There are few legends in existence that are funnier or more confounding than that of Wyoming’s Lost Cabin Mine. Over the years, this legend has grown and shaped itself into one of the most ridiculously dizzying stories, filled with secrecy, deceit, love, hate, an epic gunfight or two, and of course—murder. Lots and lots and lots (and lots) of murder. It seems as though everyone that found themselves caught in this tangled web of a mystery eventually found themselves dead—of accidental causes, or by propelled lead deficiency.
Our story starts in 1863, with a group of three dumb prospectors wandering around the Bighorn Mountains east of Buffalo, Wyoming. As in every good story, these guys were completely lost, yet not all too concerned, because they had nothing better to do than pan for gold in the middle of the summer along the Snake River. On a sunny July day, the fortunes of these three miners, (who we’ll refer to as “Moe,” “Larry,” and “Curley” from here on out,) would change forever. While riding around in a valley at the base of the mountains, a sudden and very violent storm crept over the peaks above and started pummeling the hapless trio with large hail and strong winds, while lightening repeatedly struck the only tree in the valley (who says it doesn’t strike twice…)
After running their horses around in circles for several frantic minutes, and stupidly trying to outrun the storm, Moe turns around to his compadres and points excitedly into the distance—“There! There!” Seeing what he was pointing at, the trio rides quickly to a small cabin in the distance, dismount their horses and kick in the door. As the rain soaked prospectors took value of the cabin, they eventually noticed that the cabin was…uh…”inhabited,” or at least halfway so. In the corner lay a decaying skeleton, (fill in the gratuitous “it had a gold tooth and was still wearing a hat” imagery here…), still clutching the largest gold nugget that any of the three had ever seen.
Of course by this time, you can imagine that our heroes stood in the door, dumfounded for several seconds before noticing that the gold nugget was not the only drool-worthy object in the cabin—there was a much more interesting pile of equally as large gold nuggets right next to the skeleton. And this is the point where the three bearded Yosemite Sam look-a-likes did a rip-roarin’ yee-hee-hee-haw happy dance…
After the storm disappears as quickly as it came (dramatic effect, eh?), the three set to work filling their saddlebags with the pile of nuggets, until their horses’ bellies started dragging on the ground. All of the gold in the cabin couldn’t be transported in even two separate trips, so they had a seat (and drink) to discuss exactly what they should do.
In the other corner of the cabin, a wooden trap door sat covered in prospecting tools, and upon further examination, it was found that the trap door led to a tunnel—a golden tunnel. There was so much gold clinging to the walls of this shaft, that the entire tunnel glowed with light even in the darkest of nights. A gold vein so rich, it could keep our boys ‘a diggin’ for the rest of their lives.
After more heein’ and hawin’, it was decided that a return to Buffalo was needed to drop off the already impressive cargo load, before returning to stake the claim and mine the rest of the lode that would make our boys the richest men in Wyoming Territory. Unfortunately, fate took a cruel turn in the form of a much un-needed surprise. Immerging from the tiny shack, the prospectors found themselves surrounded by a dozen really hacked off (for some reason) Sioux Indians, wielding rifles.
Well exactly what you think happened, happened. Fearing the seizure of their fortune, (and scalps), the guys did the wise thing and drew their revolvers, firing round after round at the Indians. Two of the prospectors were killed almost immediately, and upon seeing his buddies turned into Swiss cheese, the third prospector mounted his horse (luckily the fastest of the three), and began to ride as fast as he could towards Fort Bridger, and safety. But remember, his saddle bags were so full of gold nuggets, the prospector had to dump several of the bags in order to allow his horse to gain enough speed to outrun the Indians. Apparently, it worked, or otherwise the Indians got bored chasing him, because he made it to Fort Bridger, albeit with several bullets in his body, and enough arrows in his back to turn him into a living pincushion.
Barely breathing, and presumably on his deathbed, the prospector frantically told the soldiers cleaning his wounds to bring his saddlebags into the infirmary. They obliged him, and were astounded at the vast amount of gold that was produced from that one, single saddlebag. Saving the prospector’s life was now the number one priority, presumably after beating the location of the mine out of him had failed.
Several weeks passed, and the prospector recovered steadily. The commanding officers at the fort had telegraphed back to Washington with news of the discovery of a vastly rich gold mine, and orders were handed down to do anything and everything to locate the mine and begin digging. A party was assembled of two dozen soldiers armed to the teeth with weapons and shovels, led by the healing prospector, who was promised 25% of everything extracted from the mine—a finder’s fee large enough to keep a full bottle of whiskey in his hand for the rest of his life.
