Try Looking for "What Was" Instead of "What Is"

 ("What is" ain't necessarily "what was.")

One opportunity you won't find much discussion about in gold prospecting books or on other online sites is essentially based on the tendency by all of us to look at "what is" and not at "what was." Sufficiently confused at this point are you? Then read on.

More Gold Potential?

Now why is is it other mining and prospecting sources don't bring this potential to your attention? I don't think it stems from some evil plot by dream merchants to sell you yet another bill of goods, but is more than likely based on ignorance or a lack of thoroughness on their part. You see, most dream merchants are better equipped to feed you half truths that bring in the money than they are in steering you to new possibilities in small-scale mining. It's easier (and much more profitable) to say things like "Find an ounce of gold a day!" or to sell you questionable maps with "X" marking the spot to fabulous riches hidden away in the gravels of ancient gold-bearing stream beds than it is to put you onto mining alternatives, especially if the latter don't result in immediate or increased sales. Yep, I'm digressing here a bit and also taking another shot at that small minority of disreputable types in the small-scale mining community, but don't get me wrong. There are plenty of honest, forthright types out there as well who will give you good value for your dollar and have no hidden agendas when it comes to steering you to the gold. But even many of these folks don't focus much on looking at "what was" as opposed to "what is." Now I bet you're really confused. Why? Because we are often told to focus on the now and let the past go in terms of life in general. By and large this is very good advice, but when it comes to small-scale gold mining you may want to try looking at things in just the opposite fashion. Along or near that stream, wash, or arroyo "what was" may hold more gold potential than "what is."

OK, enough mystery. Let me give you a prime example of what I call the "what is" versus "what was" concept:

"What Is"
  • The current location, course, flow, and overall configuration of that stream or wash you're working and the obstructions and/or bedrock associated with it, as well as its deposition hydrology.
"What Was"
  • The location, course, flow, and overall configuration of that same stream or wash; it's obstructions or bedrock, and its deposition hydrology 25, 50, 100, 500, 1,000 or a million years ago.
(Where was that stream wayyyyy back when?)

What Are You Seeing?

Now you're getting the picture aren't you? What's the classic (and best) example of what I just outlined above? Ancient river beds like the "Great Blue Lead" in California. The "Lead" is composed of those rich Tertiary gold-bearing gravels described so well by geologist and researcher Waldemar Lindgren in his famous book, The Tertiary Gravels of the Sierra Nevada of California. Oh, by the way, you Oregon miners would do well to read one of Lindgren's other classic works, The Gold Belt of the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Lindgren was nothing short of brilliant when it came to the scientific analysis and exposition of gold bearing deposits and areas, so when great minds speak you best listen. Anyhoo, the point I'm trying to make here is that what you're seeing out there right now ("what is") is not necessarily a reflection of the past ("what was"). I'll take this even farther. That little bit of placer gold you're currently eking out in those bench gravels could be only a poor substitute for richer, coarser gold laying within your grasp. That stretch of stream you're working right now may be quite recent in overall history. However, most streams change course over time. Even in desert or dry placers ancient rivers once flourished and ran freely with volumes of water only imagined today. Where are those old streams and rivers, or how did the existing stream you're on change over time? Most importantly, where is the gold those old configurations left behind?

 (Rivers once ran freely...)

Get With It

No, I'm not making this easy for you. That's because I want you to use that mind and brain power of yours to start finding "what was" (or what may have been) solutions to the problems of "what is" in your mining efforts. I will bet you a dollar to a donut that each and every creek, river, stream, wash, gully, or arroyo you've worked in your small-scale mining career has undergone some type of change over the years, the centuries, or the eons. How much of that history do you really know? Just how much of that geologic history have you researched? See? You want the gold all right, but some of you out there don't want to do the extra work required to get it or perhaps find something far, far better. At least that's my read. So do yourself a favor gold-wise and start getting with it. You're so focused on "what is" that you can't see the forest for the trees (i.e., the "what was"). Just as every little chapter of your life history ("what was") has contributed to who you are now ("what is"), so it goes with those streams, washes, and arroyos. Do your really think they've been in that very same spot, with similar water flow, and with the exact same configuration for decades, or centuries, or millenia? I seriously doubt it, brothers and sisters. You see, that's the essence of taking things a step farther and learning the importance of "what was" as opposed to "what is."

I'll leave you to mull all this over. Maybe that light bulb will turn on or, alternately, become all the brighter.

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

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. Exactly what I'm talking about Gary!

  2. (I accidentally deleted Gary's comment so here it is:)

    G. Thomas has left a new comment on your post "Try Looking for "What Was" Instead of "What Is"":

    A friend stopped by today and we went deer hunting. I noticed a cut bank about 50 feet tall. There was a 6-8 foot thick layer of river rock gravel towards the bottom with 30 feet or so of desert dirt on top. Under the gravel looked like more desert dirt. My though was that it must have been a river at one time, although this area I'm told was once a lake. Nothing around this spot looks the same. It is on private property or I'd dig out a few buckets and see what's inside......
    It's bone dry now and a hundred feet or more above where the river is today. It took a lot of water to make those rocks round though, not just spring run off!

  3. I love this post! I spend lots of time armchair mining by finding old maps and overlaying them on google earth. I have found old cemeteries which are no longer marked, old wagon roads, and boatloads of potential adventure! Unfortunately, there is a type of poison oak in these parts that is so brutal that I have been deterred from the hiking I usually like to do. But back to what was... even aerial photos from the forties overlaid to current satellite on google earth you can see a difference in direction and flow of creeks and rivers. just a little more research and sometimes the ancient riverbed is your or your buddy's back yard!!!

  4. I have been searching for an unworked accessible area of the El Paso Mtns in the Northern Mojave for 3 years. Joined the gpaa to get access to claims, hiked plenty, took samples, charted maps present and old, geology books from library, but have only found black sands...not the first speck of gold. I enjoy the hiking and history but I am having to move in two months back to the east coast and I am afraid I didnt learn how to see the land correctly. Will have to try my luck again when fortunes provide an oppurtunity.

  5. If I could sum it all up: do your homework! I love this post because it kicks the casual idea of panning or sluicing anywhere there's running water just for the hell of it. In metal detecting I see this so often. Guys will work so hard to get permission to go to a spot of land with no idea of what they are looking for or the best way to go about doing it. They will throw thousands of dollars towards the hobby but they won't spend an afternoon at the library's local history department to learn about who owned a particular piece of land or who moved through it in the past!

    History comes naturally to me. Geology is a bit more difficult to understand. I took a course of it university as an elective and it was challenging to say the least. I need to practice reading those topographic maps and learn to make inferences on what patterns may indicate of the past.

    Thanks again for another stimulating article.

  6. I keep reading your site. It's almost an addiction. But being addicted to learning and having your mind stimulated is not what I'd consider a bad thing. It sure as hell beats past addictions to be sure. I'm hoping to take a walk around some property this weekend (if we don't get stuck working again) and I am going to employ your ideas here. There is a year round creek there, averages 10-18 inches deep and 3-5 feet wide. It is in a gold bearing location, but looking at the photo's it would appear the creek once ran higher up. There are some steep mountains so I'm thinking there is a chance the flood seasons spread the water far and wide. There is quite a growth of trees and brush along the banks and not much of a drop to the current water lever, so I'll check around them as well. There is a lot of rock and gravel in the creek, but up along the top of the banks 10-30 feet back it has a desert appearance. rather flat in places, but most of the ground appears to funnel towards the creek. As you say, sample, sample, sample. Gold isn't always where you expect. I'll be taking the mobile version of your site along. You know, just in case I forget something. Memory is not what it once was.



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