The Wild West holds very little interest for me. I don’t care much about noble cowboys sauntering into town on their ruddy steeds, about the whores with hearts of gold that kept frontier towns functioning, or about the glittering depths of mines. I had my fill of Westerns when I read Mark Twain’s Roughing It, and that hasn’t changed in two decades. So when it came time to try to figure out just what this episode of America Unearthed, S03E02 “Guardians of Superstition Mountain,” was going to be about, I realized that I have no background in the Old West and no knowledge of it. So I took a cue from show host Scott Wolter himself. In Akhenaten to the Founding Fathers (2013), our hero cites Wikipedia as a source 14 times in 162 notes, or 9% of all his notes. Therefore, since I had neither the time nor the inclination to pursue this in much detail I decided to follow suit and learn what I could about the Lost Dutchman’s Mine from Wikipedia. But, being unsatisfied with such a source, I then went on to check the sources and read a bit more, though the further reading in the original sources and in other books on the subject didn’t turn up much of interest except for a few corrections.
The Lost Dutchman’s Mine is a folk-tale, a legend told and retold so many times that fact and fiction have blended into an impossible confection. Whatever core of truth stood behind the story has long since eroded away. According to the most popular version of the story, a German (i.e., Deutsch, elided as Dutch) man named Jacob Waltz found the largest and richest gold mine in all of America near Arizona’s Superstition Mountains around 1870 but refused to tell anyone the location before his death in 1891. This might or might not have happened, but the grand tales extrapolated from a dying man’s last words have only grown more magnificent with the telling.
More than 8,000 people have tried to find the mine, and all share one thing in common: None has found it. To go in search of Waltz’s caves of gold is a fool’s errand, as productive as the fatal quests for the lost mines of the “Roman” city of the Amazon in Manuscript 512, or the fabled Seven Cities of Gold of Spanish legend. So what fool would go in search of this lost mine? Please, like we don’t already know the answer to that question.
The history behind the myth is convoluted, so much so that in 1977 nationally recognized folklorist Byrd Granger discovered 62 variants of the story of the Lost Dutchman Mine, which in turn are based on what seem to be four distinct stories of four different lost mines. The most famous, but apparently chronologically last of these was the supposed mine of Jacob Waltz. The variations are complex and confusing and tiresome to rehearse. In simplified form, and in chronological order, the underpinnings of the myth go something like this:
The Lost Dutchman Mine is not a classic story; in fact, aside from a Lost Dutchman Mining & Milling Company operating in 1920 (at the Lost Dutchman Mine of Rowena, Colorado), the local legend left precious little impression on the wider world until 1931, when a treasure hunter named Adolph Ruth died looking for the supposed mine. This death became a newspaper sensation, and it turned the Lost Dutchman Mine into a sensation, and eventually a movie, Lust for Gold (1949), based on a 1945 book by John Griffith Climinson (writing as Barry Storm), itself made possible by Ruth’s death. The book made conspiratorial claims that Storm had been tracked by a sniper to prevent him from finding the lost mine. This was the tipping point that turned the story into a pop culture trope, and I am not embarrassed to report that the only reason I know of the Lost Dutchman Mine is because the Hanna Barbara cartoon characters Ruff and Reddy went in search of the mine in a 1960 serial, and I must have caught it in a rerun in the late 1980s or early 1990s, when the old shows were in heavy cable rotation.
By the 1950s, a set of stones engraved with strange symbols were being advertised as a map to the Lost Dutchman’s Mine. These stones, known as the Peralta Stones, after fictitious claims that the Peralta family once mined the Superstition Mountains, have been debunked as modern fakes because they show evidence of having been drilled with modern power tools, according to Charles Polzer of the Arizona State Museum. Like the Ica Stones, the Tucson Lead Artifacts, and other modern forgeries, they feature art style very much unlike other works of their supposed historical era but very much like the untalented hackwork of modern amateurs.
