Anza-Borrego
Desert
State
Park

Pegleg Smith; Dreams,
Gold, and
Mendacity

"Let those who seek Pegleg's
gold add ten rocks to this pile"
H A R R Y   O L I V E R  -1947-

Every year around the first of April, amidst an often-spectacular show of wildflowers in the Anza-Borrego Desert, occurs a little-known gathering of people who compete for the title "Greatest Prevaricator of All".  Just a few miles northeast of the community of Borrego Springs at the Pegleg Smith Monument, these otherwise normal folk, (aka "Pegophiles"), who are allowed to walk among Sand Verbena in bloom near Pegleg Monument, Spring 1997the rest of us every day, gather around a bonfire in a manner directly linked to our ancient, cave dwelling primogenitors, to howl and to spin swirling tales of lost gold, forgotten treasure and other lore of the desert.  These stories are bandied about as the gospel truth, and then swirl up above the crowd mingled with their laughter and the smoke of the fire to merge finally and harmlessly with the springtime stars in the dark desert sky. Perhaps one could be forgiven if, amidst the clamor and furor of the changing century, the coming of the new millennium, the merger of Lucky and Albertson's supermarkets, and the annual spring ahead into Daylight Savings Time, it was forgotten that this year was the 25th anniversary of the revival of the Pegleg Smith Liars' Contest.  Each year since 1975, prevaricators and fabricators have convened to engage in mendacity and distortion in honor of one of the desert's most famous storytellers, Thomas Long "Pegleg" Smith. 

Of course the legend of Pegleg's lost gold mine is one of the most enduring, (and by dint of tenacity, endearing), treasure stories of the American Desert Southwest.  Legend has it that Smith was an authentic mountain man in the 19th century tradition.  His skills were far ranging, and branched into the fields of horse thievery, Indian fighting and, of course, storytelling.  While in San Francisco in the late 1800's, some might be surprised to learn that Pegleg would regale any and all comers to the saloon with tales of a fabulously rich strike he had made in the hills of the Borrego desert in return for a shot or two of whiskey.  Those who are surprised shouldn't be.

 There is at least one story of Pegleg that isn't fiction or fantasy.  After California became a state in 1850, Colonel John C. Fremont led his final expedition across the Rocky Mountains and into California in 1854.  Accompanying Fremont on this expedition was Solomon Nunez Carvalho, who was entrained as expedition artist.  In his Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West With Col. Fremont's Last Expedition, Carvalho outlines a meeting with Pegleg:
 

While encamped on this spot we met a party of gold explorers from Los Angeles.  They had been down on the Colorado, looking for gold, but had been unsuccessful.  They were under the command of a man with one leg, known as "Peg-leg Smith," a celebrated mountaineer.  He told me he had been several times across the continent, and had been in this part of the world for some years.

He says he crossed the Rocky Mountains in 1824—30 years ago.  He is a weather-beaten old chap, and tells some improbable tales.  They are on their way back, and will travel with us; they comprise ten men, all mounted on mules.  (See footnote below.)

Carvalho continued on with Fremont's expedition across the desert to San Bernardino with no further mention of Pegleg or his cronies, or their mules, so we are left to imagine Smith as being well contained under the command of Colonel Fremont, except for that mention of his telling "…improbable tales".  It seems Smith is making a reputation for himself. 

After Smith's death, his stories lived on and evolved into legends that rival even the many stories of Jacob Waltz and the Lost Dutchman Mine in Arizona.  Of course there can be no "true" legend of the lost Pegleg Smith gold, but the essential elements are that the strike was in the Borrego Springs area of what is now the Anza-Borrego Desert region, somewhere west of the Salton Sea, east of Coyote Canyon, and south From Clark Valley and the Santa Rosa Mountains to the Borrego Sink.  The nuggets were blackened, and thus quite distinctive.  All the rest of the details are left to the machinations and caprice of the Pegophiles.

