The Lost Dutchman Gold Mine (also known by many similar names) is, according to legend, a very rich gold mine hidden in the southwestern United States. The location is generally believed to be in the Superstition Mountains, near Apache Junction, east of Phoenix, Arizona. There are also theories that the mine lies a considerable distance beyond the Superstition Mountains, in Mexico. There have been many opinions about how to find it, and each year people search for it. Some have died on the search.
The mine is named for German immigrant Jacob Waltz, who purportedly discovered it in the 19th century and kept its location a secret. (“Dutchman” was a common, though inaccurate, American slang term for “German,” derived from the German word for “German” – “Deutsch”).
The Superstition Mountains to the east of Phoenix, AZ reportedly hold a legendary motherlode of gold known as the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine. Truth and fiction about this mine have been unrevokably mixed up through the years, producing 62 varieties of the legend. But before we get into those, here are some genuine facts about the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine:
There really was a Lost Dutchman, although he wasn’t Dutch. Jakob Waltz was nicknamed Dutch (i.e. from the Netherlands) because he was Deutsch (i.e. from Germany; a common error, see also ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’). A man of that name was born in Württemberg in 1810 and emigrated to the US. From the 1860s onward, he homesteaded in Arizona, pursuing mining and prospecting as a hobby – a quite unsuccessful one. Waltz fell ill and died in 1891, but not before revealing the location of an alleged gold mine to Julia Thomas, the neighbour who cared for him. As early as Sept 1, 1892, a local newspaper relates how Thomas and others were trying to locate the mine. When they failed, it is reported they sold copies of a map for $7 each. After about a decade, the story sank into obscurity, regaining notoriety when it had acquired more spectacular aspects, in a fashion not dissimular to a game of Chinese whispers.
The Lost Dutchman is perhaps the most famous lost mine in American history. Arizona place-name expert Byrd Granger notes that, as of 1977, the Lost Dutchman story had been printed or cited at least six times more often than two other fairly well-known tales, the story of Captain Kidd’s lost treasure, and the story of the Lost Pegleg mine in California. Robert Blair notes that people have been seeking the Lost Dutchman mine since at least 1892, while Granger writes that according to one estimate, 8,000 people annually made some effort to locate the Lost Dutchman’s mine. Former Arizona Attorney General Bob Corbin is among those who have looked for the mine. Others have argued the existence of the mine has little or no basis in fact. But as noted below, Blair argues that all the main components of the story have at least some basis in fact.
According to many versions of the tale, the mine is either cursed, or protected by enigmatic guardians who wish to keep the mine’s location a secret. The basic points of the legend hold that German immigrant Jacob Waltz — the proverbial “dutchman” — found a fabulously wealthy gold mine in the Superstition Mountains sometime after 1863. When he died in 1891, he left a crudely drawn map giving only hints to the mine’s location. Ever since, treasure hunters have come from all over the world searching, but none has ever found it. Today we’re going to look into the depths of the tale and see what’s probably true, and what other elements might spare the Dutch Hunters a great deal of effort.
It is Waltz’s map that has been the centerpiece of the story. It’s a fact that almost from the day he died, reproductions of it have been abundant and openly sold as tourist items, with no way for anyone to judge the origins of any of them. It seems quite hopeless to learn anything from any of these maps; in fact, the more research one does, the more one learns that none of them are trustworthy. Even Waltz’s original map was suspect. It was made while he was on his deathbed, when he revealed his secret to Julia Thomas, owner of the boarding house where he lived. She drew that first map based on his description. After he passed, Ms. Thomas and two miner friends followed Waltz’s instructions to the letter, but found nothing. To pay her debts, she began printing and selling souvenir copies of the map. All the maps that have ever existed since then have been copied or made up based on her original, which was already proven to lead nowhere. For a fee, Thomas sold her tale to newspaperman Pierpont Constable Bicknell, whose 1895 article in the San Francisco Chronicle made the Lost Dutchman mine a permanent fixture in history.
And since then, innumerable variations of the story have arisen, mostly the colorations of 20th century authors. Some have two “dutchmen”, with a companion named Weisner joining Waltz; some have gunfights, robberies, and all sorts of romantic additions. It’s such a confused mess of pseudohistory that it seems hopeless to do a serviceable skeptical analysis. This might be the case if it were not for one man, a 1930s Dutch Hunter whose tragic death in the Superstitions launched the Lost Dutchman mine from colorful story to eternal legend.
Adolph Ruth and his son Erwin, both veterinarians by trade, loved their hobby of treasure hunting. Although they hailed from Washington, DC, they traveled as far as California in search of legendary riches. For them, the adventure was not so much about actually finding anything than it was about father and son companionship. However, they had a very special advantage over other treasure hunters. During the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), Erwin, the younger, had provided valuable veterinary services to essential livestock for a powerful Mexican family. Señor Gonzales thanked Erwin with a gift of maps, maps that had come down from his cousins the Peraltas. The Peraltas were a noteworthy mining family who had operated mines throughout the American southwest when it had belonged to Mexico, and these maps showed the locations of many of their mines.
Adolph and Erwin Ruth made many trips together. They never found much, but were undeterred. The pivotal moment came when Adolph, the elder, made a trip to the Superstition Mountains all by himself to give the Lost Dutchman a try in the summer of 1931. There he met Tex Barkley, a rancher who owned much of the Superstitions, and who also outfitted and guided Dutch Hunters. Barkley had hunted for the Lost Dutchman himself, of course, and was most intrigued to meet this friendly elderly gentleman from the east who showed up with a pocketful of authentic Peralta maps.
