Story of old Ben Sublett's Gold Mine by J. Frank Dobie

Guadalupe Peak
The Secret of the Guadalupes
Coronado's Children
J. Frank Dobie
Published in 1930,
Grosset & Dunlap

THE tradition of gold in the Guadalupes runs back a long, long way. While governor of New Mexico, General Lew Wallace-at least so he claimed in a written article dug out of the basement of the Palace at Santa Fe' an ancient document reciting how a converted Indian of Tabira conducted Captain de Gavilan and thirty other Spaniards to a wonderfully rich gold deposit on the eastern spurs of the Guadalupe Mountains. The Spaniards named the place, on account of volcanic evidences, Sierra de Cenizas-Ashes Mountains- and left loaded down with nuggets and ore in the form of both "wires" and "masses." Then came the great uprising of 1680, in which the Pueblos killed every Spaniard who did not flee from New Mexico. About the same time Tabira, the home of the guide to Sierra de Cenizas, was wiped out. Sierra de Cenizas has for centuries been a lost spot in geography as wcll as a lost mine.

Since the advent of English-speaking prospectors it has. been the Apaches who knew the whereabouts of gold in the Guadalupes. Indians have "the best eyes in the world." The wilder they are, the better they can see. Excepting the Yaquis, who still have most of the gold of Sonora under surveilIance; the Apaches were the wildest Indians on the North American continent. Their most famous leader, hard, untamable


old Geronimo, used to say that the richest gold mines in tbe western world lay hidden in the Guadalupes.

The setting is worthy of its traditions. Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, rises 9500 feet above sea level, just below the New Mexico line. It is a beacon from all sides. The long, narrow chain of mountains above which it towers, extends, with gaps, southward clear to the Rio Grande and northward for nearly a hundred miles. Here in the Guadalupes the only mountain sheep left in Texas and a majority of those left in New Mexico are, under the pro- tection of the law, making their last stand, eagles and panthers molesting them more than man, their haunts so wild, rough, and waterless that only occasionally does a human being intrude thither. Here the Apaches made final retreat, and on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation hardly a day's horseback ride from the northwestern spurs of the Guadalupe chain, remnants of that fierce, secretive, and outraged people yet live, their tribal name an inseparable element in the traditions of the whole Southwestern world.

Of all the seekers for the gold of the Guadalupes "Old Ben" Sublett-William Colum Sublett being his correct name was the most picturesque and has become most famous. Like the much besung Joe Bowers he went west from Missouri "yes, all the way from Pike"; to prospect in the Rocky Mountains. He saw other men grow rich from virgin gold, but the pay streak never opened under his pick. He went in rags; at times his wife and children went hungry. Life for them must have been fearfully hard. It killed his wife. Then Sublett with two little girls and an infant son turned south east and, crossing the Guadalupes, made for "civilization."

Civilization was the new Texas and Pacific railroad track a double line of steel that glittered across hundreds of miles of West Texas land too waterless at that date even for the scant population of ranches. Sublett put up a tent beside a section house where the town of Monahans now stands and


where a well had been dug. He got odd jobs from the rail. road. Other men were coming in; they contributed to the support of "the children in the tent."

In fact, strangers were so charitable that one day Ben Sublett drove away alone in his rickety old buckboard, pulled by a pair of bony horses and carrying a meager supply of frijoles, flour, and coffee. He did not need much. He could, as the saying goes, live on what a hungry coyote would leave. He again took to prospecting - in the nearest mountains of any size, the Guadalupes. This was long before an oil well was dreamed of in West Texas; it was before the Mescalero Apaches had been securely rounded up. Men who packed lead under their skins and could show the scars of arrow wounds warned Sublett that he had better stay away from the Guadalupes and the Apaches. He laughed at them. Trip after trip he made into the mountains, returning only to work long enough to buy a fresh store of supplies and contribute a little to the direst needs of his children.

