When the gold rush hit America in 1849, emigrants flooded through Nevada on their way to the goldfields of California, in search of wealth and a new life. For the most part, these people had no interest in the sage land of Nevada, and viewed it as a desolate obstacle to be overcome on the way to their goal. It wasn’t until news of the Comstock Lode spread ten years later in 1859 that the attention of prospectors was drawn to the state, after which boomtowns sprang up overnight on dubious claims that promised to produce copious wealth for the lucky folks who claimed their stake early. It was in this atmosphere of speculation and naiveté that Hardin City was born, but while the story of how this town came into existence parallels those of many Nevada boomtowns, there are unique qualities to the story that make it stand out from the rest. Ultimately, the promise of silver riches in Hardin City came to nothing, and to some it appeared that the whole enterprise was a swindle and a ruse. If all one knew is how things turned out, it would be understandable to reach this conclusion, but looking into it further reveals a more complex tale. Was there ever silver at Hardin City, or was it all a grand hoax? An exploration of the record will shed some light on this great Nevada mystery.
What is known for certain is that James Allen Hardin traveled west along the emigrant trail through the Black Rock Desert, today known as the Applegate – Lassen Trail, in the summer of 1849. On this point, all of the accounts agree, and since he settled in Petaluma, California, and became well-known in those parts, it would be folly to dispute it. The recollection of his experiences along the trail, however, varies somewhat in the retelling among the three main historical accounts. In Thompson & West’s History of Nevada from 1881, the name of the man is recorded as “Allen Harding,” and it is said that he “left the emigrant road to hunt for game” with “two other parties, whose names are not known” (54). The spellings of names vary a little among the various accounts. Idah Strobridge in her 1900 book, In Miners’ Mirage-Land, also writes that Hardin was “one of three hunters” (58). Asa Merrill Fairfield’s book, Fairfield’s pioneer history of Lassen County, California, cites both of these sources, but adds to these accounts. Fairfield writes that “Andrew Hardin of Petaluma, nephew of J.A. Hardin, says his uncle told him there was one man with him” (420). Fairfield also spoke with William H. Jenison, who “told it as though he went alone” (420). The relationship of Jenison to Hardin will be made plain shortly. It is important to demonstrate these discrepancies in order to come to a fuller understanding of how the tale may have changed in the retelling, and therefore to attempt an interpretation that may more closely adhere to the truth.
As Hardin headed back toward the trail from his hunting efforts (which incidentally turned up nothing), he “passed along the margin of a shallow gulch” and saw “some bright metallic substance lying in its bottom” (Thompson 54). The substance is further described as “sticking out from the sides of the gulch in chunks, from the size of a bean to thirty, forty, fifty pounds” (Thompson 54). Strobridge adds different details, writing that “they found themselves floundering through a soft, gray deposit like sifted ashes” (59). She says that in this “powdery stuff,” the metal looked like it had been previously molten, and that there were “pieces protruding that were the size of bricks—others in uneven masses four or five feet long” (59). It is useful to point out that chunks of silver that large would weigh several hundred pounds. Fairfield described the location as “the lower end of a little ravine,” and the nephew Andrew Hardin told him that “his uncle said there was a wagon load of it” (420). Fairfield does describe the mountain as “volcanic rock and volcanic ashes,” but does not mention this specifically in relation to the deposit of metal (420). In both the Thompson & West and Strobridge accounts, Hardin pronounces the metal to be silver rather unequivocally, whereas Fairfield suggests that he may have thought the substance to be lead, and that they melted some of it down for bullets (Fairfield 420-421). Although the accounts differ in the amount of metal brought back to the main party along the emigrant road, they all agree that Hardin brought only “a small piece of it with him to California,” leaving the larger pieces along the trail near Mud Meadows (Fairfield 420).
