For the land that would eventually become California, the year 1542 was a pivotal point in time. The first recorded sighting of the California coastline occurred in that momentous year. Two small ships commanded by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo worked their way up the west coast of Mexico to what is now San Diego Bay. Cabrillo had been present during the final conquest of Mexico City and had personally witnessed the fall of the Aztec empire. But his discovery of California would be his crowning achievement, although he didn’t realize it at the time.
Sixty years later, the Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino cruised the California coastline in search of wealth. Vizcaino named many locations along the coast including Carmel, Monterey, Santa Catalina, and San Pedro. The expedition found no treasure but did discover “fool’s gold” and a metallic silvery-blue mineral used by the natives.
It wasn’t until 1769 that a joint land and sea expedition to California was mounted by the Spaniards. Don Gaspar de Portola arrived in San Diego in June of that year as California’s first governor. The expedition included a number of illustrious men including Father Junipero Serra, Father Juan Crespi, Captain Fernando Rivera y Moncada, and Lieutenant Pedro Fages. The Spanish presence was now firmly established in California.
Five years later, another expedition set out for the newly-established San Gabriel Mission in southern California. Led by Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spaniards marched from Sonora along the Camino de Diablo trail to the junction of the Colorado and Gila rivers. Here they encountered the Yuma Indians led by their famous chief Palma. From the Yuma villages, the Spaniards marched westward through the desert sands to Borrego Springs and then on to San Gabriel Mission. The floodgates were now open. Spanish prospectors quickly followed on the heels of de Anza and by 1780, were scouring the mountains of the lower Colorado River country. In that same year, gold was discovered in the Cargo Muchacho Mountains, in the Picacho
Basin, and at the “Potholes” near the southern end of the Chocolate Mountains. The Cargo Muchachos have veteran status among the mountain ranges of southern California. They were the site of the first discovery of gold in California by Spanish prospectors. Initially the surface ores were extremely rich, but deeper down they gave way to very low grade ore. The Spanish miners quickly skimmed off the richest ores and moved on to other locations. The Cargo Muchacho deposits were sporadically worked by Mexican prospectors, but they essentially lay dormant for over 80 years.
Then in 1862, American prospectors discovered rich gold-bearing quartz veins in the Cargo Muchachos. Miners and prospectors swarmed into the area. In 1884, the rich Gold Rock lodes were discovered by a railroad worker named Pete Walters. Railroad men sure seem to make good prospectors. Besides Pete Walters’ Gold Rock strike in the Cargo Muchachos there was John Sutter’s discovery of the fabulous Bagdad-Chase lode and Tom Schofield’s lost mine in the Clipper Mountains.
The Gold Rock claims were extremely rich. A mining camp known as Gold Rock Camp sprang up near the workings, but it was renamed Hedges soon after. (In 1910, the name was again changed to Tumco.) Hedges was a hell-raising town during its heyday. During the late 1800’s, an Irishman named Jim Sullivan worked at one of the saloons in town. One of his fellow employees was an old Indian who had lived in the lower Colorado River country all his life. The Indian carried a secret with him. In his wanderings he had stumbled on a ledge of gold-bearing ore and had samples to prove it! Sullivan eventually persuaded him to reveal the location of the ledge and the two of them set out from Hedges. The Indian led Sullivan eastward towards the Chocolate Mountains. After about 15 miles, they located the ledge, worked it, and then returned to town. Soon after, the old Indian disappeared but Sullivan always figured he could find the ledge on his own. He was never able to.