Of Desert Rats and Single Blanket Jackass Prospectors (Part 2)

(The old Rhyolite ghost town as it appears today within Nevada's borders.)

Did old-time desert prospector "Short" Harris become a wealthy man after finding the rich lode at Rhyolite? No he didn't, and the same was true for almost all the single blanket jackass prospectors who once roamed the deserts of the American west searching for gold and silver.

Far Too Restless

If you're wondering why "Shorty" and the most of the "desert rats" out there never became rich men I think the best answer is this:

They were far too restless to stay put for very long.

"Shorty" Harris was a classic example of this. He had no interest in developing mines, just finding them. It's said that "Shorty" sold his Rhyolite claim (the famous Bullfrog Mine) for around $1,800...a decent wad of spending cash for the day but a mere pittance considering the vast fortune in gold it produced. On the other hand, "Shorty's" erstwhile "pard" on the Rhyolite discovery, Ed Cross, sold his rights for about $165,000...a fortune for that time and place.

Treasure Hunting
Gold Concentrators
Metal Detectors
To make things worse, some say "Shorty" Harris never even got a penny for the Bullfrog...they say he lost his rights to the claim through drunken carelessness. You see, once he'd discovered the rich ledge at Rhyolite "Shorty" went on an extended bender...something he was prone to do time and time again after a discovery.

Rainbow Chasing

"Shorty's" behavior pattern here was shared by most other single blanket jackass prospectors of the day. They'd find a decent ledge or outcropping, claim it, and then head into the nearest town to celebrate or hang around proud as peacocks as a new mining boom town sprouted up around them. They'd sell out for a pittance leaving mining investors and developers to extract all that gold and silver and become filthy rich. Meanwhile, the "desert rats" would load their kit onto their burros and head back into the harshness of the desert for one more spin of the roulette wheel.

(Pete Aguereberry, another "desert rat" and occasional "pard" of "Shorty Harris.)

This restlessness was a form of rainbow chasing with the proverbial pot of gold always over the next hill. For "Shorty" Harris and the rest of the single blanket jackass prospectors, it wasn't about money, wealth, power, and prestige. It was about freedom.

Teaming Up

Let me give you another example of this chasing rainbows principle in full effect. In the summer of 1906 "Shorty" was on his way to Ballarat to partake in the boom town's 4th of July festivities. The very fact that "Shorty" Harris felt comfortable walking across Death Valley during the hottest month of the year should tell you something. "Shorty" and the others knew the desert well, respected it, and also knew how to survive and even thrive in it. Others with lesser skills died miserably there.

On the way to Ballarat "Shorty" ran into Pete Aguereberry, another well-known "desert rat" who was also on his way to Ballarat...not to celebrate, but to fill out his kit and resupply for a new prospecting venture. The two men decided to team up and entered Wildrose Canyon to get water before proceeding to town. There they found gold ore that looked promising, grabbed up a few samples, laid out claim markers, and headed for Ballarat.

In town "Shorty" and Pete found more than they bargained for. But more on that later...

If you liked this post, you may want to read: "Of Desert Rats and Single Blanket Jackass Prospectors (Part 1)"

(c)  Jim Rocha (J.R.)  2013

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


  1. Just proves "Money can't buy happiness"....or true freedom either. Most all of us today are little more than "wage slaves". Folks like this never "win the game", but back then they played by a different set of rules. "Civilized" to me has the same meaning as "Ruined". Folks today think we are so advanced and better off.....I don't agree......

  2. I'll take the free and footloose approach any day...I used to live that way early in my mining career and I miss those days greatly...J.R.

  3. Yep. I'm glad I'm married and wouldn't change that for anything, but when I was younger traveling around the country working as a cowboy on different ranches was great too. I miss that in a lot of ways. Everything I owned would fit in a duffle bag exsept my saddle, rifle and bedroll. After being married for 23 years, I have so much junk packed into this little house I can't hardly walk through it!!! Still, wouldn't change a thing!!

  4. Well things are as they are...but I still miss those free and footloose days. Best, J.R.

  5. I am such a dreamer I could see myself as a "Shorty" It is sad to realise that men and women of modern times are just too soft for such a life-style. I would rather be broke and living off the land as apposed to penyless,unwanted and lost in the city.
    Oh well such is life just have to accept it... no way! not a bloody chance!


  6. I could see myself out there with "Shorty" too...the world is a vastly different place today thought...fences, no trespassing signs, taxes, bureaucrats...you name it. I envy these men. Thanks for commenting. J.R.

  7. Great article! I've become a committed canyon crawler since my first trip to Death Valley; now go at least twice a year. There's nothing like the magnificent isolation of a solo hike through the Grapevines, knowing that I'm looking at the same scenery that Shorty and his contemporaries saw. Even with just a topo map and compass, I'm still better equipped than they ever were. Heading back next month for another photo shoot and to see if I can solo the Fall Canyon-Titus Canyon loop in one day, really looking forward to it.

    1. Thanks Jim...I know you like to prowl the Death Valley area and have good knowledge of those desert areas. Thanks for commenting. J.R.

  8. Thanks Jim. If the spirit moves you, feel free to send in some of your photos and I'll do a post. You'll be copyrighted as the owner/artist. Best! J.R.

    1. Sounds great. I'll try to get something organized after I get back, mid- to late November.

    2. OK, you're on my friend! J.R.

    3. Just emailed you a link (I hope, still working out the kinks in Dropbox) with the photos in them.


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