In the Thompson & West account, Hardin asked a man to haul a piece of metal weighing about 25 pounds to California for him, and was refused (54). The piece Hardin brought with him was made into a “button by molding it in sand” (Thompson 54). Strobridge describes “wild rejoicing” as Hardin proclaimed that “there was enough silver in sight to load all fourteen of the wagons” (61). Similarly, Strobridge writes that Hardin’s fellow emigrants refused to cart any of the metal, since they had already abandoned much of their belongings in order to successfully complete the arduous journey, and the larger pieces were left behind (60 – 61). Strobridge then writes that Hardin used a little hollowed spot in an axe handle to melt a small piece into a button, which ultimately was purchased by someone who took it to England (62). She also states that A.B. Jennison, upon meeting Hardin later in Petaluma, claimed to have met “one of the three who found” this Black Rock silver (Strobridge 62). This is odd, since A.B.’s son, William Jenison, told the story to Fairfield that Hardin had hunted alone (420). Fairfield writes that the button “fell into the hands of an assayer who found that it was carbonate of lead and silver, and very rich in the last named metal” (421). Thompson & West claim that Hardin sent it to San Francisco to be assayed, where “it was lost in the great fire that swept over the city that year” (55). A button would not have been carbonate, but rather more-or-less pure silver.
A summary of the tale at this point may help to put things in focus. Since most of the accounts say that Hardin had companions on his hunting trip, I think it is likely that this is the case. The “volcanic ash” deposits that are described seem unlikely, since soft volcanic ash would not have persisted from the ancient times when volcanic activity occurred. Having some experience in the Black Rock Desert, I surmise that ankle-deep soft deposits were more likely to have been made of wind-blown alkali dust, and I have come across deposits like this of similar consistency as that described in these historical accounts in that region. Even so, only the Strobridge account suggests that the metal was found in proximity to these deposits. It would seem that Strobridge embellishes the account of how much material there was, since Hardin himself told his nephew there was “a wagon load” of it, as opposed to Strobridge’s fourteen wagon loads. For context, 25 pounds of silver has a volume of about one liter, or roughly the size of a masonry brick. All of the accounts state that the ore was highly metallic and reasonably pure, even if there was no way to know whether the substance was lead or silver or something else. They all describe the metal as looking like it had been melted. The fact that Hardin only took a small piece suggests to Fairfield that “no one who saw it then had any idea that it was silver” (Fairfield 421). It is interesting that Fairfield comes to this conclusion, since he is the only one who also writes that the metal button was definitively assayed and found to be silver. All other accounts rely on the informal assessment of Hardin and the emigrants in his party. It seems to me that the part of Strobridge’s story that recounts the jubilation of the emigrant group and conviction that they had found a rich deposit of silver are embellishments added later to make the story more appealing.
James Allen Hardin continued on his journey, settled in Petaluma, CA, and opened a wagon shop. In the interim, A.B. Jennison moved to Petaluma from the Rogue River in Oregon and became acquainted with Hardin (Fairfield 421). As these men (and others) swapped stories of their travails on the trail, Hardin’s story seems to have become the most captivating. In the meantime, while he was settling in, other events transpired which helped to lend credence to Hardin’s tale. Strobridge recounts the story of a doctor who claimed to have found a large piece of metal presumably discarded by Hardin at Mud Meadow when he came along the trail in 1852; he “failed to recognize its value, and so had left it there” (64). Strobridge also mentions a “party of emigrants” who “found some of the smaller pieces of silver that Hardin and his companions had dropped… and took into the town of Shasta,” where several people saw it in the window of a jewelry shop (65). In another legend, John Forman came through the Black Rock Desert in 1852, and while hunting he came across “some metallic substance” which he “was half inclined to declare… molten silver” (Strobridge 47). The landscape is similarly described as a “mountain of ashes and cinders,” and the metal as a “slab five or six feet in length, and was twelve or fourteen inches wide, at the lower end it stood at least sixteen inches out of the ground” (Strobridge 47). His companions convinced him that it was lead, and they melted into bullets which they subsequently shot away. He continued on to California where he was shown a specimen of pure lead, and became convinced that what he had found was a large lead deposit (Strobridge 48). He went back on two separate occasions, excited at the potential value of the lead deposit, but was unable to find it (49 – 50). Strobridge writes that the location was “due west of, and in the next mountain range from the one since known as Hardin Mountain,” but also gives coordinates of “latitude forty degrees, forty-eight minutes, fifteen seconds” (46, 48). Those coordinates would place the location south of the Applegate – Lassen Trail, closer to what became known as the Noble Road or Nobles Cutoff. The Applegate – Lassen Trail in the vicinity of Hardin’s discovery is at 41°12’37.17″N, and so there is some confusion as to this location. These stories could well have been concocted later after rumors of Hardin’s tale began to spread. With the first two stories, since there are no proper names attached, it is impossible to corroborate their veracity. The Forman story is somewhat more compelling, but also difficult to interpret.
