Tales of gold finds that didn’t pan out

View of Donner Lake, Albert Bierstadt

The great wealth pulled from the earliest of mining sites had all been along rivers or in gravel deposits thought to be the remains of ancient rivers and gave rise to the common idea that there were enormous hordes of gold somewhere above the mines in places where it could be dug out in vastly greater quantities than anything that had been done before. This was in part because of the restlessness of the miners who were rarely satisfied with what they had and always looked for something more. They were ready to listen to any good story about a new discovery, and the more incredible and extravagant the tale the more willing they were to investigate it, believing that only one true story would easily pay for many false ones.

Truckee Lake camp

A mountain man named John Greenwood started one of the first of these rumors in June of 1849. While he was living in Coloma he amused himself by spinning wonderful yarns and in one of those stories he told his eager listeners that many years before, while camped at Truckee Lake, he had found a huge quantity of gold. But since he didn’t know what to do with at the time he left it there and had never mentioned it to anyone until that very day. Right away a large party of men, led by no less than the old man’s son, struck out with a great deal of difficulty across the mountains at Donner Pass. Six weeks later the adventurers returned, ragged and nearly starved, without finding even the tiniest gold nugget because there had never been gold at Truckee Lake in the first place.

Gold Lake near the Sierra Buttes

The very next year a man named J. R. Stoddard spread the story of a lake of gold he had found somewhere in the mountains north of Downieville. According to Stoddard the gold lay on the lake’s shores in amazing quantities but Indians had scared him and his partner away from the site. He agreed to lead a small party there but as many as a thousand men followed them into the mountain wilderness. Then, at last, when they all realized that there was no gold lake, a great many of the now angry gold seekers threatened to lynch Stoddard on the spot, but when it became clear that the poor man was insane they relented and let him go. Many of these miners made the difficult trip back to where they started from with empty purses, but others, it seems, availed themselves of the rich discoveries along the upper reaches of the Middle and North Feather Rivers and did quite well in spite of Stoddard’s lies.



  1. Sanity has far too much credibility

  2. They didn’t call it “gold fever” for nothing. It was a highly contagious and debilitating disease. The afflicted abandoned their families, their jobs, and their farms to chase the chimera of fabulous wealth. Men deserted during the Civil War when they heard about the gold-lined streets of Virginia City in what is now southwest Montana.

    When they arrived they found mud, and rocks, and for many not much gold, if any. The biggest lodes were always over the next hill.

    Keep up the good work, John. This series is fascinating!

    • This tale really peaked my interest too, Carol. There are different versions of what happened and several places in the Sierra named Gold Lake. I believe something happened along the lines of what I put in this post but there was little record keeping at the start of the gold rush, everyone was too busy mining. It’s often hard to tell fact from fable. Stories of gold have a tendency to grow like the size of a fish in a fish tale.

      So I wrote my own story about Stoddard and his gold. I based it on this tale but my two main characters I modeled after the writer of a diary that was discovered in a Nevada City gold miner’s cabin around 1900 and his partner. I also used a French woman that dealt cards at the Bella Union and who the diary writer finally married just before the last entry in his journal. The story should come out in ‘Frontier Tales’ in October.

  3. There is gold in the tales of gold. We, like the miners, just need to find the most promising vein. I really do enjoy these posts. Thank You.

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