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California Street in Jacksonville as it appeared in the mid-1880s. The town probably looked similar in 1853 when the Wilson brothers set out to find gold.

Part one of a two-part story

The “lost cabin gold mine” is a certifiable Western trope. If every ounce of legendary gold buried in an old log cabin became real and hit the banks at the same time, it would probably crash the international markets.

They make for fantastic stories, though. And often the gold isn’t the only thing being hidden. Plus, of course, the fact that they might — just might — be real adds a distinctive spice to them.

One of the most interesting and colorful Lost Cabin Gold Mine stories is the one that supposedly took place in the hills south of Jacksonville in 1853. In this case, it’s not a mine that’s been lost — it’s a vault: a small stone-lined crypt stuffed with millions of dollars’ worth of freshly dug gold, and guarded by whatever remains of the skeletons of two long-dead men.

We have this story courtesy of poet-journalist-raconteur Sam Simpson, who was basically the Stewart Holbrook of the 1800s. As would be expected from Sam (or Stewart, for that matter!) it’s hardly factually reliable … but it is a humdinger of a tale.

Our story kicks off in the spring of 1853, when brothers James and Henry Wilson arrived in Jacksonville to work the diggings.

At that time, Jacksonville had just been founded on the Rich Gulch strike two years before. But Rich Gulch, though worthy of its name, had been pretty shallow, and by the time the Wilson boys arrived things were already petering out. More rich strikes were coming, but that was in the future; For the time being, most of the miners were just trying to get in around the edges of what had already been dug, and they weren’t finding much.

James and Henry had no interest in toiling in the dirt all day for a few dollars. They decided to strike out into the wilderness and try to find another Rich Gulch.

Problem was, in 1853 the Rogue Indians considered trespassing on their lands an act of war. Prospecting was absolutely unsafe, and there had just been a party wiped out near Table Rock, north of town. Most folks in Jacksonville were not keen on straying too far outside city limits until things had settled down a bit.

James and Henry didn’t care, and they were able to assemble a small team of miners who felt the same way. So when they headed out to do their prospecting, they had some safety in numbers.

But, as it turned out, not quite enough.

They soon ran into a war party, which, of course, promptly attacked. They fended it off, but one of the miners was killed.

After that, the miners called a council and voted to head back to Jacksonville and wait for the war to end.

Henry and James Wilson, though, decided to take their chances, alone. They waved goodbye to their erstwhile comrades and struck out into the mountains.

This parting of the ways happened beside a mineral spring at the base of a tall rock formation that looked like an hourglass. So, noting this rock as a landmark to remember their path by, the brothers set out for a range of mountains visible in the distance — probably the Siskiyous.

Once into these mountains, or rather the higher foothills of them, the brothers stumbled across a narrow valley, walled in on both sides by steep and rugged cliffs, with a little creek running through it. The valley’s defensive potential was obvious, and it had some nice little meadowlands for the horses to graze on — so the boys decided to let the animals rest a few days while they built a little log cabin there. Doubtless they planned to use it as a hub for the next round of prospecting expeditions.

The next day, though, while drinking from the little creek, Henry discovered that it was loaded with gold. Scooping up a handful of gravel, he found that it was literally peppered with nuggets. They wouldn’t need a gold pan to work these diggings, he realized – they could just wade in the creek and pick the nuggets out with their fingers.

Well, it’s not hard to imagine what the brothers spent the rest of that day doing. Or the next day either. Soon they had a huge pile of gold heaped up on the floor of their little cabin.

Well, that was pleasant. They were rich. Now the challenge was living long enough to enjoy it. The brothers were very nervous about the Indians. They knew the Indian agents and the Army were doing what they could to settle things down — but they also knew that “pacifying” the Rogues would take a while. While they figured they were fairly safe in their secret hidden valley, they didn’t have enough supplies to spend the winter there. If a cease-fire hadn’t been negotiated (or forcibly imposed on the tribes) by the end of the summer, they’d have to take their chances, and the journey home would be very risky. And it’s a lot harder to run for your life, if it comes to that, if you’re carrying hundreds of pounds of gold in your saddlebags.

So as the leaves of the trees started to turn colors, signaling the approach of fall, the boys dug a large hole in the middle of their log-cabin floor, and lined it with close-fitting rocks. They wrapped up their gold in raw, untanned deerskins and basically filled up the vault with it.

They covered the vault with a couple of large flat rocks so that it would be easier to probe for, pushed the dirt back over it, and started getting ready for the trip back to town. Soon they were on their way — Henry in front, James bringing up the rear, each leading two horses.

They didn’t get far. They weren’t even out of sight of the cabin when a volley of shots rang out, and Henry dropped in his tracks. The horses reared and screamed, and a band of Shasta Indians burst into the clearing.

James promptly shot one of them with his black-powder rifle, dropped it, and pulled his Colt Navy revolver. The Indians, seeing this and belatedly realizing that they were charging a still-armed foe with empty rifles, turned and scrambled back to cover. James took advantage of the break to leap onto the one remaining unwounded horse and take off, past Henry’s still and obviously dead body, galloping for the mouth of the valley and for home.

The trip was a hard one, as James had very few supplies and was armed with only a revolver. By the time he finally stumbled into a settlement in northern California he was in a terrible state of health. He took a stagecoach to San Francisco for medical treatment, but nothing seemed to help.

Perhaps sensing the end, he started writing letters to his cousin, Ted Harper of Chicago, telling him the whole story of the cabin and the Indians and the death of his brother. As soon as he got well, he wrote, he would be going back and getting his gold; but if he didn’t make it, he wanted Ted to know where it was.

But he hadn’t quite gotten round to telling Ted exactly how to reach the cabin when, in the fall of 1859, death came for him.

Ted Harper, when he was notified of James Wilson’s death, headed west to settle his cousin’s affairs. When he arrived, he found that James had apparently been in the act of writing that final letter, with detailed directions to reach the cabin, at the very moment Death had reached out his bony hand to claim him:

“Dear Cousin: I had hoped to see you before this, but the end has come sooner than I expected … I think it is nearly over. I must write what I intended to have spoken, and endeavor to give you such directions as will enable you to find the cabin, for you must find it … The first part of your course is plain enough: Start from Jacksonville and keep the California road for — ”

At that precise point (as seems to be the case with most Lost Gold stories that include treasure maps or discovery directions) the text broke off with a smudge of ink, as if the writer had collapsed onto the page.

And so ends Act One of our little drama. Act Two wouldn’t take place until about 15 years later, when cousin Ted enlisted the help of one of Oregon’s most famous pioneer poets to help him find the cabin and retrieve the treasure.

Sources: Treasure Hunting Northwest, a book by Ruby El Hult published in 1971 by Binfords & Mort; “The Lost Cabin,” an article by Sam L. Simpson published in the September 1900 issue of The Native Son; “Samuel L. Simpson (1845-1899),” an article by Ulrich H. Hardt published Nov. 7, 2019, on The Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org

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: finn@offbeatoregon.com or 541-357-2222.

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