I can’t recall when I first heard the story of Jake Shaeffer and his personal ordeal that led to the discovery of a sack of gold. It is one of many such tales that litter New Mexico’s historical landscape.
The affair began on a bracing fall day in 1872 at old Fort Cummings, located upon the desert flats northeast of today’s town of Deming. The post commander ordered Sgt. McGurk of C Company to take a party of civilian workers into the nearby mountains and to cut enough firewood to see the fort through the winter.
Ten troopers were assigned as escorts for protection against hostile Apaches. A German named Jake Shaeffer was hired to cook for the men. A popular belief among frontiersmen held that all Germans were good cooks, but it was thought too that they had no sense of direction and easily got lost. Because of that deficiency, Shaeffer became the chief figure in this story.
Another man was added to the crew, a Mr. Young, who was a blacksmith, taken to shoe the horses and mules and also to hunt for fresh meat in his spare time.
The work party and its escorts marched out of Fort Cummings and headed north into the high country. At a well-timbered spot, camp was pitched and the men broke out their axes and saws. Over the next two weeks, the piles of wood grew shoulder-high, ready to be carted to the fort.
One morning, as Young prepared to set out on a hunt, the cook asked, in his thick accent, if he could borrow a gun and come along, as he’d never shot a deer. “Sure,” replied the blacksmith. “I’ll take care of you.”
That evening when he returned, however, Young was alone. Sheepishly, he told Sgt. McGurk that they had separated and he never saw the German again, although he’d heard a shot in the distance.
The pair then went out to make a new search. As darkness fell, they halted under a tree to wait for dawn. Next morning, they started back to camp but were ambushed by Indians. An arrow pierced Young’s brain, but McGurk escaped.
When the sergeant reached his men, he was met with another shock. Apaches had raided, killing all the wood choppers and two of the soldiers, as well as running off the entire horse herd. Gathering the survivors, he led them back to the fort where he reported the disaster.
A large force was sent to bury the dead, and while about it look again for the missing cook. But no trace of the German could be found. Had the Indians killed him, or had he merely wandered, lost until starvation at last claimed him?
The puzzle was solved a month later, when Shaeffer staggered into Fort Craig on the Rio Grande, 100 miles to the northeast. He was barefoot, without his rifle, and clutching his knapsack with a death grip. To the soldiers, he appeared wild-eyed and crazy as a loon.
Some of the troops did get a quick look inside the knapsack. It was filled with pure gold nuggets, upward of 10 pounds or so. The German abruptly closed the flap, and in a twinkle he raced from the fort on foot, disappearing in the brush along the river.
Later, men sent in pursuit found him stark naked and the knapsack nowhere in sight. Had he thrown his clothes and gold into the Rio Grande, or had they been stolen? No one could say.
Shaeffer was taken to the post hospital, where he hovered near death for days. Then he began a slow improvement. When questioned, the German had only a faint memory of his experience.
He recalled getting lost from Young, but had no idea where the nuggets came from. He did remember crossing a broad plain with antelope and seeing on its far edge a rising mountain with the image of woman’s face on its upper slope.
That indicated that he had been on the San Augustin Plain west of Socorro, where antelope are seen even today. And the clincher? Just beyond the plains tower the Magdalena Mountains, supposedly named for Mary Magdalene, the outline of whose face is formed by rocks near the summit of the north peak.
With these few clues, men for years tried to retrace Shaeffer’s wandering path in hopes of finding the source of his gold. But to this day, it remains a mystery.