Of Desert Rats and Single Blanket Jackass Prospectors (Part 1)

 ("Shorty" Harris, perhaps the best known single blanket jackass prospector of the American West.)

Known by the some as "desert rats" and by others as "single blanket jackass prospectors," there once existed a small group of Americans who prowled the desert regions of southwestern Arizona, southeastern California, and southern Nevada in search of precious metals. These independent spirits spurned the outside world for the most part and lived and died free and footloose, owing nothing to anyone.

Colorful and Crusty

Most of you out there probably never heard of "Shorty" Harris, Ed Cross, "Seldom Seen Slim," the Ashford Brothers, Pete Aguereberry, or many others (including a handful of women) who spent their lives searching for and mining desert gold and silver. Many spent their entire adult lives in the America's most arid and inhospitable regions, including Death Valley, the Mojave, and the Colorado Deserts.

Gold Prospecting 
Gold Pans
Gold Concentrators

Often both colorful and crusty, these unique characters earned the titles "desert rats" and "single blanket jackass prospectors" the hard way...by living and breathing gold and silver in some of the harshest terrain the West had to offer. They were given the latter title because of their propensity for traveling light...a single blanket roll, water, beans and rice, and of course their picks, shovels, and gold pans...all of which were transported on the back of their favorite burros (hence, the "jackass" part of the moniker).

Finding the "Big One"

From the very late 1800s through the early 1900s and even into the Depression Era of the 1930s, you could find these hardy souls prospecting and mining in the El Paso Mountains, the Funerals, the Panamints, and virtually every other range or canyon in the region that showed indications of color. Periodically, they'd stop in some ramshackle desert boom-and-bust town like Rhyolite, Panamint City, Searchlight, or Harrisburg (named by "Shorty" himself) to file a claim, get their ore samples assayed, buy grub, or whoop it up in local saloons or whore houses. Once sober and resupplied, they headed back into the heat and dust and danger of the deserts that surrounded them and that they loved so much.

They'd eyeball every little hillside for quartz outcroppings and float, working their way along the flanks of barren desert mountainsides or ever upward along steep washes and arroyos, looking for that one "big hit." Sometimes they found it, as "Shorty Harris" describes in his account of finding the rich lode at Rhyolite in Death Valley:

"Sure, Come Along"

"The best strike I ever made was in 1904 when I discovered the Rhyolite and Bullfrog District. I went into Boundary Canyon with five burros and plenty of grub, figuring to look over the country northeast from there. When I stopped at the Keane Wonder Mine, Ed Cross was there waiting for his partner to bring some supplies. For some reason Ed's 'pard' had been delayed, and Cross was low on grub." 
"'Shorty,'" he said, “I’m up against it, and the Lord knows when my 'pard' will come back. How are the chances of going with you?”
“Sure, come right along,” I told him, “I’ve got enough to keep us eating for a couple of months.”

"So we went through Boundary Canyon and made camp at Buck Springs, five miles from a ranch on the Amargosa where a squaw man lived. The next morning while Ed was cooking, I went after the burros."

"The Whole Mountain was Gold"
"Well, they were feeding on the side of a mountain near our camp and about half a mile from a spring. I carried my pick as all prospectors do, even when they're looking for their burros or jackasses—a man never knows just when he's going to locate paying ore. When I reached the burros, they were right on the spot where the famous Bullfrog Mine was afterwards located."
 (Site where "Shorty" found the rich ledge of gold that became the famous Bullfrog Mine.)
"Two hundred feet away was a ledge of rock with some copper stains on it. I walked over and broke off a piece with my pick—and gosh! I couldn’t believe my own eyes. The chunks of gold were so big that I could see them at arm’s length—regular jewelry stone! In fact, a lot of that ore was sent to jewelers in this country and England and they set it in rings...it was that pretty! Right then, it seemed to me that the whole mountain was gold."
There's more to come so stay tuned... 

If you liked this post, you may want to read: "All About Gold Mineralization (Part 1)"

(c)  Jim Rocha (J.R.)  2013

Questions? E-mail me at jr872vt90@yahoo.com


  1. Jim, This is the stuff I love to read about! These guys have always been my heros. These type of guys Prospectors,Cowboys, Outlaws ...Whatever,.. knew what life was really all about. They knew what they wanted and went after it. Nowadays folks would call them bums or low lifes because they have no jobs, don't bath every day and don't fit in with "normal" folks. They are looked down on with discust. Back then, they named a town after the one fella! OH how I wish I had lived back then!! Life was hard, but you didn't have near as many Jackasses to deal with!! Thanks for the great reading! Gary

    1. I hear you Gary...same for me. I've read and studied up a lot on mining in the West and the stories of these men and women has always intrigued and impressed me. Best, J.R.

  2. I was able to spend the past weekend camping in the El Paso's. Its amazing to see the environment these men endured. Not a tree in site....springs far and wide, if running.Communities such as Garlock and Randsburg your only place to stock up at. But there is Adits and ghost towns as proof they lived there. Maybe the Hoffmans could try their hands at lode mining there!

  3. Yep, these were very hardy souls and independent spirits. The evidence of their discoveries and work is scattered throughout that area. Thanks for commenting. J.R.


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