By 1858, Hardin, A.B. Jenison, and several others decided to head back out to the Black Rock Desert to see whether they could locate the metal deposit. As recounted by Fairfield, “The Petaluma Journal” of July 9, 1858 reported that “a party of some fifteen or eighteen persons left this locality a few days since for the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas [sic], where they go in search of what they believe to be an immense deposit of silver ore” (421). The newspaper article records the name of the leader of the expedition as “A.J. Harding” (Fairfield 421). Thompson and West list several names including “M.S. Thompson, now a State Senator in Nevada; Allen Harding, A.B. Jamison, Fred. Alberding” and others (55). The reasons most often cited for Hardin waiting so long to go back and look are because of fear of hostile Paiutes and a general hesitancy to go back onto the trail in those who had previously endured it. Thompson & West are a bit dismissive, writing that “for three years Thompson, Harding and Jamison searched for this treasure-house of the mountain-gnomes with parties numbering sometimes as high as seventy members” (55). Strobridge writes, “Of silver there was no sign. Of ash there was none. The face of the mountain seemed completely changed. Waterspouts and cloudbursts are of frequent occurrence in that country, and now there were deep gullies and cuts that had not been there before” (66). In Thompson & West, as in Fairfield, the “Piute war” is mentioned as a leading reason that prospecting ceased in 1860, with Fairfield mentioning that “in 1862 the excitement flamed a little higher than usual, but it died away and the next three years matters in that locality went on as before” (422).
Matters, however, did not remain so sedate. “The Humboldt Register” on January 13, 1866, reported the following:
A MOVEMENT IN BLACK ROCK. THE HARDIN LEDGE FOUND
During the past week we have conversed with parties who have been up in the Black Rock region and who report the discovery of the Hardin ledge for which so diligent a search has been made for the past four or five years…. Some assays from it show a value of $130 to $200 a ton in silver…. A great deal of talk is indulged in here and parties are going out soon to prospect. Several men in this county have been out repeatedly in search for the lost ledge, and they will not be content without a look, even if they don’t get a foot.
A “ledge” in mining terminology is a shelf-like layer of rock, sometimes called a lode or a vein. Fairfield claims that A.B. Jennison returned to the Black Rock after a miner from Idaho showed him ore that he thought resembled some he had seen in his previous prospecting trips, and that he “hauled five hundred pounds” to Dall’s Mill at Franktown in the Washoe Valley, where “it paid at a rate of $306 per ton” (423). Strobridge records that several men with a mine in the vicinity began some capital investment in the area (74). Strobridge writes, “Judge Harvey, Larry Bass, Alvaro Evans… as well as many others, had tests made time and time again, with the same uniform result…. The more the tests, the greater were the returns. On an average, they ran higher than the average workings of the Comstock” (74). Fairfield cites “The Red Bluff Independent,” which printed a letter from T.M. Boardman of Honey Lake California on February 7, 1866, claimed that returns were $2700 a ton (424). On March 17, 1866, “The Humboldt Register” reported favorably again about ore from the “Black Rock mines.” “The Humboldt Register” from March 24, 1866, continued to wax optimistic about the so-called discoveries at Hardin City. The investors had hired an assayer, Charles Isenbeck, and that edition proclaimed him to be “undoubtedly an excellent assayer and experienced mill man” (Humboldt Register). The Register further reported that one of the investors, Judge Harvey, “showed us… a little bar [of silver] from the ore worked.” Fairfield provides a long quote from “The Humboldt Register” of March 24, 1866, but he represents it as one large article. In fact, there is a main article towards the front of the paper, and a smaller blurb further down:
Black Rock is all the go now. Thursday forenoon a snowstorm was on, which turned about meridian to rain; but it did not deter a number of prospectors from setting out for the new Dorado. When you see a man sitting in front of a roll of blankets and a frying pan, and behind a Henry rifle, you need not ask him where he is going — he is ‘going to Black Rock or burst.’
