Panning for Texas Gold
by IRA KENNEDYIf you're going to search of gold in Texas, first you need to know where to look. Next you need to know how to get at the stuff. And last but not least you need to remember, in the words of Mark Twain, "A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar at the top." Reports of gold and silver in central Texas have been carried in books and memories for 250 years. As a journalist and historian I've read and heard these stories for more than three decadessecretive miners have shown me bars of silver the size of the largest Hershey bars and five times as thick. On one occasion a miner placed a droplet of gold in my palm the size of four dimes, stacked. It had been extracted from far too much ore. If the miner hadn't done the work himself, the labor would have cost more than the gold was worth.
One fellow told me about where there was a vein of silver three feet wide and twenty yards long. Right on the surface. Unfortunately he didn't own the land, but he was scheming. On another occasion I was told of a gold mine just north of Enchanted Rock that was closed after a gang of Mexican laborers lit out with several pounds of goldthe result of months of mining. I've also heard about a gold nugget found in Bull Head Creek, northwest of Enchanted Rock and the San Saba rancher that discovered gold while digging a well.
Then there are the ristras, granite bedrock milling stones found in and along creek beds. According to the legends these were used to crush the ore in gold mining operations. Located in San Saba, Llano, and Blanco counties, they are said to be either Spanish or Mexican in origin. One such stone is in a stream somewhere in Sandy Valley, near Click.
The stories are legion, however, for this article, I've mined a few books for salient facts. When you're writing about gold in Texas it's best to have a few folks with better credentials backing you up.IN THE BEGINNING
In the Central Mineral Region, legends and rumors of lost mines have been circulating since the Spanish discovered silver on Riley Mountain near Llano back in 1756. Eventually the rumors brought with them a tide of prospectors who braved the elements and the Indians to find the fabled riches of gold and silver.
In 1838 the New York Mirror published an account of a prospecting trip on the San Saba River that included mention of an "Enchanted" or "Holy Mountain" near the headwaters of Sandy Creek. That same year, Comanche Chief Buffalo Hump camped at Enchanted Rock with the White captive Ms. Webster and her two children. After her escape two years later, she told of gold and silver mines, and brilliant stones the Indians possessed that looked like diamonds. The 'diamonds' were actually quartz crystals which were found in the area and were, for the Indians, sacred objects. Mrs. Webster's stories simply confirmed what the Texans already believed: there was gold and silver in the Texas hills.
While many adventurers left San Antonio in search of lost Spanish mines, British diplomat William Kennedy visited San Antonio to mine the rich vein of tales regarding the mysterious frontier. Kennedy's book, Texas: the Rise, Progress, and Prospects of the Republic of Texas, published in 1841, was so well received in Germany it became the catalyst that shaped the destiny of the Texas frontier. In his book, Kennedy retold the rumors of lost gold and silver mines. Although he noted he was relying on local lore, in print the stories carried the weight of fact.
Back around the turn of the century a newspaper article was published in San Antonio which was typical of the many legends of lost mines in the area of Llano and San Saba Counties. According to the article D.F. Brooks, "says he has discovered on Riley Mountain, west of the Packsaddle group in Llano County, an old Mexican or Mormon gold mine, and the remains of an old smelter a half mile west of Honey Creek and three miles west of the Packsaddle Mountains. The ledge, he says, is a true fissure, forty-five or fifty feet deep. The mine has a six-foot entrance, and both the foot and hanging walls are "pockety". In the center an eighteen inch pay streak of decomposed sugar quartz is yellow as gold itself."
Pure gold, no matter which way you turn it, always looks like gold. Samples of mica and pyrite (common "fool's gold") "wink" when light reflects from the faceted minerals.ENCHANTED ROCK COUNTRY
Detailed maps of the Enchanted Rock area indicate, not far to the north, two creeks which feed into Sandy Creekone is Silver Mine Creek, the other, Gold Mine Creek. Located five miles northeast of Llano is the legendary Heath Mine. Discovered in the early 1890s the mine was in production from 1896 to 1899. During the Civil War several residents of Llano county panned for gold in Sandy Creek earning less than a dollar a day for their efforts. Even Gail Borden, the founder of the Borden milk company once owned a gold mine on Sandy Creek.
According to Roselle M. Girard, "A little gold has been found in the Llano uplift area of central Texas. It occurs in quartz veinlets that cut through some of the Precambrian metamorphic rocks of Llano, Mason, northeastern Gillespie, and west-central Burnet counties." [Texas Rocks and Minerals.]
"As any placer miner knows, all of the little gold-bearing veinlets and stringers, when eroded over a broad area, can produce enough gold to form important accumulations in placer gravels. Such is the case in the area of the Llano Uplift. Gold can be panned from numerous creeks and gullies in the region. Whenever a streamcourse flows across outcrops of the Packsaddle Schist, there's a good chance for finding specks and flakes of gold. Several areas are especially noted for placer gold. The Llano River flows through the region, and gold can often be found in bars and banks of the river. In addition, gravels in tributaries of the river, such as the Little Llano River, Pecan Creek, Babyhead Creek, and San Fernando Creek are known to carry gold values.
