The taming and settlement of the wild west was spurred on primarily by the discoveries of gold and other precious metals lying hidden in the high mountain streams and rock layers pushed up through volcanic and earthquake activity at the beginning of time. Central Idaho was one of the main locations of great gold discoveries. All of the folklore that rides along with the tales of the wild and wooly behavior of rowdy miners, gamblers, and lawless mining camps deserves some attention as it was the basis of the foundation for the settlement that would come later after the placer gold and hard rock mining operations played out.
Permit me to share with you some truths and facts about the how and why different people, events, and places came into being, roared with activity, and later died a silent death as the onslaught of humanity at the original time of the strike slowly disappeared with the exodus of miners and their lost and realized dreams filtered out through the trees and meadows surrounding their mining sites.
Enjoy the warmth and sounds of the campfire as we sit around it while I relate some true stories of what actually happened in the remote back country of Central Idaho.
Like the proverbial “biggest fish that was ever hooked and fought was the fish that got away,” so are, in the same sense, the “lost” mines the richest ones that were ever discovered. There is not a mining district in the West which does not have a legendary “lost” mine. The details as to how these mines were discovered and then lost differ, but all unite in the “statement of fact” that the lost mines were the richest ever discovered. There are dozens of such stories told about Central Idaho precious metal discoveries, but one of them really stands out as it really catches the spirit in which these type legends are established. This is the story about the Indian Post Office lost mine on the old Lolo Trail high atop the Bitterroot Mountains, high above the Lochsa River on its north bank.
Snuggle in a little closer to the campfire, and I will share with you a yarn that will excite your senses and be indelibly etched into your mind. Crafty prospectors whose search for their own pot of gold at the end of the closest rainbow has always lured them into strange lands and even stranger places as they inexhaustibly searched for the significant lost mines of Indian folklore. Legend has it that nuggets of rare richness and the size of bing cherries are reputed to have been plucked form the creek bed lying to the northeast and just below the rock cairns of historic Indian Post Office. Yet for years the actual location of the mysterious treasure chest has been lost except in tradition and the spoken word whispered around campfires and on hunting expeditions.
Deep in the Central Idaho mountains on the winding ridge-top Lolo Trail, there is a place called the “The Indian Post Office.” This message center was once used by the Indians, prospectors, explorers, and other varied travelers. Its legendary tale, concerning its usage, dates back hundreds of years. As a trysting place for red-skinned sweethearts, as the spot where messages were left for passing prospectors, as the dropping off place down to the Lochsa River where the best fishing and hunting was to be found, and as the place where tokens were exchanged between roving bands of warriors and huntsmen, the Indian Post Office was known to hundreds, yes, even thousands, throughout the Central Idaho mountains. No records were ever kept. There was no collection box in which to place rent payments or tolls. There was no published list of unclaimed letters. The Indian Post Office was simply a big elongated low ridge-top “ saddle” along the skyline with several big pyramidal stacks of rocks (cairns) piled high to indicate its physical location alongside the Lolo Trail. Little actual mail ever changed hands at this historic post office, but many scribbled notes and messages were left in the vacant spaces carved or hollowed out at the base of the rock cairns giving name, time, date, and place of nearby mining operations or messages to other hunters as to where their partners were camped or planning to hunt. As noted above, the primary purpose of the Indian Post Office was to tell the travelers along the game-less Lolo Trail where the best place was to drop off the ridge tops and meander slowly down the canyon slopes to good hunting and fishing sites on or about the Lochsa River.
The old Lolo Trail or what also known as the North Nez Perce Trail was one of two primary routes of travel for the Indians to take from Eastern Oregon and Western Idaho across Central Idaho and on into Montana to hunt buffalo for their winter sustenance. This trail also served the later comers, the miners and prospectors, and even later the settlers, rogues, and traders. The Lolo Trail was, of course, also used by the Lewis and Clark Expedition to cross over the Rocky Mountains on their way to the Pacific Ocean. So in the early days of the old West, the Indians left messages on or in the piles of rocks for their friends and relatives scheduled to travel that way. Sticks laid or crossed in a certain manner served to carry information which could easily be read by those conversant with the signs.
This Indian Post Office ridge sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet above sea level. It is perched high above the Lochsa River and runs parallel to it. The Post Office site overlooks all of the Selway River drainage and in the background to the south and east loom the crags of the Bitterroot Mountain range forming the natural divide between Montana and Idaho.
