Times Past

Is legend of a ‘lost Franciscan mine’ in SLO true, or just folklore?

“Authentic map of California, old missions, lost mines and ghost towns,” published ad sold in the 1950s and 60s.
“Authentic map of California, old missions, lost mines and ghost towns,” published ad sold in the 1950s and 60s.

Silver, much more than gold, was the precious metal that contributed so much wealth to the Spanish Empire during the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Wherever the Spanish explorers and missionaries went, stories of lost silver mines often developed. Such fables eventually died when no silver could be found after 100 or more years of searching.

The legends are still alive along the Central Coast where stories of lost silver mines run by the Franciscan padres are associated with every mission along the El Camino Real from Ventura to Monterey.

M. J. White wrote and published one such account in the San Francisco magazine, Western Field, in 1903.

White had passed through San Luis Obispo during the mid-1870s. While visiting the Old Mission, a priest showed him a crucifix crudely fashioned from “pure silver.”

The visitor was told a tale about the long lost “Franciscan mine,” which was used by the padres.

According to the silver mine saga, the Chumash uprising of 1824 forced the padres to close the mine. They filled and covered the opening of the mine shaft with a cross of oak.

Captain James Cass in Knights Templar Masonic uniform, c. 1885.jpg
Capt. James Cass from Myron Angel’s History of San Luis Obispo County, California, circa 1883. Courtesy photo

A map of the site was sent to Mexico City by a runner along the Camino Viejo, the old trail running from Santa Maria to Tejon Pass to Mojave and along what later became Col. Edward F. Beale’s famous “Camel Route” to Yuma, Arizona. Unfortunately, the messenger drowned while trying to swim across the flood-swollen Colorado River.

The priest at the Old Mission told White that the rich vein of silver was forever lost.

Several months later, White tells his readers that he was hunting deer in the Santa Lucias north of San Luis Obispo. Both he and his guide, a Californio named Pedro, became hopelessly lost while tracking a wounded buck. Suddenly, the two men came across a long abandoned mine shaft.

White at once recognized it as the “lost Franciscan mine” by the oak cross guarding the mouth of the tunnel.

Once inside the shaft, White broke off a piece of rock heavy with silver. He claimed to have once been a miner in Virginia City’s Comstock Lode. He knew a high grade of ore when he saw it.

The two lost hunters were cold and damp. They built a fire just inside the mine shaft to warm and dry themselves. As luck would have it, the blaze set fire to the dry mine timbers. The fire spread to the surrounding chaparral. The men fled from the mine just as the shaft began collapsing as the rotten timber supports vanished in flames. White described the scene:

“Looking backward as we fled, a strange, weird spectacle was presented. Over the closed mouth of the tunnel stood the Spanish priest’s cross of fire. An intervening pine bough threw a dark shadow upon the upper part, not unlike the figure of a man. Tongues of fire and showers of sparks were thrown off from the sacred emblem.

“The sight was fascinating and awe inspiring. Then the flaming cross swayed for an instant. The foundation gave way and the whole structure slid bodily down the steep bank and stood upright in front of the closed entrance of the tunnel. For fully five minutes the fiery cross remained in this position and then crumbled to a mass of coals. The last monument to the treasure spot was thus obliterated.”

A brush fire broke out and the two men fled. After many hours stumbling over rocks, they managed to recover their mustang mounts and found their way to Old Creek Canyon leading to Captain James Cass’s wharf in Cayucos.

They told Captain Cass the story of their adventure. White says that he spent many years searching for the site of the mine but could never find it.

But that’s the way all such folklore ends.

Dan Krieger is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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