By having two separate mentions of the story in separate places of the paper, it would seem that the project was being specifically promoted. People certainly were very excited about the potential of Hardin City.
Soon, news of the discovery of the lost Hardin silver had made it all the way to San Francisco. “The Daily Alta California” of September 6, 1866, reprinted a letter from Col. A. G. Brackett dated at Camp McGarry (today’s Soldier Meadows), Summit Lake, Nevada, August 25th, 1866. Col. Brackett gives a reasonably accurate summation of the history of the area, and the entire letter provides a great overview of the whole affair. The following are some important excerpts:
Hardin was an emigrant from Illinois [he was actually from Kentucky]… late in the fall of 1865 Mr. Jamison discovered on the Foreman location some ore, which proved to be “horn silver,” from assays made by Mr. Isenbeck…. The first house was erected by Mr. Harvey, in March, 1866…. Since that time new discoveries are being made every day, and the settlers are sanguine that they have the richest mines in the world. As to the future, time alone can determine. There… are fifteen well-built houses. A restaurant has been started, and the first white woman has made her appearance. The village contains a good stable, though as yet no hotel has been started…. the settlers themselves, most of them experienced miners, are cheered with the belief which has taken firm hold upon their minds, that this is the richest mineral region on earth, and if what they show you is really and truly silver ore, the world has not seen its equal. A five-stamp mill has been purchased by a company, which is said to be on its way up to the mines. Until then, nothing can truly be known about them. Many loads of ore hare been sent off and worked, some with good success, and some quite the reverse. One thing only is certain, which is, either these mines are the finest yet discovered, or the grandest humbug of the age…. One year hence will tell the story, and I would not be at all surprised if the town of Hardenville were than as large as Virginia City is now. The miners of Black Rock will die by their claims. Not one of then wishes to sell out.
Here, another synopsis is in order. After spending three years looking, Hardin, A.B. Jennison, and their associates gave up looking for the molten silver that Hardin described from his initial passage in 1849. When Hardin got back into Black Rock country, he was unable to locate the area where he had found the metal, and the landscape appeared to have changed. It is surmised that water from cloudbursts may have caused a landslide, which covered up the deposit. The main reason they stopped looking was concern about hostile Paiutes in the wake of the Pyramid Lake battles. By this time, the stories about Forman and other emigrants finding some metal in the vicinity of the Black Rock had started circulating around. When an emigrant from Oregon showed Jennison a sample of a “black, waxy-looking ore” from the Poor-man mine in Idaho, he thought that it looked similar to ore from his various meanderings in the Black Rock. “The Humboldt Register” reported that A.B. Jennison was able to have some Black Rock ore assayed and that it was found to contain silver. Jennison’s name would have been well connected to the story of the Hardin silver by this time. As investors Judge Harvey, Lawrence Bass, and others moved in and hired Isenbeck as an assayer, subsequent newspaper articles continued to report that assays proved positive for silver in ever increasing amounts. As these newspapers circulated, more and more people were drawn to the mining camp, and by late 1866, Hardin City was born. The people who committed to prospecting in the region seemed to have convinced themselves that they were onto something big, and no one was disabusing them of that notion.
