Of Tellurides, Hoaxes, and Cripple Creek (Part 1)

(Free-milling gold ore.)

Unlike their more familiar cousins, free-milling ores, many gold-bearing ores and their concentrates are problematic. I've mentioned these "refractory" gold ores in the past here in Bedrock Dreams and I'll be broadening your knowledge of these often rich but very difficult ores to spot and to process.

Silver, Gold, and Tellurium

As you already know, free-milling ores contain visible gold in its natural state as small particles, crystals, or even nuggets and large masses in certain instances. Essentially, free milling ores can be easily (relatively speaking, that is) crushed to release the free gold for processing. As a small-scale prospector or miner you can use a simple mortar and pestle or a motorized rock crusher to process these ores and then either pan out the concentrates or use a mini-sluice, small shaker table, Blue Bowl, or spiral wheel to gather up the gold you've freed from that host rock. For the most part, identifying and working with free-milling gold ores is direct and relatively easy for all concerned. However, refractory ores present an entire range of problems that include identification issues and above all, processing difficulties.

You see, refractory ores often contain gold (and sometimes lots of it) but that yellow metal can exist as a chemical constituency in the ore and not as a free-milling metal. Some refractory ores do contain natural gold outside its chemical state, but certain chemical substances in the ore completely surround those particles of gold and inhibit the ability to "free" that yellow metal from its host. Even the long-proven method of using cyanide to leach tiny particles of gold out of free-milling ores doesn't work well with refractories. In many parts of the American West the bulk of these balky refractory ores were tellurides. In tellurides, the gold is chemically bound with the element tellurium (designation Te on your periodic chart). Additionally, many telluride ores also contain liberal amounts of sylvanite (Ag, Au)Te2, which contains varying amounts of silver (Ag), gold (Au), and Te.

 (Sylvanite...a mixture of Ag, Au, and Te.)

Even though telluride ores typically show visible mineralization such as iron staining (presence of iron sulfides, FeS2) and other visible signs of interest to a would-be gold prospector or miner they are tough to identify in terms of the presence of gold. In fact, until telluride identification became common knowledge, many old timers passed these ores by thinking they were worthless, or nearly so. Most of these old sourdoughs were focused on gold and gold alone and because sylvanite is very light colored (much like silver), they could not accept or understand the fact that gold could exist and not be yellow in color! Eventually this failure to recognize "the bird in hand" got sorted out by early prospectors and miners and they realized the gold potential that many tellurides presented to a sharp eye. Once indentified, the entire issue with telluride ores became one of freeing and processing the gold they contained.

Pike's Peak and "Chicken" Bill

One of the finest examples of the discovery of a significant deposit of tellurides in the West is the story of Cripple Creek, Colorado. Aspiring Argonauts were first drawn to the Rocky Mountain area of Colorado based on a couple of "humbugs" (to use the vernacular of the day) foisted upon them by a certain "Chicken" Bill and various and sundry other miscreants and n'er-do-wells (including members of the press). It was the latter who triggered the Pike's Peak gold rush in 1859 by grabbing the gullible by the collar and spinning tall tales about rich gold fields on the east slopes of Pike's Peak. Thousands of hopefuls set aside their California dreams and stampeded for the peak hoping to strike it rich. Instead, they found little if anything in the way of gold. Those Pike's Peak rushees who had the wits to march farther north did find gold on Cherry Creek, but the gold finds there were not even comparable to what was still being found in California's Motherlode Region. 

 (Pike's Peak, site of the 1859 gold rush hoax.)

And what of "Chicken" Bill, he of the colorful moniker? It seems that poor, misguided Bill had worn out his welcome in the bust-out saloons of Leadville, Colorado, having earned a reputation as an untrustworthy teller of tall tales (i.e., a BSer), an inveterate moocher, and a drunken blowhard. Nonplussed by his maltreatment on the part of the citizens of Leadville, Bill sought to restore his "reputation" by salting a claim 10 miles west of Cripple Creek with gold dust he had come about either honestly or indirectly. The upshot? Over four thousand people "rushed" the Mount Pisgah area where Bill's "find" was located, but it soon became apparent to this new crop of rushees that they'd been had and had good. Poor "Chicken" Bill barely escaped the hangman's noose when an angry mob confronted him and dragged him kicking and screaming toward the nearest tree. Saner minds eventually prevailed and Bill was simply sent packing. What became of "Chicken" Bill after the Mount Pisgah hoax is unknown but if he had any sense at all he departed the immediate area posthaste for greener pastures. Even Bill should've known that getting your neck stretched was not the healthiest of outcomes.

 (Mount Pisgah, site of "Chicken" Bill's gold hoax.)

Now here's the real irony. Those poor souls who rushed Pike's Peak in 1859 might've done better on the west side of the peak. In 1874 the Hayden Homestead Survey sent surveyor and budding geologist H.T. Woods to Pike's Peak and this knowledgeable and meticulous individual found good gold indications on the west side of Pike's Peak, but by then no one was really listening. They'd heard wolf cried too many times when it came to gold strikes in the area. Eventually Mr. Woods grew tired of the epithets constantly hurled at him concerning gold at Pike's Peak and moved on. Even more ironic was the fact that not far from "Chicken" Bill's salted claim and gold hoax at Mount Pisgah, a huge bonanza of hard-rock gold lay in the unlikeliest of geological settings.

And it would take a local ranch hand to finally discover it.

(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2015

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