Mountain of Mystery: Folklore and Documented Disappearances in the Superstition Mountains
Superstition Mountain - Apache Junction, AZ. Credit Mike Boening Photography.

In the dry, hot valley of Phoenix, Arizona there waits mystery after mystery. But few are more prevalent or ingrained in the culture of the land than the tales surrounding the Superstition Mountains. The mountain range; once called the Sierra de la Espuma by Spanish settlers, is located several miles east of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area and has been the subject of several stories over the centuries, bridging across the cultures it has played host to.

The mountains are central in tales of missing hikers and a deadly hunt for the richest gold cache in North America, fabled to be hidden in the mountains. Many of these mysteries still have no explanation and continue to capture the minds of would-be treasure hunters to this day. But long before the Lost Dutchman spun stories of his hidden gold mine, the Apache tribe called the mountain, and its mysteries, home.

Ancient Tales and Stories from Settlers

Mountain of Mystery: Folklore and Documented Disappearances in the Superstition Mountains
Credit Alexander Lerch.

Scientifically, the mountain was formed several million years ago during a violent period of volcanic activity (evident in its very odd, almost sinister silhouette). According to most accounts, the Apache tribes of the area held a belief that at the top of the mountain was a hole and from it, all the winds of the world originated. It was also through this fabled pit that the entrance to the underworld began.

The mountains themselves would have faded into obscurity, most likely, if not for the arrival of a man named Jacob Walz (often Americanized to Waltz). Though history remembers him by the misnomer “the Lost Dutchman”, Walz was a German immigrant, born in 1808 in Oberschwandorf, who arrived in America in the late 19th century and headed west looking for gold. We’ll return to Mr. Walz in a bit, but first, there’s a bridge in the historical gap between Walz’s cryptic clues in the mountains and the Apaches who called it home.

One of the earliest stories where European settlers figure in is that of the story of Dr. Thorne. According to oral legend, a Spanish-born doctor exploring the region helped heal a wounded Apache warrior. In reward, he was blindfolded and taken deep into the wilderness, his blindfold removed only after he had entered a stunning cavern of gold. The Apaches allowed him to take as much as he could carry before blindfolding him again and returning him to town. He was thereafter unable, or unwilling, to retrace the steps to find this enormous cache of gold.

Thereafter, the legend goes, that the Peralta family bought up a sizable amount of the land in the Superstition Wilderness and stumbled upon a vein of gold that propelled the family into even more wealth. According to legend, members of the family were massacred by native tribes in the 1840s while ferrying gold from their mine to their home in northern Mexico. It’s said, the Apache tribe buried the gold and concealed their mine. T.E. Glover substantiates the claim with accounts of U.S. Army troopers who were present for the recovery of the Peralta remains, however, historian Robert Blair attests the massacre never took place. Either way, the fabled location is still known today as Massacre Grounds.

Buried Treasure

Mountain of Mystery: Folklore and Documented Disappearances in the Superstition Mountains
Credit Don Sorsa.

Now, back to Jacob Walz. Though many aspects of his story are shrouded in hearsay, there are some things we know for a fact. First, we know he was a real prospector in the Phoenix valley in the late 1800s. We also know he departed New York City for the west in 1847 and petitioned for naturalization paperwork during those travels. Beyond that, some facts are less easy to verify.

According to legend, Walz claimed to have located a rich vein of gold in the Superstition wilderness and, after contracting pneumonia, gave a deathbed confession of clues as to where to find this place to his caregiver Julia Thomas. The clues seemed straight of out Treasure Island and involve detailed instructions about gorges to pass and hidden trails to find. Most prominently, however, the outcropping known today as Weaver’s Needle figures prominently as a central point used to find the hidden cave that leads to the precious ore below. The story goes that Thomas, who could never make sense of the clues sold them, along with Walz’s crudely drawn map, for $7.

Sometime later, the story continues with two U.S. soldiers who rode into town in 1870 claiming to have found gold in the desert. But, shortly afterwards, vanish on a journey back into the wilderness to retrieve more. Stories like this flourished around Walz who was said to have been followed numerous times into the desert, as a result of his boasting, with his stalkers and would-be thieves who would never be seen again. This particular element of the tale, not necessarily unheard of in true prospecting histories, helped create a sense of paranoia surrounding the mine. Especially when, several decades later, a man named Adolph Ruth disappears in the mountains and truly makes the legends infamous.

Disturbing Disappearances

Mountain of Mystery: Folklore and Documented Disappearances in the Superstition Mountains
Credit Al Hikes AZ.

Adolf Ruth was a known treasure hunter and made it a hobby to go looking for old mines from the gold rush era. He was, reportedly, gifted a map to the fabled Peralta mine in the Superstitions by his son who accepted it as payment from a man he provided legal aid to. Ruth, who walked with a cane after he injured himself looking for a mine in California, ventured into the wilderness alone in June 1931 for a two-week hike, ignoring the advice of friends that the terrain was far too treacherous for a disabled, 66-year-old man. When two weeks passed, Ruth did not return and despite search efforts, no trace of him could be found.

In December that year, human remains, later identified as Ruth, were discovered. And this is where things get even stranger. Not only were their two bullet holes in his skull, identified as shotgun wounds fired at point-blank range, but the head was discovered separate from the body. It wasn’t until January 1932 that the rest of Ruth’s remains and effects were found some distance away from the skull. His pistol was recovered and was noted not to be missing any shells. That, coupled with the missing Peralta map, lead many to believe Ruth was murdered by rival treasure hunters. Even more chilling was his personal journal, also recovered, with writing that claimed he found the mine along with the phrase “veni, vidi, vici.”

Stranger still, Ruth is not the only victim to lose his head on the hunt for the legendary treasure. James A. Carvey’s remains were found with head and body separated in the 1940s. Writer Barry Storm claimed to have been attacked while looking for the mine in 1945, dubbing the mysterious sniper “Mr. X.” Since then, several hikers have gone missing or perished in the wilderness, mostly due to excessive heat, inexperience, or simply accidents. But the mysteries don’t end there.

In the Lost Dutchman Museum rests several large slabs of rock, with strange engravings carved into them. Many claim these “Peralta Stones” are the work of members of the Peralta family, giving clues to the location of their vast cache of gold in the mountain. Debates still go on about the validity of the stones and what exactly the cryptic carvings mean. But one thing is for sure, the mysteries around this mountain never seem to cease. Between continued expeditions by amateurs and professionals alike. One thing is for sure, it is easy to see the captivating majesty of the mountains that entranced both native tribes and European settlers alike, luring them into its shadowed passes and peaks with glints of gold.

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