On the Kiamichi River in southeastern Oklahoma, Mike Pung searched for something glistening.
“Water will take the gold with it,” Pung, president of the Gold Prospectors of Oklahoma City, said. “So we look for the concentrated areas of water, which is where you are going to find the concentrated areas of gold. ”
Other members spread out across the river, using a variety of equipment in hopes of finding gold. This includes a highbanker, a long, sloped piece of equipment that gravel is shoveled into and rinsed through with water.
Is gold buried in Oklahoma?
The person who inspired me to learn more about gold and its history in Oklahoma is KGOU listener Alex McSpadden.
He became intrigued by the idea of striking it rich after vacationing in Colorado, a state known for its gold. So he brought that curiosity back to his home state of Oklahoma.
“I was surprised to find out that there is a lot of gold that was brought here by other people,” McSpadden said. “And it is the stories behind that gold that makes it so much different than what you would just find naturally in the Earth. It is something that is almost woven into the fabric of the history of the state.”
McSpadden was also left wondering what recently has been found, and what would lead us to believe there is still more out there?
I brought this question to Pung, who has been gold prospecting for over a decade.
“I got my first flash in the pan, seen a piece of gold and I was hooked,” Pung said. “Gold fever set in, and I have not let go since.”
His love of gold has led Pung across the state, finding gold in the Cimarron River, the Red River and the Arkansas River. What Pung has discovered is typically smaller than granulated sugar since Oklahoma does not produce much natural gold.
But Cash Best, a member of the Gold Prospectors of Oklahoma City, said it is not about the payoff.
“It is just really an expensive hobby for many of us,” Best said. “For even the guys that are going out and picking up three or four ounces in a year, that is not professional.”
X marks the spot
This hunt for gold in Oklahoma spans back centuries. During the 16th century, Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado crossed part of Oklahoma in search of the Seven Cities of Gold. And by the 17th century, another Spanish explorer ended up in the Wichita Mountains.
“The Spanish – they had a never ending quest for gold,” Jamie Dodson, historian and treasure hunter, said. “Any area they went through, they were searching for gold. I mean, they not only came through Oklahoma, they made their way up to Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri.”
For these Spanish explorers, Oklahoma also served as a hiding place for gold.
“They would come out of Colorado, New Mexico with the gold that they were carrying down to the Gulf to be transported back to Spain,” Dodson said. “But they would winter here in Oklahoma. So a lot of times they would hide their gold here and for whatever reason not be able to make it on down to the Gulf.”
Stashing gold in the state did not stop with the Spanish; instead, it continued with outlaws who would come through Oklahoma, such as the notorious Jesse James. In 1876, James supposedly hid $2 million worth of gold in the Wichita Mountains that was stolen from Mexicans.
“They were traveling during the winter, and there was a bad blizzard,” Dodson said. “So they stopped, threw the gold into a ravine and kicked some dirt over top of it. Jesse and the other members of the gang basically carved into a brass bucket a contract. The contract itself was a kind of treasure map to explain how to find some of the money.”
This gold and similar hidden treasure is highly sought after. But Dodson said it is difficult to know what has been discovered.
“It has been rumored things have been found over the years,” Dodson said. “You are not going to get anyone to really say, ‘Hey, look at me. I found it.’ Because that is just not how treasure hunting goes. It is a very secretive bunch. They do not publish or publicize their findings very often.”
The “boom is now on”
Aside from hidden treasure, the Wichita Mountains stayed on people’s radar who were eager to find natural gold. Even though Oklahoma did not experience a gold rush the size of some western states, more than 2,500 shafts were sunk in the Wichita Mountains from 1901 to 1907.
But these miners were driven by speculation since the U.S. government found there was not paying quantities of gold in the Wichita Mountains.
This did not stop scammers from making it appear the area was filled with gold.
Along with outlaws, Dodson said the short lived gold rush attracted scammers who would create fake gold mines by firing shotgun shells full of gold into rocks and salting mines.
“Basically the only people that made money during the mining period were people selling shares of the mining stock and the ones selling supplies to the miners,” Dodson said. “Miners themselves, I cannot recall any that actually made any money. Most of them lost small fortunes looking here.”
Once the gold rush settled down, the government pushed remaining prospectors out of the Wichita Mountains. Today, gold prospecting and treasure hunting are prohibited in the area.
Starts with the pan and ends with the pan
Back on the Kiamichi River, members of the Gold Prospectors of Oklahoma City float a large dredge across the river, pulling gravel from the bottom like a vacuum cleaner.
But Pung returned to the basics of gold prospecting.
“Well, they say all mining starts with the pan and ends with the pan,” Pung said.
As Pung shook the gravel, he made a discovery.
“One little tiny piece of gold right there. Yay!,” Pung said. “How many people in the world have actually seen this gold? Just these people here who saw it first. How much responsibility and honor is that in finding a piece of gold?”
After parting ways with the gold prospectors, I called McSpadden to discuss my experience.
“I think it is great to think that because of how wide and varied the routes were and how many different civilizations actually came through this state throughout history, that even though there are certain spots where it is rumored to be buried, there could still be gold anywhere based on who happened to be living and dying in the past in that particular spot,” McSpadden said. “I just think it is great to think that you never know where you are going to find it. It could turn up anywhere in this state because we are not just looking for rocks, we are looking for history. And that could be right under us, and we would never know it.”
How Curious is a production of KGOU Public Radio. It is produced by Katelyn Howard. This episode was edited by Logan Layden. David Graey composed the theme music. If you have an Oklahoma-related question, email email@example.com. Subscribe to the How Curious podcast on your favorite podcast app.
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