Tales of the Old West, “Spanishtown”

spanish americaSPANISHTOWN



Gold! A secret Spanish gold mine high in the mountains of Spanish America one

hundred years before any other explorers? Was this the Spanish Town on Bear Creek in the mountains of Alturas County?

historic_trail_02So the story goes, in the early 1700’s the Spanish Conquistadors came up from Mexico or California and mined gold at Spanishtown. The Spaniards of the early west went everywhere and looked at everything. Certainly, what is now Idaho was at one time part of Spanish America. It’s logical that a troop of Spanish explorers, who would have been led by a captain were commissioned by the Governor of California to go into the northern portion of the Spanish Territory and explore, writing reports and bringing back detailed information about the interior of the Crown’s North American Domain.

All of the west coast of America, right up to what was then Russian America that we now know as Alaska, was Spanish territory and we can imagine how this western wilderness attracted the descendents of the conquistadors seeking riches that would make them a grandee of Spain. To be presented at court in Madrid was the highest honor a man could wish for.

coronado-expedition_24760_600x450The Spanish were fearless explorers and very good at finding gold and silver as their mines in early Mexico will attest. They were charged by the King of Spain to find precious metals and bring them back to the homeland or at least to Mexico City, the Spanish capital of New Spain in the new world of the Americas.

Walt Schramm in “Incredible Idaho” said about Spanishtown of Elmore County; “…there were the remains of ancient Spanish-style ore-crushing mills called arrastros that, according to the old legends, were operated by slaves – captured Indians chained t o long poles. These poles, likes spokes in a wheel, rotated a huge stone round and round on a bed of other flat stones. Ore from the mines was fed into the mill and crushed to recover the precious metal that it contained.”

This ancient method had been used since Roman times in mining and was brought to the New World by the Spanish. It could be used for gold bearing ore and was always the first method used when a new vein or mine was discovered. It was effective only on fairly high-grade deposits.

Vardis Fisher in “The Idaho Encyclopedia” the 1938 Federal Writers Project said of the old Spanishtown camp: “…the site of the old mining camp which, according to legend was settled by California Spaniards. Early miners who came here in 1863 found a deserted camp although there was evidence of a former population of about 300 people. Arrastras, crude rock crushers, sluice boxes, and old rifles were found.”

Last week in Atlanta in a conversation with a fellow historian I was assured that written records of the ancient mining at Spanishtown had been found in the Spanish Royal Records in Madrid. If that is true it will confirm the old stories and legends. But the evidence remains to be seen.

Spanish-Town-SiteThe written record of Spanishtown that we do have is in the “Diary of Jules De Foe” a little book that has been around Elmore County since 1943. It is the story of a French trapper who was allegedly in Idaho 14 years before Lewis and Clark. The diary came into the hands of Bess Foster Smith from Harry Price of Atlanta, Idaho who received it from a friend in Montreal, Canada. (Note: could this be a son of Charlie V. Price of Prices Plunge, the old swimming pool on Grouse Creek, between Pine & Featherville? Charlie was a Alturas pioneer and well-known historian.)

The story goes that Prices Montreal friend was doing research for a novel and came upon the work in the stacks at that city’s library. He copied it out in longhand and sent it along to Price with a note that it would interest him since it took place in the northern part of Elmore County. When Smith came into possession of the Diary she tried to trace it back to a library in Montreal but the librarian couldn’t find it. She then tried to track down De Foe through the Hudson’s Bay Company records but was unsuccessful. She tried many other avenues of research but all of these came to dead ends. Down through the years many have said that the diary is fake and the actually the work of a western fiction writer but no one really knows the truth.

The Diary has the ring of authenticity in many parts but there are some obvious errors. One is in the name of the Northwest Company, De Foe’s employer. He calls it the Northwest Fur Company but that was never its name. Another is in the names of the rivers. Feather River wasn’t know by that name until after 1863.

The diary begins; “June 27, 1789. Today I crossed that high range that I have been climbing toward for the past several days. From the summit I could see that I was coming to a different watershed as the canyons are taking a different course.” (This appears to be the summit between the head of the South Fork of the Boise and Stanley Basin.)

The whole story takes place in what is now Elmore County and goes on to tell of being chased by Indians, finding the Spaniards mining camp, going down the South Fork to the plains near Boise. Returning to the mountains there is an encounter with the Spanish, a love affair with a beautiful woman and the destruction of the mining camp with the Spaniards leaving there and being massacred by the Indians somewhere near the rimrock overlooking the Snake River. There he buries his true love and the gold in a “great cairn of rock and on a softer slab of stone I carved with my hatchet the word ‘Maria’ and the date, Oct 12, 1798.”

It’s a short intense story in a booklet of 16 pages that is available for sale at the Elmore County Historical Society Museum or may be read at the Mtn. Home Public Library where it is, I believe, on the restricted list.

Then there is the old local legend of the finding of a Spanish soldiers helmet or the set of Spanish spurs or gun in the mountains above Pine. These items are never seen but always heard about. You be the judge about the truth of Spanishtown!



Copyright 2001

John Hiler


Incredible Idaho

Fisher, Idaho Encyclopedia

Diary of Jules De Foe

Groefsema; Gleaning – Price’s Pioneers History