He moved them over to Odessa, where there were a few saloons but no churches, where women were scarce, and where the click of six-shooters synchronized with the click of spurs. There the oldest child of the family, a girl, made something by taking in washing. The father was freer than ever to prospect. He knew what he was about. Every time he came in, his return was a surprise to the people of the town; they scoffed at his crazy mode of life. Occasionally he brought in a nugget hardly of enough value to keep him in shoe leather. In vain his children begged him to quit the mountains and settle down to some steady-paying job. He was stubborn; he would take advice from no one. He had a "hunch" that he would some day find the gold in the Guadalupes.

Sometimes he tinkered on the ranch windmills that were dotting the country. Other times he trapped quail and killed antelopes to ship to Chicago. A catch he made of ninety-seven quail together in a net is still remembered. One while, it


seems, he trapped in the White Mountains of Arizona. This must have been before he came to Texas. After he had been prospecting for years, he admitted that an Apache whom he met in the White Mountains had told him a story of gold in the Guadalupes.

"Old Ben, the crazy prospector," became the jest of the country. Then one day, after having been gone for an un- usually long time, he drove his rickety rig up to the Mollie Williams saloon in Odessa, strode-despite his habitual limp, caused by an old bullet wound-boldly to the bar, in a hearty voice invited everybody present to join him, and called for drinks all around. The bar-keeper hesitated, the men snig- gered. But when Old Ben threw a buckskin pouch full of nuggets on the bar, the crowd went wild.

"Boys," he said, "I have been poor, but I ain't poor no longer. I can buy out this town and have plenty left. Drink." They drank. They cheered. They drank again. Then between drinks Old Ben went out to his buckboard and brought in a small canvas sack filled with gold "so pure that a jeweler could have hammered it out."

"My friends," urged the crazy prospector, "drink all you want. Drink all you can hold. I have at last found the richest gold mine in the world. I can build a palace of California marble and buy up, the whole state of Texas as a back yard for my children to play in. Let's celebrate."

Old Ben never built the palace, it' seems, or encumbered himself with leagues of land. In reality he had no desire for estates or cushioned halls. His wants were few and elemental. He was not greedy for riches. The golden secret that he bore in his breast-like the hidden light of the "Lantern Bear- ers" and the notoriety that the secret brought meant more to him than any amount of taxable properties. He had a kind of hunger for fame. Human chicanery and the mad grasping for property perplexed him, and thus he came to distrust all "prosperity friends." After he struck it rich, he


was never known to work at all. Every few months he would slip out to the mountains alone, "and he generally brung back around a thousand dollars' worth of gold." The chief pleasure he derived from it seemed to be in dis playing it. As may be imagined, many men tried to get Sublett to show them the location of his gold. "If anybody wants my mine," he would say, "let him go out and hunt for it like I did. People have laughed at me and called me a fool. The plains of the Pecos and the peaks of the Guadalupes have been my only friends. They are my home. When I die, I want to be buried with the Guadalupes in sight of my grave on one side and the Pecos on the other. I am going to carry this secret with me so that for years and years after I am gone people will remember me and talk about 'the rich gold mine old man Sublett found.' I will leave something behind me to talk about."

Sublett was trailed, spied upon, "laid for," but no lobo wolf was ever more wily in avoiding traps than was Sublett in avoiding detection. His habit was to leave town at some unexpected time, camp on the Pecos a day or two, and then strike out from camp during the night. He might be gone only a few days; he might be gone for months. It is said that he at one time kept his money in W. E. Connell's bank at Midland, which is about twenty miles east of Odessa. Where Sublett turned his raw gold into cash nobody has ex- plained, but the banker came to observe that when the mysterious old prospector's deposit ran low he invariably made a trip and not long after returning invariably banked "hard money." Of course, there are people who say that Sublett never owned a check book in his life; some people will talk. Anyhow, as the best of the talkers tell it, banker Connell a cowman by the name of George Gray offered Sublett ten thousand dollars if he would show them the source of his cash.


