Not Just A ‘Superstition’

One of the reasons I’m so interested in ‘missing persons’ is that I was very nearly one myself and in an area with a long past of ‘historical mystery’. My family lived in Phoenix, Arizona when I was about 12. My parents’ marriage was failing. My father, who loved nature in all forms from desert to ocean, wanted to have a picnic one pleasant day. It must have been spring as it wasn’t very hot. My mother had no interest in spending another day wandering around the Arizona landscape and my fourteen-year-old sister was in no mood to do so either. Feeling a bit sorry for my down-in-the-mouth father, I said I’d go.

So I, Dad, and our black lab Duke all jumped in the old Chevy van and headed out to the Four Peaks which are visible to the east on most clear days. They are part of the Superstition Mountains in Tonto National Forest, about a forty mile drive. My father liked buying and trading old cars, and was a heck of a good mechanic. But a white van without four-wheel-drive isn’t the best thing to drive when going off into the untracked hills. Naturally enough, we got stuck in a one-way canyon. I remember the grinding of the gears and the rocking of the van as Dad did everything he could to back off from the large boulder wedged behind our right front tire. There was nothing for it but to try to walk out.

So we took our water, our canned lemon pudding left over from lunch, some Milk-Bones, and a couple of beach towels that happened to be in the back, tying them into a sack made from one of the towels. I grabbed the black leather Bible from the glove-box (my father liked to test out new/old religions as well as cars) though I believe I had it more in mind as a source of kindling than spiritual comfort. Then, with Duke following along, we left the van behind. By now it was roughly four o’clock in the afternoon. Anyone reading this story at this point is probably whispering ‘oh, no.’ And you’d be right to do so.

We walked until nearly dark. Then we spread out the towels, lit a small fire in a stone ring Dad constructed, and ate the pudding. Dad tried a dog cookie but decided they really were not intended for human consumption because our teeth and jaws just aren’t strong enough. And we waited until morning. I can sleep anywhere at any time, even on rocks covered with a thin beach towel, and that night proved it. At one point, however, I did wake up. Duke was one of the best dogs we ever had, smart and alert. He stayed by me until, stars bright above us, he rose to his feet, a thrumming growl deep in his throat. He stayed like that for maybe ten minutes before settling down again.

Come morning, we threw dirt over the fire and started our hike out. I’ve always been fair-skinned and the sun especially in Arizona was never my friend. So I was pretty uncomfortable with sun-burn. Fortunately for me and my future as a non-missing person, a couple of hours later we were picked up by a sheep farmer from Bisbee, Arizona, who was more than a little surprised to find us out there. He’d been checking on his stock because a *bear* had been wandering around out there. I wonder if that’s what Duke growled at in the night.

As it turned out, my mother had gotten worried when we didn’t come back on time. Fortunately, my father did leave her with some idea of when we’d return and where we were supposed to be going. She’d called the local Search and Rescue but by the time she did, it was already too close to dark for them to go up. I hadn’t been scared or worried…though I was disappointed I didn’t get to fly in a helicopter! I have no idea how Dad got the van back, or if it stayed up there. I do know that a white van in a canyon where an awful lot of the rocks are also light-colored wasn’t likely to be seen by anyone flying overhead.


We were very lucky not to be a permanent part of the Superstition Mountain’s long and often tragic history.

The Pima Indians were the indirect originators of the name when they told local farmers in the 1860’s about the mountain range’s history of strange noises, disappearances, and winds that blew so strangely. The Apaches also believed that the path to the underworld could be found there and that the source of the winds and dust-storms came directly from ‘down under’. The mountains to this day are a very popular hiking spot, even if the National Park Service consider them to be some of the most challenging in the park system. Four or five people lose their lives in the mountains every year; some are never recovered. Dad and I were lucky.

The most famous story is that of ‘The Lost Dutchman’s Mine’. A fabulous hidden gold mine, filled with a treasure beyond the limits of human imagination, has drawn curious and/or greedy souls to the area around Weaver’s Needle since the mid-1800’s. It’s hard to say where the truth of the mine’s existence and the myths and tall-tales that have grown around it begin and end.