Just in case you’re keeping score, the Lost Dutchman craze was kicked off by Ruth’s death, and Ruth’s death was confirmed (by matching a found skull to medical records) by none other than Smithsonian anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička, whom another History Channel show accused of being part of a conspiracy to suppress the truth about Bible giants. Odd that he would create a mystery he could have suppressed, isn’t it?
We open with a reenactment of Jacob Waltz’s 1891 death, in which the old man flashes back to his discovery of his fabled mine and his (mostly imaginary) career paying for luxuries with chunks of gold. Waltz whispers the mine’s location to a woman as he lies on a bed above a bag of gold. We then cut to the opening credits.
After the credits, we’re off to Apache Junction in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, where Scott Wolter tells us that he is searching private property for what legend says is the “most storied” mine in American history. To begin his quest, we flash back “one week earlier” for Wolter to tell us about Waltz’s legend (though without explaining why a German man is labeled Dutch)—a story even Wolter concedes is embellished. Wolter meets with historian Thomas Kollenborn, who has been interested in the lost mine since 1944, and has studied the two homicides that had occurred among those searching for the treasure. Kollenborn also relates Native American tales of the thunder gods who guard the mountains. This part of the story is meant to give a supernatural explanation for why the mine has never been found.
Then we’re off to look at pictures of the Peralta Stones, which Wolter hopes to decipher and authenticate. En route Wolter briefly mentions Ruth’s death—but not its role in promoting the story to legend status—and we hear about some of the other people who have died in the Arizona desert due to various failures.
At the OK Corral in Apache Junction, Wolter meets with Ron Feldman, a treasure hunter who has spent 48 years failing to find the Lost Dutchman Mine. Feldman has what he says are the Peralta Stones, but Wolter expresses dismay as we go to break that the stones are replicas. No fooling. According to Wikipedia, the originals are held by the Arizona Museum of Natural History, which loaned them for long term exhibit to the Superstition Mountain Museum in 2009. (Later in the hour the Museum will contradict this.) But other sources, those repeating claims by Mark Clayton, (wrongly) claim that the stones were held by the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum in Phoenix until its closure in 2011, after which they were transferred to the Arizona Historical Society. No matter who has custody of them, they are on exhibit recently at the Superstition Mountains Museum, according to no less a source than the Museum itself.
After the break, we have an on-screen recap followed by a replay of Wolter’s dismay at the replica rocks. Feldman tells Wolter that the rocks are “B.S.,” but Wolter says he’s like to look for some hidden truth in the rocks anyway. Wolter relates the legend of the Peralta prospectors, but he does not acknowledge that there is no historical evidence that the Peralta mine was in Arizona. (The legend moved it there because a Mexican governor of what is now New Mexico and Arizona shared the name Peralta.) Wolter wants to see the original stones, but Feldman tells him that no one knows where they are.
Wolter shows Feldman some small gold ore samples in a staged scene with poor acting as Feldman then tops Wolter by showing him a “real” gold sample, a much larger chunk of ore. Feldman tells Wolter that the chunk of ore was probably from the Lost Dutchman Mine because… well, of a tall tale. The filmmaking here is lacks a bit, and some of the over-the-shoulder shots have lips moving out of sync with the audio, when apparently different takes were melded together poorly. The long and short of it is that the chunk of ore is a geological match for a chunk of gold supposedly taken from beneath Waltz’s bed, and somehow this implies that there is a super-mind full of more gold that anyone can imagine.
As we go to commercial, and H2 promo plays. It glamorizes Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed. As the H2 logo spins and the music swells, disembodied voices from Ancient Aliens tell us there is “a hidden hand in history… it’s incredible.” That about sums up everything wrong with the H2 network in just 15 seconds.