Many bonfires were kindled at the Indian Post Office during Indian warfare as signals to the various war parties. Indian braves left messages there for the coy maidens of their own, as well as other tribes. During the Nez Perce Indian War of 1877 the Post Office was utilized for various and diverse manners of communication by and between the different tribal members.
During the 1930s a forest motor road was completed which ran from the Musselshell station near Weippe, Idaho, eastward all the way to Lolo Pass. The course of this motor road fairly well follows the old Indian Trail along the high ridge and goes right through the middle of the Indian Post Office Site.
Five miles west of the Indian Post Office is General Howard’s Camp. General O. O. Howard led his troops in hot pursuit of the Nez Perce Indians in their famous historic escape from their Wallowa Valley homeland in north eastern Oregon across Idaho and north through Montana to the Canadian border. Howard’s Camp is a low ridge top saddle surrounded by a large meadow and natural spring and creek which provides fresh water. It was here at this site that General Howard once camped with part of his mounted troops during the early summer of 1877.
Western frontier lore tells the story of a lost gold mine well known to prospectors who have tramped over the entire region since the early 1800s. The story originated with a very old Indian woman who told some old time prospectors that many years before, when she was just a little girl, she had been a member of an Indian hunting party from the Lapwai Indian country in Idaho Territory. She and her party were headed over the Lolo Trail in search of deer and elk meat to be jerked and dried for their winter food. The old Nez Perce woman’s story went on to tell that her party had travelled half a day’s journey eastward beyond the Indian Post Office. The distance they estimated they travelled would place them somewhere in the vicinity of what is today known as “Cayuse Junction.”
According to the story, a wounded deer began running away from the hunting party. Nez Perce Indian Chief Timothy ordered his best runner after the wounded animal. After chasing it for some distance, the tired runner stopped at a spring-creek for a drink of water. As he drank the water from the creek while lying prone on the bank, he noticed and picked up several peculiar pebbles and brought them back to camp. They were large gold nuggets! The entire hunting party returned to the creek with the runner as their guide and scooped up enough gold to provide (purchase) flour and food for their entire winter.
For a number of years thereafter, the Indians returned to the spot to replenish their gold supply. As many years passed by, the location of the gold creek was lost to time and subsequent generations.
During the 1930s, Mr. Bill Bartlett at age 85 was living in Pierce, Idaho, northeast of Orofino, Idaho. Pierce City was the location of the first known gold strike in Idaho Territory. Mr Bartlett once told of how he and a friend, Mr. Robert Bailey of Lewiston, Idaho, scoured and searched the ridge tops and panned the creeks in and around Cayuse Junction for many years. They were determined to find the lost gold mine the old Indian woman had described.
One morning as the two prospectors were waking up and preparing breakfast, and making ready for another long day of prospecting, Mr. Bartlett declared to his partner, that he had had a wonderful dream during the night. Mr. Bartlett went on to say that in his dream he and his partner had camped at a spot that was very strange to him. Two Indians rode up to the prospectors and informed them that the old squaw had told him the truth regarding the lost gold mine. One of the braves in the dream, stretched out his arm and in a gesture toward the north said: “It’s over there.”
The next day the men broke camp, went over a high ridge and down a steep incline where there was no trail. They rode up Cayuse Creek a stretch and then found the camp site of which Bartlett had dreamed about. Both men quickly recognized it from the detailed description Bartlett had given the morning after he had had the dream. The weather turned and it was raining heavily. The men prospected when they had the opportunity but they never found a trace of gold at this “dream gold camp.”
Mr. Bartlett has returned to that very campsite many times, and always kept his faith and belief that there was much gold to be found in Cayuse Creek. Bill Bartlett at age 85 was asked by his prospecting partner if he thought he was getting too old to continue prospecting in the rugged mountains of Idaho to which he boldly replied: “It would be strange for a man to get too old to go prospecting.” The same could be said to any man about any new adventure, opportunity, or chance to make it big through the process of discovery.
But the facts are that the lost Indian gold mine of Indian Post Office to this day remains hidden. Some day a lucky wanderer may find the pocket and come out with a fortune in gold.
God’s admonition reminds us of the real secret to future success in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 7, verses 7–12 NKJV:
Keep Asking, Seeking, Knocking
(7) “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find;
knock, and it will be opened to you.
(8) For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds,
and to him who knocks it will be opened.
(9) Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for
bread, will give him a stone?
(10) Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?
(11) If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to
your children, how much more will your Father who is in
heaven give good things to those who ask Him!
(12) Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to
them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Sound advice for any serious seeker of success. Wouldn’t you agree?
Peace And Love to All of You…………………….Poppa Bear