Chapter 7, Part 2: The Claim Jumpers
Jack Longstreet landed in the Amargosa Valley in 1889, seeking out a safe place to live. He needed safety, because this gunslinger had made some enemies back in the silver mining town of Sylvania, where he’d recently stirred up trouble.
He wanted a home that was protected and isolated. He was a loner anyway, so he began scouting around for an out-of-the-way alcove where he could file for a homestead. He ventured into the vast and lush, Ash Meadows oasis, and found something that looked appealing: a small, white mound hill.
There are many of these hills at Ash Meadows, averaging about the height of a tall man, and they’re known as fossil spring mounds. They’re formed by slow flowing springs that trap wind-blown dust, dirt, and other sediments. A tiny mound forms from the sediments, and the spring water has to force its way to the top of the mound. This cycle continues over and over, as the mound grows higher and higher, until the weight of the mound is too much for the water pressure to overcome.
The water either stays underground, or finds an exit elsewhere, perhaps out of the side of the mound. And in the case of the mound that Longstreet discovered, the spring was escaping out of the side, from a small cave.
With homestead secured, he enlarged the cave, then built a stone cabin around it, so that the white mound formed part of the back wall and part of the sides. He used the cave for refrigeration, and the spring constituted his indoor plumbing.
He was no longer married, so after a few years he found a new Paiute, named Susie, to be his next wife. She lived there with him in this cabin for about four years, from 1895 to 1899.
Things were going smoothly for Jack, when he married in 1895. But then he got into trouble again. He, and several men with bad reputations, decided to jump the claim of the Chispa gold mine. This mine was in the Spring Mountains, a few miles east of the Amargosa Valley, and west of the boom town of Johnnie, Nevada.
The Chispa was owned by a group of Mormons, and it had been very productive for awhile. But then it was shut down temporarily while awaiting a change in ownership. Caretakers were put in charge, to guard the mine during this interim.
One of the former mine employees got together with Longstreet, and they came up with a heady idea. They reasoned that since the mine hadn’t completed an assessment the previous year, the claim was no longer legal, and could be taken over by anyone. So he and Jack, and a few of Amargosa’s ne’er-do-wells, appointed themselves as the rightful ones who should take it over. One was a man named Phil Foote, who was a wanted outlaw.
On a late-summer day in 1895, these claim jumpers rode up on the mine with their guns drawn, and ran off the caretaker crew. They then demanded $12,000 in cash from the Mormon owners, before they would relinquish the mine back to them.
The Mormons were having none of it. This threatened to spoil their deal to sell the mine. They filed a complaint with the local law, a Sheriff McGregor.
McGregor agreed with the Mormons that this was outrageous. But rather than go up against the likes of men like Jack Longstreet or Phil Foote, he decided to make a 140-mile ride north to Belmont, Nevada, which was the Nye County Seat at the time. He was seeking a nonviolent way to settle the matter, through safe, legal measures.
That didn’t set well with the Mormons. They felt impatient, and didn’t want to wait for the Sheriff to finish dodaddling around in Belmont. So they decided to take the law into their own hands.
One of the Mormons was a no-nonsense man named Bob Montgomery. He had just received a shipment of new rifles from the Nevada Southern Railroad. He passed those rifles around to his fellow co-owners, and they came up with a plan.
Meanwhile, Longstreet and his gang weren’t too worried. They felt protected by a steep slope to the north of the Chispa. And there was only one road leading into the mine, and it passed through a narrow canyon. They figured they had a tactical advantage, and they drew a line in that road. They informed the Mormons that if one of them so much as ventured a toe past that line, they’d be shot.
One warm morning, the claim jumpers were casually enjoying breakfast, which was probably a pile of complacency pancakes, with a helping of hubris on the side. To their surprise, the Mormons suddenly swept over the steep hill to the north and charged down upon them, with rifles blazing.
A tremendous gunfight broke out, but the Mormons had the advantage. They shot Phil Foote in the chest, and pinned down the rest. The situation suddenly became very dire for Longstreet and his gang.
Jack saw his friend dying, and realized they all were in one hell of a fix. So he decided to surrender to the Mormons and leave the mine, in hopes he could save his friend. But in spite of that, Foote died later that afternoon.
Eventually some arrests were made over this shootout, and Longstreet was one of those who ended up in jail to stand trial. He was convicted, but managed to buy his freedom by posting an $800 bail. And nobody was charged with the killing of Phil Foote, because it couldn’t be determined who’s bullet had ended the desperado’s life.
This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 7, Part 3: Longstreet’s Last Days. Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.