Sublett just laughed at them. "Why," he replied, "I could go out and dig up that much in less than a week's time.

After this conversation Gray and Connell engaged Jim Flannigan to follow Sublett on the next trip. Sublett's funds in the bank were running low and he was due to "pull out" any hour. For two weeks Lee Driver, who was then keeping a livery stable in Midland, fed a horse for Flannigan. Then one day word came that Sublett had left Odessa in a hack pulled by two burros. Flannigan followed his tracks through the sand for fifty miles west along the railroad to Pecos on the Pecos River, and then for twenty-five miles on up the river. There the trail played out-stopped-quit-just disappeared. How any West Texan could lose the plain trail of a hack in soft soil uncut by other tracks is almost inconceivable, but lose the trail Flannigan did. He was not the first or the last man to lose it.

He was still riding around trying to pick it up when he happened to meet a man who had just seen Sublett traveling down the river towards Pecos. He turned back, but before he reached Odessa the cunning old prospector had already arrived. He had been gone from town "only four days," and had in that time traveled at least a hundred and fifty miles. Very good traveling for a pair of burros pulling a hack through sand dunes! Evidently Sublett had not got even into the foothills of the Guadalupes on this trip. He must have had a cache on the Pecos, for, as usual, he brought in a sack of gold.

But, despite his secretive ways, Sublett occasionally re- lented, and before he died took several people more or less into his confidence. Once when he was coming out of the Guadalupes he met an old crony named Mike Wilson; he must have been feeling almost insanely generous, for he gave his friend such minute directions for reaching the mine that Wilson actually got to it. There he emptied provisions out of a tow-sack and crammed into it as much ore as he could carry


home. The trip wore him out, and as soon as he reached town he went on a spree that lasted for three weeks. When he sobered up and tried to go to the mine a second time, he found himself utterly bewildered. Old Sublett just laughed at him and refused to direct him again. "If anybody wants that mine," he said, "let him go out and hunt for it like I did." Years ago Mike Wilson died in a hut within sight of the Guadalupes, trying vainly until the end to recall the way to Sublett's lost gold.

Another time, some men at Pecos finally, after much per- suasion, "ribbed up" Sublett to show them the mine. They felt so gay and prosperous that they loaded a big assortment of fancy canned goods into their chuck wagon to supplement the regular camp supplies. The first night out a tin of pine- apple gave Sublett a case of ptomaine poisoning. He was probably already sick from having promised to give away his secret. At any rate, he claimed that someone had tried to poison him, became as stubborn as a government mule, and refused to go a step farther.

Perhaps, though, unknown to Sublett, there was an independent sharer of his secret. Or maybe Sublett discovered the sharer and acted as his jealousy might have prompted him to act out in the wild loneliness of the Guadalupes. Every man is entitled to his own conclusion from the testimony offered by F. H. Hardesty, who used to ranch in El Paso County.

One evening along in the eighties a fellow by the name of Lucius Arthur, known better as Frenchy, rode up to Hardesty's ranch, watered, and accepted the invitation to unsaddle and stay all night. While the two men were talking after supper, Frenchy confided to his host that he was trailing two Mexicans who had left Ysleta, on the Rio Grande, the preceding night He said that he had started to follow them once before but that his grub and water had played out. He knew that they were bound for a gold mine somewhere in the Guada- lupes to the east.


Frenchy had been keeping his eye on these Mexicans for a long time. One of them, according to him, belonged to a wealthy old family of rancheros down in Mexico. Perhaps, as he suggested, some Mexican had found out about the gold back in the days when gente from below the Rio Grande used to come up and get salt from the great beds west of the Guadalupe Mountains. A gringo's attempt to control this salt resulted in what is still referred to as the Salt War. Any- way, a member of the rancher's family made a trip to the Guadalupe gold mine each year and brought out a supply of ore. The Mexican now after it had come to Ysleta to meet his brother-in-law and together they had left that place in the dead of night.

