loaded their burros with the gold they had and carefully concealed the entrance to the mine before starting the trip back to Mexico. They never made it. The Apache attacked, killing the miners and scattering the burros laden with gold. Years later a pair of prospectors would find a pair of dead burros carrying nearly $40,000 in gold.
The family descendants, along with 400 volunteers, would make one more attempt to sneak over and try to mine the area nearly two decades later. That group was also attacked and slaughtered by the Apache in a place now called Massacre Ground. That would be the last attempt by the Mexicans to smuggle gold out of the Superstitions.
In the 1870s, a German immigrant named Jacob Waltz, aka The Dutchman, was said to have rediscovered the mine with the help of a descendant of one of the families of the original Mexican prospectors. Waltz would periodically appear in Phoenix with saddlebags loaded with some of the richest gold ore many had ever seen, before disappearing once again into the Superstition Mountains. But caught in a flash flood at the advanced age of eighty-three, as he lay dying of pneumonia, he supposedly told a woman named Julia Thomas about the location of one of the stashes. Searchers brought back five sacks of gold worth about $15,000 from the area but Waltz died before giving away the location of the mine itself.
The search for the Dutchman’s mine goes on to this day. Groups regularly travel into the rugged hills and mesas, hunting for gold and the lost mine. Periodically, one or two of the searchers will go missing. Most times they’re found, sometimes not. Treasure hunters may shrug off the legend but the curse of the Apache Thunder God still haunts the Arizona sunset.