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False Advertising: Salting a Gold Mine
by Don Baumgart
Salting a gold mine was just an early development of the great American art of packaging and probably should have come with the warning, "suggested serving." Worthless claims were made to appear rich and rewarding with the sprinkling of a little gold dust to show prospective buyers. "This practice became so common that purchasers were always on their guard," writes Hubert Burgess in Anecdotes of the Mines, "and it was necessary to exercise much ingenuity to deceive them." He tells of one salting episode that took place during the California Gold Rush where solid earth six feet deep was removed, mixed with coarse gold from another claim, replaced and covered with rubbish. The buyers picked the debris-covered spot to check the claim, assuming it was the most untouched. Digging there they found gold. They bought the salted claim, certain they had been crafty in their inspection.
In 1851 a party of miners digging near Columbia were striking out while Chinese miners a short distance away were turning up plenty of gold. Hoping to sell their worthless claim to the now wealthy Chinese, the miners began negotiations for a high sale price. It was decided that the Chinese miners would bring their picks and shovels and, if satisfied, would buy the claim. The sellers decided their only hope was to salt the diggins. Killing a large gopher snake, one of the miners put the critter into a bag. "Now, boys, when the Chinese come tomorrow, they won't allow any of us to be too near because they're afraid of salt," he told his partners. "Well," he said, "one of you put this dead snake in your pocket and just slide him down the bank where they're heading to dig."
The next day, when the Chinese miners were to try their luck, the snake was planted nearby. One of the sellers opened fire with his shotgun, blasting "salt" into the ground. Walking up to the snake he pushed the gun under the twice-dead snake and carried it away, hanging over the shotgun barrel. The Chinese carried several pans of dirt to wash in a nearby stream. When they returned the sellers were sure they had found some of the salted gold, but the savvy orientals simply said, "Claim no good." Why? American men talk too much. The dealing had begun. The Chinese finally paid the full asking price and two days later the sellers were off to new diggins.
"The strangest part of the snake story," Burgess writes, "is that the claim turned out to be one of the richest in the district and the Chinese miners made a great deal of money, sold out and went home." Often claims thought worthless just hadn't been worked deep and long enough. Some of the "swindled" buyers eventually found large fortunes beneath the salt.
Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006