"After hearing all this," Hardesty related, "I told Frenchy he ought to go better equipped. I told him he might have to stay out for weeks trailing the Mexicans and waiting for them to clear out from the gold mine before he could get into it. Then I offered to stake him with everything he needed. Well, we went in pardners, and when he left my place he had as good an outfit as any man could want and was carrying enough supplies to last two months. Six weeks later he was back. He had gold quartz to show.

"According to his story, he had trailed the Mexicans and from a place of concealment had watched them climb a rope ladder into a chasm. He saw them haul up sacks of ore and water for their horses, which were staked on the rim. But he himself had to depend on water so far away that he couldn't keep regular watch. After he had hung around sev- eral days, the Mexicans left and then he made a closer inspec- tion. The chasm, from the way he described it, must have varied in width from forty to a hundred feet and was all of sixty feet deep. Down at the bottom he could see the entrance to a cave with freshly broken rock in front of it. He claimed that he didn't go down into the chasm because he was short on rope for a ladder. I thought he might have been a little


more resourceful, but I said nothing. The chunks of quartz he brought in had been dropped by the Mexicans, so he said.

"Frenchy rested up a few days, took a fresh pack of supplies, including enough rope to picket out a whole caballada, and left again for the Guadalupes. He never came back. I have never heard of him since. That's all I know about the gold of the Guadalupes."

As we shall see presently, Frenchy's description of the Mexican mine jibes perfectly with that which has come down of the place where Sublett resorted. Let us get back to Sublett.

About 1895 a jack-leg carpenter by the name of Stewart was roofing a house for Judge J.J. Walker, of Barstow. He had been a guide over the Butterfield route to California; he could many a tale unfold, and one very hot day while he rested in the shade he unfolded this one to his employer.

Along in the late eighties several officials of the Texas and Pacific Railroad engaged Stewart to guide them into the Pecos country on a hunt. Camp was made in some trackless hills east of the river. A rumor racing over the range had it that the Apaches had broken out and were back on their old stamp- ing grounds. Stewart was naturally uneasy lest they foray down from the mountains and either kill some of his party or drive off their horses. He had his son, a mere child, with him.

One evening about sundown he saw a wagon coming towards camp. It was a light spring wagon drawn by a single horse; a very large horse. When it reached camp, the driver alighted. He was Ben Sublett and he was alone. Stewart had known him for years. Of course he was invited to stay all night, and he unhitched. After the hunters and Stewart's boy had settled to sleep, Sublett told Stewart that he was going to his gold mine at the point of the Guadalupes. He said that while riding along that day he had realized as never before how old he was and that he had decided positively


never to make another trip after gold. "I have always dec- dared that the secret would die with me," he said, "but now that I have met up with you out here I somehow want to take you with me and show you the mine.

Stewart replied that he would not think of leaving the men who were depending on him for guidance in that wild country and that even if he were willing to leave them he would never take his own child on into Apache range. In reply to this argument Sublett remarked that no man accompanying him would ever be in danger from Indians. Nevertheless, Stewart did not go.

When Sublett set out next morning, however, Stewart did accompany him "as far as the top of a blue mound towards the west." Here Sublett halted and, while Stewart looked through a long spy glass, tried to show him where the mine was located, asserting at the same time that such long-range directions would never be of any use. He said that he would be back in three days.

The third day, just after dark, he drove into camp. As soon as supper was over and the hunters had bedded down, Stewart asked, "What luck did you have?"

For answer Sublett picked up a dried deer hide and put it, flesh side up, on the ground where the low fire cast a light over it and also where some boxes of provisions hid it from the eyes of any man who might be awake on his pallet. Then he poured on it a Bull Durham tobacco sack, of the fifteen cent size as full of gold nuggets as it would hold. Stewart ran his hand through them and scattered them over the hide. "You do not seem to have any small nuggets," he observed. "What," Sublett rejoined, "would be the use of picking when with one more rake in the gravel I could bring up a big one?"

