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Vignettes of the Spanish Peaks: Part II of a series

SPANISH PEAKS COUNTRY — Legends abound about the beautiful Spanish Peaks of southern Colorado. These mountains have captured imaginations since the earliest people first sighted them. That first sight was many thousands of years ago when nomadic Native Americans followed game trails across the plains and into the mountain valleys. Their ancient paths are marked with projectile points and pottery shards found in modern times. Some of their trails have since become the roads of today. The first view of these mountains, from far away on the prairie, is a mere smudge on the horizon. More days of trudging ever closer show these to be the twin mountains, and they became an important landmark for nomads and early explorers. Their symmetry and sudden rise from the plains to the east, along with the plays of shadows of clouds on their rocky flanks, gave the Spanish Peaks a certain mystique. Thus did legends originate. Legends are believed to be based on some form of truth. When the Spanish of the 16th century heard the legends concerning the Aztec gold mines far to the north of Mexico City, they organized expeditions

to these lands to find that gold. The first known Spaniards to enter the Spanish Peaks area was a party of some 40 Spaniards and 100 Indians led by Juan de Ulibarri in 1706 (there is still contention as to whether Coronado actually reached Colorado in 1540). It was Ulibarri who officially claimed all the country around him for Spain. Ulibarri’s was a military expedition rather than a gold-seeking one, but the men kept their eyes open to the possibilities, especially since it was believed that Frenchmen from Canada were penetrating the Colorado prairies and mountains, and the Spanish did not want to lose the treasures to them. More explorers followed, most notably Juan Bautista de Anza with more than 600 men in 1779. These troops killed the famous Comanche chief, Cuerno Verde, and thereby opened southern Colorado as, they believed, a threatless, peaceful region open to Spanish settlement. The 1820s, according to our legend keeper, Louis B. Sporleder, was the decade of the Spanish mining in the Spanish Peaks. One of the most famous legendary mines in the region was known as the Lost Mexican Mine. In the 1880s when prospecting was done on an epic level, most any promising gold or silver vein would be identified as the possible Lost Mexican Mine. It was “found” not only on the Spanish Peaks, but in the Culebra Range, on Greenhorn, on Silver Mountain, on the Blanca massif, Rough and Mestas mountains, in Huerfano. Las Animas and Costilla counties. The possibilities were as endless as the mountains themselves, and each new mineral strike could prove to be the elusive lost mine. One candidate for this legendary mine was also called variously the Mummy Mine, Broken Toe Cave and other names. It was discovered in 1892 when two prospectors of La Veta, working the Coyote claim on Silver Mountain, were en route from their mine to town in a snowstorm. They fell through the snowpack into a cave, which they explored. To their great amazement, they found evidence of underground mine workings, and then, in a niche, a golden “mummy”. This item was child-sized and child-shaped, but weighed about 140 pounds. The figure was decorated with gold jewelry that included a filigreed bracelet and beads. They tried to wrestle it to the surface and in the process, broke a toe off the statuette. So, they pocketed the toe and left the mummy. The toe, it seems, was assayed and found to be nearly solid gold. The Denver Post reported all this in depth and, apparently, seriously. The story ends as all good lost treasure stories do, with the sudden loss of memory that prevented the prospectors from returning to the golden figure. As late as 1939 the Lost Mexican Mine was believed to be found on Culebra Peak by some residents of Las Animas County. They accidentally found the mouth of the mine above timberline, and identified it by rotten timbers that had to have been carried some distance. Digging through the rocks beneath the timbers led to a shaft, which they somehow determined, looking into the water filling it, to be 300 feet deep. Nearby were found troughs and “melting ovens” to process ore. They concluded the Spanish had worked this mine until they were “called to war” and a landslide covered the shaft for 150 years. Another Lost Mexican Mine was found on Apache Creek in northern Huerfano County. This one consisted of an arrastra and a gold brick found by early farmers. A story was called to mind of an old Spanish mine that became lost when Indians killed the miners except for one boy who escaped back to Mexico to tell the grisly tale. The gold brick was found to be worth about $58,000. Or so it is written. The Lost Mexican Mine was found on both the southern and western slopes of Blanca Peak. One Juan de Oñate had reported in 1591 that he had opened gold and silver placer mines on Sangre de Cristo Creek nearby. Prospectors from Fort Massachusetts in the 1850s found arrastras, pieces of sawn lumber, and even sluices. It may have been the Lost Mexican Mine that caused the boom in western Colfax County in the 1860s and created Elizabethtown, the first incorporated town in New Mexico Territory in 1870. But then, perhaps it wasn’t. Many Huerfanos of the 1880s through the 1920s thought the Lost Mexican Mine was found by locally famous hermit Alex Clobskey on Silver Mountain. Some say Clobskey’s mine was actually on Rough Mountain. Others say there was no gold or silver in the man’s mine at all, no matter its location. Wherever the Lost Mexican Mine really was, there was plenty of evidence of gold leaving the Spanish Peaks country bound for Mexico City, and, later, the eastern United States. Mexican legends tell a story of Fray Juan de la Cruz mining the Spanish Peaks area in 1541. Gold nuggets found beside an ancient trail in 1811 were thought to be from this mine, despite its being guarded by demons. Although the date of occurrence is unrecorded, a story persists of the Arapahoe Princess Treasure. This one centers on 50-pound gold bars the Spanish “lost” when they buried them while fleeing with some Arapahoe, including the “princess”, from enemy warriors, possibly Apache or Comanche. Only two Spaniards survived to relate the story of their lost wealth. The gold bars, they said, were buried near a 30-foot tall rock shaped like a doll, or muñeca in Spanish. A shovel had been placed strategically to mark the site. Many years later, searchers failed to find the shovel but a farmer reported he’d found it, he just couldn’t remember where. La Muñeca has been located in several places, including near La Veta and near Aguilar. For all interested, the Lost Mexican Mine remains lost. Its legendary status will continue, tantalizing treasure hunters and the merely curious.