One of the most famous con men to ever venture out on the southwestern deserts.
It took powerful wills and strong bodies to settle the west, and a lot of our pioneering forefathers were the stuff of legends. But before the wagons rolled across the plains there were the mountain men, those strong, solitary characters that came to the wilderness to trap, trade and hunt for furs.
These were determined, strong willed men who knew what they wanted and how to get it. Unfortunately, not all of them were men of good character. There were charlatans and crooks among them. One of the most questionable characters was a man called Peg Leg Smith. He was a fearless mountain man with undeniable courage and and strong wilderness skills; but he was also a legendary liar and an accomplished horse thief. But most of all, he was a silver tongued devil of a con man.
Born Thomas Long Smith in 1801 in Crab Orchard, Kentucky, He left home as a teenager and worked on a Mississippi flatboat, and listened to stories about the Wild West. He fell in with some trappers heading west, and at the age of 19 became a scout and went on an expedition among the Sioux and Osage Indians. In a skirmish with Indians he was shot in the right knee, and the leg had t be amputted due to infection. He learned to use a wooden leg and became a successful trapper and scout in spite of his handicap. in 1824, he went to New Mexico and Arizona to prospect and learn the land. He was a careful man, as evidenced by the fact that he kept his hair during this dangerous time. In spite of the Apache, Navajo and other tribes that had firm control of the southwest at that time, he seemed to fit well in the desert lands.
Over the years he also learned the trade of a horse thief. With his cohorts he’d steal hundreds of horses at a time from the southern California missions and ranches, and drive them to Santa Fe to sell for a tidy profit.
He was a man given to tall tales, spinning yarns that would earn him free drinks in any bar in the west. He also sold shares in worthless gold mines, and get gullible newcomers to stake him to a year of prospecting.
It ws on one of his desert wanderings, somewhere between Yuma and Los Angeles, Peg Leg found his biggest legend. It was a story that would keep him wet for the rest of his life.
He was trying a new shortcut to Borrego Springs when he lost his way, and climbed an oddly-colored hill to look around and get his bearings. At the summit he found some black rocks that looked strange to him, so packed away some samples. When he got to Los Angeles, he broke them apart and found they were gold.
He spent the next 50 years hunting for that odd hill, but he never found it again. All he had was the story, which he would tell to anyone willing to share a bottle. He’d find partners to go out on the desert with him to hunt for that hill, but he’d leave them as soon as their whiskey went dry.
H died in a San Francisco hospital in 1866, but the legend he created lived on.
Peg Leg’s tall tales are so fabled that one desert rat chose to honor his memory with a Liar’s Contest. It began olver 100 years ago, in 1916 as a small gathering. It was formalized in 1948 with judges that select winners based on presentation, originality of the story, costumes, and other factors. It happens on the first Saturday in March, usually at the Borrego Springs American Legion Post.
Like his ability to lie, Peg Leg’s gold is still incredibly famous and still hunted. While some think it;s been found, people still go hunting for it on the desert west of the Salton Sea. If you decide to join the treasure hunt, there’s a tradition you should follow.
A rock pile near Borrego Springs is a monument to old Peg Leg. The story is, if you bring 10 rocks and add them to the monument, you’ll have good luck. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t do it myself. My ten rocks are scattered on that monument, but they didn’t help me find the gold. They did help keep the legend alive.