"Sandy Creek, south of Llano is noted for its placer gold... Tributaries of Sandy Creek, such as Walnut Creek, Comanche Creek, Coal Creek, and Crabapple Creek are also noted for their placer gold. "Gold in Central Texas," by Edgar B. Heylmund Ph.DOUT WEST
In addition to the Hazel Mine, located north of Van Horn, and the Quitman Mountains of West Texas "Gold, silver, and some lead are found in the Shaftner district, located on the south flank of the Chinati Mountains, overlooking the Rio Grande Valley and the border towns of Presidio and Ojinaga. Presidio is also the name of the district's and the state's major historic precious metal mine. The Presidio Mine opened in the 1880s and was active until 1942. During that time it is believed to have yielded more than 92 percent of the state's total silver production and at least 73 percent of Texas' total production of gold." [Eric R. Swanson, Geo-Texas.]& ELSEWHERE
According to Roselle M. Girard's, Texas Rocks and Minerals: An Amateur's Guide, "Small amounts of gold have been reported from other parts of Texas. Some of these localities are in Eocene Tertiary sandstones in the Gulf Costal Plain, in Cretaceous limestones in Irion, Uvalde and Williamson counties, and in sand and gravel in Howard and Taylor counties. None of these deposits have been found to have any commercial value."PLACER GOLD
"Few prospectors had book learning in geology, but most of them absorbed enough miners' lore to understand where they were likeliest to find gold, and how it got there. They knew in a general way that, ages ago, gold-bearing rock had risen in molten form from the depths of the earth, driven upward by the violent forces that built mountains. Most of the vein matter was worthless quartz or other rock, which the miners called gangue. But enclosed in the gangue were precious metals, sometimes blended with it and sometimes occurring as separate particles and threads.
"Wherever the lodes were exposed to the weather, erosion gradually broke down the gangue into crumbling chunks, then successively into fragments, sand and powder. The indestructible gold was thus released to be carried downhill by rain and mountain streams. Naturally, nuggets or large flakes of gold traveled only a short distance, while the tiny light particles called flour or flood gold went much farthereven to the ocean."
Being heavier than the other minerals, gold travels only a short distance before finding its way down to bedrock, particularly where natural obstacles form. This happens where a creek suddenly widens and its current slows. Look for gold-bearing black sand in gravel bars protruding into the stream, along the high-water line, on the cut-bank side of a bend in the stream, on the roots of grass and bushes, or transverse ridges of bedrock granite in the stream. Potholes often form at the base of the ridges and these basins become natural collectors where nature pans for the heavier gold.THE MOTHER LODE
"Usually a lode was first located by following signs of placer gold up a creek, then up a hillside to where a gossan was found." Gilbert L. Campbell notes in his booklet, Wet Plates and Dry Gulches, "The gossan was the weathered, oxidized outcrop of a group of gold bearing minerals. The gold might originally have been dispersed in pyrite or fools gold which filled crevices in quartz. At the surface the pyrite, a sulfide of iron was weathered into a rusty oxide by the action of rain, air, and sunlight. It often would swell, and crumble the surrounding quartz. Rain would wash away the lighter quartz, and dissolve some of the iron compounds, leaving concentrations of the gold in place... Brown stains in white quartz became known indicators of gold and were easy to dig."PANNING
Panning for placer gold is the most common, and least expensive method for recovering gold. Jim Chude wrote the following details on panning for Enchanted Rock Magazine back in June, 1995: "A gold pan, a circular steel dish ten to sixteen inches in diameter at the top, and from two to and one-half inches deep, has sides that slope 34 to 40 degrees to the horizontal. You place a pan of your collected gravel in water and stir it by hand to break up any lumps or clay; then you pick out larger stones and give the pan a shake to settle any heavier particles. From time to time you tilt the pan with your extended thumb to push off the surface layer and continue shaking. If you do all of this right, at the end of the operation you should have black sand (magnetite) and gold. What a sight when you hit pay dirt! An experienced panner can pan about a cubic yard of gravel a day.
(A prospector I met in the Llano museum told me of a remarkably easy to separate the magnetite from the gold: Place a magnet inside a plastic film container and roll it around in the black sand. Then give the container a good shake and all of the magnetite will fall away from the container. Repeat the operation.)
"When working gold placer deposits in a river or stream, prospectors use gas powered siphons to dredge the sand and gravel in the crack and pockets of the bedrock on the bottom of the waterway. Prospectors then run the material through a sluice box to catch the gold. Sounds simple, but someone has to dive down and operate the siphon hose.
"These gold concentrations are called placers. In a dry wash, you must dig down in the gravel until you hit bedrock. Then with a dust pan and a small broom, carefully brush the dirt from the cracks into your dust pan and dump into a big bucket (some people use a portable wet/dry vacuum). After you have filled several buckets, you head for the nearest stream and "pan" for the gold."
Well, that's about all you need to know, except that virtually all of the land in Llano county is privately owned. You must get permission from the property owner before panning. They may think you're crazy and grant you permission on that basis. But don't be deterred. There are small quantities of gold in the Hill Country and other parts of Texas
Those who pan for gold can make some money when they take the bits and pieces that they find and then sell gold for cash.
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