Adolph Ruth was 78 years old, physically very frail, and limped with a cane due to a hip injury sustained in one of his previous adventures. It was June, one of the hottest months of the year, when even the most stalwart of Dutch Hunters avoided the savage heat of the Superstitions. Tex Barkley sent two of his best men to pack Ruth into the mountains, to a good camp with a permanent water supply. One of the men returned a few days later, with some supplies and (more importantly) to check on the old man to make sure he was all right. Sadly, Barkley’s worst fears were confirmed: Adolph Ruth was gone. Barkley and two local sheriff agencies immediately launched three large-scale searches. Erwin Ruth came as quickly as he could to direct the efforts to find his father, but it was to no avail. After three months, the searches were called off. Erwin accepted the inevitable fact that his father had perished in search of the Lost Dutchman.
And then, in December of 1931, an archaelogical expedition was in the area to study some ancient ruins from the Salado culture. The archaeologists had a dog, Music, who had gotten himself into trouble by eating up all the expedition’s steaks. But Music redeemed himself by following a scent to the base of a palo verde tree, where sat Adolph Ruth’s skull, upright among the cactuses. The skull was punched through side to side, apparently by a bullet.
When the news broke, Tex Barkley and a party of five rode and found the rest of Ruth’s body about a kilometer away, and about ten back-breaking kilometers from Ruth’s original camp. This search was thoroughly documented by several of the men who were present, including a couple of newspapermen. In a small memorandum book in the breast pocket of Ruth’s body was found the following handwritten note:
The mine lies within an imaginary circle, whose diameter is not more than 5 miles, and whose center is marked by the Weaver’s Needle, which is about 2,500 feet higher, among a confusion of lesser peaks and mountain masses of basaltic rock. The first gorge on the south side from the west end of the range. They found a monumental trail which lead them northward past Sombrero Butte into a long canyon. Travel northward in the gorge and up over a lofty ridge, thence downward past the Needle into a canyon running north, and finally into a tributary canyon, very steep and rocky, and densely wooded with a continuous thicket of scrub oak.
Barkley’s party of five wasted no time in following up this new lead. Barkley knew well the canyon and the place described in the note; Weaver’s Needle remains the centerpiece landmark in the Superstition Mountains. One of the party, deputy sheriff Jeff Adams, wrote in an official report:
We found intact all of his papers including the map or directions to be taken to find the Lost Dutchman Mine which Mr. Ruth was supposed to be trying to locate. After finding and assembling these bones we followed the directions given to reach the alleged Lost Dutchman Mine. This trip took us two days of very hard labor and following there [sic] directions we came to the place pointed out in the instructions and found no evidence of any human being ever having been there at any time in the past.
The press went into a frenzy over the news of the old treasure hunter murdered for his map; and most especially, for the tantalizing handwritten note. News spread that Ruth’s map had been a Peralta map. Research into Jacob Waltz revealed that Julia Thomas had discovered high grade gold ore under Waltz’s bed. No doubt remained, in the public eye, that a magnificent gold mine lay waiting in the Superstitions. Estimates say that as many as 80 Dutch Hunters have died since, searching for the riches for which Adolph Ruth had apparently been killed. This suspicion was bolstered by the result obtained when Erwin had the skull sent home for identification by Dr. Aleš Hrdlicka:
My examination positively determined that it is the skull of an aged white man. Holes in the skull, one over an inch in diameter on the left side and a much larger one on the right side, indicate a strong probability that the man was shot to death by a shotgun or a large caliber rifle and that the shot or bullet passed somewhat downwardly from the left. I have examined such wounds before and have examined skulls with bullet wound holes found on battlefields. I hold a degree as a Doctor of Medicine, have medico-legal instruction, and have been engaged in anthropological work for many years. At present I am Curator of Physical Anthropology for the National Museum.
The December 19th, 1931 Arizona Republic proclaimed “Skull Believed that of Missing Prospector Found in Mountains”. All the ducks were in a row for the story to be true as popularly believed. But what about that map, the map of impeccable provenance, the driver of so many deaths such as Ruth’s? Following its thread, the story begins to unravel, stitch by inevitable stitch.
There’s little reason to doubt that Adolph and Erwin used genuine Peralta maps, gifted by the Gonzales family, to pursue various treasures. However, it turns out that there’s no evidence that the Peraltas ever mined in the Superstitions. The Superstition Mountains are, geologically, not a place where gold would be abundant. Placer mining — the type practiced by Jacob Waltz — takes place throughout the region to a limited degree, but there have never been any profitable strikes. In placer mining, gold flecks are scattered in the soil, having washed down from the mountains above. When miners find such gold on a slope, they follow it uphill to the source. If a rich deposit did indeed exist at the surface somewhere, it’s likely that some placer miner would have found its tailings in the alluvial fans below.
Whatever “map” Adolph brought to Tex Barkley was not a Peralta. Note that Deputy Adams described it only as “the map or directions”; there’s no record that Adolph Ruth had a pictorial map at all. And furthermore, the text of Ruth’s handwritten directions found on his person came from — you guessed it — P.C. Bicknell’s 1895 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. The map accompanying the Arizona Republic’s 1931 article was — you guessed it again — virtually identical to the ones sold by Julia Thomas forty years earlier.
With little doubt, the infamous treasure map that led Adolph Ruth to his doom was little more than a secondhand verbal account, told by a lady who made a living selling a story attached to souvenir maps, based on the alleged claims of a miner who never made a red cent mining. Among the few contemporary accounts of Jacob Waltz were that he kept a small supply of rich gold ore in order to attract interest in his mining claims; probably what Ms. Thomas found under his bed. Ore like that came from quartz, and was unlike the placer gold found around the Superstitions.