The party left the Fort, and wandered around the Big Horns for the better part of six weeks, finding little more than tumbleweeds, and a wild mustang or two. Finally, early one morning the prospector excitedly rode back into the camp screaming “I found it, I found it! It’s here!” The party left hastily and rode after the prospector until a small shack appeared in the distance. “There it is!”
But as they got closer, the group saw not a small cabin filled floor to ceiling with gold nuggets, but a dilapidated hunting blind, or a small lean-to used by Indians as a sheltered vantage point for shooting buffalo as they rumbled across the prairie. This false discovery put the final nail in the coffin of the failed expedition, and the soldiers returned to Fort Bridger empty handed. The prospector left the Fort with the little gold that remained, and wandered around the Big Horns for the rest of his life, eventually losing his sanity, trying to find the “lost cabin.”
* * *
The next chapter of this story comes in 1873, as the old Catholic missionary Father Jean-Pierre DeSmet waits for a train in Cheyenne, to travel back to his home parish in St. Louis. The old Father was in failing health, and perhaps knew about his rapidly approaching death, as he felt it necessary to make a confession to his friend, an old Indian known as “Running Deer.” DeSmet told Running Deer of a journey he took in the late 1850’s around the Bighorn mountain range, in search of the summer hunting camp of a local Sioux tribe to which he planned to preach. While stopping to water his horse in a valley along a tributary of the Little Snake River, he had noticed what appeared to be a small structure sitting a short distance away, nestled along the side of a hill. Upon entering the cabin, the Father saw piles of gold lying on the cabin floor, along with a decaying corpse lying in the corner. After saying a blessing over the deceased, the Father quietly left the cabin and continued on his journey. As a man of God, he explained, he passed on the prospect of wealth, opting to allow someone else to share in the discovery. He also feared that since the cabin was found by an agent of the church, the church would claim the treasure for itself. So he went on his way, and kept this discovery to himself for his remaining years.
Upon hearing this story, Running Deer bid farewell to his friend, and immediately headed northwards to Buffalo, the nearest town to the location that DeSmet had given him. Running Deer had grown up in the region, and knew the patterns of the rivers and their tributaries in the area--from there he formed a pretty good guess as to where the cabin was most likely located. On arriving in Buffalo, Running Deer decided to enlist the help of a trusted friend who also happened to be a prospector, a man named Joe Svenson, known around town as “Old Joe.” Old Joe had heard the legends of the lost cabin mine, and had spent a great deal of time searching for it himself, before conceding his search as futile.
Unfortunately for Running Deer, gold fever hit Old Joe, and hit him hard—the last thing Running Deer saw after he disclosed the probable location of the mine was the muzzle flash of Joe’s .45 caliber Colt revolver as he put a bullet between the Indian’s eyes. Fate took its turn on Joe instantaneously thereafter, for blinded by visions of piles of gold, or perhaps deafened by the blast of his own pistol, Joe didn’t manage to see the rapidly approaching stagecoach from Deadwood, and was struck down in the middle of Main Street in front of the Wyoming Saloon. The town doctor declared him dead on scene.
The legend of the Lost Cabin Mine kept circulating around most of the western United States in subsequent years, but after time, began to fade into obscurity, as all legends tend to do. Men had searched their whole lives to find this mysterious place, but all had come up empty after fruitless journeys. It wasn’t until 1890 that another creditable claim of the mine’s discovery surfaced. This time it was Buffalo citizen C.T. “Rattlesnake” Jones that came running into the Wyoming Saloon hollering about new-found treasure while waving a satchel wildly about. When asked to explain further, Rattlesnake flung open the satchel producing several large gold nuggets, along with several small bones which the town doctor declared to be from a human.
Rattlesnake had earned his name for his unusual affinity for his namesake, of which he kept several in his small room above the saloon. The men in the saloon urged Rattlesnake to draw out the location on a map, which he promised to do. After running up to his room, he returned with a piece of parchment, and one of his special pets around his neck. Rattlesnake claimed that he had all of his rattlers trained not to bite, but there was still an air of nervousness in the room whenever he produced one of his “friends.” As Rattlesnake sat at the bar, drinks on the house, he put his pen to paper, and then hesitated. “What’s wrong, Rattlesnake?” a voice inquired. All eyes were on the paper in front of him. “Can’t you remember?”
It took a moment before anyone realized that the beloved rattlesnake “Betty” hanging around T.C.’s neck was firmly clamped around his throat, his fangs digging deep into the side of the carotid artery. Rattlesnake slid sideways off of the barstool. He was dead before he hit the floor.