Providing the motivation for the beginnings of the Pegleg contest was Hollywood set designer Harry Oliver.  Reports differ, but sometime between 1916 and the mid-1930's, Harry started the Pegleg Smith Club.  Oliver, enjoying the perpetuation of the Pegleg stories, referred to himself as "press agent for Pegleg's ghost".  His club, composed of local Borrego residents, would meet and tell each other lies and stories.  In fact, Oliver's meetings could be considered not only the nascent Liars' Contest, but also the precursor to today's Burning Man Celebration, which takes place in the Nevada desert each year. Oliver's meetings were held on New Year's Eve, and were called the "Burning Party", because well known desert artist John Hilton would throw his "mistakes" into the fire, much to the chagrin and protest of the others assembled at the party. 

In November of 1947, Harry and several cronies erected a monument to Pegleg, which still stands today.  While relatively unprepossessing, the monument is as enduring as the legends.  A sign reads "Let him who seeks Pegleg Smith's gold add ten rocks to this monument."  There is an imposing pile of rocks behind the sign, silently attesting to the strength and lasting attraction of the Pegleg legend. Adding to the pileOn January 1st, 1948, Oliver sponsored the first "Lost Pegleg Mine Trek".  This was the first public meeting of Oliver's club.  The night before, some tall tales were bandied about the fire at the new monument in preparation for the arduous Mine Trek.  This Trek was so successful that Oliver decided to add an official Liars' Contest to the event the following year.  So, on January 1st, 1949, the first official Liars' Contest was held with over 600 in attendance.  (Note that the correct spelling of "liars'" should be in the plural possessive.  This is a fine point, hotly insisted upon by the inner sanctum, (aka Bill Jennings), of the present day contest. Sign reads Liar's' Contest First Saturday in April  Note spelling of Liar's'  ;-)To do any different would of course blaspheme the name and tradition of Pegleg and all prevaricators the world over). 

Sadly enough, the original contest lasted only a decade.  The contest of 1959, due to argument over the correct date for the contest, was the last to be held.  Then, in the autumn of 1974, a plan was hatched to restore the contest to its rightful place of honor.  The first Saturday night of April was chosen as the date for the contest in recognition of the many blistering cold nights Harry Oliver must have spent out howling on the desert floor while burning canvases to stay warm.  Coincidentally, Oliver's birthday was April 4th, and the first Saturday in April served as a fine reminder of the man. 

The tradition, renewed in 1975, continues on to this day, and the yearly event, held on the first Saturday night of April, is always a treat.  All comers are welcome to join in the contest.  Sign up is on arrival at the contest site, the Pegleg Smith memorial, which is about 7 miles east of Borrego Springs on Route S-22.  Presentations are done in order of sign up.  Stories should be of no more than 5 minutes in length, (another little joke), and should be about lost gold and/or Pegleg Smith.  Costumes and other original touches always appreciated by the crowd and judges.  Some contestants in the latest contest were a grizzled old prospector from Arizona's Superstition Mountains who "brought his burro but lost his ass", reputedly at an Indian casino somewhere east of Borrego Springs.  There were three "painted ladies" from the bustling town of Salton City, accompanied by Seldom Seen Slim, another famous desert character.  Another contestant told of Pegleg's somewhat eccentric means of surveying his claims, which involved a rock, one hundred feet of twine and a penguin.

After the contest, all attendees are welcome to stay and have some birthday cake in honor of Harry Oliver, cooked by Borrego Springs School Superintendent Shanda Smith, who has supplied the cakes since the first revival.  The Pegleg Smith Liars' Contest is nothing if not about having a good time in the desert.  It can serve as an introduction to the lore of our desert southwest, or as a meeting place for long time friends and new ones as well.  And as the smoke from the fire twists away into the night, and the last of the liars head away from the Pegleg Monument, a person can't help but wonder if those black nuggets of precious metal are still out there somewhere, under a carpet of bloom and a universe of stars.

References

Carvalho, Solomon Nunez.  Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West with Col. Fremont's Last Expedition Across the Rocky Mountains; including three months' residence in Utah, and a perilous trip across the Great American Desert to the Pacific.  Originally published in 1857.  Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, PA; 1954.  This publication can be found on the World Wide Web at: 
http://www.jewish-history.com/WildWest/carvalho/index.html

Lindsay, Diana.  Pegleg Liars' Contest keeps tradition and tales alive.  Borrego Sun, March 30, 2000.  Borrego Springs,CA

Pepper, Choral.  Desert Lore of Southern California.  Sunbelt Publications, 1999.  San Diego, CA.  1999.