Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Prospectors Discover Gold in the Owyhee Mountains [otd 05/18]

O.H. Purdy. Commercial Directory.
On the morning of May 18, 1863, a band of twenty-nine men broke camp and marched south and west from Reynolds Creek over a regional divide.

Early that month, the group had set out from Placerville, in the Boise Basin. They were chasing rumors that Oregon Trail emigrants in the Forties had observed gold signs in southwest Idaho. After crossing the Snake River, they followed along it to the mouth of Reynolds Creek (which they named) and turned into the mountains.

According to the account given later by party member Oliver Hazard Purdy, scouts had observed “what appeared to be a large stream, judging from the topographical formation of the mountains, which were well timbered.”

Purdy, born west of Rochester, New York, had been a Forty-Niner in California at the age of twenty-five.  After several years of indifferent success there, he taught school in Oregon. In 1863, he follow the rush to the Boise Basin, where he joined the Reynolds Creek band.

The explorers picked their way south through rough country and over a succession of small streams. Finally, about 4 o’clock, they curved eastward into the broad base of a canyon that narrowed as it cut deeper into the high country. Leaders decided the shallow bowl at the mouth of the canyon offered a better camping spot than anything they might find further up.

Most of the men began to unpack their mules. One man, however, saw some likely-looking gravel and scooped a batch into his gold pan. Excitement exploded when his pan showed something like a hundred “colors.” Everyone dropped what they were doing and spread out along what they called “Discovery Bar.”

Further prospecting along Jordan Creek, named for one of their party, confirmed that they had found more than an isolated pocket. Their finds set off a major stampede into Idaho’s Owyhee Mountains. A letter-writer in Placerville commented (Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, July 17, 1863), "The rush this spring to the Boise mines was frantic … But violently as it raged, it was but a small matter compared to the rush from Boise to Owyhee."

By mid-summer, hopeful miners had scattered all over the area, and two rough towns had already sprung into being. One of them, Ruby City, almost immediately became the county seat for Owyhee County. Then, before the end of the year, entrepreneurs founded Silver City.
Early Silver City. H. T. French photo.

They called it that because prospectors discovered that the real wealth of the Owyhees was not gold. It was silver, with lodes said to be richer than any others known except the best of those around Virginia City, Nevada. Silver City grew rapidly and supplanted Ruby City as the county seat less than four years later.

The presence of so many miners quickly sparked a vibrant stock-raising industry in the area. Michael Jordan, for whom the creek was named, started one of the first ranches. He was, unfortunately, killed by Indians in 1864. (O. H. Purdy was also killed by Indians, in 1878.) When the mining furor died down, cattle and sheep ranching became the life-blood of the Owyhees.
                                                                                 
References: [French], [Illust-State]
A Historical, Descriptive and Commercial Directory of Owyhee County, Idaho, Owyhee Avalanche Press (January 1898).
“The Owyhee country,” Reference Series No. 200, Idaho State Historical Society.

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