Of course, it was not to last. Newspaper accounts of the time vacillate wildly from statements of great optimism to ones of serious doubt. By 1867, “The Humboldt Register’s” assessment of Isenbeck had begun to sour, and the July 20 edition called him “the prince of humbugs, and says that he is again on his way to Black Rock with a fresh installment of victims to insanity” (Fairfield 431). Another paper, “The Eastern Slope,” defends Isenbeck and blames confusion around his returns on “disadvantages owing to the lack of machinery adapted to his peculiar process” (Fairfield 431). Fairfield writes that “at least three quartz mills were erected and run in the Black Rock district, and not one of them ever got anything out of the ore” (436). One of the investors said that the company had lost $17,000.00 on the enterprise, and evidently much of that went to paying Isenbeck’s $1,000.00 per month salary (Fairfield 437, 433). One explanation for all of the positive assays returned by Isenbeck is that he used a “peculiar flux” in his process that contained a compound of silver (Murbarger 11). Another claim is that residue of silver from Virginia City remained in the equipment that was brought to Hardin City, and this is what the prospectors found in the first run of ore through the mill (Fairfield 439). Toward the end of the enterprise, Charles Isenbeck disappeared, never to be seen again (Murbarger 11). The encampment was fully abandoned by early 1868.
It certainly appears that the prospectors of Hardin City were played for fools through a combination of chicanery and their own wishful thinking. Evidence certainly indicts Charles Isenbeck, who had every reason to string the prospectors along considering his ample salary. The story of Hardin on the emigrant trail was so compelling that people very easily believed that there was a fortune in silver waiting to be uncovered. When this optimism combined with positive results, whether from Isenbeck “salting” the samples or the residue from Virginia City or both, and also consider the exciting, positive accounts in the newspaper, it is easy to see how the prospectors were unwilling to let go of their convictions. I have read that Hardin himself visited Hardin City in 1867 and proclaimed that the site was nowhere near his initial discovery, but am unable to locate the source.
Of all the accounts of this tale of the lost Hardin silver, I find Fairfield’s to be the most thorough and thoughtful. James Hardin demonstrated such a degree of conviction about what he claimed to find along the dusty emigrant trail that he not only convinced his contemporaries, he convinced Fairfield, and me, that he was in earnest about the strange molten lumps of metal found while hunting rabbits in the Black Rock Desert. He inspired a strong conviction in A.B. Jennison and several others who continued prospecting in the region for many years. The ore that A.B. Jennison was so optimistic about was never claimed to be of the same type as that Hardin found, and in 1909 William Jennison actually claimed to have found “a piece of ore that was exactly the same kind as that carried away by Hardin in 1849 (Fairfield 438). It is worthwhile to note that in the modern day, the Hycroft Mine not far from Hardin City has produced 3.6 million ounces of silver since restarting operations in 2008 (Allied Nevada). With the proven existence of that much silver in the vicinity, it seems a distinct possibility that Hardin’s molten silver deposit still lies undiscovered under landslide rubble in the Black Rock Desert.
Allied Nevada. “Hycroft Mine.” Web. 6 May 2015. http://www.alliednevada.com/properties/hycroft-mine/
Fairfield, Asa Merrill. “Fairfield’s pioneer history of Lassen County, California.” H.S. Crocker Company. San Francisco. 1916. https://archive.org/stream/fairfieldspionee01fair#page/420/mode/2up
“The Humboldt Register.” March 24, 1866. Nevada Historical Society.
Murbarger, Nell. “Lost Hardin Silver, Mystery or Hoax?” Desert Magazine, April 1955.
“San Francisco Alta.” Vol XVII, No. 6022, Tuesday Morning, Sept. 6, 1866: “THE BLACK ROCK SILVER MINES.”
Strobridge, Idah Meacham. “In Miner’s Mirage-Land.” 1904. Publisher Los Angeles, Printed by the Baumgardt Publishing Company.
Thompson & West (1881) The History of the State of Nevada: The Lost Black Rock Silver Mine
Dr. John B. Reid
6 May 2015