In the morning Sublett left. He had gathered his last nuggets. The next that Stewart heard of him he was dead. Stewart soon afterwards attempted to find the mine but


failed. What has become of him or what "point of the Guadalupes" he gazed at through the long spyglass while from an unidentified "blue mound" Sublett pointed towards tht gold, are unknown. It turned out as Sublett had predicted.

"Come with me and I will show you the gold," he had said, "but if you go alone, even after I have pointed out its general location, you will never be able to find it."

So far as is known, Sublett never wavered again in his de- termination to hold fast the secret. When he was dying, his son-in-law, Sid Pitts, of Roswell, New Mexico, tried to per- suade him to hand over the golden key he had clutched so long. Apparently the old man, he was eighty-started to tell him how to go to the mine. First," he began, "you cross the Pecos at. . . ." Then he broke off with, "Hell, it ain't no use. They'd beat you out of it even if you found it." Evidently it was not the philanthropic desire to save his kin from the worries of wealth but his tenacious determination to keep "the damned human race" from sharing it and from learning what he had spent so many happily contrary years in withholding that caused old Sublett to keep silent to the end.

Sublett's death occurred in 1892. He was buried in Odessa, a little too far away from the Guadalupes to realize his wish for a grave within sight of them. Certainly, how- ever, he left behind him "something to talk about." In the wide, wide lands of the Pecos, from its mouth far down on the Rio Grande to old Fort Sumner in New Mexico, there is hardly a town, a squatter's cabin, or a rancher's home in which the story of Sublett's Mine has not been told. Prospectors by the score have looked for it, and prospectors as well as many men who are not prospectors are still looking for it.

Among the most constant seekers has been Subletts son Ross. In fact, Ross has been as constant as grubstakings from strangers would allow him to be; he has even on occasions grubstaked himself. This constancy is logical for Ross Sublett probably knows more concerning the whereabouts of


the mine than any other living man. When he was a little past his ninth birthday his father took him to it. That was the only time he saw it, but see it he did. Five years later when the secretive old prospector lay on his death-bed, Ross, of sufficient age by that time to feel responsibility, tried to get him to describe the way to the gold. The dying man a little gentler to him than he was to the son-in-law- merely mumbled: "It's too late. Any description would be useless. You'll just have to go out and hunt it down like I did."

An accommodating disposition on the part of Ross Sublett to recount his childhood memories has not dimmed them. Like the annular rings of a tree, his memories increase in both number and compass. He lives at Carlsbad, New Mexico, is easy of access, and should you interview him, he would re- spond in this wise: "Yes, I have a distinct recollection of how the mine looked. The last stage to it, going west from the Pecos, was always made on horseback or with pack burros. It was down in a crevice, and the only way to get to it was by a rope ladder that my father always removed as soon as he came up with the gold. I played around while he got the ore out of a kind of cave. I seem to remember, too, that pieces of ore were in plain sight right in front of the cave. I am confident the mine is within six miles of a spring in the Rustler Hills."

The Rustler Hills are a good forty miles east of Guada- lupe Peak, but more than one tradition has made them the site of Sublett's gold. Not long after Sublett died, a New Mexico sheriff familiarly known as Cicero, while prospecting in these hills, met a cowboy called Grizzly Bill.

"You'd as well pull in your horns, Cicero," bawled out Grizzly as soon as the two men, both on horseback, came within hailing distance of each other. "I've done found Suh- lett's gold and I'm on my way to spend it."

Grizzly went on to Pecos, Texas. He rode into town shooting his six-shooter at the sky and yelling, "Hide out, little


ones, yer daddy's come home." He got on a high lonesome, displayed his gold, and, while trying to "show off" on a wild horse, was thrown in such a way as to have his neck broken. Nobody who knows anything about the matter, however, has ever supposed that Grizzly Bill found the Lost Sublett Mine. In fact, all he found was a nugget near a spring-where more than likely Sublett had camped and lost it.

Courtesy: J. Frank Dobie; our super story teller.

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updated: 9/12/98