Early Day Prospecting in Old Yuma County
Excerpt from Arizoniana by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.
About 20 miles up the Gila River from Yuma, the community of Dome basks in the desert sun. It’s pretty quiet around here these days—a far cry from that prosperous time in the late 1850s when the boisterous boom town of Gila City boasted some thousand rough and tumble prospectors. It was Arizona’s first gold strike, and the town set the style for other mining camps over the next few years.
Journalist J. Ross Browne, who greatly influenced the style of Mark Twain, wrote of Gila City’s heyday in 1859:
Enterprising men hurried to the spot with barrels of whiskey and billiard tables; Jews came with ready-made clothing and fancy wares, traders crowded in with wagon loads of pork and beans; and gamblers came with cards and monte tables. There was everything in Gila City within a few months but a church and a jail . .
Old timers used to say, “When the gold ran out, so did the miners.” At last, the rich placer diggings began to play out, and the residents of Gila City packed up and moved on. About that time, the Gila River went on a rampage, overran its banks, and delivered the coup de grace on what was left of Gila City.
Browne revisited the site during a tour of Arizona in 1863, a year after the flood, and dryly noted the erstwhile boom town consisted of “three chimneys and a coyote.”
But already there had been another big strike not far away. In January, 1862, famed mountain man Pauline Weaver found rich gold placers while trapping on the Colorado River a few miles north of what would become the site of Ehrenberg. Weaver cached a few nuggets in the hollow quill of a goose feather. Shortly afterward, near Yuma, he showed his gold to Jose Redondo, who set out immediately for the new El Dorado. Redondo’s first shovelful of dirt panned out a little over two ounces in gold. Thereafter, gold nuggets weighing more than 20 ounces each were apparently fairly common. Another member of the party, Juan Ferrera, was the luckiest of all, in the gulch that bears his name, Ferrera plucked a nugget weighing 472 ounces.
The Redondo party named the town that sprung up nearby, La Paz, for it was believed Weaver had made his discovery on January 12, the day honoring our Lady of Peace.
Within a few weeks, hundreds of devil-may-care miners pitched their tents and staked out claims around La Paz. “‘The population,” wrote a California journalist in 1863, “is the worst mixture of Indians, Mexicans, Pikes, and white men from all parts of the earth, I ever saw.”
Thieves, when apprehended, were dealt with severely. Isaac Goldberg, a pioneer merchant-freighter, described the punishment given on one instance:
Shortly after my arrival, a thief, who had been stealing from stores and other places, was caught. There was, of course, no law officer to confine and try the culprit, so the miners and citizens held a meeting and sentenced him to receive 25 lashes. These were promptly and lustily given. After the affair was over, they handed him five dollars in cash, telling him that if he dared to again visit the settlement he would receive a double dose of the same ‘back medicine.’ You may be sure that the rascal did not return, and that the community was no more troubled by thieves. We could leave all our property unguarded and yet not miss a single cent’s worth of anything.
Petty thievery may have been curtailed in La Paz, but a hard look, argument, or the slimmest suspicion of a misdeal was apt to bring the hammer down on 40 grains of black powder. Street fights and saloon brawls were as common as cuss words at a muleskinners’ convention.
… Those lofty mountains northeast of Yuma, called the Kofas, are the best example of an acronym among Arizona place names. Kofa is derived from the King of Arizona Mine, which ran an operation there in the 1890s. The company used a branding iron to stamp its mark on company property. The brand, K of A, became Kofa, and a new name was born.