When we return from the break, Wolter’s voiceover recaps what we’ve already heard, and we see a replay of the opening reenactment. In Queen Valley, Arizona, Wolter meets with his third elderly interviewee, Jim Sieglitz, who hopes Wolter can prove that the stones are authentic. Sieglitz believes that Waltz’s gold wasn’t in a mine at all. Instead, he thinks it’s a shipment of gold raided by the Apaches and hidden in a cave—this being one of the folklore variants of the story outline in the background section above. Sieglitz believes that by applying numerology of some sort to the Peralta Stones, we can read them as signifying trail markers on the way to the gold, and even Wolter wonders whether Sieglitz is simply “picking the numbers you want.” When were these trail markers put up? Who knows? This show won’t tell us.
Wolter expresses doubt that he’ll ever see the stones. Does he not have Google? The Superstition Mountains Museum says they have them on exhibit. It is almost like the show is purposely trying to create drama to mask the fact that this episode will fail to find the lost mine.
After the break, Feldman tells Wolter about a spot of land where he hopes Wolter will find the gold, and we get a brief lesson on iron pyrite, fool’s gold. Wolter is looking for quartz because he hopes that the quartz will lead him to the gold. We get a recap already of what we just heard two minutes earlier, which was recapping the recap of the recap from before the second to last break. As Wolter wanders through the desert, I have visions of his last desert adventure, searching for the Ark of the Covenant—not because they bear a similarity but because it recalled to my mind the Exodus. This endless recapping is only slightly less entertaining than spending forty years wandering the arid wastes. The Israelites, at least, had manna and giants to keep them company. As we hit another break Wolter sees a snake, which thoughtfully poses so the camera crew can get a close-up. What, no road runner or coyote?
After the next break, we pick up with the snake as Wolter bravely walks right on by the snake and begins chipping away at rocks. He keeps on walking through the desert examining rocks. Weirdly, there is no recap, which makes me wonder why segment 4 had multiple recaps. Did the producers need to jam in an extra commercial break, leaving things a bit out of sequence? Wolter is now off to Goldfield, Arizona, where the Mammoth Gold Mine (more formally, the Mammoth-St. Anthony Mine) was, according to Wolter, discovered in 1892, and Wolter speculates that the Mammoth mine was perhaps Waltz’s mine. However, the Mammoth mine claims were started in 1879, and the mine operated from 1881 to 1912. It therefore was in operation when Waltz claimed to be providing information about where the mine really was.
Feldman disagrees, but Wolter suggests that the gold from the Mammoth mine might be connected to an outcropping Waltz found on the other side of the same mountain, thus making them one and the same.
In a staged scene, Wolter claims to have gotten a text announcing that the “Peralta Stones have been located.” Good to know they have Google at Committee Films.
After the break we get a recap, and Wolter is off to the Superstition Mountain Museum where he implies lightly that the stones were “quietly” relocated in what I guess we are to conclude was a conspiracy. “Someone,” he said, texted him this information. This year he doesn’t even pretend that his Baker Street Irregulars are behind the fake texts the producers use to fabricate drama. The Museum tells Wolter that the Flagg Mineral Foundation previously controlled the stones before they came to the Museum, thus refuting both Wikipedia and Mark Clayton. Wolter then authenticates the stones by saying they “look old.” (Science!) We finish the hour with Wolter visiting Waltz’s Phoenix grave, where he finally acknowledges Waltz was German after spending the hour calling him Dutch. He never does explain why Waltz was called Dutch, and I am not sure he knows. Wolter briefly indicates that another anonymous “someone” emailed him a photo of a gold mine, so maybe the mine is real.
So, in the end, Wolter found nothing, didn’t even make a convincing argument for his own view that the Lost Dutchman’s Mine was the Mammoth Mine, and declined to make even a cursory stab at separating fact from fiction in probing the historicity of the Lost Dutchman legend. Instead, he concludes that “maybe one day I’ll find out” if the story is true. In short, this was another superficial, lazy hour that lacks a real historical understanding or perspective of the mysteries it claims to investigate.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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