The tale starts with the Spanish, who called the mountains Sierras de la Espuma – or Mountains of Foam for their pale color, though like many things in Arizona, the color depends on the light. Those brilliant sunsets, made dramatic by the dust in the atmosphere, can color the mountains coppery red at sunset and morning. Arizona belonged to Spain for a while, at least on paper. The Native peoples weren’t consulted. Spanish explorers came across some Apaches transporting nuggets of gold and nothing aroused a 16th century Spaniard’s interest like gold. For a while, the Spaniards thought they’d found Cibola, the Cities of Gold, but most of them found death at the hands of the Apache…or by whatever god the Indians believed lived on the mountain. They called it ‘Thunder Mountain’ and claimed anyone who trespassed there would meet their doom.

The land passed into the hands of the Peralta family – though some historians claim that they were actually the owners of a small mine in California and that their story is centered there and not in Arizona at all. The tale goes on to say that the family did find gold on the Superstitions and spent about a hundred years traveling back and forth from their spread in Mexico, until four brothers made a passage in the early 1800’s only to be killed by the Apache. Their mules were scattered, some bones of which were allegedly found some years later, still with gold in their packs.

In 1848,  so the legend says, that the Grand Old Man of the Peralta clan returned to the Mountain with a large party of miners to take out as much gold as possible before the United States claimed the land. The result is called ‘the Massacre Ground’, where the party of miners were destroyed at the base of a cliff. Human bones have been found there, so something undoubtedly tragic happened but whether it was the Peralta family’s expedition or some other group, is unclear. Later on, a pair of prospectors found a great deal of gold scattered near the area, as if thrown up by frost heaves or other movement of the ground. But no underground vein was ever found there. The gold they discovered may have spilled from the fleeing miners’ saddlebags as they tried to escape their fate.

Some member or members of the Peralta clan may have befriended one Jacob Walz or Waltz, a German immigrant with a passion for gold. But before he comes on the scene, there’s the story of one Doctor Thorne, attached to a local military base. He cured an Apache chief of an eye ailment and was rewarded by a blindfolded journey to a place in the mountains where gold was plentiful and easily picked up. He was told to gather as much as he could. He did but when he tried later to return to the spot, remembering the few landmarks he’d noticed, he and his companions were killed. (Alas, for the legend….no ‘Doctor Thorne’ has ever been identified as working at the fort there.)

Now enters the ‘Dutchman’ of ‘The Lost Dutchman Mine’. Just for clarity, it’s the mine that is lost, not the Dutchman. ‘Dutch’, as has happened often in American history, is a mis-hearing of the word ‘Deutsch’, actually German for ‘German’. Whether Jacob Waltz heard of the location of the mine from the Peraltas or from an Apache girlfriend, he started to look for it and, so they say, found it. He may have had a partner, also named Jacob, but he either died, was murdered by Waltz, or left the area. Waltz often came into Phoenix loaded with bags of gold but would never reveal anything about his acquisition of it. He’d lose those who tried to follow him in the wilderness; some say he’d shoot them down.

In his last days, Julia Thomas, a local boardinghouse owner, cared for the elderly man. He spoke of his mine, cryptically at first, but giving more details as his sense of mortality crept over him. He died in 1891. Ms. Thomas and some others tried to find the mine but the details Waltz had revealed of the exact location were unclear. After wasting a great deal of money, she gave up the search, but found it lucrative to sell ‘maps’ to the ever-flowing stream of treasure-hunters who followed…many of whom died in their attempts to find some trace of the legendary Lost Dutchman Mine.

Over the past hundred years or so, some perished through falls or accident. Some went too far with insufficient supplies. Quite a few were found shot, sometimes by crazed comrades, sometimes by persons unknown. At least three deaths that are suspicious took place within a year or so of my adventure up there at age 12. One of the most recent deaths by misadventure was in 2009, though the young man’s body was not found until 2012. There is something about the Lost Dutchman’s Mine that becomes an obsession for many of the people who learn about it and they pursue their mania to the point of death. But the Arizona wilderness is not kind to those who neglect to treat it with utmost respect.–tonto-national-forest–trail-map

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